A Honeycomb for Aphrodite

Reflections on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Part II

A. S. Kline © Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved

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VI The Power of the Gods

van de Passe Illustration - The death of Semele

‘The death of Semele’

The gods in Greek myth are an intensification of the human. Entering the world, interacting with it, taking on the forms and surfaces of human beings and creatures, they initiate events by their presence. They are powers. Mating with mortals they charge history with the numinous, creating human destiny. Fate appears as chance and circumstance, but destiny is divinely initiated. Venus embraces Anchises, the mortal, and Aeneas is propelled on his path towards the creation of the Roman people. Jupiter consumes poor Semele, and Bacchus-Dionysus, is plucked from the destruction. Thetis mates with Peleus, and Achilles already sweeps through the glittering darkness of the Iliad. The first and most potent interference with the human world by a god is always through a pregnant woman. Chosen by lineage or beauty, those fated creatures are the seedbeds of divine intervention. The male gods, Jupiter and his brothers Neptune and Dis, Apollo, Mercury, and Bacchus impregnate the girls who will mediate between the human and the divine. The alien, the indeterminate and unbounded, pierces the world and out of it comes turmoil and the stories. The gods are like flashes of lightning: a human encounters one, and like the effect of a stone thrown into a pool, the ripples of consequence follow. Apollo pursues Daphne, and forever afterwards the laurel is his emblem. Jupiter sees Semele, Juno intervenes maliciously, and the girl ends as a heap of charred ash. Actaeon has a single glimpse of Diana bathing and throws away his life. Dis snatches up Persephone and a whole mythological complex of death and re-generation is set in motion. To see a god, to meet a goddess, is the highest of risks. And to be born of the union of divine and mortal, to be a Perseus or Hercules, sons of Jupiter, a Theseus, son of Neptune, a Ulysses, son of Mercury, or an Aeneas, son of Venus, is likewise to be a constant disturber of human events.

van de Passe Illustration - Hercules kills Nessus

‘Hercules kills Nessus’

The gods come and go. They visit at a prayer, or on a whim, or driven by a passion. They illuminate the sky, there is a crack of thunder and they vanish. They trouble the leaves, an arrow or a spear flashes: there is a cry and then silence. The waters swirl and a monster or a tempest appears: the following dawn is tranquil, the corpse lies on the sand. The gods are invoked or they initiate. They are intermittent forces, applied at the end of the lever, with a mortal at the fulcrum on whom a myth turns. The gods are transient presences. No one lasts long with a god. In a sense the gods are all one god, and the goddesses all one goddess, each in their many aspects. Intervening they wear the mask of circumstance, and take on the nature of a driving force. Jupiter, Neptune, and Dis in triad, are the primal energy of the three regions of existence, the light of sky and earth, the realm of the sea, and the darkness under the earth. Juno is that similar energy with a female aspect, the sister-wife. As the supreme forces they are angered by impiety, the failure of respect, and angered by potential or real competition from mortals. The supreme power expects recognition and humility. To ignore a god, or compete with a god, or mock a god is to enter the realm of high risk, and to invite retaliation. But merely to be in the presence of a god, to be noticed by a god, to be desired by a god is fateful, perhaps fatal. That is the nature of power, and force. To stand in the intense light, to face the storm-wind, to chance the tall wave, is to meet the god, and meet fate head-on.

van de Passe Illustration - Neptune calms the waves

‘Neptune calms the waves’

The younger gods are more specialised. Minerva-Athene is the power of the mind, Phoebus Apollo the power of the imagination. To her belong women’s arts, and the creations of the cool intellect, to him the domains of music, poetry and prophecy, and medicine, and archery. Diana-Artemis is the original sacred power of the wild, of essential pre-civilised humanity, of personal integrity and silence. Virgin moon-goddess and huntress, Diana is the touchy, inviolable force of the natural world outside the pale of society, that which we invade and harm at our peril. Her interventions are unexpected and her temperament sensitised. Her nature is an uncivilised, remote, ruthlessness, the primacy of raw nature, the essential life of the body and mind before and beyond language. And Bacchus-Dionysus, the vine-god, is her male counterpart, divine frenzy.

Then there are Mercury-Hermes, messenger and trickster, Vulcan-Hephaestus the smith and god of fire, Mars-Ares, the god of war, and the panoply of lesser gods, of the winds, rivers and seas, and the more ancient masks of the Great Goddess that survive like fragments of ancient sculptured faces in a ruined temple, Vesta-Hestia, Themis and Latona, Dione and Cybele. There is a whole ethos, a paradigm, of spirits and forces, powers and deities, filling the world.

van de Passe Illustration - Mercury sees Herse

‘Mercury sees Herse’

Ovid’s attitude to this divine theatre is one of scepticism. It is a secular agnosticism, a willingness to play with the charm of the concept, without committing to the intensity of belief. His own sympathies were perhaps with the ‘this-world’ thoughts of Stoicism and Epicureanism, and if he is religious it is with the gentle softness of the followers of Isis, and perhaps the proto-Christians, in that Imperial melting-pot of nations which held, suspended in solution, awaiting the catalyst, those chemicals that would crystallise around the idea of a personal god, of the redemption of the meek, and the poetry of a love without bounds.

The face of the god appears and disappears. It is the same power manifested in many forms, which are all one essence. So the many girls pursued by the god, taken by the god, are the same girl, her pale shining face like a reflection of the moon in the water, her fate taken out of her hands, her destiny to be a vehicle for the divine. And the transient betrays them. The gods betray mortals, because their attention moves on elsewhere, leaving them behind, all those lost girls, their beauty vanishing, their lives consumed, and all the aged heroes, their function complete, their conquests, and labours, and explorations over, the gods transforming mortals and passing on by. And as the gods betray women so do their lesser images the heroes, they too betray. Theseus abandons Ariadne (Book VIII:152), Jason is false to Medea (Book VII:350), Aeneas follows his own fate not Dido (Book XIV:75), Ulysses parts from Circe and Calypso (Book XIV:223).

van de Passe Illustration - Medea aids Jason

‘Medea aids Jason’

Power has two major aspects, in its potential and in its realisation. In its potential, power is the remote fire of the moon and the stars, of the rustling in the leaves, of the work of art outlasting this age, of night, and stillness, and silence. In its realisation, it is the lightning strike, the moment of painful insight, intense suffering, fierce desire, shattering passion, of birth, possession, death, prophecy. Every intensity is a god. In its actualisation, power is personal, imminent, transforming, sexual in the deepest sense, while in its potential power is virgin, inviolable, distant, intangible, creating awe and fear, concern and anxiety, respect and reverence. So Pallas Athene, that Minerva of the Mind, and Artemis, that Diana of the innermost essence of being prior to civilisation, are virgin. They stand back from the actual. They intervene through the brain and the nerves. They are a sisterhood, a band of immaculate creatures awaiting human reality, a sacred potency. Venus-Aphrodite and Juno-Hera, on the other hand, represent the sexual, outside and within marriage, woman engaged with the world, as lover, mother, wife and companion. The male gods are one god, actual, involved, as the heroes are. And so in a sense are the involved goddesses. Juno supports the Greeks, Venus mates with Anchises and supports the Trojans, and therefore the Romans. Juno comes to women in childbirth: Venus adorns them with beauty. Venus and Juno play out the antagonism between sudden ruthless passion and civilised, stable partnership. Juno and Venus are part of that spectrum of the goddess that is involvement in human relationships, while Diana and Minerva are that part of the Goddess’s spectrum that lies both within and beyond relationship, in the mind and the body, intricate and personal, intense and secretive.

van de Passe Illustration - Ceyx returns to Alcyone from the shipwreck

‘Ceyx returns to Alcyone from the shipwreck’

Power seeks possession, and the gods aim to possess our reality. They are immortal: we are transient. But what is their existence, on Olympus, beyond the mortal, is it endless laughter and feasting, art and joy? Sometimes it seems as though all that immortality only has meaning through their intervention in mortality. As though the immortal only gains being though the splendour of our unique mortal transience, an unrepeatable swift flight towards meaning, and into transformation. Sometimes it seems that it is the mortal story that has absorbed the power, and that the gods are drained of force, until they can return, recharged in the next tale. To take possession is a risk for a god. The prophecies endlessly warn of the son who will exceed the father. A god must be careful. Neptune must leave Thetis to Peleus, lest Achilles surpasses him. The power must be retained. If power is absorbed into the human from the divine, then the forces within us must be reflections, or rather extensions, of the divine, and in some sense they are in competition with it. The passions that rack the human being, sexual desire and love, pride and jealousy, greed and envy, and the emotions that run along with them, anger and affection, loyalty and hatred must be divinely triggered forces operating within us. But the gods will not necessarily tolerate them, in us. And the forces of nature must be divine powers filling the world. At that stage of thought the gods simply vanish, transformed into their effects. So Ceyx faces a storm that reveals some divine backcloth, but which in itself is unprovoked (Book XI:474). Midas’s greed (Book XI:85), Myrrha’s incestuous desire (Book X:298), Narcissus’s self-intoxication (Book III:402), Iphis’s love across sexual boundaries (Book IX:714), Niobe’s pride (Book VI:146), Phaethon’s longing for what is beyond his capabilities (Book II:31), Tereus’s lust (Book VI:438), are outside the pattern of divine vendetta, like that of Juno’s against the House of Cadmus and against the people of Troy, or Minerva’s resentment of competition, or Diana’s reaction to encroachment on her innermost sanctuaries. The forces instead are within: ‘some Fury’ breathed on Myrrha. Niobe’s own pride drove her forward. Midas was in love with the glitter of possession. The passions arise, not always inspired overtly by a god or a goddess, not always from the dictates of destiny, but spontaneously, as echoes of the divine, that go out to meet and challenge and conflict with the divine. To be part of transience, to be mortal, and yet to stand in the face of the gods, to provoke them, to reflect their power from a lesser mirror back on to themselves, to compete with them, is to invite punishment.

So the power of the gods and of the goddess may be inflicted on mortals, for the gods’ own reasons, or may be called down on a mortal because of the mortal’s own actions. The winds and waves, the lightning and flame may take a person unawares, at the dictates of a god’s desire, or a goddess’s need for vengeance, or a mortal may themselves invite destruction, deliberately or in error, walking into the storm, inviting the fire. The spur to the story may be as quiet as recognition of the gods, or a failure to recognise them. Or it may be as violent as rape and murder. It may be driven by the sweet attraction of a god to a girl, or the violent reprisals of an offended deity. Wherever power reveals itself by its tokens, in the intercourse between gods and mortals, or in the intensity of the passions and their outcomes, or in the inexorable working out of crime and punishment, there is the explosion of the divine in the human world, and the beginnings of a new tale.

VII The Nature of the Male Gods

van de Passe Illustration - The rape of Europa

‘The rape of Europa’

Jupiter-Zeus, supreme king of the gods, son of Rhea the primal Goddess, and Saturn whom he and his brothers, Neptune and Dis, deposed, is the essential focus of divine power. He is a god of mountains, of heights. Born on Mount Lycaeum in Arcady, hidden and nurtured on Cretan Mount Ida, he rules from Mount Olympus. His chief sanctuary was Dodona, in the expressionless nowhere of northwest Greece, itself once a grove of oracular oak trees, beneath Mount Tomaros, inherited from the more ancient Goddess, Dione. As naked power Zeus is the lightning flash and the sound of distant thunder. He has, in a sense, no real face, and no distinguishing features. He is kingship, Imperial power, neutral, sovereign, and ruthless in its rough justice. When Zeus descends among mortals he must therefore appear in disguise. He is a white bull, abducting Europa (Book II:833) or an eagle snatching Asterie and Ganymede (Book X:143), or a swan mounting Leda (Book VI:103), or he mimics the goddess Diana to deceive Callisto (Book II:417). Arachne depicts his many deceptive forms on the web she weaves: a shower of gold, a satyr, a flame, a shepherd, a spotted snake (Book VI:103). In order to rape Io he hides himself in a covering mist (Book I:587). Through the girls he transmits his divinity, creating heroes and gods, Mercury, Bacchus, Minerva, Apollo and Diana are his divine children by them, Hercules, Perseus, Minos and Aeacus are among his mortal sons.

van de Passe Illustration - The ascension of Hercules

‘The ascension of Hercules’

As a king Jupiter holds the keys to the distribution of power, and to divine justice. So he is a suppliant’s god, to whom the goddesses come asking favours for their children, their lovers, their protégés. He sanctions in this way the deification of the Roman guardian deities, Hercules (Book IX:211), Aeneas (Book XIV:566), Romulus (Book XIV:805), and Julius Caesar (Book XV:745).

He loves just men, Minos, Aeacus and Rhadamanthus, and sits in judgement over gods and mortals. So he holds the balance in the wars over Troy, and Thebes, and during Aeneas’s struggles in Italy. He allows the workings out of human affairs with minimum intervention, but he preserves the balance between warring sides, and ultimately resolves disorder, and restores order after chaos. So for example he rescues the earth from the disaster caused by Phaethon, and decrees that Persephone spend half her time with Ceres, half with Dis, so preserving the balance of the seasons.  But he is himself limited by other powers. Venus herself declares that he is subject to Cupid’s arrows for instance, as are the other gods (Book V:332), and not only can one god not undo an action that another god performs (Book XIV:772), but they are also bound like himself by Fate, as he advises Venus (Book XV:745) and as he explains to the gathering of gods and goddesses (Book IX:418) who are seeking renewed youth for their favoured mortals. So the myths constrain gods and humans alike: bound yet free, destined by Fate and Necessity, but susceptible also to passion and able to intervene in the course of events, creating its flow. The conflict between freewill and pre-destination is not resolved, merely accepted as an inscrutable aspect of the workings of reality.

Jupiter’s great weakness is his constant betrayal of his sister-wife Juno, a weakness on which Ovid plays with delight. Ashamed and regretful, Jupiter must rescue his lovers or aid his offspring by them. His actions cause pain and suffering. Io, Semele, Callisto, Danae: those girls are to be pitied, fated mistresses, deceived or tormented or transformed by Juno, rivals to be persecuted in revenge for Jupiter’s waywardness. He himself pities their vicissitudes. He sets Callisto and her son among the stars (Book II:496). He pleads with Juno to restore Io’s human form (Book I:722). He is sorrowful at Juno’s deception of Semele, whom he is forced by his own oath to visit in his true form, and softens his fire, though she is still consumed, and all he can do is rescue the infant Bacchus and bring him to full term, making him Dionysus, the twice-born (Book III:273). He protects his son Perseus by Danae, as he does Hercules from Juno’s persecution. Ovid provides comic relief with the sly analogy between the divine Jupiter and Juno, and the as yet mortal Augustus and Livia. The episode with Tiresias as to who has the most sexual pleasure, men or women, is a case in point (Book III:316). Jupiter is both the sly adulterer and the hen-pecked husband. And the wars of the divine brother-husband and sister-wife are amusing and pointed. Even in his marriage Jupiter though constrained by fate and driven by passion, has to strive for balance, and achieve a form of justice.

van de Passe Illustration - Neptune and Coronis

‘Neptune and Coronis’

His fluid, Protean brother, Neptune-Poseidon, ruling the second realm of the oceans, because of his inherent formlessness, like Jupiter, is required to display his (lesser) power in other shapes. He possesses girls while disguised as bull, ram, bird and dolphin. He, rather than Aegeus, having slept with Aethra may have been the father of Theseus (Book IX:1), whose fate was bound up with the bull of Minos (Book VIII:152), and whose son Hippolytus was to meet with a fateful bull from the sea (Book XV:479) near Neptune’s sacred city of Troezen. As a horse-god, white sea-breaker, stallion of the waves, he took Ceres-Demeter, as she grazed in the form of a grey mare among the Arcadian herds (Book VI:103). He himself created horses: invented the bridle, and instituted horse racing. And he was the father of Neleus by Tyro, who was in turn Nestor’s father (Book II:676), Nestor whom Homer calls ‘the horse-man’ (Odyssey III). Neptune having raped Medusa in Minerva’s temple, she bore him Pegasus, the winged horse (Book IV:753). A shape-changer himself, and perhaps identified with Proteus the shape-changing sea-god, he gives that power to Mestra (Book VIII:843), and to Periclymenus (Book XII:536). And as the father of Polyphemus, he pursues that Odysseus who blinded his son (Book XIV:154, and Odyssey I, V, VI, VIII, and IX), over the waters, holding him back from Ithaca, and his Penelope.

Dis, the third brother, god of the Underworld, goaded by Cupid’s arrows into desire for a divine girl, alone appears in his true form, to abduct Persephone, and thereby initiate the cycle of the mysteries, that great vegetation myth derived from the Neolithic, with its line of goddesses and their consorts, that myth that unites the soil with what is beneath the soil, the light with the darkness, life with death, and which found its deepest Greek expression in the rites at Eleusis. Confronted by Cyane, she crying the rights of woman and the Goddess, Dis, angered and almost baffled, carries away the terrified Proserpine in his chariot drawn by black horses, unleashes his subterranean, Scorpionic power, and pierces a road back to Tartarus through the depths of the pool. (Book V:385)

So the three greatest gods intervene in earthly affairs, in order to procreate their powers, binding earth to the three realms of sky, sea and underworld, driven by the primal force of sexual desire. They are manifestations of the primal urge for continuance of the species, humankind writ large on Nature, and striving to be, and go on being.

The younger gods, Phoebus Apollo, Mercury-Hermes, and Bacchus-Dionysus, are in theory less powerful than the sons of Saturn. All three are the sons of Jupiter-Zeus: by Latona, a Titan’s daughter (Book VI:313), Maia, daughter of Atlas (Book II:676), and the mortal Semele, daughter of Cadmus (Book III:253), respectively. Frozen, in representation, as young men, whereas the greater gods are depicted as mature adults, they must achieve by charm, skill, and their seductive power, what the elder gods achieve by raw force, and disguise. Nearer spiritually to the mortal, and more continuously involved with mortal affairs, their emotions intertwine more deeply with humanity, in subtle ways.

Phoebus Apollo, a sun-god: ‘the Far-Darter’, lord of the bow, an echo of Arjuna, and the Indo-Aryan culture of ancient India: god of art and medicine: god of Delos, his birthplace, of Delphi and Cumae and Asian Troy, the oracular shrines of his divinely intoxicated priestesses, the Pythia, the Sibyl, Cassandra: brother of Artemis-Diana: stirs the mortal world through pursuits of girls, and ensuing relationships that often end in love, in compassion as well as passion, in pity and regret. Pricked on by Cupid, he pursues and loses Daphne, but loves her still in her transmutation to the laurel bough, and makes her his sacred tree (Book I:438). Loving Coronis, he regrets his angry destruction of her for her unfaithfulness, and in his regret, laments for her, and plucks their child, Aesculapius, the healer, who inherits his father’s divine gift, from her dead womb (Book II:612). He loves Dione (Book IX:439), and Chione, their son Philammon receiving his gift of music (Book XI:266), and Isse, whom Arachne depicts with him (Book VI:103), and Dryope, sadly changed through error (Book IX:324).

van de Passe Illustration - Apollo kills Coronis

‘Apollo kills Coronis’

Apollo is always moving beyond the moment and the mortal. His arrows fly from the bow, helping to punish Niobe with the deadly hum of the shafts that strike her children (Book VI:204), inspiring Paris to sink his barb into Achilles’ vulnerable tendon (Book XIII:481), creating terrible fate, crystallising it, a shaft of sunlight piercing the flesh. His priests and priestesses utter inspired phrases, forming the shape of the future for Cadmus, founder of Thebes (Book III:1), and for Aeneas, ancestor of the Roman people (Book XIII:675). The winged words travel across empty space to strike the mind, and fixate the will. A screaming flock of utterances, a swirling shower of pointed leaves, falls on the one who asks, and tells them the answer to what they failed to ask, in cryptic sentences. Who can ignore a prophecy, however little they believe in its worth?

van de Passe Illustration - Apollo and Pan

‘Apollo and Pan’

His child Aesculapius can resurrect the dead, restoring Hippolytus to life (Book XV:479), and Apollo himself heals human hurt, though he cannot heal his own wound from Cupid’s weapon, his love for Daphne (Book I:438). Here, on the borderland of human affairs, in illness, and prophecy, Apollo has effect, and in artistic inspiration, when the mind and the hands and the heart fly free. He is called ‘leader of the dance of the Muses’ (Pausanias Book I.2.5). He competes with and defeats Pan’s reed-pipes (Book XI:146) and Marsyas’ lyre, Marsyas who is flayed, yielding a stream of blood, but transformed into river water (Book VI:382). Apollo’s music lifts the stones that build Megara, and leaves the notes resonating in the walls (Book VIII:1). And he helps Neptune build Laomedon’s Troy, perhaps with the same mysterious, magical harmonies (Book XI:194). Aesculapius, his son, brings the dead to life, while Orpheus his poet, son of the Muse, Calliope, walks among the dead, and is himself killed by Dionysus’s Maenads, his oracular head, speaking Apollo’s prophecies, floating down the Hebros to reach Lesbos at last, where Sappho, perhaps, will continue the immortal song (Book XI:1).

Apollo lives on the sexual edge too. He loves boys as well as girls, as does his Orpheus. Tormented by the loss of what he loves, he pities Cyparissus, whom he turns into a cypress tree, so as to mourn forever (Book X:106) and Hyacinthus, killed by accident, whose fallen body the god cradles, the bloodless face ‘as white as the boy’,  his medicines useless in the face of mortality, holding that Spartan loveliness ‘robbed of the flower of youth’ (Book X:143). Apollo is forever cradling the dead mortal, pitying the extreme, inspiring the beyond-human effort of vision or creation.

van de Passe Illustration - Apollo and Hyacinthus

‘Apollo and Hyacinthus’

Mercury-Hermes, son of Jupiter and the Pleiad, Maia, is also possessed of intriguing attributes. He is a god of exchange. Trade: communication: theft, that not so subtle transfer of property: and the music of the reed pipes and the tortoiseshell lyre that he invented, trading the instruments with Apollo for a golden staff, and the art of divination from pebbles dancing in a basin of water, taught to him by Apollo’s old nurses, the Thriae (the triple Muse) of Mount Parnassus. Jupiter appointed him as the messenger to the gods, and gave him authority over treaties and rights of way, commerce and every kind of reciprocal agreement and negotiation. Mercury is mental dexterity and cunning. He achieves his ends by seductive speech, and the swiftness of his mental passage on winged feet. From Jupiter he gained his herald’s staff with the entwined snakes, the caduceus that brings sleep and healing, on the boundaries of wakefulness and illness. The tales of his early life reveal a strong link between him and Apollo, with echoes of Phoebus’s medicine, oracular power, and musical arts.

As god of communication Mercury punishes betrayal by speech: so he turns Battus, the informer to stone, that dead medium, the opposite of living speech (Book II:676), and as a god of paths, doorways and agreements, he petrifies the envious Aglauros, whose sister Herses he is in love with, turning her own words into a form of punishing contract (Book II:812).

van de Passe Illustration - Mercury turns Battus to stone

‘Mercury turns Battus to stone’

His son by Venus-Aphrodite is Hermaphroditus, with whom Salmacis falls in love and begs to be joined to him eternally. The gods grant her prayer and the two form a bi-sexual product of mind and beauty (Book IV:274). His son by Chione is Autolycus, the master-thief (Book XI:266) whose daughter Anticleia, his own grand-daughter, he seduces to become the divine component of her son Ulysses, the embodiment of intelligence and cunning. So Mercury transmits the power of language, eloquence and negotiation, to the world, in the force of speech and persuasiveness that Ulysses reveals in the debate over Achilles’ arms (Book XIII:123), and that sleep-inducing web of words  that closes Argus’ many eyes.

van de Passe Illustration - Mercury and Argus

‘Mercury and Argus’

The worship of Bacchus-Dionysus seems to have originated in Phrygia and Thrace, travelled across the Aegean via Chios and Naxos, and from there arrived at ancient Thebes, so that Ino of Thebes is asserted to have been his foster-mother. He also travelled eastwards to India. He was perhaps a barley-god, consort of the great Goddess as Astarte, The twice-born god of the vine, Dionysus, like Apollo, lives at the extremes. His followers are intoxicated, maddened, lost in the mindless ecstasy beyond responsibility, so that he is a god of the formless, of the void outside civilisation, which is ignored at our peril. Where Apollo brings inspiration and awareness of the possibilities of form, Dionysus brings realisation, and awakening, the awareness of inner powers. The great crime is to fail to recognise and acknowledge him, to fence him out from the civilised centre, or submerge him in mediocrity.

For Ovid, the champion of civilisation, Dionysus is a danger and a seduction. We see the god reaching the Aegean islands, discovered on Chios where he is barely recognised (Book III:597) and finding Naxos where he subsequently ‘rescues’ and marries Ariadne, suggesting his late entry into Greece: finding in Ariadne perhaps his ancient consort, she a mask of the great Goddess in her Cretan form (Book VIII:152), and celebrating with her the rites of hierogamy, the sacred marriage of god and goddess. And we see him involved in Thebes, punishing Pentheus for his failure to acknowledge this new divinity, by means of his Maenads, his ecstatic female followers (Book III:692). Ovid explicitly identifies him with his consort, Venus-Astarte, the evening star (Book IV:1), so he is worshipped by night, on high places, as a god of the no-man’s-land of evening and dawn, a god of the shadowy extremes, and of deep intoxication and its after-effects. And as god of twilight he turns the Theban daughters of Minyas into bats, the creatures of the shadows, for their refusal likewise to recognise his godhead.

How can he be allowed to enter the civilised house? As wine, that which brings mild intoxication. Wine is the cultured face of the god of excess, the god of the night. And so Ovid accepts him, tamed, as Bacchus, god of the drinking party, and the morning after, who benignly and gratefully offers a gift to Midas that, alas, he cannot translate into a useful reality (Book XI:85). Such is the fate of the god, to be misunderstood, and often excluded, like the lynxes, and panthers, his creatures: wild cats.

The gods bring power. Over-mastering power, that of divine justice and order, and retribution, or generative power through their mating with mortal girls, or the subtle powers of intoxication, inspiration and exchange, of revelation, creation, and communication. Caught in the blast of power, human beings become vehicles for its existence in the world, channelling it towards invention and civilisation, or fulfilling a momentary fate to be destroyed by it or transformed. In that bright burst of energy they become transmitters, makers, or criminals, exalted or annihilated. One can acknowledge the forces, or deny them. Either way one must realise the consequences in one’s own life. And in a secular age, an age without gods, the myths continue to fill the mind with their relevance, because from our psyches, the hidden processes of mind, the partially coherent web of mental intensities that we call heart and spirit, our motives and thoughts may emerge, unwilled, showing the aspect of sudden and inexplicable form and direction. ‘There is a god within us’ says Ovid (Fasti VI), ‘when he stirs we are enkindled.’

Psychology is a first vague pseudo-scientific thrust into the nature and behaviour of those mental forces we do not yet understand scientifically. In the meantime the gods of Olympus will do, like the patterns of astrology, as theatre, as analogy, to help us make sense of what stirs inside us. And as the Greeks knew, and Ovid transmits, one must strive all one can to direct life in the right path, but in the end one must also recognise that life itself is greater than we are, and its powers sweep through us and stand beyond us, through repetition, through generation, through inspiration, through action. Who has not felt a thought, an action, an intuition, an emotion, as greater than the self, somehow standing outside it, looming over the self, examining it, until the individual is a crystal turned in the hands of reality? Ovid the civilised man, the Roman, is also a medium for the Greek experience, which is raw, wilder, and more visceral. He transmutes Greek knowledge: he metamorphoses it without betraying it.

VIII The Nature of the Goddess

The gods are agents of change, forces let loose, direct or subtle in their manifestations, moving and shaking the world. What of the Goddess, that is the set of goddesses who are her masks? She is the womb and matrix, the form and shaping force that receives and reacts, generates and re-absorbs, sends out and takes in. Man does, while woman merely is? Not so, because the reaction of a goddess, has as much power to alter the world as the efforts of a god. Action and reaction are equal and opposite. Tension is a balance of forces. Thought, emotion and sensation, are as much reactive as engendering. To see woman, the goddess, the earth as passive is to fall into illusion, to see the world in the way that an initiator wishes us to see it. The reality is the interplay of giving, and receiving, and returning, the dance of the three Graces. ‘An action goes out into the world’, said Buddha, ‘and no one can foresee all its consequences.’ The world is a manifold, it is what it is entire, and there is only one fate, the Moment, the unfolding of what is out of what was an instant ago, the one continuous inter-connected Now of being. It is what exists for us, as reality or shadow, as sensation or information, as experience or memory. What is: is the only testament of what was. The gods do not act in a vacuum in Greek myth: they interact with the living world.

So the Goddess is all of those girls, in whom sexuality has its way: those girls who are pregnant with the future, or transformed into the living fabric of Nature that is also the Goddess.  But she is also the mystery of the generative and reactive forces that are embedded deep in existence. She is Diana-Artemis, the changing moon, who hunts, kills and magically re-creates the creatures in an endless ritual, just as Nature hunts us down with age and illness, destroys us in death, and bears the species again in its continual re-birth. As such she is the sacred force of existence itself, ever virginal, the sanctity of life, recognised by Ovid’s ‘Pythagoras’, and her sacred inwardness is not pierced, her veil is not lifted, her grove is not violated, with impunity. At the very least we will be hounded by conscience and guilt, at the worst we will be torn apart and our fluids flow back into the earth that nurtured us.

van de Passe Illustration - The capture of Proserpine

‘The capture of Proserpine’

The Goddess is Ceres-Demeter, also, vegetation goddess of the Neolithic, nurturer of the crops, keeper of the mysteries of the changing seasons, mistress of Eleusis, mother of her own self, Proserpine-Persephone, that goes down into the darkness of the underworld each autumn to return each spring. The Maid mates with Dis in the caverns of non-being, while the Mother mourns and searches. And the goddess comes in the form of Venus-Aphrodite, too, that disruptive power of female seduction, that beauty which only has to exist in the world to attract us to it, a shining presence, that mirror in which the best of us is reflected, that mirror which shows us ourselves in our relative ugliness, and calls us to creation and procreation. She is the evening and the morning star, beauty, love, and the truth that flows from them, transient pity and ephemeral rapture, remoteness and nearness. She is Hera-Juno too, and Isis, wife and mother, goddess of childbirth, jealous of her position, manipulative of her male consort, but fearful for him, protective of him, lamenting over his cradled body, mourning life lost, just as she joys in life given, in her cradled child. She is enduring loyalty, the playful, sometimes prickly, friendship and intimacy of long-lasting love and affection. She is Vesta-Hestia, as well, the hearth and home. And the Goddess is Mind, she is Minerva-Athene, the cool-eyed, remote, inviolate, virgin self, the private, shape-shifting, birdlike intellect, that wings above the world, to pass by as a swallow and touch us, to perch in the rafters and chide and remind us, to swoop as a kite or a kestrel and snare us, to dance above the waves like a sea-mew and aid us in our distress. She is the inspirer of crafts and cunning, of intellect and scholarship, of weaving and navigation, of mathematics and horsemanship, of the loom, the earthenware pot and the flute, and the olive branch of peace. She is the goddess of the domestic arts, protective of the girls who worship her, and the heroes, especially Ulysses, who revere her.

van de Passe Illustration - Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster

‘Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster’

If the gods have heroes whom they engender on goddesses and mortal women, the Goddess has her witches, possessed of her magical powers, those mysterious women that in turn enchant, and possess. Medea is hers, and Circe, and Mestra. And perhaps too the Goddess is present in the nymphs of the woods and the trees and the waters, those countryside demi-goddesses, the Maelids and Dryads, and Hamadryads, and Naiads, often mourning, like the sad spirits of landscape, creators of that atmosphere that makes us shiver with the far-off blue of hills, or the twilit trees and streams, or the deep shadows of the forests. The Goddess is Nature and is everywhere, in stars and trees, in rivers and caves. She is herself in all her manifestations.

Juno-Hera is Jupiter’s sister and consort, and queen of the gods. A manifestation of the earlier Great Goddess, her pre-eminent sacred sites were on the island of Samos (Book VIII:183) and at Argos (Book XV:143). Ovid also mentions her famous temple at Lacinium, near Crotona, in Italy. Mars-Ares the war-god, and Hephaestus-Vulcan the smith (Book IV:167) are her sons conceived with Jupiter, and Hebe, cup-bearer to the gods, and wife of the deified Hercules is her daughter (Book IX:394). Tormented by Jupiter’s philandering with mortal girls, she embodies female jealousy, the anger of the betrayed wife, and pursues her rivals and their descendants mercilessly through the windings of the myths, so setting up deep conflict that aligns the gods and goddesses for and against her cause. Ovid slyly points up the analogy with the relationship between Augustus and Livia, in the bickering of Jupiter and Juno, which may have had some grounding in fact during the early years of their marriage. Mark Antony seems to have poked fun at Augustus’ adventures with women, though that may have been mere malice, while Suetonius and others suggest youthful licentiousness, but the Emperor would not have found such slights amusing, and Ovid writing from his Black Sea exile, takes pains later to clear the Metamorphoses of lèse-majesté (Tristia II:547-578). The serious point beneath the surface levity and the caricature is the defence of monogamy and marriage, and the sanctity of the marriage bond. Juno is also a goddess of wedding-ceremony (Book VI:401Book IX:764). It may seem strange to find Ovid, the ‘master of love’, defending the intimate relationship of marriage, but, as he himself claimed, his life was not his work, and, as we shall see later, the Metamorphoses is often at its most tender in revealing the beauty of long-lasting relationship to us.

Juno then is the great goddess as woman offended, and she directs her jealous anger towards a series of Jupiter’s paramours. Io, transformed into a heifer is guarded by Argus, the many-eyed, until Jupiter sends Mercury to kill Argus and free her, only for Juno to goad her on an interminable journey towards the Nile, where Juno at last relents, Jupiter repenting of his adultery, and restores Io, who becomes an Egyptian goddess (Isis/Hathor) (Book I:568). Callisto, she turns into a bear, leaving Jupiter to set the girl and her son Arcas among the heavens as constellations (Book II:466), where Juno does not cease her persecution, asking the Ocean gods not to allow the new stars to touch their waves. Semele she deceived, causing Jupiter to destroy the girl with the naked power of his presence in sexual union, though he himself attempts to lessen his own intensity. Semele’s own request, prompted by Juno, condemned her. A god, Dionysus-Bacchus, is born of their act. (Book III:273). Juno is angered by her sister Ino too, another daughter of Cadmus, whose child Learchus is killed by her maddened husband Athamas, while she herself becomes a sea-goddess (Book IV:416) Leucothoe: she, the same Ino ‘of the beautiful ankles’ who was ‘touched with pity for Odysseus’ and ‘rose from the water like a sea-mew on the wing’ to aid him. (Odyssey V.333). She is one of four ill-fated sisters, since Pentheus, the son of another sister, Agave, is destroyed by Bacchus’ followers including his own mother, and Actaeon, her sister Autonoe’s son, transformed into a stag, is torn apart by his own hounds at Diana’s prompting (Book III:165). The House of Thebes has far too much involvement with the gods.

van de Passe Illustration - Arcas draws his bow on Callisto

‘Arcas draws his bow on Callisto’

It is Juno who pursues Latona, in jealousy, driving her from place to place until she finds sanctuary on Delos. There Apollo and Diana are born (Book VI:313). It is Juno who, jealous of Aegina, sends the plague to destroy her son Aeacus and his people (Book VII:501) . It is Juno who lands Hercules with his Labours, hounding him for the sin of his mother Alcmena (Book IX:1), whose own birth labour she prolonged (Book IX:273), resenting his deification (Book IX:211) and it is Juno who even objects to Ganymede becoming Jupiter’s cup-bearer (Book X:143). Neither girls nor boys will enjoy his company, if she has her way.

van de Passe Illustration - The plague on the island of Aegina

‘The plague on the island of Aegina’

Why such intensity of jealousy? The Great Goddess, being originally a vegetation goddess, takes a consort, the sun god, for her own, each year, and sees him die in winter to be re-born in the following spring. The god is at first subservient to the goddess. It is she who must choose her consort. He is hers and no one else’s. When historically the male god eventually usurps her power, and becomes first her equal (competing with his twin, his rival, to be the successor, the tanist, her consort) and then her superior, her resentment and her anger fester. So behind this caricature of Juno, lies the deeper powerlessness of the goddess in the face of male betrayal. From powerlessness in regard to her consort flows her jealousy. All rivals must be destroyed.

That too explains her endless conflict with Venus-Aphrodite, the adulterers’ goddess, and her apparent hostility to sexuality, and the pleasure of sexuality, except in legitimate procreation. She blinds Tiresias for his knowledge of woman’s pleasure in coition, though Jupiter blesses him with powers of prophecy in compensation (Book III:316). She limits Echo’s powers of speech for aiding Jupiter’s profligacy, and deceiving her with words (Book III:359). Ixion was punished for attempting to assault her (Book XII:429). And stemming from Paris’s judgement in favour of Venus-Aphrodite (and her ‘gift’ to him of Helen, the gift of passion and beauty that overcomes mind and loyalty), and his award to her of the golden apple that Eris threw at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, is Juno’s (and Minerva-Athene’s) hostility to Troy, and to the Trojan race personified in Aeneas. She sends her messenger Iris to destroy his ships (Book XIV:75), and aids Turnus in the wars against him in Latium (Book XV:745). And later, still pursuing his descendants, she unbars the Roman citadel to the Sabines (Book XIV:772). Only Perseus, of Jupiter’s heroic sons, seems to escape her attentions: but then he is an Argive, and of her city.

van de Passe Illustration - The judgement of Paris

‘The judgement of Paris’

Juno then is the Goddess in an age of male domination, resistant and jealous of her role. Her more ancient masks are Cybele, the Phrygian Great Goddess, the Mother: and her own sister, Ceres-Demeter, the Greek goddess of vegetation, whose Egyptian equivalent is Isis. Ceres is married to the earth, making love to Iasion, son of Jupiter, in the thrice-ploughed field (Book IX:418), and her daughter, symbolic of the rape of the earth and the fields, by winter and death, is Persephone, the fearful child. Bread is the gift of Ceres and her name is synonymous with it (Book XI:85Book XIII:623), as wine is with that of Bacchus. The story of Demeter-Ceres and Persephone-Proserpine, the rape of the daughter by Dis, her search for her, her plea to Zeus-Jupiter, and his restoration of the girl to her for part of the year, was the inspiration for the rites at her sacred shrine at Eleusis, the Eleusinian Mysteries (Book VII:425). There the ritual of the earth’s rebirth from winter was enacted, probably involving a plunge into darkness, disorientation of the senses, the witnessing of coition in a ‘sacred’ marriage, ‘re-birth’ and a revelation of associated symbols (an ear of corn etc.), and then return to the surface. Ovid follows the mythic cycle (Book V:332) and reinforces the image of her as the corn-goddess, receiving the first fruits of the harvest (Book VIII:260Book X:431). Isis is her more personal equivalent, nurturing her worshippers (Book IX:666). In both myths the goddess is the divine mother, and deep love and pathos are bound up in the mother-child relationship.

Juno, Ceres, Isis, Cybele, are the masks of the wife and mother, the power of the creative womb, and of the fiercely loyal consort, the child-bearer and the spirit of harvest. The younger goddesses, like the younger gods, exert their power in other ways. Children of Jupiter, Diana-Artemis is born of Latona, an ancient face of the primal goddess: Minerva-Athene is born from the head of the god, she is Mind incarnate: while Venus-Aphrodite is the goddess of Love and Desire, born of Dione, ancient goddess of Dodona. Inviolate, inventive, seductive, three faces of woman.

Diana is the individual woman in her sacred, untouched self, not subject to male domination and power. Virgin, she is remote and wild. She is the cool shadow that runs through the trees, the moon goddess, night-hunter of the creatures, carrying her arrows of moonlight as Apollo bears those of the sun, surrounding herself with her band of virgin followers, the moons of the lunar year, of whom she is the thirteenth. She is Luna, shining in the sky (Book XV:176), and Hecate, witch of the darkness, and she is Diana Nemorensis, her wooden image brought by Orestes from wild Thrace where men were sacrificed to her Tauric equivalent (Book XIV:320), to be worshipped at Nemi in Aricia (Book XV:479). Her Egyptian form is Bastet, the cat goddess, creature of night, and the witches’ familiar (Book V:294).

Diana-Artemis rightly mistrusts men, and wanders the mountains and forests far from them. She is the violent antipathy to the male that drives the female within herself, and to her own sex, avoiding shame, betrayal, objectification, refusing to be an adjunct or possession of the male, denying him power, protecting her own valid and self-sufficient psyche. She is the upholder of woman’s primal right to be herself, a reversion to the ancient goddess, Nature sacred and untouched. So Procris, distraught, goes to her company for refuge (Book VII:661).

van de Passe Illustration - Diana kills Chione

‘Diana kills Chione’

She is a ruthless punisher of those who offend her, even inadvertently, unleashing the powers of hostile nature, plague and death, against the mortal world. She has that cold chill of the moon’s light, its lofty indifference to humanity, its virgin silence and stillness, an orb reflecting light, but of the darkness, and with one face always hidden. So she punished Actaeon, grandson of Cadmus, for inadvertently seeing her bathing naked in the pool, she ‘head and shoulders above all the others’, he straying ‘with aimless steps’. ‘So fate would have it’. And Ovid refers to the myth in speaking of his own error and exile: something seen by mistake was the root of his crime (Tristia II:77-120 et al). Chance is cruel, but ignorance is no defence. Actaeon is transformed and destroyed (Book III:165). Callisto too, ‘weary and unprotected’, whom fate in the form of Jupiter overwhelmed, one of her own band, destined to be exposed, shamed and expelled from her presence (Book II:441). Oeneus, King of Calydon, slighted the goddess, neglecting her worship among the twelve Olympians, and she visited the country with the wild boar of huge size that ravaged the fields (Book VIII:260). Meleager, the prince of Calydon, heir of that House of Parthaon dies as an indirect result, and Diana changes his sisters into the Meleagrides, the guinea-hens, her sacred birds (Book VIII:515). And Chione, who slept with Mercury and Apollo in the same night, criticised the Goddess’s beauty, receiving in return for her words a shaft from Diana’s bow, so that, at her destruction, Daedalion Chione’s father, hurled himself into death, and was lifted by Apollo into the air on hawk’s wings, in transformation. (Book XI:266). She ranged herself with Apollo her brother to punish Niobe for her pride (Book VI:267). Yet she can pity too, on occasion, when man is driven by her to inflict cruelty on woman, so she spirits away the tragic Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father for the sake of a favourable wind for the passage to Troy, and transports her to Tauris, leaving, at Aulis, a phantom hind as a substitute sacrifice (Book XII:1).

van de Passe Illustration - The Muses sing for Minerva

‘The Muses sing for Minerva’

If Diana is virgin wildness, the raw set apart from the cooked, nature separate from civilisation, that inner nature which every woman can reach down into, in childbirth for example when the boundaries of life and death are near (so that she is paradoxically a virgin goddess of childbirth), then Minerva-Athene is virgin introspection, the cool mind of reason, detached from passion. Goddess of the domestic arts, the loom, the olive-press, the flute, Ovid presents her as a goddess of weaving and wool-working (Book IV:31), giver of the olive of peace rather than war, though she is an armed goddess (Book VIII: 260XIII:640), and a patroness of the Muses who sing for her (Book V:250). Careful of her heroes, Ulysses and Diomede, who carried off her sacred image the Palladium from Troy, she nevertheless punishes the Greeks for Ajax the Lesser’s rape of the virgin Cassandra, as she had transformed Medusa, poor girl, for her rape by Neptune in her temple. No one touches the sacred remoteness of the inner mind, the virgin space of the goddess, with impunity. Nevertheless Ovid accentuates her compassion in his selection. Offended by Arachne she contested with her in weaving and punished her effrontery and her skill by beating her over the head, seat of mind and invention, but then when the girl tried to hang herself, pitied her and turned her into the hanging spider (Book VI:1). And so she saves Cornix, since ‘the virgin goddess pities a virgin’, and turns her into a crow (Book II:566). And turns the falling Talos, plunging from her sacred Acropolis of Athens (Book V:642), into the low-flying partridge (Book VIII:236).

van de Passe Illustration - Venus mourns Adonis

‘Venus mourns Adonis’

Who is the youngest of the goddesses, and yet the oldest? It is Venus-Aphrodite, Ovid’s goddess, and the goddess of Rome. She is an incarnation of Astarte, Goddess of the Phoenicians, who in turn derived from ancient Mesopotamia, as goddess of waters and the lands between the two rivers. And so she is also Derceto or Atargatis, fish-tailed goddess of Bablyon and Syria, to whom doves are sacred (Book IV:31). Cytherea is her island (Book IV:190), and Cyprus, ports where the Phoenician traders touched: and her priestesses practised ritual prostitution at Ephesus and elsewhere (Book X:220). She is the goddess of passion, and sexuality, and adultery, herself caught in the act with Mars, in the bed of her husband Vulcan, trapped in his bronze net, and in turn punishing Sol, the sun, who betrayed her, making him fall in love with Leucothoe, forgetting his other loves Clymene, mother of Phaethon, Perse, the mother of Circe, and Clytie who becomes the sun-following heliotrope (Book IV:190). Sol’s heat is an analogy of the heat of passion, and so Sol’s child Circe (Book XIV:1), and his grandchild Medea (Book VII:1), are love-intoxicated sorceresses, and Pasiphae his daughter lusts dangerously (Book IX:714). And Venus is soft and melting as he is, and as touched by pathos. Sol is darkened when Phaethon, his son dies (Book II 381), and struggles to bring to life the lost Leucothoe. So Venus weeps over her consort Adonis (Book X:708) and ‘hates hard hearts’ (Book XIV:623). She intercedes on the side of gentleness and to protect those she loves, asking Neptune to save and transform Ino, who in turn will help Ulysses (Book IV:512) and wishing to ward off old age from Anchises her mortal lover, and father of Aeneas (Book IX:418). Aeneas and the Trojans are under her special care, ever since Paris chose her above all others, and his passion for Helen became the root of conflict, ever since she loved Anchises, and ever since Aeneas carried him on his shoulders from the ruins of Troy (Book XIII:623). Through her soft influence even Polyphemus changes his nature and falls for Galatea (Book XIII:738), while another Galatea, an ivory statue, she brings to life for Pygmalion (Book X:243). In her role of protectress, she asks the Naiads to help the Romans (Book XIV:772), and ensures the deification of Aeneas her son (Book XIV:566), and Julius Caesar her descendant, having failed to avert his murder (Book XV:843), so that she is truly Ovid’s goddess, nurturer of Italian civilisation, and his own amorous works.

Gentle Venus, who is sweet love, she to whom Sappho sings, she of the immortal smiling face, abhors violence and ingratitude, those symptoms of stony minds. So Diomede is punished for wounding her beneath the walls of Troy (Book XIV:445), and Hippomenes (and Atalanta) for flouting her authority despite the help she had given him. (Book X:681). But she would rather attend weddings (Book IX:764) and give her gifts to the bride, Harmonia (Book IX:394), harmony. And she comes in her own shape, not disguised, always as female beauty, seductive and alluring.

van de Passe Illustration - Atalanta and Hippomenes changed into lions

‘Atalanta and Hippomenes changed into lions’

So we find the Goddess, in Ovid’s work, in all her manifestations, as virgin girl and woman, as lover and bride, as mother and mourner. She is Nature and the inviolate sacred circuit of the moon and stars. She is Mind and the untouched private world of the creative soul. She is Beauty and Love. She is all that is deepest and most complex, all that is least definable and most obvious. She is power, too, but not the power of violence and possession, rather the power to stir the heart and spirit, in the way the younger gods can. So that Apollo and Mercury, art and the word, link to Venus and Minerva, beauty and mind, in a circle of love. And Bacchus-Dionysus and Diana-Artemis keep alive the wild instinct in the civilised human being: keep alive the spiritual sources of our psychic energies, in our biological continuity with the animal kingdom, and the ecstatic inspirations of the night-bound universe beyond us. What is above, and below, is also within.

IX Justice, Moderation, Order and Rights

It may seem at times in the Metamorphoses that the gods and goddesses rampage through myth and history unchecked, disturbing the world, entangling powerless humanity in their vengeance and terror, without regard to any moral scheme. Nevertheless there is a fine balance in the affairs of the divine as it affects the mortal. It is true that certain individuals are singled out by chance or destiny. Those girls whom the gods descend on: those heroes driven through vast voyages, and burdened by great tasks. ‘Noblesse oblige’, and beauty is a form of fate. But there is also no mistaking the yearning of gods and humans for order, harmony, peace and resolution. And Ovid, the gentle manipulator of the tales, is always pushing towards civilisation and the middle way, towards tenderness and empathy. ‘Stranger, my heart is not such as to be full of anger for no reason. Due measure is best in all things’, says Alcinous to Odysseus (Odyssey VII.308). Rarely ironic in the Metamorphoses, Ovid softens the glare of the Greek world, not emasculating it as those unsympathetic to Ovid and Roman culture might claim, but modifying its values, searching behind its power complexes and historical struggles for the older, and younger values of joy, affection and delight, for Crete, for the glitter of the sea-girt islands, and the cool green valleys of Arcady. Ovid had travelled to Athens, and to Delos (See Heroides XXI, for a lovely and loving description of the island). He knew the landscape as he knew the culture. One should always be master of more than one world, he tells us: ‘Cultivate your thoughts with the noble arts, more than a little, and learn two languages.’ (Art of Love, Book II)

Ovid takes the deep power, often dark and disturbing, of Greek art, and transforms it, metamorphoses it, to something sweeter, gentler, drawing on the feminine tenderness revealed in Sappho and the Alexandrine poets, rather than the harshness of Aeschylus or the fluid darkness of Euripides. Sappho’s work, I suspect, secretly delighted him, and I think he loved her island ambience, her poems dancing ‘as Cretan girls once danced, by the lovely altar, their graceful feet treading the soft, plumed flowers of the grass.’ (Fragment LP: i.a. 16). If only we too had her works in whole and not in part.

van de Passe Illustration - Phaeton drives the solar chariot

‘Phaeton drives the solar chariot’

Moderation is Ovid’s instinct, as it was for the thoughtful Greeks. It’s message is there in the lovely retelling of Phaethon’s myth (Book II:31)  and that of Icarus (Book VIII:183). Don’t fly too high: don’t fall too low. Equally, don’t ask for what is inappropriate like the Sibyl (Book XIV:101), and don’t, like Scylla (Book VIII:1), or Polyphemus (Book XIII:738) seek union with the wrong person. It is there in the punishment for excess, for the sins of greed and envy, pride, lust and jealousy, self-love and selfishness. Narcissus (self-love, Book III:339) and Aglauros (envy, Book II:812),  Cephalus (jealousy, Book VII:661) and Tereus (lust, Book VI:401), Myrrha (incest, Book X:298), Chione (Book XI:266), Arachne (Book VI:1) and Niobe (pride, Book VI:146), and Midas (greed, Book XI:85), all find retribution.

But equally Ovid shies away from vicious punishment, in general. Nature is a refuge and a resolution: a natural justice is executed, through re-absorption and transformation. Where disorder is created, order is restored. So earth is repopulated after the flood, and Phaethon’s flames are extinguished, after which Arcadia is restored (Book II:31). Aesculapius brings life from death so that Hippolytus can be compensated for his fate (Book XV:479), Bacchus is snatched from Semele’s immolation (Book III:273), Persephone’s life is balanced, by Jupiter, between this world and the world of darkness (Book V:332), and he creates a new race to people plague-ridden Aegina (Book VII:1).

Sexual disorder is resolved likewise. Incest gives way to re-generation in the birth of Adonis (Book X:298), Iphis is sexually transformed by Isis (Book IX:666), Galatea, the lovely statue, is brought to life by Venus (Book X:243), and the Maenads resolve the Orphic bias towards exclusive homosexuality (Book XI:1). War and suffering, murder and violence end in peace and forgiveness. Thetis obtains pardon for Peleus (Book XI:346). Troy rises again in Rome and the Memnonides perform a ritual enactment of the fighting in Phrygia (Book XIII:576), Hercules (Book IX:211) and Julius Caesar (Book XV:745) are deified, Augustus brings universal order, and the Greeks turn out to have conquered to a Trojan’s gain (Book XV:418).

Transformation may signal ritual purgation, too. Adonis (Book X:708) and Hyacinthus (Book X:143) are remembered not merely as flowers, but by annual festivals, indicating their religious significance as companions of the goddess and the sun-god.

Jupiter is portrayed as loving the just man, so that he cherishes Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthos, and longs to renew their youth (Book IX:418 and 439). Jupiter himself will not go back on his sworn word, often taking his oath on the river Styx, as the ‘conscience’ of the gods, so that he must fulfil Semele’s request (Book III:273), as Sol must fulfil that of Phaethon (Book II:31). Ovid, the lawyer by training, uses the debate between Ulysses and Ajax to display the proper way to resolve an issue, not by violence, but by reason and intelligence (Book XIII:1). The solution to Greek tension and conflict, to epic, and vendetta, is Roman justice.

And above all the gods love piety, which is not, as Socrates mischievously defined it, ‘what is agreeable to the gods’ (Plato: Euthyphro), but the moderation involved in respect and recognition, grace and generosity of spirit, nobility in humble poverty, undying affection, and lifelong loyalty. Again and again, as we shall see later, impiety is punished, that disregard for the greater and truer: that challenge to the natural forces of the world that the gods and goddesses embody: that defiance of constraint and rushing to excess that imperils civilisation: that violence to the moral order that creates ripples of destruction.

The rights of woman are sounded also. Daphne, a follower of Diana, is ‘averse to being wooed, free from men and unable to endure them’, and so Apollo is defeated of his intent, and, transformed, she lives on in the noble laurel (Book I:438). Likewise Pan fails to capture Syrinx, another of Diana’s acolytes, who becomes the reed from which his sounding pipes are made (Book I:689). Bacchic freedom gives the Maenads an erotic self-sufficiency on their mountain heights, such that no man dares to cross tracks with them (Book III:692Book XI:1). And Polyxena ‘ill-fated, but with more than a woman’s courage’ declares the ultimate inviolability of the female spirit, she who has ‘no desire to be slave to any man’ (Book XIII:429).

van de Passe Illustration - Pan pursuing Syrinx

‘Pan pursuing Syrinx’

Women have their own arts, their own powers of magic and prophecy, and in Ovid, almost for the first time, as in the Heroides, they have their own voice. Ovid uses extended soliloquy to allow women to express their own point of view: Philomela (Book VI:486), Medea (BookVII:1), Scylla (Book VIII:1), Althaea (Book VIII:451), Myrrha (Book X:298), Alcyone (Book XI:650), Hecuba (Book XIII:481). The male voices are limited, the female voices ring out across the centuries, in chorus. The male voices assert, or inveigle, or repent, the female voices cry out, and debate within themselves, agonise, and persuade the heart.

X Anger, Vengeance and Destiny

The myths, as re-told by Ovid, reveal the age-old confusion over free will and pre-destination that has so bedevilled the human race. On the one hand events are said to reveal ordained patterns that even the gods must obey, on the other hand individuals are free to choose their path through circumstance, exercising their skills, never sure if the gods will help or hinder, while the gods themselves must argue, and contend, in order to see their chosen creatures safely home. According to one version of myth the Fates are the daughters of Necessity, and not of Jupiter, so that he is subject to them. In another version they are the daughters of Night and Erebus, but Jupiter can intervene to alter things. However no mortal sacrifices to the Fates, in myth, or succeeds in placating them.

We find Jupiter explaining the nature of these immoveable Fates, and their ‘iron rules’ to Venus-Aphrodite, a suppliant on behalf of her Caesar (Book XV:745). The House of the Three contains inscriptions on bronze and iron where ‘all things are written’ and there she will find the fate of her descendants ‘cut in everlasting adamant’. And again we find Jupiter bemoaning the ageing of his favourites and those of the other gods (Book IX:418) telling them that : ‘Even you and I, too, fate rules.’ Yet earlier he has explained to them his actions regarding Hercules’ deification, it being apparently within his gift (Book IX:211), and he, with other gods, can resolve the dispute over Athens between Minerva and Neptune (Book VI:70), while he can determine Persephone’s eventual fate (Book V:533) and can grant Aurora’s request to him, to commemorate her son Memnon (Book XIII:576). And there are many other interventions, apparently self-determined by Jupiter. So his role is ultimately perplexing, bound by the knot of necessity rather than the kiss of circumstance, and yet unbound: working the paths of destiny, as their visible presence, and yet himself determining the rights and wrongs of the situation.

The heroes are subject to the anger of the gods, and their desire for vengeance, they too are driven by destiny and overmastering fate. Ulysses is pursued by Neptune, driven across the face of the waters (Book XIV:223), Hercules (Book IX:1) and Aeneas (Book XIV:75) by Juno, forced to their labours and their journeys and their battles, so too the Greeks are pushed towards Troy by the web of destiny (Book XII:1), Achilles and Hector towards death and glory. Events or non-events, action or inaction, precipitate response. To neglect a god may be as bad as to compete with a god. Either path defies their supremacy. Merely to be born who one is, to be a love child of Jupiter, is enough to trigger the pattern of history: to make a decision as Paris has to, in favour of one goddess and to the detriment of others: or to retaliate against a god’s child as Ulysses does against Polyphemus. The gods are sensitive. The pattern will unfold, offence, anger, desire for revenge: intervention, and persecution.

van de Passe Illustration - Polyphemus devours the followers of Ulysses

‘Polyphemus devours the followers of Ulysses’

It is almost as bad to fail or offend a sorceress, a repository of female power, a face of the goddess. So Jason will bring Medea’s wrath upon himself (Book VII:350), and Hippolytus will suffer because of the attentions of Phaedra (Book XV:479).

The gods, goddesses and heroes, entangled in the extended story, in the tale of deeds, are enmeshed by destiny. It ties a rope around their necks, a sword-belt around their waists, it throws a net over them, holds them in the web of passion and desire. The heroes are driven by the demands of the future to create and to found cities, or to destroy them, to search for home or endure exile, to adventure or to settle. Cadmus founds Thebes, Perseus achieves marriage with Andromeda, Theseus destroys Cnossos, and Jason opens up the Black Sea trade routes. And the rope of destiny that binds is also a necklace: the necklace is a woman’s sex, or the circle of a marriage ring, the mouth of a birth canal, or the path to a crown: and the crown is the circuit of a realm, or the circling of a divine constellation.

Ovid is intrigued by the conflict of destiny and freedom, since all his instinct is for freedom, the freedom of the creative writer, and yet much of his life’s material is the ‘given’ of the novelist, the stories and the texture of society. Destiny is not his forte: he shies away from epic and tragedy. Neither satisfies his desire for lightness, joy, taste, judgement, moderation and appreciation. Beauty and love should escape inexorable truth. Ovid loves the resolution more than the horror. Hercules’ torment under the shirt of Nessus, Caesar’s death at the hands of the assassins, must give way to deification. Ovid never relishes the implacable fury of destiny. His lost tragedy was his ‘Medea’, but the story of Medea is not a tragedy in the strict sense. Ovid’s delight is in the visual, the telling image, the intricacies of feeling and response, in relationship, and not in its destruction wilful or otherwise. So Oedipus: Agamemnon and the house of Atreus: and the working out of the Trojan War, those arenas of intensity are only touched on in the Metamorphoses. True they do not play to the theme of metamorphosis, but that is in itself only the idea of change, and some material enters the work on the slenderest of pretexts. If he had so chosen he might have incorporated more of those dark doings. But Ovid’s later Roman world was moving towards a world of greater personal choice, of greater moral subtlety, and to values based on intimate personal relationship, even with the divine, as exemplified by Isis and Jesus. Destiny cannot be truly reconciled with moral choice, and the Greeks and Ovid puzzle over it. Religion involving deities always has to choose between gods of limited power allowing human freedom, or gods with complete power even the power to allow crime, or generate unmerited suffering. The first option leads to the concept of bounded gods who themselves suffer force and fate, in ways similar to humans, the Greek concept: the second option leads to the concept of gods who encompass guilt, cruelty and suffering beyond our comprehension, and therefore ultimately our sympathy, which is a Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Islamic concept. The gods are ultimately either impotent or immoral.

Nor can Destiny be reconciled with free will: that is the ability to generate actions through internal mental processes identifiable with the self and character. Either free will is allowed, and the gods have limited ability to foresee or control events and human decisions, the patterns of history are open: or the gods have total control, and events and internal human choice are pre-determined, in which case choice is an illusion and character is imposed on the self rather than developed. Ovid believed in education and learning, in development and creativity, in self-control and moderation, in character and personality, in degrees of freedom. It is a modern view. For us, from a scientific viewpoint, the future cannot be wholly determinate, even in principle (due to quantum indeterminacy), and is certainly not so in practice (due to its complexity and non-linearity), and the external world is therefore partially, but significantly, open and incomplete. More importantly, the result of our internal mental processes, our choices, is often mainly dependent on ourselves, on memory, knowledge, pre-disposition, capability: on character and personality: in other words, the world frequently comes to be through us, and not despite us, however much we may be influenced by external factors, or ‘programmed’ by our genetics and experience. As in the quantum world, even though, statistically, events and choices are often consistent with a pre-determined pattern of probabilities, individual events and choices have an inherent unpredictability, and tiny changes in quantity can make vast changes in quality, a tiny force can move a great lever; a single thought can move the world. Free will is the ability of the ‘self’ to be itself, to process information from within and without, not randomly, since that would be meaningless, but consistently. That set of processes is the self.

Clearly Ovid, as we do, accepts that chance and circumstance and character itself create patterns; that events can acquire a fateful character, a certain inexorable quality, running from inception through suffering to death or resolution, but it is less obvious that he accepts the idea of destiny, even that powerful concept of Roman destiny that gripped his society. There is often an ironic gleam in his eye, concerning the Empire, a playful and delightful smile at the corners of his mouth, even in darkest exile when it is most subdued, even in extremis. If he did concede the concept of destiny, it is not to the foremost in the Metamorphoses. Personality and character are far more important, in responding to chance and circumstance. Anticipating Shakespearean tragedy and the novel form generally in literature (there are, arguably, exceptions among the novelists, such as Hardy and Melville), Ovid’s protagonists are driven more by the nature of their circumstances and their own characters, by fate, rather than by ‘destiny’ in any of its forms. Without destiny to drive the mechanism, then ‘tragic’ art must rely on the concept of the flawed personality or flawed circumstances to create the seemingly inexorable nature of the tragic pattern. The modern ‘tragic’ protagonist is then simply one who is caught up in damaging events outside themselves, beyond their control, and perhaps exacerbated by their own failings.

So the Metamorphoses represent a world in transition, in a state of metamorphosis itself, even in Greek times, a transition from the concept of inevitable pattern within events, the world of Jupiter and Neptune, Juno and Demeter and Dis, the older gods, to a freer world of personal choice and loyalties, the world of Venus-Aphrodite and Apollo, of Mercury, Minerva and Bacchus-Dionysus, the younger gods. The older gods create the pattern for the heroes, but it is the younger ones who create incident and aid, who help and further, who pity and resolve the suffering caused. So necessity becomes relationship. So the noose and the net become the kiss and the free embrace. So destiny gives way to fate, and Nemesis to the unforeseen. Tragedy gives way to pathos, and sacrifice to repentance and regret.

The younger gods take on relationship with mortals, unlike the older gods. Jupiter is here and gone in a flash of lightning, crackling across the sky, striking the sacred oak, leaving ashes like a funeral pyre. Neptune swells, and his tumescent wave rolls over the girl, Mestra, on the shore (Book VIII:843), or he takes Medusa disguised as a sea-gull in the open portico of Minerva’s temple (Book IV:753). Then he slips away with the tide. Dis holds the struggling Proserpine in his arms, as he drives his chariot into the underworld. Here suddenly in the bright sunlight of Enna, then gone, from the living to the dead (Book V:385). But the younger gods become the affectionate lovers of mortals. Apollo of Hyacinthus (Book X:143), Venus of Adonis (Book X:503), Bacchus-Dionysus of Ariadne (Book VIII:152), Mercury of Chione, and her daughter Anticleia (Book XI:266Book XIII:123). The relationship between god and mortal is deeper, subtler. Now the gods too are more vulnerable, to love, to pity, to Eros-Cupid, to chance and misfortune. Hyacinthus, and Adonis are accidentally killed (though their deaths relate to older myths of divinity and its consort). Apollo and Venus weep over the bodies of the beloved. The transience of mortal life is obvious, and no sacrifice or catharsis, no prayer or invocation can evade time and death. In the marketplace at Athens, says Pausanias (Book I.17.1), ‘is the Altar of Pity, not known to everyone.’ It is the ancient altar of the Twelve Gods, excavated on the north edge of the Agora.

van de Passe Illustration - Neptune rapes Caenis

‘Neptune rapes Caenis’

Does Ovid believe in the Underworld, a destined place of retribution or bliss, in the region beyond death? Aeneas’ visit to the shades is brief to the point of reticence (Book XIV:101). Ovid is more interested, in that passage, in the Sibyl’s error, in asking for eternal life but not eternal youth, so that she is doomed therefore to become a mere oracular sound, speaking from the shadows, ‘the fates will bequeath me a voice’. Pythagoras teaches instead the transmigration of souls (Book XV:143) ‘why fear the Styx, why fear the ghosts and empty names, the stuff of poets, the spectres of a phantom world?…Souls are free from death.’ Perhaps Ovid shared that belief. Did he come to metempsychosis through working on the Metamorphoses or did the idea of the book of changes come to him from the idea of repetition, of survival, of spiritual transformation? The life after death is as questionable to him, perhaps, as the reality of destiny. The necessary is not necessarily good. Ovid appreciates the Roman project, civilisation for the world, appreciates it even more when he is exiled from it on the borders of Scythia, and so he endorses the Roman destiny, a popular sentiment. Perhaps he convinced himself it was so. He does not however write the epic of Augustus.

van de Passe Illustration - Cipus approaching Rome

‘Cipus approaching Rome’

The age of the heroes is brief, caught between the older myths and the world of late Athens and early Rome . When it is over, destiny and myth have worked themselves through. Now there is history and circumstance, character and event. Athens and Rome are the modern world in embryo. Ovid is already a master of nostalgia, of the idyllic dream, looking back to the charm of the past, to the sun-drenched, or sea-misted landscapes of an earlier world, a world that never was, just as much as the Homeric poets looked back to an earlier Greece, or the Medieval world to the Magical Court of King Arthur. The best that we can imagine never exists except within the kingdoms of our own thoughts. Is it a true thread the gods spin, words that tell the tale ‘from the world’s first origins to my own time’, or were these things that never happened, but are delightful to speak of? By implication, perhaps a mischievous implication, the Rome of Augustus (Book XV:843), is also a mythical Rome, the one that never existed, as opposed to the one that does exist? Ovid ends the Metamorphoses quickly in what is a formal invocation of Roman greatness, avoiding too much of the required sycophancy. Faithful to himself, Ovid’s attempts to conform, even in the darkest of the poems from exile, are transparent. There is always a little golden, laughing imp dancing in the light behind the words.