Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.31


K. Sara Myers, Ovid's Causes: Cosmogony and Aetiology in the Metamorphoses. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Pp. xvi + 206. $32.50. ISBN 0-472-10459-4.


Reviewed by Stephen M. Wheeler, Pennsylvania State University.

The past decade has seen a flowering of studies devoted to Ovid's sophisticated poetics in the Metamorphoses -- a critical development which many Ovidians continue to welcome as a salutary corrective to the traditional literary historical view of the poet as a light-hearted raconteur. Ovid's Causes contributes to this area of inquiry by making the case that the Metamorphoses weds the Roman tradition of cosmological epic with the Alexandrian tradition of learned poetry and thus forms a continuous narrative of epic scope in a Callimachean manner. The contents of the book include a preface; an introduction to the generic question of the Metamorphoses; four chapters focusing on cosmogonic, aetiological, and paradoxographic features of the poem; a selected bibliography; and indices for passages, works, and subjects discussed.

The author's main point is to characterize the Metamorphoses as an aetiological poem which explains the origins of things through the phenomenon of metamorphosis. In her preface, Myers states: "The aetiological focus of the Metamorphoses is an essential feature of Ovid's narrative structure and discourse; more than simply a conceit, it shapes the way Ovid treats much of his mythical material and constitutes an important aspect of his generic and thematic aims in the poem" (vii-viii). M. divides "the aetiological focus" into two categories: metamorphoses that explain the origins of things in nature (Cosmogonic); and metamorphoses that explain the origins of cultural objects (Callimachean). She associates the former sort of causae with Roman cosmological epic, e.g. Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, and the latter sort with Callimachus' Aetia. This aetiological divisio serves as a convenient model for conceptualizing Ovid's synthesis of two conventionally opposed (but also frequently mixed) traditions of poetry -- grand epic and Callimacheanism.

M. spells out the generic and thematic implications of "the aetiological focus" of the Metamorphoses in her introduction, entitled "The Generic Question: Cosmogonic and Callimachean Aetiology." She founds her argument upon the familiar but exiguous territory of the proem (Met. 1.1-4), in which Ovid appears to outline the paradoxical program of a Callimachean epic -- a carmen deductum et perpetuum. M. makes sense of the paradox with the increasingly accepted view of the accommodating nature of Roman epic "that makes room for the influences of both Callimacheanism and the tradition of heroic or Homeric grand epic" (5). The main work of the book, then, is taken up with a description of how Ovid affiliates the Metamorphoses with both traditions and exploits the tensions between the two. On the one hand, M. observes, Ovid situates the Metamorphoses in a tradition of cosmological epic that derives from Homer and Hesiod and is perpetuated in a Roman idiom by Ennius, Lucretius, and Vergil. On the other hand, he does not assume the authority of the epic philosopher-poet, since he only pretends to be scientific, having chosen a mythological subject to explain the world. By treating the fantastic subject of metamorphosis in a pseudo-scientific manner, Ovid shows himself less concerned "with the aetia themselves than in how they function narratologically" (17). And so this successor to Vergil distances himself from the authority of the epic voice in order to play with the structures which validate that authority.

In Chapter 1, "Cosmogonic Metamorphosis and Natural Philosophy in the Metamorphoses," M. starts from the premise that the cosmogony in Book 1 and the speech of Pythagoras in Book 15 establish "a sort of 'scientific' field of reference" (27) against which we are to read the mythological stories. Therefore, rather than emphasize a break between the opening cosmogony and the metamorphosis tales that follow, M. seeks to show that Ovid continues his cosmogonic themes through stories of human transformation into animals and plants. The argument divides into two parts. First, M. claims that Ovid devoted greater attention to the process of metamorphosis than his poetic predecessors because his purpose is to explain the causes of animal and plant life, and not to give religious aetiologies. M. concludes that these metamorphoses offer "a sort of 'ethopoiea' of nature" (40), and refers the reader to Ernst A. Schmidt's Ovids Poetische Menschenwelt (Heidelberg, 1991), a work whose important arguments about Ovid's aetiological method she acknowledges briefly here but nowhere else in her book (cf. Segal's review of Schmidt in BMCR 3.4). The second part of M.'s thesis about cosmogonic metamorphosis concerns Ovid's use of scientific language, especially the four elements and humors, to describe transformations. This includes detailed analysis of a number of familiar passages in the poem, showing that the conditions of elemental flux in chaos pertain to Ovid's universe and the events of transformation. The last part of the chapter occupies itself with the irony and humor of Ovid's pseudo-scientific approach to myth. M. gives an overview of ancient views of the dichotomy between mythological poetry and scientific discourse, whereby poetry is conventionally associated with lies and pleasure, and philosophy with truth and reality. She goes on to assert that Ovid imports natural philosophy into the realm of mythology and so blurs the boundaries between the two modes of discourse. In this regard, Ovid participates in an ongoing debate about the truth claims of poetry and physics. Like Vergil, he responds specifically to Lucretius' rationalizing approach to myth in De Rerum Natura, by re-mythologizing the latter's scientific explanations for natural phenomena. But unlike Vergil, Ovid wishes "to test the interplay between the different narrative modes and truth claims of fiction (fabula) and philosophy, between fantasy and realism" (57), and in so doing he undermines epic poetry's claim to philosophic truth.

Chapter 2, "Callimachean Aetia and Framed Aetiological Narratives in the Metamorphoses," deals with another set of tales that have to do with aetia of a geographical, religious or cultural nature and are closer in subject and manner to poetry traditionally associated with the Alexandrian and neoteric tradition. M. concentrates first on stylistic features that Ovid borrows from Alexandrian aetiological poetry to signal the aetiological focus of his stories. In particular, she surveys aetiological phraseology and etymologizing in the Metamorphoses, comparing Greek and Roman aetiological models, especially Ovid's own Fasti. M. then turns to a major structural feature shared by the Metamorphoses and Fasti: framed narratives in which an internal narrator is used for aetiological disquisitions. Here she gives a literary history of the didactic inset-narrative technique, with special attention to Callimachus' use of it in the Aetia. In treating this topic, M. is especially interested in the issue of the authority and reliability of internal narrators, and resorts to narratological theory to interpret the effects of embedded narrative. The remainder of the chapter occupies itself with the thesis that the question-and-answer format of framed narratives in the Metamorphoses tends to signal a Callimachean program. M. offers detailed analyses of Ovid's Alexandrianism in seven major examples of aetiological framed narratives. The longest and perhaps most original of these is her discussion of programmatics in an anonymous Lydian's story about the thirst and wrath of Latona (Book 6), in which she demonstrates allusions to Propertius 4.9 and Callimachean poetic ideals.

Chapter 3, "Metamorphoses 14-15: Italy and Aetiological Metamorphosis," continues the argument of the second chapter with an analysis of the closing books of Ovid's poem. M. introduces the material by asserting that "as he approaches the themes of ancient Italian legend in the later books of the Metamorphoses, his metamorphosis stories involve still less the explanation of natural phenomena such as animals or plants and are more consistently of an Alexandrian religious-aetiological nature" (94). She explains that the cosmogonic process slows down as the chronology of the poem reaches the historical period and the Italian religious-antiquarian themes of the Fasti. The chapter begins with a survey of Ovid's precedents for aetiological literature on Italian themes. M. then launches an analysis of the much worked area of Ovid's "Aeneid." Her general thesis is that Ovid avoids Augustan themes and aetia and exploits rather the structure of Vergil's Aeneid to bring out Alexandrian and neoteric associations. There is a high frequency of aetiological framed narratives on the themes of love and metamorphosis. She also observes that four of the tales in the same sequence involve the motif of speech punished (Cercopians, Sibyl, Diomedes' men, Apulian shepherd); she finds that the cumulative effect of these tales is "to diffuse the implications of Vergil's poem, and to uncover instead issues that have been attributed to the 'other voices' of the Aeneid: the problems of the freedom of the individual with respect to the state" (103). It is worth observing, however, that three of these four tales of punished speech involve animal and plant metamorphoses, so-called cosmogonic metamorphoses, precisely at the point when such tales are supposed to be diminishing in frequency. M. finally arrives at the advertised subject of her chapter with the section on "statue tales" and Picus and Canens. Here she calls attention to the Callimachean character of this aetiological frame narrative, both in its theme (the explanation of a statue of Picus on Circe's island) and its narratological structure. M. focuses part of her analysis on the figure of Canens, the nymph-songstress and forlorn lover of Picus, who provides a programmatic aetion for the Italian muses, the Camenae; by contrast, M. plays down the "cosmogonic" transformation of Picus into a woodpecker. The next section of the chapter is devoted to the Italian tale of Pomona and Vertumnus, where M. provides the reader with literary historical background on Pomona and Vertumnus, including a detailed discussion of this story's relation to Propertius 4.2. M. argues that the tale is both summational and programmatic. It recalls the poem's affiliation with the amatory neoteric tradition and it "prepares for Ovid's predominantly Callimachean treatment of Roman themes in the final books of the poem" (125). And in particular it calls to mind Ovid's Fasti, for which M. notes a number of congruences with the Metamorphoses. The chapter then finishes with a two-page overview of the Italian themes in the final thousand lines of the poem and attempts equally briefly to deal with the difficult problem of Ovid's position toward Augustus in the treatment of Roman religious themes.

The fourth and final chapter, "Pythagoras, Philosophy, and Paradoxography," offers a new reading of the speech of Pythagoras in Metamorphoses 15, calling into question the terms of the traditional debate about Pythagoras: i.e. whether he represents the philosophical seriousness of the Metamorphoses, or a parody of philosophy. M. rethinks the speech in terms of the carmen perpetuum et deductum model, and finds that it functions both as a recapitulation of the poem's claim to being a "cosmic history" and as an illustration of the poem's Callimachean tendencies. On the one hand, Ovid associates Pythagoras' speech with the tradition of natural philosophy, and especially Lucretius, through didactic terminology and the technique of offering multiple explanations for the same phenomenon. On the other hand, Ovid represents Pythagoras as an "anti-Lucretian" vates, who arrives at his knowledge through divine inspiration, rather than through ratio. Furthermore, in contrast to Lucretius' method of rationalizing myths or miracles, Pythagoras seeks not to dispel but to enhance wonder in his listeners. M. demonstrates this point successfully by showing that the speech of Pythagoras is associated with the literary tradition of paradoxography, a genre of literature devoted to the cataloging of marvels and one that may have originated with Callimachus' Paradoxa. The Pythagorean lists of mirabilia smack less of philosophical method than of a mythologizing or fantastic approach to nature, which is quintessentially Alexandrian. To quote M., "The philosopher is made more a poet than the poet a philosopher" (136). If Ovid in the Metamorphoses juxtaposes natural philosophy and mythology as antithetical modes of explaining the world, the speech of Pythagoras reflects and intensifies Ovid's method of juxtaposition. To quote M. again, "In the end, the cosmos, like Pythagoras' speech, is shown not to be rational, but rather a chaos, and thus both philosophic and poetic narrative are stripped of the power adequately to explain the world in all its arbitrariness" (158). What is important to Ovid is the process of drawing attention to narrative strategies that create authentication and verisimilitude. In this regard, Pythagoras' approach is the same as the primary narrator's, in that each continually invites the wonder of his audience, but not credence. M. also devotes some space at the end of the chapter to the programmatic evocation of Ennius' Annales through the speech of Pythagoras. She argues that Ovid's purpose is to re-emphasize the cosmogonic "epic" affiliation of the Metamorphoses and to prepare the way for the political conclusion of the poem.

The value of Ovid's Causes lies in its intensive documentation of those features which the poem shares with the tradition of aetiological elegiac narrative represented by Callimachus' Aetia, the fourth book of Propertius, and Ovid's own Fasti. In addition, M.'s discussion of Ovid's creative responses to Lucretius in Metamorphoses 1 and 15 will be of interest. Much else in the book may well be familiar to specialists, but M. ably presents, at the risk of rehashing, recent and relevant scholarship. In addition, a faithful but weighty apparatus of footnotes is provided; this can make for heavy reading, especially when a sentence has more than one footnote. The footnotes range from the informative, especially on bibliography, to the complimentary, with occasional "polemical corrections" of other scholars.

The book bears some signs of hasty preparation. It contains a number of venial errors in spelling (e.g. "unembarassment" [29]) and assorted bugs in style (e.g. excessive use of forms of the word "suggest"), syntax (e.g. "the literary background of those stories ... share" [94]), references (e.g. "Neptune 2.574-75" is not an example of Neptune referring to himself in the third person [121 n. 119; cf. 124 n.128]), bibliographical citation (e.g. "ed. D.A. Woodman and A.J. West" [78 n.75]), and formatting (e.g. the second line of the epigraph on p. 133 should be left-justified). In terms of layout, it is odd that M.'s programmatic "Preface" (vii-ix) falls between the dedication page and the acknowledgments page but before the table of contents, where it is not listed and hence easily missed.

There are also slight, but telling, inaccuracies in the interpretation of Ovid's text. For example, M. claims that Canens is transformed into water and that "her singularly poetic liquefaction" (110) is supposed to provide an aetiology for the spring dedicated to the Camenae in a grove near the Porta Capena. But this reading is not easily supported by the Latin. First of all, at the time of metamorphosis, Canens lays her body down on a riverbank of the Tiber (Met. 14.426-27) -- a detail that does not "suggest" the spring near the Porta Capena. Second, in describing the metamorphosis, Ovid says that Canens melted away and gradually vanished into thin air (tenues liquefacta medullas, / tabuit inque leves paulatim evanuit auras, 14.432-33); the liquefaction of her marrow appears to be but the first step in the disappearance of her body. Lafaye classifies the metamorphosis as one into air; Haupt-Ehwald calls it an aphanismos "ganz in Alexandrinischer Weise," a tag that M. even quotes in a footnote to her discussion (109 n.61). Finally, the Camenae remember the place (locus) of Canens, not a spring. Haupt-Ehwald states that nothing is known of such a place, but that it may be an Ovidian invention which hints at an etymology for the Camenae -- the basic point that M. expands upon. While M.'s misplaced emphasis upon a watery metamorphosis does not affect her general argument with regard to Ovid's programmatic linkage of Canens with the Camenae, it is indicative of the slanting of evidence that may result from too eager an eye for earmarks of Callimachean poetics.

The reader may wonder too about the utility of measuring the increasing or decreasing number of "cosmogonic" and "Callimachean" aetiologies over the course of the Metamorphoses, as though they were mutually exclusive and their relative frequency could be expressed in a formula of inverse proportion. While it is true that Italian or Roman religious causae cluster in the final thousand lines of the poem, M. may be a bit one-sided when she writes, for example, in Chapter 3 of Ovid's framed aetiological narratives: "The majority of them offer an aetion for a specific mythological or religious detail, and for the most part no longer explain natural phenomena" (94). One of M.'s cases is the anonymous Lydian's tale (Book 6) that begins with the question of the origin of an altar to Latona in Lycia, and so is characterized as a Callimachean aetiological tale; nevertheless, the narrator concludes with Latona's transformation of the churlish Lycian farmers into fractious frogs, a classic example of "cosmogonic aetiology" and "ethopoeia of nature." M. chooses rather to interpret the frogs' behavior as a "humorous postscript ... embodying the poetic principles expresssed by the non inflati somnia Calimachi (Prop. 2.34.32)" (89). The book's thesis would be better served, in my opinion, if M. were to acknowledge and interpret, as she does in the speech of Pythagoras, the simultaneous presence and interpenetration of cosmogonic and Callimachean aetiologizing in Ovid's narratives.

And then there are contradictions that arise as M. pursues different lines of argument. For instance, she asserts that Vertumnus "seems to have been well-known in Rome" from his statue near the busy Vicus Tuscus and from a temple on the Aventine that had a state cult festival (117-18). Later, however, she argues that "the choice of the obscure Vertumnus" (126) as a subject for poetry is a sign that Ovid refuses to take up Augustan themes. The specter of inconsistency also looms in M.'s "Epilogue" to the final chapter, where she argues that Ovid quells doubt about his own claim to immortality in the last line of the poem (siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam, 15. 879). She reasons that all other prophecies in the poem have come true. At the same time, however, she does not observe that this putative evidence for veracity goes against her position maintained throughout the book: that "Ovid" the primary narrator continually calls into question poetry's truth claims.

Despite these quibbles, I believe Ovid's Causes makes a solid case for Ovid's association of the Metamorphoses with the dual traditions of cosmological epic and aetiological elegy. Many readers will appreciate M.'s scrupulously detailed and wide-ranging overview of the backgrounds -- natural philosophical, Alexandrian, and neoteric -- that Ovid musters in the Metamorphoses. And M.'s sensitive treatment of Ovid's manipulation of truth and fiction certainly should be welcomed by both a specialist and a general audience.