Sunday, June 16, 2013



Myth provided a similar function for the Greeks and Romans that the Bible provided for Israel, namely that it constituted a tradition which helped to shape the collective consciousness of a people and reinscribe their cultural values and beliefs among new generations. Thus, the mythistory or legends of the Greeks and Romans provided a means through which the voices of the past could reverberate into the sensibilities of the present. “Myths were, in a sense, the past preserved, interpreted and applied to the present” (Simpson, 863).

Ovid, for his part, does not simply retell these legends and folklore. Rather, he employs myth in the Metamorphoses as a means of conveying his conviction that nothing ever truly dies, but that all things are transformed, passing through bodies and time like the perpetual flow of a river (cf. XV.165-168). The eternality of this metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul, appears to be the only fixity not itself subject to flux. Nevertheless, in the final book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid applies this immortality to the poem itself, declaring, “I have finished a work that Jupiter’s wrath or fire or sword or the corruption of time cannot destroy” (XV.871). This confident assertion of the immutability of his creation, in some ways, stands in tension with the stated theme of the poem itself, namely ephemerality and change. In part, this may reflect hubris in the person of Ovid, or defiance in the face of his own marginalization and exile (exacted at the hands of Caesar Augustus), or it may reflect simply Ovid’s recognition that—by assuming the mantle of the tradition’s most eloquent conduit—he had, in effect, bound himself to the fate of the tradition which would surely live on. In this way, Ovid appears to assert a kind of mastery of his own fate in the face of ill fortune, even in the face of divine opposition.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses was Ovid’s resplendent masterpiece and his greatest single contribution to Latin narrative poetry. Written in dactylic hexameter (the meter associated with epic poems such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid), the Metamorphoses originally consisted of nearly 12,000 lines spread over fifteen books. The work comprises some 250 traditional stories from Greek and Roman “mythistory,” loosely connected by the overarching theme of transformation. This thematic organization stands in stark relief with the epic writings of Homer and Virgil, who each constructed their narratives around central figures and key events.

The elegance and wit with which Ovid constructed his poetry often belied the banality of many of his chosen subject matters. His frequent tendency towards the mundane in such works as Amores and Heroides, however, is offset by the overwhelming ambitiousness of the Metamorphoses. This epic poem seeks to provide an account stretching from the foundations of the world to the events of Ovid’s own day. The work in many respects conveys the attempt by its author to construct, or reflect, a sense of meaning in the cosmos. The characters in the various stories become prey to the cruelties of fate or the capriciousness of the gods. Nevertheless, while this may be the case, it also becomes clear through an examination of the stories in Ovid that—no matter their frequently selfish or spurious intentions—the gods often act as the agents of cosmic justice. In this way, their tangled involvement in human affairs provides a necessary corrective to human behavior.

It falls to the mythmakers to discover the meaning and purpose latent in the fortunes of humankind as refracted through the archetypal portrayals of the poet’s divine and human protagonists. In particular, the divine actors are representative of “an authentic aspect of being, [expressing] one part of reality, [which] stands for a particular type of value without which the universe would, as it were, be mutilated” (Simpson, 866). In like manner, human characters are frequently depicted as representative of virtues or vices. For example, Book I of the Metamorphoses relates the fate of Lycaon king of Arcadia who was transmogrified by Jove into the form of a wolf (I. 216-239). Within the tale, Jove (Zeus/Jupiter) hears of the wickedness of humankind and comes to earth to investigate the allegation. Taking on human form, Jove arrives at the court of Lycaon, where he reveals himself to be divine. The immediate reaction of those in the king’s court is to greet the god with reverence. Lycaon, however, is incredulous and seeks first to test and then ultimately to kill Jove. As a supreme demonstration of inhospitality, Ovid relates that Lycaon offers Jove human flesh to eat. In this case, divine retribution for the offense of inhospitality, was the just punishment for Laycaon’s murderous cruelty and impiety. Therefore, in the story, Lycaon is representative of certain vices associated with the treatment of others (especially as it relates to the proper reception of strangers) and dispositions towards the divine. Jove (himself often cruel and impious) is here the agent of justice, who returns the state of affairs back to its proper order and balance. Additionally, the punishment is seen to be reflective of the crime as the form in which Lycaon is now changed is perceived to be a more apt representation of his true nature and bloodlust.

Also in Book I, is the famous tale of Apollo and Daphne, which reveals another dimension of divine transformation (I. 438-567). Following his great victory over the creature Python, Apollo had come upon Cupid (Eros/Amor), whom he ridiculed as unworthy of bow and arrow. In response to this condescension, the petulant Cupid procured two arrows from his quiver striking Apollo with the first and the nymph Daphne with the second. The golden tipped arrow which pierced Apollo caused him to become infatuated with Daphne, while the second blunt-tipped arrow caused Daphne to be repulsed by Apollo’s advances. Apollo subsequently pursued Daphne to seize (and presumably to rape) her. In her flight from Apollo, Daphne escapes to river of her father Peneus, where she pleads for her beauty to be destroyed and transformed. Immediately, she is becomes a laurel bough. His love undaunted by this change, Apollo takes the laurel as his symbol and the laurel wreath as the sign of victory. In this tale, both Apollo and Daphne are, in some sense, the casualties of forces beyond themselves. Nevertheless, Daphne is the truly hapless victim. For she serves as the mere object of Apollo’s bedeviled gaze. Unlike, the metamorphoses of Lycaon, however, Daphne’s transmutation is not a punishment exacted at the hands of a vengeful god. Rather, her transformation into the laurel bough was an answer to a distressful prayer. Here the characters presumably are representative of lasciviousness in the person of Apollo and chastity in the figure of Daphne.[1] Again, the juxtaposition of virtue and vice as thematic components in the development of the mythic portrayal is here of primary significance. Simpson notes that the great literary critic Roland Barthes considered myth to be the means by which history itself is “transformed” into nature. “That is, the particular, the historical, is made by myth to seem natural, universal, ‘the way things are’” (Simpson, 876). Thus, in these tales there is a narrative call for the abstention of vice and the cultivation of virtue.

The Character of Greek and Roman Myth

The character of Roman myth cannot be discussed, however, without reference to the influence of Greek mythistory. In fact, in most instances the legendary tales of the Greeks were simply subsumed by the Romans with little, if any, adaptation or innovation. This is certainly the case with the material used by Ovid, whose chosen tales are nearly all of Greek origin. The Romans themselves were not a mythmaking people, but rather adopted for their own purposes much of the rich corpus (or “megatext”) provided by Greek speculation (Simpson, 876).

In his Poetics, Aristotle had used the word μύθος as a technical word denoting “plot,” by which he meant a structure which imitated action (1450a3-5). Myth in this regard is seen primarily as a discourse on action or more precisely the organizing principal which shapes discourse on action (see Simpson, 862). D.W. Lucas builds on this notion when he says that, “The story is a preliminary selection from the stream of events; in the plot the story is organized” (Simpson, 861). Myth, therefore, shapes discourse on the events it describes, because it seeks to emphasize certain characteristics and tendencies which are to be developed within the story itself. Correspondingly, it is these distinct emphases, not necessarily the particulars of the story, which become the contiguous elements which persist in the retelling of such tales.

Building on the work of Eric Havelock, Simpson postulates that mythmaking tendencies within certain cultures can be tied to the orality of traditional societies. That is, for traditional societies (such as, pre-literate Greece), myth provided a necessary connection to the past through the vehicle of storytelling. As the collective property of the society, myths were subject to change in many respects through the course of time and retelling. The importance of such myths was not therefore invested in their pristine origins, but their continued dialectic with the living community. Thus, the transmission and preservation of traditional stories was of greater significance than their consistent representation or particular manifestations. Through these stories the “people of the myth” (Simpson, 862) generated a greater “Hellenic self-consciousness,” which bridged the identity-gap between the self-understanding of otherwise distinct and competing poleis. For the Greeks and later the Romans, these stories were a means of explaining the world, not in a scientific sense, but rather in relation to fate/causality and ethics. Ordering one’s life in relation to virtue and the will of the gods was the best means of guaranteeing one’s own wellbeing. This approach, however, did not always bode well for those who left their fortunes to chance or divine benevolence. So, others sought means of hedging their bets, by taking charge of their own fates. One of the means of doing this was through the manipulation of cosmic forces through the art and practices of magic.


Like many of his contemporaries, Ovid demonstrated an intense interest in magic. Ferguson characterizes the ‘Age of Augustus’ in which Ovid lived as “a credulous age” (Ferguson, 885). Magical elements appear in his various works the Oeuvre, Ibis, Heroides, Amores and the Fasti. The treatment of magic within the Metamorphoses, however, is largely one of detached skeptical rationalism. This is especially true of the words spoken by Ovid’s Pythagoras who states that, “[is] any belief to be added to proven events” (XV. 361). Nevertheless, in several instances within the work, it is those characters who ridicule the efficaciousness of magic who have ill fortune befall them (cf.3.534 and 5.197). “Despite occasional skeptical touches, then, magic has an important place in the repertory of narrative devices in the Metamorphoses” (Segal, 6).

John Ferguson defines magic as “the control of the environment by means that are deemed rational and even scientific by its practitioners.” Magic is the attempt to control one’s environment through the manipulation of supernatural forces. “The term ‘magic’ can apply to activities which range from attempts to control supernatural forces and direct their power toward a specific end, to private rituals performed outside of an official cultic context. Magic can describe the activities of charismatic wonder-workers, the seeking of direct revelation concerning the nature of the divine, and also be used as an accusation designed to marginalize an alleged practitioner of illicit ritual”[2] (Tully, 2009). In this regard, the practice of magic can be distinguished from the practice of religion insofar as the practice of magic is inherently compulsive. In other words, “in magic the result is bound to follow provided that the ritual has been meticulously carried through and is not countered by a more powerful magic; the spirit or forces summoned are compelled to respond—and, presumably, to obey. In religion the answer to petition depends on the independent will of supernatural beings: they may respond or not, as they choose; the ritual or prayer has no power to compel them to do so” (Ferguson, 881).

Kinds of Magic

Two of the most common forms of magic are ‘sympathetic’ and ‘contagious.’ In sympathetic magic (sometimes referred to as imitative magic), actions taken on parallel plains or fields of existence are thought to issue in results in their corresponding field. Such sympathetic magic often employs effigies as proxies. For example, melting a wax image of one’s enemy was thought to make them waste away; or ritually leaping high into the air might cause your crops to grow taller.

Contagious magic relies on the employment of an object which has been in physical contact with the thing to be magicked (cf. Acts 19:11). Ferguson notes that the “Pythagoreans were told to smooth the impress of their bodies from their beds on rising, no doubt for fear that the impress would become such a channel. So too the cut hair and nail clippings of the priest of Jupiter at Rome had to be buried with the utmost precautions against being stolen for magic” (Ferguson, 882).[3]

The use of contagious magic can be seen in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, where Juno summons the Fury Tisiphone from Hades, along with a host of chthonic forces, in order that she should drive Athamas and Ino to madness. Tisiphone brews a poison in a brazen caldron from fresh blood and hemlock and empties the concoction into her victims. She thereby infiltrates their bodies and drives them to murder their sons. This portrayal is interesting because, strictly speaking Tisiphone was the personification of madness and thus did not need invocation of magic to affect her will.

The Functions of Magic

Magic can be categorized according to their function as being: productive, protective or destructive magic. Productive magic often includes concerns for means of practical import (e.g. fertility magic or humans and livestock or rainmaking and crop production). Protective magic involves healing and precautions against bad omens (e.g. the “evil eye”). For example, in the Metamorphoses Ovid, makes the talisman a symbolic extension of the protective maternal love of Althaea (VIII.504-514).

Magical power was thought to reside in those things which symbolized seminality or conveyed a sense of the preternatural; thus, the odd and esoteric, as well as those things which seemed to possess some generative power. Ferguson relates that common magical elements were, the colors red and black, odd numbers (in which the god delights [Vergil, Eclogue 8.75]), palindromes such as ABΛANAΘANAΛBA or the square word with its mirror image, later acrostics, etc. Ferguson relates that, “Magic and religion are not to be totally dissociated from one another. The lustration or cleansing of officiants before a sacrifice, or the ritual bathing in the sea by initiates to Eleusis, is part of a religious ceremony, but with strong overtones of magic” (Ferguson, 883).

The Metamorphoses has many magical elements, however, few of the stories hinge on the use of magic, particularly as a means of manipulating the gods to act on behalf of mortal. The closest parallel may be with the metamorphoses of Hermaphroditus. In a reversal of the usual theme of the sexually endangered nymph, Ovid here portrays the naiad Salmacis as the sexual aggressor, who attacks the young Hermaphroditus. As the youth resists her, Salmacis fuses her body to his in a mock sexual union. In the process the two become one and Hermaphroditus is transforms into an androgynous being. He then compels his divine parents Mercury and Venus to curse the pool with an impure drug. Hermaphroditus’ curse is that any man who enters the pool of Salmacis will likewise lose their masculinity.


Many of the characters within Ovid’s work are fate bound through their own choices or the choices of others. Some may be seen as victims of fate, while more often, people are portrayed as receiving the just merit of their actions (for good or for ill). With the traditional stories conveyed in the Metamorphoses Ovid constructs a means of interpreting the world in relation to human actions and human fortunes. The Romans felt that the gods participated in every aspect of the city’s life, so constant vows, prayers, consultations, and sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were an integral part of the life of Rome. Not that the gods guaranteed success in one’s endeavors, but it was felt that apart from their support success was not to be had. Sometimes supplications were not enough and people sought to manipulate these cosmic powers by means of magic. Still others, perhaps even Ovid himself, sought to master his own fate through the legacy of his work, which would have a life and a fortune beyond himself.

Ovid remains our best source for many Greek myths: including Echo and Narcissus, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus and Eurydice, Apollo and Daphne and the story of Pygmalion. He gave expression to the ancient voices of past generations and allowed them to continue to speak through to the present. The power of myth transcends the narrow limitations of history and metamorphosizes its events and figures into the archetypes by which we describe what it means to be human.


Ferguson, John. Magic. Bd. II, in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, Herausgeber: Michael Grant und Rachel Kitzinger, 881-886. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons , 1988.

Segal, Charles. „Black and White Magic in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses': Passion, Love, and Art.“ Arion, Third Series vol. 9, Nr. 3 (2002): 1-34.

Simpson, Michael. Myths and Cosmologies. Bd. II, in Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean, Herausgeber: Michael Grant und Rachel Kitzinger, 861-880. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.

Tully, Caroline. „The Importance of Words and Writing in Ancient Magic.“ Tully, Caroline. The Importance of Words and Writing in Ancient 10 2009. (Zugriff am 2012).

[1] This portrayal is odd, given the typical depiction of nymphs as prurient characters.

[2] Horace (Epodes 5, 17; Satires 1.8), relate Horace’s feud with Canidia, whom he characterized as a witch. She is portrayed as a practitioner of black magic; she wears black, she makes effigies, she buries a wolf’s beard and the tooth of a spotted snake, etc. Likewise, Pliny the Elder has a story of a freedman named Gaius Furius Chresimus, who was charged with sorcery by his neighbors after yielding a better crop than them. He is subsequently brought to trial and acquitted after making a mockery of his accusers by showing his superior tools to be the instruments of his “magic” (NH 18.8.41-43).

[3] See also Tully, Caroline. The Importance of Words and Writing in Ancient Magic. April 22, 2009. (accessed October 2012).

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