The Gods Have Problems

Minerva and Arachne

This is the second post of a two-part essay on Ovid’s depiction of the limitations of natural and supernatural answers to the human condition.

This brief study of the Metamorphoses began as an invitation to a colleague’s class to consider how Ovid’s mythography (writing of myth) addresses “the natural and the supernatural.” I argue that Ovid lives on as a significant voice in the canon to put pressure on the very notion of what we mean when we say those words. After all, his poetry deals with natura from the very beginning and skips lightly through many episodes of transformations of natural phenomena, as regards both subject matter and final form: lifeless ivory can become animated, like Pygmalion’s statue (Book 10), while poor Niobe can become lifeless stone (Book 6). Of course in both these cases the agent of transformation is something or someone supernatural: Venus ensures the love of the one; overwhelming grief, and at least indirectly Latona’s wrath, the end of the other.

Superficially, aetiological myth is able to affirm a kind of early scientific approach to causation, unsurprisingly increasing in popularity during the comparatively learned Hellenistic age of scholar-poets, among whom Callimachus and Aratus stand as particularly influential predecessors of Ovid. No surprise then, either, that in retelling the Hesiodic “ages” myth in Book 1, Ovid characteristically winks at the traditional aetiology of the giants as born of the blood of Ouranos (Starry Heaven). Ovid ends the gigantomachy with a “scientific” explanation: because of the slaughter they engage in, scires e sanguine natos (“You’d know they were born of blood.”). From Ovid’s pen these are not serious scientific conclusions. Rather, they are opportunities to put his own calliditas ingenii (“clever talent”) on display.

Ovid is playful always, and he employs myth here and elsewhere as a stick to poke at the scientific tradition.

Ovid is not satisfied with such superficial aetiology, and is not championing a scientific approach to causation, but nor does he rest easy on a supernatural one—this, even though the divine machinery of epic poetry and myth is ever-present in the world of the Metamorphoses. In spite of the fact that gods like Venus and Latona, not to mention Bacchus and Jupiter, capriciously transform their victims, Ovid does not simplistically leave causes in the hands of the gods who exist in a world above our own (and therefore are supernatural). Indeed, in Ovid the gods are “brought down to earth” more consistently than in the poetry of his Greco-Roman predecessors.

Ovid’s wry pen puts pressure on the problem inherent in dealing with a system in which it is assumed the gods are immanent, yet superior, fully divine yet anthropomorphic, and therefore subject to all the foibles, rage, and petty despise of the humans they elevate, punish, or otherwise change. In other words, Ovid’s unique focus in treating myth is the problem that his tradition (e.g., Homer, Hesiod, Virgil) makes the reader aware of but passes over without spending too much time working out—the epic problem that comes out in (for example) how a serial rapist like Zeus is also to be feared as the source of universal justice. Whereas, in Homer, an Agamemnon might be expected to get a little sympathy with an excuse that his rash actions are the fault of some god or other, Ovid’s poetry invites the reader to scrutinize the validity of such an excuse, especially by bringing the gods’ own peccadillos into high relief.

Many examples could be brought to the question, but I think Ovid puts this “epic problem” on display most clearly in the contest staged between the goddess Minerva and the mortal Arachne, the first episode of Metamorphoses Book 6. The dichotomy illustrated is one of divine majesty versus divine amour—the serious business of Minerva’s olive-circled, symmetrical, ordered, and august depiction of the gods’ vindication to rule, patronize, and punish human hubris, and the neoteric abandon of Arachne’s ivy-ringed collection of rape victims, and their humorously disguised, divine paramours. The critical bibliography on Metamorphoses Book 6 is replete with consideration of the scene as demonstrating Ovid as pro-Augustan or anti-Augustan, favoring classical epic or a lighter aesthetic mode, and even criticism of the relative realism of his description of the women’s weaving.

But the connecting theme of the art contest between the goddess and the mortal is enough to show the major point Ovid is attempting to communicate in the scene: the gods have problems.

A brief analysis highlights the source of the problem. After his ecphrasis of the Minerva tapestry, the corner scenes of which are intended to warn the upstart Arachne of punishment in store for mortal hubris, the poet offers a five-line overture to his description of her weaving of the caelestia criminal (“heavenly crimes”), beginning with the rape of Europa. Lexical parallels underscore the fact that Ovid is evoking the scene he’d already narrated at the end of Book 2, where Jupiter catches sight of the maiden after reordering the world devastated by Phaethon’s wild ride. The “august majesty” of Minerva’s depiction of the Olympians is abandoned by gods who (comically) take the guise of animals to do their deeds, as in the Europa scene:

They don’t sit well together in the same place, majesty and love: with the authority of his scepter set aside, that father and ruler of the gods, whose right hand is armed with the tri-headed thunderbolts, the one who shakes the world with a nod of his head: this is the one who put on the guise of a bull and moos as he mingles with the cattle, and walks up, a beautiful sight, along the tender grass.

The problem is clear: gods set aside their gravitas—not just in Ovid, but in epic in general. Ovid, though, more than any other in his tradition, seems to be aware of the philosophical crux encountered when faced with the poetic portrayal of the gods in their grandeur coupled with a depiction that would rob them of their grandeur. Historically, Homer’s portrayal of the gods led philosophers to charge the epic poet with impiety, and led eventually to a reading of Homer as allegory. This philosophical debate seems similar to Ovid’s basic point about the portrayal of the gods in his epic. Turning up the volume on the competing motivations of the gods in his epic highlights the limitations of the poetic tradition’s portrayal of the gods, and how supernatural the supernatural really is.

Space does not permit a more thorough analysis of the scene, but it is hoped that even a light gloss on the basic aspects of Ovid’s epic program encourages consideration of the Metamorphoses as an important core text. We read him wrong if we see in him a serious attempt at scientific investigation into causes, because the divine machinery will always be there. But on the other hand, Ovid would have us see in the epic tradition the impossibility of anything like a simplistic theological answer instead, because his gods are inconsistent—or better, incongruous.

One good in letting Ovid have his say is that he reminds the arts and sciences that art exists to put pressure on the traditions—and therefore points up the limitations of both natural and supernatural answers. Ovid presents an opportunity not only to question the significance of the dichotomy between natural and supernatural in his own day, but in our own civilization that has inherited his voice to try to make sense of our ever-changing world.

C. J. Armstrong is Associate Professor of Theology and History at Concordia University Irvine