BMCR 2005.09.48

Phänomenologie der Metamorphose. Verwandlungen und Verwandtes in der augusteischen Dichtung. Classica Monacensia 28

, Phänomenologie der Metamorphose : Verwandlungen und Verwandtes in der augusteischen Dichtung. Classica Monacensia, Bd. 28. Tübingen: G. Narr, 2004. 405 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 3823360256 €68.00.

This is a slightly revised doctoral dissertation approved by the University of Munich. It will be of interest to advanced students of Augustan poetry, classical mythology and Latin lexicology. Besides the introduction and the concluding resumé, those in a hurry should try reading section VII of Part A and the whole of Part B; the latter is the heart of the entire book and has the same title, phenomenology of metamorphosis.

“Rhetoric” and “Poetics” have frequently featured in the titles of recent dissertations (including mine) and books in the area of classical studies. Could “phenomenology” be the next catchword? So far, it has appeared only in another German title: Jürgen Paul Schwindt, Prolegomena zu einer “Phänomenologie” der römischen Literaturgeschichtsschreibung. Von den Anfängen bis Quintilian, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000. In the present case, at least, its use is fairly accurate and purposeful, as it indicates the inductive character of the author’s approach in good continental tradition, texts or rather words first.

The Introduction (Einleitung) situates Zgoll’s research in current scholarship on the theme of metamorphosis in ancient literature and reviews succinctly recent publications on its presence in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the only major poetic product of Augustan literary culture excluded from the author’s corpus of reference; a few brief allusions to metamorphosis in minor works also left out of discussion are catalogued in pages 33 and 34. Finally, the crucial issue of what is meant by metamorphosis is raised, but the answer will have to wait for another hundred pages in Part B.

Nevertheless, some hints are already offered in Part A, most importantly that the subject of metamorphic myth is normally the human being. The longest section of this chapter (section V) is a comprehensive list of such myths in the book’s corpus of reference, i.e. Augustan poetry except the Metamorphoses, organized according to the end-product: stone, plant, sea-animal, animal, bird, human being of the opposite sex, i.e. categories of existence that would have been familiar to an educated Roman like Pliny the Elder. With the exception of “shape-shifters”, these are identical with the rubrics used by P. M. C. Forbes Irving in his research on the Greek sources for the same theme.1 In fact, with regard to the story of the myth and its variants Irving remains the best reference, as Zgoll himself recognizes now and again (e.g. notes 60 and 83 on page 60 and 62 respectively).

The focus here is on the actual text, the very words used by Augustan poets to refer to or describe metamorphic myths, the length and frequency of these references and descriptions. Naturally, a considerable part of the book is taken up by statistics. The passages are also examined in terms of their function in the immediate context as well as their content, in particular with reference to the particular aspect of the metamorphic process described. These data are also presented in tabular form. The text accompanying the tables gives a summary of the myth followed by the passages from Augustan poetry illustrating it, with brief stylistic comments and, finally, some further references which are too short (i.e. only the names of the persons involved) or allusive. Some readers may find this section the least readable, but a presentation of the actual data analyzed is obviously necessary in a dissertation. What I have failed to work out is why the myths are presented in a slightly different order and sometimes with a different title from that of the frequency table preceding the discussion. For instance on page 47 the three apotheoses are listed as Niobe, Battos, Kephenen, but they are discussed in the order Niobe, Medusa (Kephenen), Battos. In the case of bird-metamorphoses the discussion even includes a myth (Picus) not listed in the frequency table on page 96.

A further characteristic of metamorphosis is disclosed in section VI of Part A, namely that the transformation is normally achieved through divine agency. It is disappointing to find a mere footnote reference to the discussion of this crucial issue in Metamorphoses Book 8 at the symposium organized by the river Achelous in honour of Theseus and other heroes who took part in the hunt of the Calydonian boar, without comment or reference to the considerable secondary literature.

Having established a definition of metamorphosis in phenomenological terms, i.e. mainly in terms of the words used by Augustan poets to describe it, Zgoll discusses at equal length and depth what does not constitute metamorphosis in the strict sense (Part C). First of all, the appearance of a deity in disguise; second, transformation effected by means of magic; third, stories about the creation of men, plants and gods; fourth, the divinization of human beings; and fifth, the transformation into a star. Finally, Part D covers metamorphosis as a metaphor for adopting a new role or a change in behaviour, the slow transformation of Rome’s landscape or the shift of generic code within a single literary work. A summary (Part E) rounds off this solid piece of German scholarship, highlighting the main conclusions drawn from the detailed discussion in the previous four chapters. Particularly important are his closing remarks on the particularity of Ovid’s conception of metamorphosis in the Metamorphoses : (a) the emphasis on the continuity between the initial human existence and the metamorphosed self instead of the traditionally sudden and unexpected character of metamorphosis, and (b) the metamorphic colouring of creation myths.

The bibliography (part H) is thorough and useful, but two items mentioned in footnotes have been left out: Matthews 1974 (p.62) and DeBrohun 1994 (p. 295).2 Commentaries and scholarly editions, in particular, are used extensively and profitably. Two minor blemishes are (a) the absence of reference to West’s different opinion regarding Hes. Theog. 563, cited in footnote 415 (page 235) and (b) the reproduction of a mistaken reference to Ov. am. 1,18,4 instead of 2,18,4 from Fedeli’s Teubner edition of Propertius on page 262. The book is equipped with a useful Appendix (Part F) and three Indices (Part G). The former presents clearly in tabular form all ancient metamorphic myths and includes references to the ancient sources. This may help the reader put the specific literary culture studied in the book within a wider context. The Indices (one for ancient authors, another one for names and a third one for objects) seem serviceable, even though it seems odd that the only name of a modern author listed in the Index of proper names is that of Cassirer.

A notable feature of Zgoll’s book is the mottos which preface each section: they are generally apposite and thought-provoking. By contrast, the thirteen figures could have been omitted: most of them are drawings of metamorphic myths, apparently reproducing ancient artefacts, which are nowhere identified, while the last one (on p. 325) depicts the stratification of the theme of metamorphosis put forward by Z. in a graph consisting of concentric circles and printed in letters too bold to be readable. The book is virtually free of typographical errors; only the Greek word εἶδος is misspelled with an omega instead of omicron twice on p. 25.

Metamorphosis, this apparent peculiarity of Greek myth, is a vast and complex issue. We must be thankful to Zgoll for this meticulous study of its reception in Augustan Rome. If not in any other respect, it is innovative in keeping out of consideration Ovid’s bible of metamorphic myth, which by Satan’s device, according to John Calvin, rendered suspicious the credibility of the metamorphic myths included in the Bible: Lot’s wife turned into a heap of salt and the resurrection of the dead.3


1. Metamorphosis in Greek Myths. Oxford 1990.

2. The latter must be Jeri Blair DeBrohun, ‘ Redressing Elegy’s Puella: Propertius IV and the Rhetoric of Fashion’, JRS 84, 1994, 41-63; the former is Victor J. Matthews, Panyassis of Halikarnassos, text and commentary (Mnemosyne Supplement 33), Leiden 1974.

3. Commentarius in Genesin 19.26 [Corpus Reformatorum XXIII, 278].