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The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses


by Ovid

The Metamorphoses Man and the Natural World Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Book.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation, but these citations refer not to the lines in Mandelbaum's edition, but to the original Latin.

Quote #7

And when she reached
the banks and knelt along the ground to sip
cool water, all that rustic crowd would not
let Titan's daughter drink. She asked them: "Why
do you deny me this? All have a right
to water: Nature never has declared
the sun or flowing water or the air
is private property. When I drew near,
it was a public good I came to share;
nevertheless, I ask you as a favor
to give me some." (6.346-352)

In this scene, Latona comments on property rights as they relate to Nature. She argues that certain things in the world – like the sun, water, and air – are not anyone's property, and so should be used by anyone. The locals don't seem convinced, however. In fact, they even dirty the water by stirring up the bottom, so that neither one of them can use it. Why would they do such a thing? Is such behavior natural?

Quote #8

[Daedalus] starts
to work on unknown arts, to alter nature.
He lays out feathers – all in order, first
the shorter, then the longer (you'd have said
they'd grown along a slope); just like the kind
of pipes that country people used to fashion,
where from unequal reed to reed the rise
is gradual. And these he held together
with twine around the center; at the base
he fastened them with wax; and thus arranged –
he'd bent them slightly – they could imitate
the wings of true birds. (8.188-195)

This passage depicts Daedalus, the great inventor, altering nature by making himself wings. Ovid works many levels of irony into this passage. On the one hand, he alters nature by imitating nature – in this case, the wings of birds. On the other hand, Ovid also includes a comparison with pan-pipes, suggesting that Daedalus is also imitating human art. Why do you think he wove these strands together in this way? On a different note, you might like to know that the line about how Daedalus "starts / to work on unknown arts" is also used as the epigraph of James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The hero of this novel is called Stephen Dedalus; the story is about his efforts to flee metaphorical "imprisonment" in Ireland – just as Ovid's Daedalus flees real imprisonment on the island of Crete. Joyce, of course, uses the Latin form of the phrase: "Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes."

Quote #9

(Myrrha, in Orpheus's song):
"Parental piety does not exclude
such love: the other animals pursue
delight and mate without such niceties.
There's nothing execrable when a heifer
is mounted by her father; stallions, too,
mate with their daughters; and a goat can choose
to couple with his child; the female bird
conceives from that same seed which fathered her.
Blessed are those who have that privilege.
It's human scruples that have stifled us
with jealous edicts; law is envious –
what nature would permit, the law forbids." (10.321-331)

In this passage, a young woman named Myrrha is wrestling with the fact that she is sexually attracted to her father. In an attempt to justify her own desires to herself, she makes a distinction between Nature and human culture, which she calls "the law." According to her, incest is widely practiced in nature, and it's only squeamish human rules that have prevented it. As it happens, many modern scientists think that incest is not widely prevalent among animals (though there is some dispute about this), and that there are good genetic (not to mention psychological) reasons for humans and animals to avoid it. In any case, Myrrha's way of setting up the question reflects a common human way of approaching life's questions: looking to Nature as a standard against which human customs can be measured.

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