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The Metamorphoses Science 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

Nine months had come; had gone;
from seed that had been planted by the son
of Maia, shrewd Autolycus was born:
a connoisseur of wiles and guiles, an heir
who passed off black as white and white as black,
he fully matched his father's art and craft;
whereas Apollo's son (the birth was twin)
was Phillamon, much famed for lyre and song. (11.311-317)

Nothing in this passage is explicitly scientific, but it still shows that observation of the world can lead to accurate results, even without a theory to back it up. In this case, Ovid's remarks reveal the action of genetics: the son of Mercury, Autolycus, inherits some of his father's traits of trickery. Meanwhile, Apollo's son acquires his father's skill with the lyre. (This is not to say that Ovid completely believes in nature over nurture in how children develop; check out his story of Iphis from Book 9 for a more ambiguous account.) Of course, there is still one major problem with this passage, from a scientific standpoint: Ovid has presented Maia as giving birth, at the same time, to twins from different fathers (both gods slept with her). The modern understanding of genetics has shown that this is impossible.

Quote #8

Aeneas sailed along Inarime
and Prochyte, and rocky Pythecusae,
the barren island that derives its name
from its inhabitants, a pack of knaves:
[…] for the Cecropes
were changed to pithekoi, the Greek for "monkeys."
Jove gave them shorter limbs; and as old age
will furrow faces, so he furrowed theirs;
and having clothed their forms with yellow hair,
he sent them off to dwell on that bare isle.
But first he stripped them of the power of words,
for perjury was all their tongues had served;
the only thing he left them free to utter
were harsh and hoarse complaints – their scrannel chatter. (14.89-100)

Here, once again, Ovid's observation is partly accurate, but leads to conclusions that are contrary to those of modern science. Ovid did not have access to Darwin's Theory of Evolution, but he still observed a similarity between humans and monkeys. In his account, therefore, monkeys originated as humans, who were punished by the gods for being "a pack of knaves."

Quote #9

Mars seized
his son; and as he bore that mortal form
up through thin air, its human parts dissolved,
just as a leaden ball that has been hurled
from a great sling dissolves midway along
its course across the sky. (14.824-826)

Alright, so this passage is pretty weird, but it also seems to involve a number of scientific ideas that are worth commenting on. At the most basic level, you've got the idea (which we explored above) that the cosmos gets more fiery the higher you go, so that it makes sense for Romulus's mortal body to catch fire as it is lifted up on high. At the same time, however, Ovid also includes a description of a flying body disintegrating in the atmosphere; this sounds remarkably similar to, say, the way a meteor or modern rocket disintegrates upon reentry. (Of course, here the movement is in reverse, from the earth up into the heavens.) That said, Ovid's simile is really weird: he compares it to a lead ball that burns up in the air when it's "hurled / from a great sling." We at Shmoop haven't been able to find any evidence that a slingshot with this capacity ever existed in antiquity. Weird stuff.

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