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 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). An epic should be a deadly serious undertaking, needless to say.
Well, 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 I think it’s a tremendously silly moment. It features the crow recounting how she came to lose her status to the owl as the goddess Athena/Minerva’s favoured bird (for revealing that Cecrops’ daughters had seen the child Ericthonius in a chest that was not supposed to be opened); and also (since she is talkative to a fault) how she had earlier been transformed from a human into a crow by Minerva to protect her from assault by Neptune/Poseidon. 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 gives us a name for the pre-metamorphosis crow, but that I believed that this silence provided him 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, she found herself spurned by Minerva in favour of the owl; after that she describes her own transformation from human to bird. Subsequently the raven does inform Apollo, Apollo shoots Coronis dead with an arrow, regrets it (yeah, yeah), and in anger at the tale-telling turns the previously white raven jet-black .
This is already pretty convoluted, 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 the crow (in Latin cornix; in Greek κορώνη/corone). Meanwhile the crow (cornix, κορώνη/corone), in the course of her story, drops in the name of her human father, Coroneus (569). This detail seems to be 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. So we have 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.
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 was to be found.)
What I’m suggesting, in any case, is that Ovid constructs a confusing narrative situation, somewhat indebted to Callimachus and built on an existing human confusion between indistinguishable birds, and deliberately exacerbates it through a play with names. (Incidentally, it’s typical of Ovid that the effect hangs simultaneously on something so refined as a sophisticated understanding of myth and literary history, and something so universal as the inability to distinguish a crow from a raven.) 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 (cf. Pindar, Pyth. 3.5-46 as well as Callimachus). 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”, 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 the 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 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. The joke is its own justification. Here, Ovid mischievously brings into collision readily confused birds, and myths, 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 reading of the Metamorphoses, this is exactly what this poet is regularly aiming to inflict on his readers, preferably provoking them to laugh at the same time — and when the crow’s father is revealed to be called Coroneus, we really should be laughing.
I would love to be able to see a way of relating Coronis and [Coronis] to the symbol, yet another thing called “coronis”, which marked the end of an ancient book (Ovid is very interested in the physical actuality of his book rolls), but that is eluding me. Nevertheless, if we do lose our bearings in this story, 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.
A. Barchiesi, Ovidio, Metamorfosi, Vol. 1: Libri I-II (Milan, 2005);
D. E. Hill, Ovid, Metamorphoses I-IV (Warminster, 1985);
A. M. Keith, The Play of Fictions: Studies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 2 (Ann Arbor, 1992);
A. S. Hollis, Callimachus, Hecale (Oxford, 1990);
My Ovid: A Very Short Introduction is edging ever closer to publication, and I’ve been blogging snippets as I’ve gone along. Here’s a final thought on the subject of Iphis and Ianthe, the intensely satisfying story that concludes Metamorphoses IX. (It has been brilliantly retold, relocated to a mildly surreal but very contemporary Scotland, by Ali Smith in Girl Meets Boy.)
The story of Iphis and Ianthe, first of all. Iphis’ father has told his pregnant wife Telethusa that if her child should prove to be a girl she must not be allowed to live. But the goddess Isis appears to Telethusa in a dream and orders her to disobey her husband and raise the child whatever the gender. Iphis is born a girl, but raised by Telethusa as a boy, and her husband never becomes aware of her deceit. Iphis is betrothed to a girl named Ianthe, and they are deeply in love with each other. But Iphis (and Telethusa) live in dread of the marriage day when their secret will be revealed, to Ianthe as well as to Iphis’ father. A desperate appeal by Telethusa to Isis follows, and when Iphis and her mother emerge from the goddess’ temple, a metamorphosis has occurred:
sequitur comes Iphis euntem
quam solita est maiore gradu nec candor in ore
permanet et uires augentur et acrior ipse est
uultus et incomptis brevior mensura capillis,
plusque uigoris adest habuit quam femina. nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es!
“Iphis follows her mother closely as she goes/ with a stride larger than usual, and the whiteness is no longer/ on her face. Her strength increases, and her very features/ are sharper, and her hair shorter and untidy:/ she has more vigor than she had as a woman. For you who/ were just now a woman, are a boy!”
Iphis and Ianthe, now boy and girl, are married, and so the tale ends.
But why do I call this narrative intensely satisfying? Well, partly because a love story that faces an insurmountable challenge but achieves unexpected resolution and eventuates in a happy marriage answers a few of the requirements of the archetypal narrative plot, and Ovid structures and paces his story to perfection (Ovid is aside from anything else a superb storyteller). Latin also has the resources, in Ovid’s hands at least, to end the story with the two names “Iphis Ianthe” lying next to each other in the last two words of the book.
Partly that, then, but, at the risk of appearing hopelessly cold and donnish, what I like more than anything about this story is how it plays with poetic form. This can perhaps be forgiven the author of a whole book on Roman metrical form, and here in Met. IX there’s a metrical dimension to things, as I’ll explain. But the form I have more in mind is that imposed by book divisions. Metamorphoses has fifteen books in modern editions, and that corresponds to an ancient text divided into fifteen separate uolumina or book rolls (the young man in the image at the top is holding a uolumen). A physical multi-book poem in antiquity would thus have been a great deal more cumbersome than a modern paperback, but so also would the reader’s experience of passing from book to book. The end of Book I and beginning of Book II of the Metamorphoses was not simply a matter of turning the page, but putting aside (and potentially also rewinding) one roll and then locating the next among fourteen others.
Ovid, a poet ever alert to the mechanics of composition (and of reading), has lots of fun with the ends and beginnings of his books, in particular avoiding Virgil’s practice in the Aeneid of tying up an episode tidily in one book. More typical of Ovid’s approach is the end of the previous book, Book VIII, where the horned river god Achelous points to a horn he is missing from his forehead, but we have to wait until Book IX to learn how he lost it in combat with Hercules and how it became the Cornucopia. (Horns proliferate at the end of Ovid’s books, and it’s something to do with the fact that the cornua, “horns”, were the ends of the stick around which books were rolled, and “rolled out right to its horns” was synonymous with “read right to the end”, see Martial 11.107.1: Ovid wants us to be very clear what he is doing with these bookends.) The disorderliness that this lack of respect for book divisions brings to Ovid’s narrative is one of many ways in which Ovid allows the principle of instability, intrinsic to a work about change, to seep into every aspect of the poem.
But if books have a habit of not ending the way they should, it can be a metamorphically disruptive move to do the opposite, too. Alternatively, there’s no more satisfying a conclusion than one that comes after a string of indecisive examples. The story of Iphis and Ianthe is the last story of Book IX, and with its conclusion the book also ends: “Iphis Ianthe” are the final words of the book, as I’ve mentioned. That conclusion, as I’ve also suggested, is heavily underlined in other ways: a narrative neatly wrapped up, a wedding, the newly-weds tucked up in bed. But in formal terms, too, Book IX of the Metamorphoses ends in a very, very conventional way. In fact I’d say that there’s no other book in the Metamorphoses that concludes quite so tidily and conclusively, with the necessary exception of the very last, Book XV.
To make explicit an extra point on form that’s been hovering about the discussion so far, this satisfactory closure operates at a macro and a micro level. On the one hand there is strong narrative resolution coinciding with the end of a book roll; on the other we have the very last line of the book, conueniunt, potiturque sua puer Iphis Ianthe, where the names of the lovers fit to perfection the cadence of the line, the “adoneus” or dum-di-di-dum-dum which ends most hexameter lines, and which in Latin feels most conclusive when, as here, word accent shadows rhythm, Íphis Iánthe.
When I find Iphis and Ianthe such a thoroughly satisfying story, then, it’s partly because at this point everything about the narrative, down to the relation of that narrative to its physical vehicle, the book roll, and even to the placement of words in the verse end, is just tickety-boo.
A seasonal blog about how heroes die. Draw your own conclusions about my state of mind at the end of 2018.
One of the most celebrated/notorious episodes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the Calydonian boar hunt in Book VIII (270-444), and it typifies Ovid’s irreverent approach to epic narrative. An impressive band of heroes (Theseus, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Laertes, Nestor and many more: the generation before the Iliad, so in principle even more heroic than Achilles, Ajax or Odysseus) gathers together to help Meleager deal with a monstrous boar that is wreaking havoc in Calydon, but Ovid turns material that might make a very acceptable epic narrative into a “boisterous comedy”, in Nicholas Horsfall’s words.* Telamon trips over a tree root, for example, and Nestor polevaults onto a branch. Most outrageously of all, it is a woman, Atalanta, who shows most physical prowess, drawing first blood from the boar.
Ovid’s approach to writing epic, in simple terms, is not to do what an epic is supposed to do, but at the same time constantly remind us what a respectable epic should be doing. An essential characteristic of epic, perhaps its quintessential quality, is its masculinity, its concern with males who are more male than ordinary males and excel in stereotypically male activities, warfare and violent physical activity especially, but also forceful speech and charismatic leadership. Promoting a female character at the expense of the male suits Ovid’s aims perfectly: the prominence in Ovid’s telling of this myth of a woman huntress, alongside male heroes falling far short of the heroic ideal, strikes epic at its core.
Which brings us to the business of this blog. Ancaeus is another hero who meets a humiliating end in the course of the boar hunt, but his mode of death is particularly meaningful. An exaggeratedly male, bombastic hero, wielding a double axe, Ancaeus responds to Atalanta’s success by commanding his comrades to stand back and “Learn how far men’s weapons surpass women’s,/ and make way for my action” (discite femineis quid tela uirilia praestent/ o iuuenes, operique meo concedite, 392-3), before being peremptorily despatched by the boar with a blow from both tusks in the groin. There is nothing coincidental about the location of Ancaeus’ terminal wound. As I wrote a few years ago,** citing Adams’ seminal reference work The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (p. 93 n. 3), “tela, uirilia, and opus are all terms regularly used of the penis, and ‘there was a marked tendency for adjectives of the base femin- to be applied… to the female parts.'” Alternative translations of operique meo concedite may suggest themselves. But if epic is all about uirtus, “manhood”, this caricature of an epic hero dies a death that encapsulates Ovid’s contrarian attitude to the genre he’s supposed to be writing.
My mind turned back to poor Ancaeus a couple of weeks ago when preparing a MOOC for my old student Chris Tudor (Massolit is a great resource, incidentally, which I enthusiastically recommend). I was talking about Aeneid XI, and one of my lectures was on Camilla, the female warrior whose exploits occupy the latter part of the book (and who is a key model for Ovid’s Atalanta). Here also we find an epic investigating its own gender biases, but Virgil’s poem is altogether more conventional in this respect than Ovid’s. Camilla is a formidable warrior, dominating the battlefield and seeing off a number of male antagonists (aduenit qui uestra dies muliebribus armis/ uerba redargueret, “the day has come for a woman’s weapons to refute your words”, she vaunts over one victim, 687-8). But her death is occasioned by a dramatic reversion to (a stereotype of) conventional female behaviour: Alison Keith^ talks of “a Greco-Roman stereotype regarding women’s excessive interest in clothing and personal adornment” (p. 29). Distracted by the sight of a gorgeously bedecked Trojan priest called Chloreus, Camilla forgets her military priorities and goes in pursuit, burning “with a womanly desire for plunder and spoils” (782). Her defences down, Camilla is easily picked off by a nonentity called Arruns (whose own, weirdly anonymous, death shortly after is one of the eeriest passages in the Aeneid).
Camilla’s death seems in some respects like a crude replay of Dido’s departure from Virgil’s epic. In a similar way, a woman’s presence in this overwhelmingly male space of epic is condoned for as long as she acts like a stereotypical man, in Dido’s case as a head of state and dux, in Camilla’s as a fighter. But when women start to behave like (the ancient stereotype of) women, falling in love, acting and speaking irrationally, indulging their own selfish interests, distracted by beautiful superficialities, their time in epic is limited.
Of course Virgil, in this as in other respects, was well able to exploit the rigid generic expectations he inherited by contravening the rules for effect, and the intrinsic power of these female characters derives not least from their anomalous status in epic. “Ce qui fait l’expressivité, c’est la règle enfreinte”, as Joseph Hellegouarc’h^^ succinctly expressed it: classical literature is rule-bound, but drew much of its power of expression from that very fact. Ultimately, however, Virgil’s treatment of women in the Aeneid cannot fail but represent an endorsement of the misogyny enshrined in epic poetry, the most culturally authoritative of ancient poetic genres.
Returning to topic, a case in point is the detail that reminded me so strongly of Ancaeus, another mortal blow delivered in a significant location. Arruns’ spear strikes Camilla below her “exposed breast” (exserta papilla, 803): Camilla is portrayed as dressed for the fight like an Amazon, one breast uncovered, the archetypal ancient image of a fighting woman. (What made this the archetypal image is worth contemplating: see Adrienne Mayor,^* Chapter 5.) Again, the death of a warrior, and the location of the terminal wound, defines the character of the poem, Virgil’s conventional epic focusing on Camilla’s gender as she exits the poem, as Ovid had highlighted Ancaeus’s.
But what imperils those tidy categories just a little bit is the episode that immediately precedes Camilla’s death, again foregrounding gender/genre-defining concerns and indeed clearly setting the scene for what follows. The Etruscan leader Tarchon, mythical founder of Virgil’s hometown Mantua, rallies his cavalry against Camilla’s by hurling himself into the heart of the enemy forces, actually seizing hold of one of them, Venulus, and carrying him off bodily on his own horse. It is a spectacular exercise in male bravado: Tarchon grapples with Venulus while still on horseback, snapping off the point of Venulus’ spear and trying to drive it into his opponent’s throat. And as he gallops forward Tarchon berates his own men for their effeminacy in failing to resist Camilla. femina palantis agit atque haec agmina uertit?, 734, “Is a woman driving you off in disorder and routing these ranks?!”, he asks incredulously.
Virgil sums up this peculiar scene in a very suggestive way: uolat igneus aequore Tarchon,/ arma uirumque ferens, “Tarchon flies like fire over the plain, bearing the man and his weapons”, 746-7. Arma uirum, “Arms and the man”, deliberately recalls the opening words (and alternative title) of the Aeneid, and the central role it promises for the uir, the heroic man, the embodiment of uirtus. Back in Book 9 the Latin warrior Numanus Remulus in a vaunting speech had dismissed the Trojans as eastern effeminates, and there also the poet had implied that “toxic masculinity” was of the essence of his own poem: sinite arma uiris et cedite ferro, Numanus tells the Trojans, “Leave weapons to the men, and renounce the sword” (Aen. 9.620). “Virgil’s readers will take sinite arma uiris in the further sense of a command to leave the world of martial epic”, Philip Hardie comments.*^ Epic is male territory. If the Trojans are indeed inadequately male, as Numanus suggests, they have no role to play in it.
Well, Virgil’s narrative enacts a similar judgement on Camilla and Dido, expelling them when they start acting too much like women. But it is well said that Ovid finds almost all the material he needs to mock epic values already present in conventional examples of the genre like the Aeneid, working on details in Virgil or Homer that threaten the clear-cut definitions epic aspires to project. Ovid fashions Atalanta from Virgil’s Camilla, but Tarchon isn’t so different from Ancaeus, either. The hyperbole that makes Tarchon a character worthy of epic, superhuman and extraordinary, is also what makes Ancaeus’ overblown antics so absurd. What distinguishes the two is not much more than the license Ovid gives us to laugh at his creations (there is much of great value in the Aeneid, but very few laughs). Tarchon’s exploit carries a hint of the ritual of devotio, the last word in Roman military heroics whereby a general ensured victory by hurling himself into the midst of the enemy and vowing himself and the enemy to the gods of the underworld (for Tarchon and devotio see Matthew Leigh in this volume of Proceedings of the Virgil Society),^*^ which is a further disincentive to laugh at him.
Once again, though, especially if we happen to writing a chapter about it, we can say thank God for the Metamorphoses, and Ovid’s acute sense of the instability of epic bluster. After reading Ovid on Ancaeus, certainly, it’s hard to take Tarchon very seriously.
The Latin for “toxic masculinity”, by the way, is temeraria uirtus (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.407).
^A. M. Keith, Engendering Rome: women in Latin epic (Cambridge, 2000);
*^P. R. Hardie, Virgil, Aeneid Book IX (Cambridge, 1994);
^*A. Mayor, The Amazons: lives and legends of warrior women across the ancient world (Princeton, 2014);
*N. Horsfall, “Epic and burlesque in Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII,” CJ 74 (1979), 319-32;
^*^M. Leigh, “Hopelessly devoted to you: traces of the Decii in Virgil’s Aeneid,” PVS 21 (1993), 89-110;
^^J. Hellegouarc’h, Le monosyllabe dans l’hexamètre latin; essai de métrique verbale (Paris, 1964);
**Ll. Morgan, “Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” JRS 93 (2003), 66-91.
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