Ovid's Movement From Mythology
The True Intent of 'The Metamorphoses of Ovid'
Through great minds we receive great intellect, but furthermore, greater comprehension of cultural diversity throughout periodical works. We gain the ancient stories of the fulfillment of destinies and the divine interactions interconnecting gods and goddesses with mortal endeavors. We have the privilege to witness what history books do not have the time to divulge: raw evidence of an evolving people beyond invention, but reaching to a higher power, a religious upbringing of a culture constantly seeking the ultimate. While most works focus on the geographical religion of their time, Ovid writes an epic which breaks this model by diminishing the gods and moving towards the glorification of a Roman Empire standing on the foundation of its people, not the chaos of the gods.
The Metamorpheses is an epic poem illustrating the transformations gods inflicted upon mortals, but Ovid’s central claim digs deeper than anecdotal story-telling; Ovid strengthens the Roman Empire by stating they can, and will, thrive without the gods' unnecessary antagonization the mortals are constantly pestered by for the entirety of their existence. This ideal becomes indisputable with each metamorphosis—being a change in the body, not the hard-driven Roman soul—and the final corollary of Ovid’s eventual immortality for his work in revealing the futile codependency the Romans have on the gods. Ovid urges the Romans to repel the gods' unedifying nature by focusing solely on rectifying the Roman Empire through analyzing the relationship between mortals and immortals, specifically, the wrathful hindrance the gods are to the Roman Empire. It is in this very nature the gods become a story-telling mystique rather than a belief system and Ovid furthers the exaltation of Rome.
A Life Without The Roman Gods
Ovid aims to influence the Roman people that they do not need the gods to succeed, but rather, self-reliance is the most important in helping their empire to flourish. This is seen throughout the epic when a mortal is wrongly persecuted by a god, to which the god claims is “their will.” Ovid mocks the Romans for idolizing the gods despite such great wrongs they are afflicting on their brethren. While Ovid carries this ideal seamlessly throughout each apologue, it is best seen in his in the opening lines of the epic:
My soul would sing of metamorphoses.But since, o gods, you were the source of thesebodies becoming other bodies, breatheyour breath into my book of changes maythe song I sing be seamless as its wayweaves from the world’s beginning to our day.
These lines actively represent the notion that it is the gods who are doing the horrific acts that follow. Ovid is simply compiling them so the average Roman may understand that the gods do not do enough to help them. Ovid asserts clearly, from the beginning, it is the gods who plague them so, and it is the gods we idolize. On the other hand, these lines cannot efficiently express the gods' torment on mortals, nor can it effectively portray Ovid as an activist in moving away from Greek religion/mythology. While, contextually, Ovid pushes away from the gods, it can be read as a plea for a better work to be ushered from higher intellect; a divine intellect through which only the gods can provide. Constantly in this passage, Ovid redirects ownership of the story in contrast to the author’s craft. “My soul” implies a personal ownership of singing the poetry that is to come, but he averts ownership of the stories themselves to the gods by claiming, “o gods, you are the source of these,” which furthers the reader’s understanding of the gods being the authors. Ovid further “begs” the gods to “breathe your breath into my book.” He strictly tells the gods to breathe into his book—taking ownership of its syntax—so that he may portray the gods in the correct light—a true light. While the epic deals with hundreds of bodily changes, it is not the central focus of what Ovid is trying to get across. While on the surface level it may seem like the bodily metamorphoses are the central theme, they are simply motifs to Ovid’s larger plot line. There is no point to displaying their gods in a negative manner unless it’s to achieve something uniquely undiscovered by the multitudes.
Pious Tasks Versus Acts
Ovid writes Metamorphoses with the notion of Rome being in desperate need of their own metamorphosis: a shift in their attention and worship from being on the gods, to setting their eyes on the Roman Empire. He does so through revealing the negatively charged truth about their gods. Also, Ovid pushes the reader to recognize the side effects of the victims of the gods’ wrath as being a superficial change, not an inward changing of the Roman heart.
Ovid does not focus on the external transformations taking place, he emphasizes that the soul is not changed, suggesting the heart/soul remains the same within the new body. Ovid makes this claim as evidence as to the strength that is found within the Roman empire and, more specifically, the Roman people. To understand Ovid’s point, it is imperative to take into account the heart each Roman puts forth in morality, and also their piety toward the gods as it stands now. Often times the pious citizens will gain something in return, but that makes you question what motives are driving their piety. Ovid brings to Rome’s attention why it is they serve a higher entity, or, why they should not be serving said figure. Ovid, accepting his own blind eye to the gods' filthiness, is guilty of being servile to the gods in order to get what he wants:
I foresee the day—and it is soon to come—when Bacchus Liber, son of Semele,shall come. If you don’t worship that new god,you will be torn into a thousand parts—your scattered limbs tossed round about; your bloodwill foul the woods and stain your mother andyour mother’s sisters.
In order to not be brutally slain, one must show reverence to an irreverent god. Ovid uses this ideal to point out the flaw in Rome’s relationship with the gods. In an effort to get away from such acts of cowardly piousness, Ovid utilizes strong imagery to portray the esteem that is the Roman Empire. He further proves the Romans do not need help; they are independently capable of ruling their land. By averting their faith in gods and goddesses, Ovid alludes to the idea of Rome being eulogized.
On the other hand, readers are faced with a much more simplistic comprehension of Ovid laying out a book of gathered stories with a similar theme of transformation. While this is valid, it gives no controversial revelation. It is common knowledge that the gods raped whomever they saw fit. It is not unusual for the gods to be seen changing a thing into something different. These observations are merely that— observations. They offer no worthwhile explanation of the gods. So, it can be concluded, Ovid created a book which contains a collection of anecdotes to display a universal theme: a new era without the torment of the gods.
What makes this epic enshrouded with complexity is Ovid’s contradictory language:
O you, godswho were Aeneas' comrades, you who savedthe Trojan from the sword and from the flames;and you, the native gods of Latium;as well as you who fathered Rome, Quirinus;you, Mars, invincible Quirinus' father;you, Vesta, who maintain a sacred placeamong the tutelary gods of Caesar;you, Phoebus, joined to Vesta as a godwho watches over Caesar's house; and Jove,who have your shrine atop Tarpeia's rock;and all you other gods to be invoked—most properly— by one who is a poet:I beg you to delay beyond my deaththat day on which Augustus, having leftthe world he governs, will ascend on highand there, from heaven – one no longer presenton earth – will hear the prayers addressed to him.
Here, Ovid is seen praising the gods, acknowledging them for what they do. Ovid partakes in “kissing up” to the gods, asking that Augustus may live longer and eventually become a god. This is uncharacteristic of Ovid, which we later understand when contrasted at the end where Ovid proclaims his fame gains him immortality, implying he is at least level in power with the gods. For the time being, Ovid’s— and many other’s—piety belongs to that of a fearful mind rather than the true honor of the gods. It is even shown when mortals want something. Then, they create altars or show acts of loyalty to the gods. This “loyalty” becomes a task rather than a servile act. Piety then, becomes a mix of faithfulness and those wanting to avoid consequence. Either party receives whatever the gods feel is appropriate, whether it be affliction or praise. When grouped together in one understanding, those who are faithful to the gods usually receive an abundance of blessings in return, but those who are “pious”— not by the immortal’s standards—get rebuked and disregarded. This imbalance is the foundation for Ovid’s idea that, for Rome to prosper, they do not need the gods. Ovid continually invokes the idea that the gods are more reliant on mortals because we give them reason to exist. While this passage provides insight into the hypocrisy of Ovid—as might be seen as a counterpoint— it is a demonstration as to the definition of piety as seen by the typical Roman.
The Romans Can and Will Stand United, Alone
As my theory begins to take shape, Ovid ends his piece with a promulgation of his fame and everlasting influence. He depicts himself as invincible against the gods, for he is higher than them. This is the same image on which he wants to build Rome. Ovid leaves the reader, most likely a Roman at that time, with a sense of nationalism and unwavering adherence to the Roman Empire. This passionate monologue is one of pride and dedication only a Roman could demonstrate:
And now my work is done: no wrath of Jovenor fire nor sword nor time, which would erodeall things, has power to blot out this poem.Now, when it wills, the fatal day (which hasOnly the body in its grasp) can endMy years, however long or short their span.But, with the better part of me, I’ll gainA place that’s higher than the stars: my name,Indelible, eternal, will remain.And everywhere that Roman power has sway,In all domains the Latins gain, my linesWill be on people’ lips; and through all time—If poets’ prophecies are ever right—My name and fame are sure: I shall have life.
Related to a Roman ideal, Ovid views himself as above the gods, setting the standard for the Roman Empire to view themselves to such esteem. His final speech is where we see the most patriotism, as it marks the first development away from mythology and into the apotheosis of Rome. He also connects the heart of a Roman—which is detrimental to their society—by saying death only takes the body, not the soul. Ovid further implies that Rome will rule over many regions and gain its own fame through his poetry. Ovid attests the Roman heart as being the driving force behind their eventual success in conquering the surrounding regions and overcoming the gods’ hold on their daily lives. Nothing can wipe away Ovid’s words, just as nothing can wipe away Rome.
On the other hand—from the scope of the epic as a whole—it can be argued that Ovid invokes the help of the gods by asking for their breath on his book, suggesting he believes in the gods. Disbelief is not what I am implying. The textual evidence proves he has faith in the gods—even if it is a faulty faith, as shown when he only goes to them to get what he needs. Regardless, it shows that he presupposes Rome’s influential growth capacity to be endless. Ovid recounts each bodily transformation as a stab against the universe that is mythology. He takes a leap towards monotheism through the development of each pejorative narrative. This monotheistic world he tries to create worships one being: Rome. In his endeavors, he must relay his former knowledge of the dirty deeds the gods are involved in, and in doing so, crafted an epic that would stand the test of time.
Expecting a response from the reader, his aim was for there to be a righteous uproar, causing revolt against the gods; this would not have been possible if there were no stories of what the gods did to the innocent. His piece shall forever remain in history, not only because of the appalling events that happened, but because he wrote with such a fiery passion that only a Roman is capable of executing. He allowed the idealistic Roman poets’ heart to bleed onto the page and write its story to get away from the gods and rewrite Rome’s future built on the foundations of inner strength and unification as an Empire. It is made clear from his text that the true metamorphosis taking place is the change that is taking place in the Roman Empire to stand alone as its own worship-worthy state.
Ovid. Translation by Allen Mandelbaum. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. New York, NY:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1993