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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 #1

Before the sea and lands began to be,
before the sky had mantled every thing,
then all of nature's face was featureless –
what men call chaos: undigested mass
of crude, confused, and scumbled elements,
a heap of seeds that clashed, of things mismatched. […]
For though the sea and land and air were there,
the land could not be walked upon, the sea
could not be swum, the air was without splendor:
no thing maintained its shape; all were at war;
in one same body cold and hot would battle;
the damp contended with the dry, things hard
with soft, and weighty things with weightless parts. (1.5-9, 15-20)

These lines, from near the beginning of Ovid's poem, show his interest in scientific theories of nature. Even though he does include references (elsewhere than in these lines) to some unnamed "god" who was responsible for overseeing the creation of the universe, his account is much less mythological than that of other ancient authors. (Comparethe Theogony by the much earlier Greek poet Hesiod.) In fact, Ovid's account of the earth's shapelessness before it acquired its current form isn't all that different from modern scientific accounts of the origin of our planet.

Quote #2

Fire, the weightless force of heaven's dome,
shot up; it occupied the highest zone.
Just under fire, the light air found its home.
The earth, more dense, attracted elements
more gross; its own mass made it sink below.
And flowing water filled the final space;
it held the solid world in its embrace.
When he – whichever god it was – arrayed
that swarm, aligned, designed, allotted, made
each part into a portion of the whole,
then he, that earth might be symmetrical,
first shaped its sides into a giant ball. (1.26-35)

These lines, which come a little bit later in Ovid's account of the formation of the universe, combine his blending of scientific and mythological theories. As you can see, he does say that some "god" was involved in the process, but he also gives a more scientific account when he says how the different elements – Fire, Air, Earth, and Water – arrived at their separate positions in the cosmos. Some people claim that "observation" and "experiment" first came into being with modern science, but Ovid's account shows that this really isn't true. The observation that flame rises became evidence that flame was attracted to a higher position in the cosmos; this theory then seemed to be backed up by the fact that stars – which the ancients thought were made of fire – were seen at the highest level of the sky. Similarly, even though the ancients didn't know Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, it was their observations that made them think that earth and water tended to sink to the lowest level of the cosmos. Perhaps most striking is the intuition that the world was spherical – "a giant ball." Ovid would definitely not be a member of the Flat Earth Society.

Quote #3

(The Sun-god:)
"The road starts off so steeply that my steeds
must struggle hard, though they are fresh from sleep;
midway, it runs so high across the sky,
that even I am often terrified –
my heart is rocked with terror and dismay
as I see earth and sea far, far below;
and in descent, the course needs firm control –
it plunges, sheer: then even Tethys, she
who, at my journey's end, always receives me
into her waves, is anxious lest I fall
headlong. And add to this the heavens' own
unending, wheeling round that draws along
the steep stars on its dizzying, swift course.
My path runs counter to the skies' rotation;
I am the only one who can resist
its impetus, a thrust that overcomes
all else." (2.63-73)

In recounting the story of Phaethon, Ovid imagines the sun as a chariot drawn by special horses that makes its way each day across the sky. Similarly, in contrast to modern scientific understanding, he describes the heavens as spinning around the earth, instead of the earth as rotating in space. (This view was not, however, contrary to the views of some ancient scientists.) Do you think Ovid necessarily believed that the sun was a chariot, or could he have just blended together different theories – scientific and mythological – for poetic effect?

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