Third installment on Ovid’s Metamorphoses
I left the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by saying (as I often do) that, in literature, context is everything. We can’t really grasp the significance of Ovid’s version of the Great Flood unless we consider it in the context of the poem as a whole. So what is this poem really about? How does the early episode that recounts the Great Flood contribute to the overall meaning, and how does the overall meaning color the significance of the Flood account?
The constancy of change
The title hints at the poem’s meaning. Metamorphoses covers all of history (and prehistory), starting with the creation of the world and ending in Ovid’s present day. What might seem, upon a first reading, a rather aimless stitching together of innumerable ancient myths is actually a very careful selection which is tied together by a single commonality: the metamorphoses themselves, one thing being changed into another. Most of these metamorphoses show the gods turning human beings into various non-human things – dolphins, trees, stars, you name it. And why do they do this? In large part, because gods are selfish, possessive – and immortal. When a god desires permanent possession of a mortal person, he (or she) can achieve that permanence only through change – by turning the unfortunate mortal object of his desire into something that can never die. In other words, the key to permanence is change itself.
In case we have missed this point, in the final segment of the poem, King Numa, the successor of Romulus, the founder of Rome, listens to a long lecture by Pythagoras on the idea that flux (change) is the principle on which the whole cosmos is founded: things change into other things. Living things turn into dead things, the dead things decay (more change), the seasons change, everything changes. (The gods may be immortal, but they change their minds constantly.) Change is the one constant in the universe. Numa absorbs this lesson and returns to Rome, changed by the experience, a wiser man for having listened to Pythagoras. Then one king is changed for another, and so on through history, until Julius Caesar himself is murdered in the Senate and gets changed into a god (also a shooting star).
Putting kingship into perspective
This brings us to another theme emphasized in the final two books of the poem, the question of kingship (which, coincidentally, also preoccupied the writer of the Epic of Gilgamesh). Book XIV ends with the death and apotheosis of Rome’s founder, Romulus, while XV ends with the death and divinization of his eventual successor (700 years later), Julius Caesar. Julius, of course, was the adoptive father of the man who came to be known as Caesar Augustus, ruler of Rome in Ovid’s day. There was every expectation that Augustus might also claim divinity, perhaps even before his death. (I said a bit more about this in this post.)
But would this be a good thing, for Rome or for Augustus? Perhaps not. Becoming a god means no longer being a man – which creates a vacancy in the ruler’s seat. Both Romulus and Julius Caesar disappeared at the moment they were assumed into the pantheon of the gods, thereby creating political and social instability – the last thing Ovid’s contemporaries wanted, after thirty years of bloody civil war. The poem ends with what seems to be praise of Augustus, but is actually a rather ominous warning. The poet says, in effect, “And now Augustus is ruler! The gods only know how long it will be until he, too, leaves earth to assume his place in the heavens. Let’s hope that he has a long reign before that happens.”
So the poem leaves us thinking about both the constancy of change and the ephemeral nature of kingship. In the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, you should recall, Utnapishtim warned King Gilgamesh against desiring to be made immortal like the gods. Gilgamesh had to be content with “immortalizing” himself by creating works that would long outlive him, giving him undying fame. Ovid’s warning, although less direct than Utnapishtim’s, seems more foreboding: “You want to be a god and lord it over Rome, Augustus? Just remember that the price of godhood is to surrender your manhood; the gateway into the pantheon of the immortals is death.”
The Great Flood and the metamorphosis of the human race
So this is what the poem says: the cosmos is ruled by gods who, if they take a shine to you, are likely to turn you into something you don’t want to be just so they can hang onto you. And the world is ruled by kings who like to think they are gods. The good thing about kings is that they come – and they go. Things change – if things seem bad now, they might be better in a bit (and vice versa).
This view, which pervades the poem, provides the context for Ovid’s account of the Great Flood, which shows how incredibly fickle the immortal gods can be: one minute they are basking in the worship of mortal man, the next minute they are destroying every living thing because one man behaved badly. To this extent, the Graeco-Roman gods are not very different from those in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
But the significance of the flood story lies in what makes it distinctive, not in the ways it resembles the earlier account The most distinctive feature of Ovid’s flood story, it seems to me, is the way in which the human race is renewed afterward. The only two survivors, Deucalion and Pyrrha, are too old to procreate, but they despair at the thought of being the last people on Earth. So with divine help they create sons and daughters by flinging “the bones of their Mother [Earth]” over their shoulders. These are stones, which then undergo a metamorphosis from stone into flesh and bone. Lest we overlook the significance of this, Ovid points it out: “So the toughness of our race, our ability to endure hard labour, and the proof we give of the source from which we are sprung.”
This toughness and durability allows mankind to endure all the inevitable chances and changes of life. The rest of the poem illustrates just how constant these changes are. If Ovid seems to end the poem with a warning to Caesar Augustus, the King-Who-Would-Be-God, his message to the rest of us mere mortals is more encouraging: “We are tough, we can endure whatever life throws at us. Be strong, endure. In the eternal flux of the cosmos, this is what makes us who we are.”
Coming up: the Biblical account of the Great Flood
Now that we have taken a good look at the stories of the Great Flood in pagan literature, I hope we will be able to see the Biblical account in Genesis with fresh eyes, so that we can discern the significant ways in which the Bible story differs from these others.
This post originally appeared on my literature blog, A Catholic Reader.
If you would like to read the entire series so far on the Great Flood in Literature, you’ll find all the installments so far here.