Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Man and the Natural World

By Ovid

Man and the Natural World

An animal with higher intellect,
more noble, able – one to rule the rest:
such was the living thing the earth still lacked.
Then man was born. Either the Architect
of All, the author of the universe,
in order to beget a better world,
created man from seed divine – or else
Prometheus, son of Iapetus, made man
by mixing new-made earth with fresh rainwater
(for earth had only recently been set
apart from heaven, and the earth still kept
seeds of the sky – remains of their shared birth);
and when he fashioned man, his mold recalled
the masters of all things, the gods. And while
all other animals are bent, head down,
and fix their gaze upon the ground, to man
he gave a face that is held high; he had
man stand erect, his eyes upon the stars.
So was the earth, which until then had been
so rough and indistinct, transformed: it wore
a thing unknown before – the human form. (1.76-88)

This is the first entrance onto the scene of "man" (this is meant to refer to all of humanity, including both men and women). From the very beginning, this new creature is depicted as fundamentally different from the other creatures on earth because of its partially divine nature and shape. This difference is symbolized by the fact that humans stand upright, thus bringing them closer to the stars.

Earth of itself – and uncompelled – untouched
by hoes, not torn by ploughshares, offered all
that one might need: men did not have to seek:
they simply gathered mountain strawberries
and the arbutus' fruit and cornel cherries;
and thick upon their prickly stems, blackberries;
and acorns fallen from Jove's sacred tree.
There spring was never-ending. The soft breeze
of tender zephyrs wafted and caressed
the flowers that sprang unplanted, without seed.
The earth, untilled, brought forth abundant yields;
and though they never had lain fallow, fields
were yellow with the heavy stalks of wheat.
And streams of milk and streams of nectar flowed,
and golden honey dripped from the holm oak. (1.101-112)

This passage describes the first Age of human existence, also known as the Golden Age. Ovid's description of this era is typical to that of other Roman writers. The basic idea is that, in this period, people didn't have to do any work because the Earth spontaneously produced their food for them. (Sweet.) The Golden Age as imagined by classical authors has many parallels with the Garden of Eden in the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Men spread their sails before the winds,
whose ways the mariner had scarcely learned:
the wooden keels, which once had stood as trunks
upon the mountain slopes, now danced upon
the unfamiliar waves. And now the ground,
which once – just like the sunlight and the air –
had been a common good, one all could share,
was marked and measured by the keen surveyor –
he drew the long confines, the boundaries.
Not only did men ask of earth its wealth,
its harvest crops and foods that nourish us,
they also delved into the bowels of earth:
there they began to dig for what was hid
deep underground beside the shades of Styx:
the treasures that spur men to sacrilege. (1.132-140)

Uh-oh, party's over folks. We're in the Iron Age now. The main idea of the Iron Age is that people have to work; this also means that they have to manipulate the environment, by plowing the earth, chopping down trees, and so on. Shipping is a major symbol of the Iron Age for two reasons: (1) as a symbol of man violating natural laws, by cutting down trees and setting out across the water, which isn't his habitat, and (2) as a symbol of the fact that the Earth doesn't give you everything you need. (If it did, you wouldn't have to go out in a boat to trade your stuff for somebody else's stuff.) These two ideas (violation and trade) also come up in the motif of mining. Is the Age of Iron the age we live in today?

[Juno] caught Callisto by the hair
in front and pulled her, face down, to the ground.
The girl stretched out her arms, imploring pity:
but those same arms began to sprout rough, shaggy
black hairs; her hands began to curve and lengthen
into hooked claws – they now were feet; the face
that Jove had so admired now was changed
to lumpish jaws; that she might not implore,
the gift of speech was taken from her: hoarse,
her throat could only utter angry growls –
a frightening sound. And yet, though now a bear,
she still retains the mind she had before,
and shows her suffering with endless moans (2.476-486)

Ovid uses scenes of transformation for many symbolic purposes. One of these is to explore the connections and differences between the human and natural worlds. Here, when Callisto is transformed into a bear, she loses two important aspects of her humanity, but preserves one. The two she loses are (1) her shape, and (2) the capacity to speak. The third she keeps is her mind, her sense of her own personal identity. In a way, Ovid suggests that preserving (3) is an added form of torture, since Callisto is tormented by the knowledge that she is not in the right body – but can't express that fact.

An ancient forest lay at hand: no ax
had ever violated it. A mass
of rocks, a grotto forming a low arch,
stood there among dense shrubs and pliant boughs;
and from that cave abundant waters gushed. (3.28-31)

Even in Ovid's day, the Mediterranean world was fairly well-explored and developed. The fact that Cadmus encounters a forest that has never been touched by human hands shows that this story takes place at a comparatively early date in the history of the universe.

A valley lay nearby. In its dense woods,
the pointed cypress and the pitch-pine stood.
That site was called Gargaphia, a grove
Diana, goddess who wears tucked-up robes,
held sacred. And within the deepest shade,
the innermost recess, there lay a cave
most perfect. Nature's craft can imitate
the ways of art; here she had shaped an arch
of what was native there – of porous rock
and of light tufa. (3.155-160)

What do you think Ovid really means here when he says "Nature's craft can imitate / the ways of art"? One meaning of art would be transforming nature into something humanly useful. Do you think that is what he means here – that Nature has formed the rock into something humanly useful (an arch) under which one can take shelter? Can you think of other examples (either in life or in Ovid's poem) where Nature helps humans out? If Nature still helps humans out, is that a hold-over from the Golden Age? Or are these instances just too rare the count? We're just throwing out some ideas here. You got any others?

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?

[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."

(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.

(Pythagoras:)
"For you can gather grain, and there are fruits
that bend the branches with their weight; there are
delicious greens that cooking makes still more
inviting, still more tender. You need not
refrain from milk, or honey sweet with scent
of thyme. The earth is kind – and it provides
so much abundance; you are offered feasts
for which there is no need to slaughter beasts,
to shed their blood. Some animals do feed
on flesh – but yet, not all of them: for sheep
and cattle graze on grass. And those who need
to feed on bloody food are savage beasts:
fierce lions, wolves, and bears, Armenian
tigers. Ah, it's a monstrous crime indeed
to stuff your innards with a living thing's
own innards, to make fat your greedy flesh
by swallowing another body, letting
another die that you may live." (15.75-90)

The long speech of Pythagoras in Book 15 of The Metamorphoses brings many, many themes of the poem full circle. (You'll see it cropping up a lot in our discussions of the book's themes; this is a sign that it might be a good passage to look at if you're writing a paper on Ovid's poem.) Here, it marks a return (so to speak) to the Golden Age, as described in Book 1 (see the quotation above). As part of his argument in favor of vegetarianism, Pythagoras says that the earth still offers so many good things to humans that it simply isn't necessary to kill animals for food. Based on what you have read elsewhere in The Metamorphoses, do you think Ovid agrees with this character? Or is his own position somewhat different?

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