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The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses

by Ovid

Science Quotes

How we cite our quotes:

Quote #10

(Pythagoras):
"They say that in the Hyperboreans' land,
within Pallene, one finds certain men
who, when they've plunged into Minerva's pool
nine times, emerge with bodies covered by
light feathers. I do not believe that's true;
but it is said of Scythian women, too,
that they can gain light feathers through the use
of magic potions sprinkled on their bodies.
But if we turn to things that we ourselves
can test and trust, you'll see that any corpse
which – through long lapse of time or else because
of liquefying heat – has decomposed,
is transformed into tiny animals." (15.356-363)

This passage, like others in this section, debunks the idea that the ancients did not use observation in developing their scientific theories. (This is not to say, of course, that ancient scientific theories are just as accurate as modern theories – most of the examples in this section would also debunk the claim that they were.) Here, Pythagoras reports a shaggy-dog story, or rather a shaggy-Hyperborean story about some people in the far, far north who supposedly grew feathers. The key word here is "supposedly," since Pythagoras flat out rejects at least the first of these theories, saying "I do not believe that's true." (He seems more inclined to believe that Scythian women might grow feathers. Why? No clue.) Then, strikingly, he moves to a new topic by suggesting "we turn to things that we ourselves / can test and trust." This, in fact, refers to both observation and experimentation. What Pythagoras now talks about – the presence of small organisms breaking down the bodies of larger organisms – is perfectly correct. In this way, Ovid uses Pythagoras to provide a scientific basis for the notion that everything in the world is subject to change.

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