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The Metamorphoses of Ovid - Ovid, Allen Mandelbaum

Nature is a cruel joke. It plagues us with natural disasters and disease, the destructive potential of which is equalled only by our own tempestuous inclinations. We heal the damage wrought by these forces the best we can with Apollo’s gifts: we heal the sick with medicine, we shed light where there is darkness, and we soothe our spirits with music. Sometimes we tell ourselves that there is nothing these gifts cannot overcome. Whenever our hubris swells to this degree we need individuals who remind us that nature-- especially human nature-- can shrug off our attempts to collar it whenever it pleases. Our fellow human beings  trample us pursuing their own ends, as the Greeks did Hecuba. Like Phaethon or Narcissus, we often require no worse enemy than ourselves. We are not so different, as it turns out, from the birds and beasts above which we place ourselves.


Ovid was one of those individuals who saw all the best and worst the world offers. He undermined hubris, and wove a madcap string of tales in which humans vie for their place in the natural order, often at the expense of their sanity or their lives. He mined the mythology inherited by the Romans, and crafted a treasure that dazzles one with its insight. As his stories unfold to the point of his epic’s final book, Ovid tells the tale of Numa, who ascends the Roman throne, and plans a fruitful reign:


He knows his people’s laws and customs-- but

that’s not enough for Numa: now he wants

his spacious spirit to encompass more:

he sets himself to study nature’s laws.

For love of this, he leaves his native Cures;

he journeys to the town where Hercules

was once a guest. And there, when Numa asked

who’d founded that Greek town in Italy,

an elder, one who was indeed well versed

in ancient lore, replied...


Up to this point Ovid has crafted a fearful dreamscape, filled with fantastical, almost nonsensical beauty. This train of heartrending transformations, though beautiful, could easily leave a person afraid of the world and afraid of themselves, but there is hope. This hope is the reply Numa receives from the elder in the Greek town in Italy.


The elder tells Numa that a young man named Myscelus was also troubled by a dream. In this dream the hero, Hercules charges Myscelus with a task: to journey out of his hometown, which will forbid him from doing so, and travel to a stream. By that stream Myscelus must build a city. Although the penalty for leaving his home of Argos is death, Myscelus, through Hercules’ intercession, journeys to that stream and founds the city of Crotona.


Crotona eventually nourishes the intellect of the famous philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras: “Although the gods were in the distant skies, / Pythagoras drew near them with his mind; / what nature had denied to human sight, / he saw with his intellect, his mental eye.” In other words, Pythagoras dares to makes sense of the dream through which Ovid has been masterfully guiding us. Though it confounds us, we can, and must, try to understand this mad dream, this world of which we are a part. With our hubris in check, we can take joy in being a part of the world. Nature is a cruel joke, it is true, but it is still a joke. We can weep and turn to stone or we can laugh and soar on wings into the unknown.


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