Archive | May 2021

I’d like to report a murder

What follows is inspired by a question I was asked by my wonderfully talented friend N, but it illustrates a view of Ovid that I presented early in my very short book on the poet as his congenital inability to resist a good joke — a persistent feature of his poetry and arguably, ultimately, a blight on his life.

Ovid’s weakness for the flippant is something that sharply divides opinion about the poet among scholars today (many of my colleagues have absolutely no time for him), but it irritated ancient critics, too. Lasciuus quidem in herois quoque Ouidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen in partibus, Quintilian asserted sniffily (10.1.89): “Ovid lacked seriousness even in epic and was too much a fan of his own talent, though praiseworthy in parts.” The epic that Quintilian is referring to is Ovid’s masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, and the verb lasciuire, with that same sense of being flippant and immature, is used by Seneca the Younger of Ovid’s flood narrative in the first book of the poem, a serious subject (in the philosopher’s view) ill served by Ovid’s playful treatment (Natural Questions 3.27.14). Epics (and such grand epic themes as global floods) should be deadly serious undertakings, needless to say.

Quintilian, Seneca and my colleagues raise an important point, the key element of it encapsulated by one colleague who put it to me “that if we take seriously the possibility that great poetry could improve us”, we must wonder also whether Ovid’s unremitting puckishness might not have the opposite effect. In Ovid’s case, and this is a sign of the paradoxical sophistication of his playfulness, the poetry is mischievous but also self-consciously celebrates its mischievousness: non ignorauit uitia sua sed amauit, as Seneca the Elder put it (Contr. 2.2.12), “he was not unaware of his faults, in fact he loved them.” On this question I found it useful reading up on the philosophy of humour at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where John Morreall’s discussion certainly chimed with my own hunch that humour is an essential part of thriving as a human — and as such also, it seems to me, a valid, and edifying, characteristic of a literary composition.

Humour is a form of play, in Morreall’s account, and as beneficial as a necessary release from serious, pragmatic activity as playing squash or football. The difference is that humour is intellectual rather than physical play, but what both forms of play also have in common is the exercise they provide, under circumstances where no serious consequences will eventuate, in physical and intellectual resilience. “In the humorous frame of mind, we experience, think about, or even create something that violates our understanding of how things are supposed to be. But we suspend the personal, practical concerns that lead to negative emotions, and enjoy the oddness of what it occurring” (Morreall p. 35). Laughter, the characteristic accompaniment to the humorous, brings well-recognised physiological benefits, it is worth adding, and laughter also, as Morreall insists, enforces our sociability, the essence of our humanity, since we laugh much more often with others than alone. Humour enhances our thinking, therefore, and also our interaction with other people.

What N asked me about was a passage in Metamorphoses Book 2 which happens to be one of my favourites. This is despite the fact — OK, directly consequent upon the fact — that it represents a tremendously silly moment even by the standards of this poet and this poem. The passage is complex (more on this below), but features the Crow offering advice to the Raven based on her own past experience, and then explaining how she had been transformed by the goddess Minerva/Athena from human to crow. N’s question to me was, What was the name of that woman who had been turned by Minerva into the Crow, since Ovid never provides it?

My answer was that neither Ovid nor any other ancient author seems to give us a name for the pre-metamorphosis Crow, but that I believed that this silence provided Ovid with a golden opportunity to indulge that deplorable lack of seriousness Quintilian was talking about.

Let’s look at this passage a little more closely, because Ovid seems quite determined to make it as difficult as possible for his readers to follow. In particular, he introduces the autobiography of the Crow in the context of a really quite similar story about the Raven, and it’s a reasonable assumption that Romans found it as hard to distinguish these corvids as we typically do. As anticipated, furthermore, Ovid is far from clear and transparent about names.

Here is a summary (Met. 2.531-634):

The Raven is flying off to inform Apollo that the god’s lover Coronis, mother of Asclepius, is being unfaithful with a mortal man, but is waylaid en route by the Crow, who shares with the Raven her own backstory, specifically how, by telling tales in exactly the way the Raven is planning to do (in the Crow’s case by revealing that Cecrops’ daughters had seen the child Ericthonius in a chest that was not supposed to be opened), she found herself spurned by Minerva in favour of the owl; after that (for she is still talkative to a fault) the Crow describes how Minerva had transformed her from human to bird to protect her from an assault by Neptune/Poseidon. Subsequently the Raven does inform Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity, Apollo shoots his lover dead with an arrow, repents too late, and in anger at the tale-telling that provoked his own violence (Gods are rarely exemplary figures in the Metamorphoses) turns the previously white Raven jet-black.

This is already a pretty convoluted narrative, but the names take it to another level. The Raven (in Latin, coruus; in Greek, κόραξ/corax) is telling tales about Apollo’s lover Coronis, whose name suggests a crow (in Latin cornix; in Greek κορώνη/corone). But then, in the course of her story, the Crow (cornix, κορώνη/corone) drops in the name of her human father, Coroneus (569). This detail seems to be a pure invention on Ovid’s part, but given that “Coroneus” also suggests the Greek word for “crow”, κορώνη/corone, it is appropriate for the Crow’s father, and if we are, like N, wondering what this woman was called, Corone or Coronis are strongly implied both by her father’s name and the fact that she becomes a crow, corone. So Ovid presents us with two parallel stories associated with similar-looking birds who both talk too much, but we also have one heroine called Coronis and another apparently called Corone/Coronis.

Confused? So you should be. And a reminder that a lot of the confusion is deliberately sown by means of that invented name Coroneus — deliberately sown by the poet.

Now it should be said that we’d get even more out of this passage if we had the mini-epic Hecale of Ovid’s great Greek model Callimachus. One reason we don’t have it, as Adrian Hollis explains in his edition of the poem’s surviving fragments* (p. 40), is a bunch of marauding Frankish crusaders who sacked Athens in 1205 and as they did so quite possibly destroyed the last surviving complete copy of the work. One had apparently existed in the library, likely on the Acropolis itself, of Michael Choniates, Archbishop of Athens. In the course of Callimachus’ poem, in any case (the evidence now mainly coming in papyri from Egypt), there was a scene, possibly immediately after the death of the title character Hecale, that involved a crow (κορώνη/corone) telling another bird about Ericthonius, possibly again with a view to dissuading the other bird from sharing the unwelcome news of Hecale’s death. Callimachus’ crow then went on to prophesy (crows being considered both very old and prophetic creatures) that the raven (κόραξ/corax) would one day be turned from white to black for telling Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity (fragments 70-74 Hollis, although frs. 75-7 may also be spoken by the crow). Clearly Ovid owes a lot to Callimachus, then, and while piecing together fragmentary texts is a confusing exercise at the best of times, I suspect that Callimachus was already in the game of writing a narrative involving the punishment of too many corvids, and deliberately making it tricky for his readers to disentangle.

(Incidentally, this is all, as Hollis remarks, deeply poignant, as the myth of the crow’s rejection was supposed to explain why crows avoided the Athenian Acropolis, where it is possible that the very last complete copy of Hecale had ended its existence.)

But it’s Ovid and his irrepressible sense of humour we are concerned with, and here he does a recognisably comic and silly thing, constructing a confusing narrative, somewhat indebted to Callimachus and built on an existing human confusion between indistinguishable birds, and purposefully exacerbated through a play with names. In particular he strongly encourages his readers to supply a name for one heroine, by naming her father Coroneus, which will be indistinguishable from that of another very famous heroine (for Coronis the mother of Asclepius cf. Pindar, Pyth. 3.5-46 as well as Callimachus and Ovid). I’ll come back to this latter idea, but some further evidence first that I’m not alone in being confused by Ovid’s corvid narrative. When Chaucer in The Manciple’s Tale retells the story of Apollo and Coronis, it is a “crowe”, not a raven, that tells the tale and suffers a change in plumage. Edgar Allan Poe, meanwhile, in a reasonably famous poem associates a raven bringing news of some mysterious kind with a bust of Pallas Athena, not Apollo. Sir James Frazer struggles with what is a very complex web of stories even before Ovid gets hold of them, and suggests a deeper mythical kinship between Athena/crow and Apollo/raven.

Donald Hill’s commentary* on this passage gets what I think is going on by not getting it, I would respectfully suggest. He comments on 569:

Coroneus: not otherwise known, but the name was presumably chosen to encourage the reader to supply for the name of the crow herself the Greek word for that bird, ‘Corone’. Her name is certainly not ‘Coronis’, as in the plot summaries of some medieval manuscripts and renaissance editions, for that would produce intolerable confusion.

Those are my italics. But to put Hill’s argument another way, Ovid has successfully provoked lots of medieval and Renaissance (and no doubt ancient) readers to supply the name “Coronis” for the Crow as well as Apollo’s doomed lover, but that can’t be right as it would be far too confusing. Alison Keith*, in a clever and detailed treatment of the passage in the context of the whole book, reads the overlapping parallels between Ovid’s crow and raven narratives as supporting in various ways a characterisation of their encounter — not as intolerably confusing, then, but as complexity with a coherent narrative purpose. There’s every chance she’s right, but I find myself closer to Alessandro Barchiesi*, who’s more inclined to see the complexity, our feeling as readers of the Metamorphoses that we have lost our way, as an end in itself for Ovid. The watchword with Ovid’s poem, I’ve suggested, is its lasciuia, frivolousness, mischief, indiscipline. Here, Ovid mischievously brings into collision readily confused birds, and myths (it is typical of Ovid that the joke depends on something as universal as confusion about corvids, and something so sophisticated as a deep knowledge of myth), and caps that confusion by drawing us to conclude that both myths centre round women who share the very same name. Far from “intolerable confusion” being a reason to resist a particular interpretation of the Metamorphoses, such confusion is exactly what this poet is regularly aiming to inflict on readers of his poem.

Now, the matter of humour has dropped out of sight somewhat, but it can be amusing to read an increasingly convoluted story, and Ovid’s casual inclusion of the name of the Crow’s father, Coroneus, leaving us to draw the implication about her name, is brilliantly witty. If we do lose our bearings in this story (and laugh as we do so), in any case, I’m confident that we’re doing what Ovid wanted us to do. It’s hyper-sophisticated, it’s thoroughly daft (lasciuus), and (for good or ill) it’s Ovid through-and-through.

But am I wrong to be quite convinced that my life is enriched — that I am improved — by spending time with this brilliant silliness?

A. Barchiesi, Ovidio, Metamorfosi, Vol. 1: Libri I-II (Milan, 2005);

A. M. Keith, The Play of Fictions: Studies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 2 (Ann Arbor, 1992);

D. E. Hill, Ovid, Metamorphoses I-IV (Warminster, 1985);

A. S. Hollis, Callimachus, Hecale (Oxford, 1990);

The source of the illustration at the top is here.