The Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C. - A.D. 17) has, over the centuries, been the most popular and influential work from our classical tradition. This extraordinary collection of some 250 Greek and Roman myths and folk tales has always been a popular favorite, and has decisively shaped western art and literature from the moment it was completed in A.D. 8. The stories are particularly vivid when read by David Horovitch, in this new lively verse translation by Ian Johnston.
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I put off reading Ovid for far too long; this outstanding audio version from Naxos finally pulled me in. Metamorphoses is a wide-ranging account of Greek mythology, focusing on changes. Sometimes the changes are simple changes in fortune, "from good fortune to bad," as Aristotle put it, but often they are changes in physical form: a rape victim is transformed into a bird, a self-obsessed youth is transformed into a flower. Jason and Medea are here; so are Achilles, Ulysses, Aeneas, and many of the Roman gods. The versions of myths given here underlie many of the references in Shakespeare and Dante. Listening to this audiobook is like finally getting past the footnotes to a rich primary source.
It doesn't hurt that David Horovitz's voice is wonderful - almost a physical pleasure to listen to. The translation is by Ian Johnston, who has provided, both online and through Naxos, wonderful versions of Homer.
Ovid's poem is famous for the subtle transitions from one story to the next. They are, at times, almost imperceptible; you start out listening to a story about Orpheus and Eurydice and suddenly realize Orpheus is now telling a story about Venus and Adonis. (And maybe within that story, Venus in turn tells a story about Atalanta.) It sounds more confusing than it is, but you do have to pay careful attention. I recommend keeping a table of contents handy. The PDF that comes with the audiobook provides a useful track listing, and there are other outlines of the structure available on the Internet.
From the creation of Earth out of Chaos to the fall of Troy and beyond, in Metamorphoses (AD 8) Ovid retells the Greek myths, filtering them through his Roman sensibility and unifying them around metamorphosis: "My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of different kinds." Most of the stories feature some such change, punishment or reward, involuntary or voluntary, terrifying or transcendent, permanent or temporary. People, gods, and objects turn into flowers, trees, animals, birds, fish, statues, mountains, and stars, and some humans change gender. Ovid includes all the famous myths that have inspired countless paintings, statues, and stories, as well as many less well-known ones and some more "recent" legendary histories featuring things like the founding of Rome.
Even though we usually know what will happen in the stories, either because we've read them before or because Ovid foreshadows some doom, his book is still absorbing because of his psychological insights, smooth transitions from one myth to the next, nesting of stories one inside the other, sudden shifts to present tense or to second person (e.g., "They wept for you, Orpheus"), humor, irony, and sympathy. And Ovid regularly surprises with some extra touch, as when, after concluding the story of Narcissus with the youth wasting away and entering "the houses of the dead," he says that Narcissus is still trying to find his reflection in the "waters of the Styx."
A common cause or theme of the changes is love or its opposite, especially when transgressive: "By gods above, how much hidden darkness/ the human heart contains!" If some god isn't lusting after some maiden, a daughter is falling in love with her father, a sister with her brother, a brother-in-law with his sister-in-law, or a princess with the enemy of her people. Among the many illicit loves appear a few cases of conjugal loyalty and affection. Ovid also depicts much hate-fueled violence: patricide, homicide, infanticide, fratricide--and is there a word for the murder of an uncle? Almost as often as he depicts detailed metamorphoses, he shows graphic violence, as when during a wedding feast melee a disemboweled centaur entangles his feet in his entrails and runs them unspooling completely out of his body. There is cannibalism. And there is plenty of rape; at one point a girl ravished by Neptune asks to be turned into a man so that she may never be ravished again.
Indeed, many of the myths reveal a bias towards men, as when female-female love is depicted as more abnormal than female-bull love while post-Eurydice Orpheus' preference for boys is taken in stride. Nevertheless, Ovid writes many strong female characters, and his most compelling monologues are those of conflicted women.
In addition to love and violence, Ovid is interested in things like self-destructive pride (e.g., the fate of Niobe mother of fourteen children), heroic ego (e.g., the debate between Ajax and Ulysses over Achilles' armor), and vegetarianism (e.g., the diatribe against our bloody consumption of other living creatures). He also tosses off pithy lines about life, like "No pleasure ever lasts." It all returns to change: whether fantastically as in the myths or naturally as in Pythagoras' "scientific" account of the world, from earth to water or air to fire, from life to death and death to life, everything changes from one form to another.
At times I experienced metamorphosis fatigue (aNOTHer tree?), but mostly his book is a joy, largely due to its wonderful writing. Ovid writes wonderful epic similes, as when Apollo gives
a cry of grief and pain just like a young cow makes when she beholds the slaughterer raise his murderous axe to his right ear and, with a splintering sound, smash in the temples of her suckling calf.
He offers memorable cameos to personifications of things like Sleep, Hunger, and, here, Envy: "Wherever she goes, she tramples down fields full of flowers, burns the grass, plucks the tops of growing plants, and with her breath pollutes cities and homes, entire communities."
And in Ian Johnston's lively, readable translation, Ovid's rich descriptions and vivid imagination are transporting, like his vision of a post-flood world in which survivors sail boats over the roofs of sunken villas and dolphins race through submerged woods, or his depiction of Medea's magical concoction, including hoarfrost scraped up by moonlight and "the cut up entrails of the ambiguous werewolf," or his beautiful, terrible account of Daphne changing into a tree:
Scarcely had she made this plea, when she feels A heavy numbness move across her limbs, her soft breasts are enclosed by slender bark, her hair is changed to leaves, her arms to branches, her feet, so swift a moment before, stick fast in sluggish roots, a covering of foliage spreads across her face. All that remains of her is her shining beauty. Phoebus loved her in this form as well. He set his right hand on her trunk and felt her heart still trembling under the new bark and with his own arms hugged the branches as if they were her limbs. He kissed the wood, but it shrank back from his kiss. The god spoke: "Since you cannot be my wife, you shall surely be my tree."
David Horovitch reads the audiobook marvelously. For pastoral scenes his voice wafts pollen, for spiteful ones it drips poison, for sensual ones it caresses flesh, for brutal ones it gouges eyeballs, and for fantastic ones it stirs wonder. He doesn't strain for female voices. He doesn't change his voice drastically for different characters, but modulates it to suit different moods (his love-sick Cyclops is splendid!). It is a pleasure to listen to him.
Ovid ended his magnum opus confident it would last: "Here I end my work,/ which neither Jupiter's rage, nor fire, nor sword,/ nor gnawing time can ever wipe away." He was right to say, "Men will celebrate my fame/ for all the ages, and, if there is truth/ in poet's prophecies, I will live on."