Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Science

By Ovid


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.

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.

(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?

You rush to rise within the eastern sky,
and you are slow to sink into the sea.
Too early and too late – you stretch your stay
to gaze upon that girl, and your delay
prolongs the winter days. But then, at times,
your light has failed; your heart is dark, and so
your rays are darkened, too; and fear takes hold
of mortals. And you are not dark because
the moon, drawn close, has interposed itself
between the earth and you: it's love that leaves
your face so wan and weak. (4.197-203)

In this passage, Ovid once again blends the scientific theories of his day with poetic ideas of his own invention. In this passage, which is addressed to the Sun-god, he shows that he knows to true cause of solar eclipses – i.e., that the moon stands in between the earth and the sun. Here, however, for poetic effect, he claims that, at this point at least, the sun was not dark because of the moon, but rather because the Sun-god was sick with love.

The plague was sent by Juno in her rage
against the people of the isle that bore
her rival's name, Aegina. A fierce scourge,
at first it seemed a sickness nature caused,
one to be fought with the physician's art;
but medicine was thwarted – nothing helped. (7.523-527)

Can you guess what we're noticing in this passage? (Take a second.) Yup, you got it: Ovid is mixing together science and the imagination. Here, he raises the possibility that sicknesses can have two causes: they can be either naturally caused or supernaturally caused, by gods. In this case, the cause of the plague is divine, and the doctors of Aegina have no hope of curing it.

The river-god,
while warning him against the waters' course,
told Theseus: "Please take shelter in my house,
you famous son of Athens; for the course
my current takes is far too ominous:
those roaring, rolling waters are quite used
to bearing off stout trees and giant rocks.
I've seen great stables standing on those shores
and seen them carried off – livestock and all;
against such surge, the bullocks' power failed,
the helpless horses' speed did not avail.
And when the snows along the mountain slopes
have melted, this – my torrent – often swallows
the bodies of young men in its wild whirlpools.
Rest here; wait till the waters ebb and find
their normal channel, and the banks confine
the current." (8.449-559)

This is yet another example of a blended picture of science and mythology. The mythological part comes from the fact that a river-god is doing the talking. The scientific part comes from his very realistic account of the action of his own currents.

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.

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."

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.

"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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