This is the first post of a two-part essay on Ovid’s depiction of the limitations of natural and supernatural answers to the human condition.
How many of our undergraduate students are encouraged to find quick comfort in answers scientific because the transcendent is so unknowable? Or—perhaps a problem in our secular institutions to the same degree as it may be a caricature of the most fundamentalist of our church-related institutions—to rely more on the supernatural as a more certain answer to life’s vicissitudes than the natural world can offer? As scholars, we owe it to ourselves and our students always to consider skeptically the limitations of either endeavor—and the ancient world’s greatest poet points up just this problem as well.
While we fail to read Ovid correctly if we force him into a clear preference, one major lesson we hear from Ovid about art in the 15 books of his epic Metamorphoses is clear.
It is the responsibility of art, indeed the vocation of the artist, to put pressure on traditional answers to these fundamental questions about the natural and the supernatural.
While all of Ovid’s songs are central to the study of the history and literature of the early Roman principate, the work most accessible to readers throughout the last two millennia has been the Metamorphoses, a repository of mythological content mined by those thrilled by the stories the Greeks and Romans told one another, a collection of superb storytelling in its own right, and of course a model for poets and playwrights of other ages, Shakespeare notably among them. As core text, therefore, the Metamorphoses enjoys pride of place among the Latin poets, rivalled perhaps only by the Aeneid, which Virgil had written a generation prior. These days in Anglophone education, it is not uncommon to see a bit of Book 1’s creation story included in a secondary literature curriculum, and the Metamorphoses is probably a text known at least indirectly by undergraduates at all familiar with Greek myths, whether they grew up on Rick Riordan or Shakespeare, even if limited to only a handful of the 200 and more episodes Ovid organizes in his epic, from heroic exploit to erotic encounter, from Greek foundation story to Roman indigenous fable, from gods to heroes and everything in between.
But what use can be made in a core, great books, or enduring questions and ideas curriculum of a core text that boasts such a degree of variety? Taken as a whole, one would be hard pressed to find in Ovid’s epic a tome of serious scientific or religious considerations about the origin of the cosmos, in spite of his own proem (primaque ab origine mundi [“from the world’s first foundation”] in Book 1), half of his introductory Book, and also in spite of students who, in my experience, often attempt to shoe-horn a study of the poem into a term paper comparing Book 1 with Genesis 1-11 or Enuma Elish. Still less can one nail down Ovid as a responsible teacher of philosophy, in spite of the lengthy lecture from Pythagoras on the permanence of impermanence in Book 15. Yet, as a core text it has value for students beyond relegating it to a simple collection of 250 transformation myths, or even as a playful second-fiddle to Virgil’s more heroic strains of virtue and Roman pride.
I suggest that as an artist, Ovid brings up throughout the text important critical questions about the human condition, and the failure we experience in the attempt to explain its causes.
The lens of Ovid’s Metamorphoses reveals that in the face of vicissitudes of human experience, it would be particularly sinister to lay too much blame or credit purely at the feet of some supernatural agent, not because the gods are indifferent or particularly maleficent, but rather blissfully incongruous.
Their portrayal in epic doesn’t hold out much hope for a consistent divine machinery upon which anyone can rely. But there’s also more than just nature that shapes the life of Ovid’s subjects, not to mention that of his readers.
As I will argue in the second part of this essay, Ovid portrays in sharp relief the limitations of both science and art as reflections of the human condition. He does so in narrative that invites the reader to be critical of what constitutes both natural and supernatural causes.
C. J. Armstrong is Associate Professor of Theology and History at Concordia University Irvine