BMCR 2021.04.14

Metamorphic readings: transformation, language, and gender in the interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

, , , Metamorphic readings: transformation, language, and gender in the interpretation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 254. ISBN 9780198864066 $85.00.

[Authors and Titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This engaging volume of ten essays fills a rather surprising lack in Ovidian scholarship: an edited volume about metamorphosis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the introduction, the editors helpfully situate their volume within the context of recent monographs, but point out how few multi-author volumes have been dedicated to the Metamorphoses (4-5). The most cited or recent examples prioritize different approaches (e.g., reception in Hardie et al. 1999), themes (e.g., repetition in Fulkerson and Stover 2016), or objectives (e.g., Ovid handbooks and companions). The current volume thus takes an overdue thematic approach to metamorphosis in the Met. in three distinct stages: comparisons of Ovidian metamorphosis with primarily Hellenistic predecessors (Part I, “Transformations into the Metamorphoses”), explorations of metamorphosis within the work itself (Part II, “Transformations in the Metamorphoses”), and receptions of Ovidian metamorphosis (Part III, “Transformations of the Metamorphoses”).

Part I consists of one expansive yet superficial (necessarily, due to space) chapter by Alessandro Barchiesi, who offers novel insights into the differences in Hellenistic authors’ and Ovid’s utilization of metamorphosis. For instance, Greek metamorphoses tend to be cast as a single, aoristic moment in time, while Ovid focuses more on the gradual process; Greek transformations are conspicuously silent, while Ovid encourages his transforming characters to communicate and emote; Hellenistic authors use metamorphosis to emphasize etiology and localized Greek traditions, while Ovid explores its psychological effects on the transformed, eschewing Hellenic localization for global importance.

Part I’s brevity comes as something of a surprise and creates an imbalance with the remaining two sections. It could easily have included more chapters that explored areas for further reflection that Barchiesi himself suggests (24-29), including deeper connections between Ovid and Hellenistic or Neoteric precedents like Lycophron, Cinna, and Calvus and the connection of the visual spectacle in Ovidian metamorphosis with visual or performing arts and material culture.

Part II comprises five contributions that handle transformation within the work itself. Alison Sharrock presents a convincing three-pronged argument about the relationship between gender and metamorphosis in the Met.: gender in transformations remains a remarkably stable aspect of identity through the maintenance of gender-coded aspects like beauty (Daphne) or pregnancy (Callisto, Myrrha, Dryope); psychological descriptions of transformations often dwell sympathetically on female characters, while transformed men are generally treated with less subjective focalization or nuance; and stories of sex transformation (like Hermaphroditus, Tiresias, Iphis, and Caenis) simultaneously privilege male identity and problematize femininity. Sharrock’s readings straddle the line between “optimistic” and “pessimistic” perspectives on the difficult tales of sexual aggression in the Met., an ambiguity that encourages us to work with the duality of both rather than commit to one or the other.

Andrew Feldherr argues that the Deucalion and Pyrrha episode in Met. 1 exhibits a “paradoxical double vision of gender” (54) in that it both reifies an existing distinction between male and female and generates a divergence in Deucalion’s and Pyrrha’s differing approaches to the oracle’s words. Ovid maps male and female onto other dichotomies, primarily figurative and thus generative (in Deucalion’s ability to deduce the semantic gray area between “bones of the great mother” and “stones”) versus literal and potentially destructive (in Pyrrha’s impulse to interpret the oracle as an instruction to desecrate her mother’s resting place). Such juxtapositions invite the reader to reflect on how such distinctions, or the breakdowns between them, inform one’s understanding of the world around the couple and the poem’s relationship to that understanding; for example, the embodied present of Ovid’s contemporaneous audience is made possible only by the primordial past and Deucalion and Pyrrha’s actions in Ovid’s narrative.

Eleni Ntanou applies a geographic reading to the Arethusa narrative in Met. 5 to argue that Arethusa’s migration from the Peloponnese to Sicily capitalizes on the epic theme of colonization. Arethusa simultaneously embodies Greek origins and a new Sicilian/Roman identity through the use of both colonizing diction (e.g., peregrina, 5.495) and strictly Roman identity markers (e.g., penates, 5.496). As a westward-moving colonizer along the lines of Aeneas and Evander, Arethusa occupies the typically male role of the migrating hero, subverts the pastoral or elegiac expectations associated with her and Sicily, and augments existing narratives about Proserpina’s abduction by taking over the role of narrator from characters like Helios in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Aaron Joseph Kachuck argues that Byblis in Met. 9 serves as an instance of Ovidian self-fashioning through which he assimilates himself to Ennius, an author inspired by a dream and immortalized through writing. Byblis is the only dreamer in the Met. whose dreams are self-produced (rather than the product of an external god, for instance) and thoroughly human, and she also functions as the Met.’s first author, who meta-narratively positions herself in a coterie of incestuous Ovidian characters like Canace in Heroides 11. Kachuck suggests that the narrative forms part of a midpoint for the Metamorphoses, a “chronological fulcrum” (119) from which originate important beginnings for humankind, like Byblis’ invention of human dreams and writing. He connects Byblis’ never-drying spring (quae numquam arescere posset, 9.657) to the perennial quality that Ovid claims at the poem’s beginning (perpetuum … carmen, 1.4) and end (super alta perennis / astra ferar, 15.875-6). I feel that this last point would be more convincing if there were stronger linguistic parallels between these three citations.

In perhaps the most clever and convincing contribution to the volume, Mathias Hanses argues for the deliberateness of an acrostic deus at Met. 1.29-32 (first discovered by Isidor Hilberg but dismissed as accidental) by noting how the form of the acrostic (letter stacked vertically upon letter) matches the content of the lines (element stacked upon element). He then uncovers a telestich of Ovid’s name (Naso) at 1.452-5, the beginning of the programmatic Daphne and Apollo narrative, and suggests that deus and Naso should be read together. The combination forms a self-presentational signature that casts Ovid as the immortal demiurge of the universe of the Metamorphoses, a complement to other self-presentational signatures in his other works (e.g., Naso magister, “Ovid the teacher,” at Ars Amatoria 2.744 and 3.812, or Naso tristis, “sad Ovid,” at Epistulae ex Ponto 2.6.2). Ovid’s self-inscription into his funereal monument of sorts at the end of the epic (opus exegi…, 15.871-9) ensures that he and it will outlast physical monuments like Augustus’ mausoleum, as long as future generations continue to read the Metamorphoses.

Part III’s four chapters look towards issues of textual criticism, manuscript traditions, and reception. Monika Asztalos traces three examples of repeated phrases or words (latet silvis, 3.393 and 3.400; ars – arte, 10.252, with the suspect line 10.256; latebat / causa, 7.525-6, with causa latet, 7.576) deemed suspect by editors and subjected to brackets. Such repetitions, however, undergo transformations of inner meaning that enhance their narratives if retained. The echo of latet silvis underscores Echo’s progression from body to voice; the repetition of ars points to Pygmalion’s wonder at his own skill; the recontextualization of causa and latere within the same passage evinces shifts between epic and didactic registers. Asztalos’ argument relies in part on suggested emendations, some of which are more plausible than others. For example, at 10.252, the troubling ablative singular reflexive sua could very well have resulted via haplography from a text meant to read ars adeo latet arte. suam miratur… to localize the general aphorism to Pygmalion’s perspective. Other suggestions, however, would benefit from deeper explication; for example, it is not self-evidently clear how emending the ablative nullo to the dative nulli improves the sense of 3.400 (148-9).

Robin Wahlsten Böckerman investigates the reception of the Metamorphoses within its earliest full commentary, the surprisingly late Bavarian Commentary (clm 4610, circa 1100), which comprises about 460 explanations that Wahlsten Böckerman divides into ten types amongst four subcategories: background on mythology, grammar (grammatical explanations, paraphrases), lexical (patronymics, lexicon, etymology), and interpretative (euhemeristic, natural philosophy, narrative, plot) (174). Among these, the entries range from general explanations that utilize existing knowledge and commentaries on other works (e.g., a summary of the etymology of Hecate’s name that seems to draw onspecifics in Servius) and specific explanations tied to the linguistic or narrative functions within the Met. itself (e.g., textual critical analysis of uni versus uno at 3.269). The impulse to allegory, evident in earlier commentators like Fulgentius on Vergil, is rare in the Bavarian Commentary, but its limited appearances presage the popularity of the allegorical qua Christianizing approach in the Met.’s later treatments, like Pierre Bersuire’s Ovidius Moralizatus.

 Philip Hardie explores the resonances of serpentine transformations in three Christian poets (Prudentius, Dante, and Milton) with Ovidian precedents. After investigating the unexpectedly sanguine nature of snake transformations like that of Cadmus and Harmonia in Met. 4, Hardie demonstrates how each Christian author imbues the metamorphic pathways between human and snake with often negative moral meaning through evocative imagery like physical falling. Prudentius emulates Ovidian metaphor when describing the transformation of Lucifer into an envious, corrupted snake (Hamartigenia 186-205). Dante and Milton are more explicitly intertextual. The former “graft[s] Lucanian snake bites on to Ovidian metamorphosis” (190) to depict thieves who lose not only their human shape but also their souls in Inferno 24 and 25, while the latter portrays an alluring serpentine Satan (Paradise Lost 9.495-510) indebted to the Martian serpent of Met. 3 and Vergil’s sea-serpents of Aeneid 2.

The theory-laden final chapter by Louise Vinge and Niclas Johansson takes a fascinating diachronic look at the evolution of the reception of Narcissus from Vinge’s seminal 1967 work, The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature up to the Early 19th Century, to the present. In an age before structuralism, intertextuality, and hermeneutics and at the advent of thematology, Vinge explored interpretations of Narcissus like the 12th century Narcisus lai, the 13th century Roman de la rose, and Calderóns 1661 Eco y Narciso and interrupted the inclination of scholars to draw a direct line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the early 20th century. Johansson analyzes the strengths and shortcomings of Vinge’s approach and demonstrates how subsequent challenges to Vinge’s thematological system tend to fall into three camps (206): “a) more formalized structural analyses,” exemplified by scholars like Ezio Pellizer or Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux; “b) examinations of meaning-instability in the system,” exemplified by John Brenkman’s deconstructive reading; “and c) displacements and ramifications of the unifying principle of the theme,” as in the work of Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Steven Bruhm, and Negin Daneshvar-Malevergne.

The editors’ brief introduction sets up the volume’s theme and summarizes well the following chapters, but the lack of a conclusion seems to be a missed opportunity to tie the contributions together in retrospect. The back matter consists of an admirably comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index. Most Latin is translated in line, though occasional German, Italian, and French terms are taken for granted. Occasional typographical errors do not mar legibility and understanding. Each chapter contains much-appreciated footnotes rather than chapter or, worse, volume endnotes.

The breadth of topics covered by these ten chapters cleverly capitalizes on the capaciousness of the volume’s theme. Transformation happens in a number of different registers: words change meaning, bodies change form, reception changes perspectives, theory changes analytical modes, geography changes historical significance. This volume offers something for anyone interested in almost anything that transformation in the Metamorphoses could impact: culture, philology, intertextuality, gender, reception, comparative literature, religion, textual criticism, scholarship — the list goes on. The denseness of some argumentation gears this volume mostly towards graduate-level students (perhaps advanced undergraduates) and up. In all, this volume is a long-overdue, well-crafted, and impressively coherent contribution to Ovidian studies that will surely generate productive scholarship and conversations going forward.

Works Cited

Hardie, Philip; Alessandro Barchiesi; and Stephen Hinds, eds. 1999. Ovidian Transformations: Essays on the Metamorphoses and its Reception. Cambridge.
Fulkerson, Laurel, and Tim Stover, eds. 2016. Repeat Performances: Ovidian Repetition and the Metamorphoses. Madison; London.

Table of Contents

Preface (v)
Acknowledgements (vii)
Table of Contents (ix-x)
List of Contributors (xi-xii)

Alison Sharrock, Daniel Möller, and Mats Malm, “Introduction: Unity in Transformation” (1-10)

Part I: Transformations into the Metamorphoses
1. Alessandro Barchiesi, “Reading Metamorphosis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (13-30)

Part II: Transformations in the Metamorphoses
2. Alison Sharrock, “Gender and Transformation: Reading, Women, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” (33-53)
3. Andrew Feldherr, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gender and Text in Ovid’s Deucalion and Pyrrha Episode (Met. 1.313-415)” (54-83)
4. Eleni Ntanou, “HAC Arethusa TENUS (Met. 5.642): Geography and Poetics in Ovid’s Arethusa” (84-103)
5. Aaron Joseph Kachuck, “Ovid’s Dream, or, Byblis and the Circle of Metamorphoses” (104-125)
6. Mathias Hanses, “Naso Deus: Ovid’s Hidden Signature in the Metamorphoses” (126-141)

Part III: Transformations of the Metamorphoses
7. Monika Asztalos, “Latent Transformations: Reshaping the Metamorphoses (145-161)
8. Robin Wahlsten Böckerman, “The Bavarian Commentary and the Beginning of Medieval Reception of the Metamorphoses” (162-182)
9. Philip Hardie, “The Metamorphoses of Sin: Prudentius, Dante, Milton” (183-198)
10. Louise Vinge and Niclas Johansson, “Narcissus Revisited: Scholarly Approaches to the Narcissus Theme” (199-217)

Bibliography (219-237)
Index Locorum (239-247)
General Index (248-254)