Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Memory and the Past

By Ovid

Memory and the Past

Those parts that bore some moisture from the earth
became the flesh; whereas the solid parts –
whatever could not bend – became the bones.
What had been veins remained, with the same name.
And since the gods had willed it so, quite soon
the stones that man had thrown were changed to men,
and those the woman cast took women's forms.
From this, our race is tough, tenacious; we
work-hard – proof of our stony ancestry. (1.407-415)

In these lines, Ovid tries to explain something about the world he lives in by pointing to its origin. In this case, he ascribes the toughness of the age he lives in to the fact that this race of humans originated as stones. We have already seen plenty of examples of this when looking at the theme of "Transformations." What makes this passage slightly different, however, is its focus on language – when he says that humans' veins originated as "veins" in rock. In this way, Ovid is also investigating part of human culture and memory.

To keep the memory of that great feat
alive, the god established sacred games;
and after the defeated serpent's name
they were called Pythian. (1.445-446)

Here, once again, Ovid ties a human custom to an event from the mythological past. In this case, the god Apollo starts a tradition of athletic contests – the "Pythian Games" – to commemorate his killing of a giant python.

The oracle replies: "You'll meet a heifer
in a deserted place – a cow that never
has worn the yoke or drawn a curving plow.
You are to follow in that heifer's tracks;
and where she stops to rest upon the grass,
you are to build your walls and call that land
Boeotia." (3.10-13)

These instructions given to Cadmus explain how he came to found the land of Boeotia. But why was he supposed to call it that, exactly? This is because, in Greek, the word for "cow" is "bous." Because he would know which land to settle by following a heifer (female cow), it made sense for him to call it "Cow-land" ("Boeotia"). The Greek word "bous" is related to the Latin word "bovis," which is the origin of our word "bovine," which refers to things having to do with cows.

The father – though that word is hollow now –
cried: "Icarus! Where are you?" And that cry
echoed again, again till he caught sight
of feathers on the surface of the sea.
And Daedalus cursed his own artistry,
then built a tomb to house his dear son's body.
There, where the boy was buried, now his name
remains: that island is Icaria. (8.231-235)

Here, as usual, Ovid is interested in names that conceal a deeper history. In this case, the island of Icaria in Greece is revealed to be near the site where Icarus, the son of the inventor Daedalus, plummeted into the sea. Although it isn't necessarily an issue of cultural memory, it is interesting how closely the story about the name of the island follows Ovid's grim joke that Daedalus isn't a father anymore, now that his son is dead. This shows Ovid's general concern with giving things their correct names. Can you think of other examples where Ovid engages in this sort of wordplay?

As [Lichas] flies
high, through the air, he petrifies.
Even as rain – they say – grows more compact
when swept by icy winds, and turns to snow;
and those snow flakes, still soft, as they are whirled,
condense – and thicken into solid hail:
so, cast into the void by those stout arms,
frozen with fear, his body drained of sap,
dry Lichas is transformed into hard stone.
This is the way the tale – of old – was told.
And even now, in the Euboean sea,
a low shoal rises up, above deep eddies,
and keeps the traces of a human form.
And just as if this rock were sentient,
seamen are careful not to step in it;
and Lichas is the name they've given it. (9.216-229)

Here, Ovid seems to be up to the same tricks as in the other quotations for this theme. But why does he say that "Lichas is the name" that the seamen have "given it"? Why doesn't he just say that that rock is Lichas? Could this be a sign that Ovid is here criticizing some forms of cultural memory? Notice also how, earlier he says that "[t]his is the way the tale – of old – was told." Is this a way of washing his hands of responsibility for it? Hard to tell; Ovid is one slippery dude sometimes.

So Bacchus ordered, and the king obeyed.
He reached the source; and even as he bathed,
the waters – from the human form they washed –
took on the force that once lay in his touch:
the power to transform things into gold.
Even today, along Pactolus' shores,
the fields – which still receive the precious seed
from that old vein – are glittering, pale and cold: the stream that soaks the soil is streaked with gold. (11.142-145)

In ancient times, Asia (modern Turkey) was legendary for its wealth. One source of wealth was the River Pactolus, where people would pan for gold. Ovid's story connects this geographical feature – a river rich in ore – with the legendary King Midas, who had the power to turn whatever he touched to gold.

Agamemnon slighted
Diana when he killed her sacred stag;
and to appease the virgin goddess' wrath,
the Greeks must offer up a virgin's blood.
Now pity yields unto the public cause,
and kingship overcomes a father's love;
Iphigenia stands before the altar,
among attendants all in tears. But just
about to spill such dear chaste blood, Diana
relents: she screens the scene with a dark cloud;
and at the climax of the sacrifice,
amid the pleas and outcries of the crowd,
the goddess substitutes – they say – a hind
in place of the young virgin of Mycenae. (12.29-34)

In this case, Ovid wades into the arguing-over-different-versions-of-myths muck. In many versions of this story, Iphigenia is indeed sacrificed by the Greeks in order to get better weather. For example, in a poem by the earlier Roman poet, Lucretius, entitled On The Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), the girl is definitely sacrificed – though in that case her name is slightly different: "Iphianassa." In his version, though, Ovid mixes things up, saying that Diana replaced Iphigenia with a "hind" (female deer) at the last minute. By sticking in that little "they say," he gets to claim that he is just following a different tradition. Do you think he's telling the truth? If not, why would he lie about it?

And so the other gods were stirred to pity
on seeing Hecuba compelled to bark;
but one, Aurora, was too taken up
with her own sorrow. Even to this day,
the goddess still sheds tears for her dear son:
the dew she scatters on the world at dawn. (13.620-622)

In this passage, Ovid explains the origin of dew as the tears shed by Aurora, the goddess of the Dawn. Aurora is in mourning because her son, Memnon, was killed in the Trojan War.

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)

Now, if you were an inhabitant of Pythecusae – also spelled Pithecusae – you would probably be pretty offended at this remark of Ovid's. (This is a real place, by the way – an island in the Bay of Naples.) But then again, think of how modern humans first felt when Charles Darwin came along and said that we all were descended from monkeys, a metamorphosis that Ovid would have loved? Ever heard of an early hominid called "Australopithecus"? (The most famous is the so-called "Lucy"; you can read more about her here). Anyway, the "pithecus" in "Australopithecus" comes from the same Greek word that Ovid is playing off here.

"We see
that eras change: for here some nations gain
and grow in strength, there others lose the day.
So, Troy had might and men and wealth: she could
afford for ten long years to shed her blood;
now, razed, all she can show are ancient ruins –
her only riches are ancestral tombs.
Sparta was famed, and great Mycenae claimed
much might; so did Amphion's citadel
and Cecrops', too. The land of Sparta now
is worthless; proud Mycenae is laid low;
what has the Thebes of Oedipus to show
except for her own name? And what is left
to Cecrops' Athens other than her fame?
And now the rumor runs that Rome, the town
that sons of Dardanus had founded, grows;
along the Tiber's banks – the stream that flows
down from the Apennines – that city lays
the base of a great state. (15.420-433)

This survey of past human societies shows how the great have fallen. At the time when Pythagoras is speaking, Rome is still the new kid on the block. Do you think that Ovid thinks history will be different for Rome, or is he here dropping the hint that it, too, will both rise and fall?

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