Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

Scholarship attributes Marlowe’s poems – Hero and Leander and his translations of Ovid and Lucan – to his time at Cambridge, before he came down to London and started writing for the stage i.e. before he was 23.

Hero and Leander is incomplete. Marlowe conceived it as a miniature epic or epyllion retelling the ancient love story of Hero and Leander in rhyming couplets. He wrote two sections (of 484 and 334 lines, respectively) before breaking off. The poem takes up just 24 pages of the Penguin edition of Marlowe’s complete poetry.

After Marlowe’s death, the poem was continued and completed by fellow playwright and poet, George Chapman. Chapman’s continuation takes up 56 pages i.e. is twice as long as the original. It was Chapman who divided the ‘completed’ poem, including Marlowe’s part, into sestiads, a word he made up referring to the city of Sestos where the poem is set, on the model of The Iliad which describes the war at Ilium (as Troy was then known).

These medium-length poems on a classical subject were popular in late-Elizabethan England. Frequently taken from the works of the Roman poet Ovid, they were generally about Love, often with strong erotic or sensual overtones. They were fashionably Italian in tone and were aimed at a refined and knowledgeable audience. Shakespeare wrote something similar with his Venus and Adonis.

The legend

The first thing to get straight is that Hero is the name of the woman in the story. She is a priestess of Aphrodite who lives in a tower in Sestos, a city on the European side of the Hellespont (the narrow strip of water near modern Istanbul which separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Leander is a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander spies Hero at a festival of Adonis, on the spot falls in love with her, woos and wins her then every subsequent night swims across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him on his nightly swim.

Their meetings last a long, hot summer. But one stormy winter night, a strong wind blows out Hero’s lamp and Leander loses his way in the storm-tossed sea and drowns. When Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself from the top of her tower to join him in death.

Sestiad one (484 lines)

The tone, the register, the descriptions are from the start over the top and exorbitant, much like the style of the plays. We learn that Hero was wooed by Apollo, no less, that her dress is stained with blood for all the suitors who have died for her sake. She has soaked up so much beauty that nature wept and turned half the world black (the commentators aren’t quite sure whether this means black-haired [as opposed to radiant blonde] or to the fact that any one moment half of the earth is in darkness):

So lovely-fair was Hero, Venus’ nun,
As Nature wept, thinking she was undone,
Because she took more from her than she left,
And of such wondrous beauty her bereft:
Therefore, in sign her treasure suffer’d wrack,
Since Hero’s time hath half the world been black.

Cupid was said to have looked on her and been struck blind her beauty. Or to routinely mistake Hero for his mother, the goddess of Love. Nor is Leander any less heroically beautiful. His hair would have outshone the famous golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. The moon (Cynthia) longs to be embraced by him. Zeus might have drunk from his hand.

Many commentators have pointed out that Marlowe devotes just as sensual a description to Leander as to Hero, and use this as evidence for the claim that Marlowe was gay.

His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allur’d the venturous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her Sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back; but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods: let it suffice
That my slack Muse sings of Leander’s eyes;
Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding his
That leapt into the water for a kiss [Narcissus]
Of his own shadow, and, despising many,
Died ere he could enjoy the love of any.
Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamour’d of his beauty had he been:
His presence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt;
The barbarous Thracian soldier, mov’d with nought,
Was mov’d with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire,—
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man, would say,
‘Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall.’

So, yes, possibly, you might claim some of these lines as proving that Marlowe was gay or had a gay sensibility – although, rereading the factual information about him, I now realise the evidence for this is actually very slender, based on hearsay and the written evidence of spies and liars.

The real point, for me, of a passage like this is surely how easy it is to read, easy and stylish and confident, brash, verging on the bombastic. Zeus would have drunk out of his hand! Because the poem starts in this high tone it’s easy to overlook how absurdly overblown a lot of its descriptions and claims are. Here is the description of Venus’ temple where Hero is a ‘nun’:

The walls were of discolour’d jasper-stone,
Wherein was Proteus carved; and over-head
A lively vine of green sea-agate spread,
Where by one hand light-headed Bacchus hung,
And with the other wine from grapes out-wrung.
Of crystal shining fair the pavement was;
The town of Sestos call’d it Venus’ glass:
There might you see the gods, in sundry shapes,
Committing heady riots, incests, rapes;

The vigour, the energy of the conception is captured in the riots, incests and rapes of the disgraceful gods (which he goes on to summarise for another ten lines). Power. Energy. Dynamism. This is what Ben Jonson meant when he referred to Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

The lion’s share of the first sestiad (lines 199 to 340) is devoted to a long section of Leander pleading with Hero to have sex with him, ‘his worthy love-suit’. Leander lines up a battery of arguments, cast in the pseudo-philosophical form popular at the time, to persuade Hero out of her priestly virginity and into loving and sleeping with him. In fluent succession he argues:

  • why does Hero worship Venus when she surpasses her so much in beauty
  • he vows to excel all others in her service
  • women must be used like musical instruments or metal jars, both of which go off and tarnish without use
  • lone women are like empty houses, which collapse and decline
  • women need men to validate them:

One is no number; maids are nothing, then,
Without the sweet society of men.

  • women are like raw gold which needs to be stamped with the owner’s imprimatur to gain value
  • virginity is nothing, has no reality, you can’t point to it or weigh it – therefore it means nothing

This idol, which you term virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being, do not boast;
Things that are not at all, are never lost.

  • how can virginity be called virtuous when we are born with it – only that can be virtuous which we strive for and achieve
  • she is so beautiful that if she lives alone, people won’t think she is virtuous, they’ll think she is being maintained by some rich man as his mistress
  • Venus likes banquets, Doric music, midnight revel, plays and masks – by rejecting all this life and human interaction for the life of the cloister Hero is ‘a holy idiot’ (line 333) in fact she is committing a sin against her goddess
  • she will most resemble Venus when she carries out ‘Venus’ sweet rites’ i.e. sex
  • rich corn dies if it is no reaped – beauty in solitude is lost

Who cares whether any of this is true or not (or sexist or misogynist) – the point is the roll, the rise, the rhythm of Marlowe’s arguments, breaking over Hero’s poor bowed head like the waves of the sea.

In fact Hero had long ago given in to his arguments, to his good looks and to Cupid’s arrow, though, as he reaches to embrace her, she eludes him. Instead she explains that she lives in a high tower on the coast, attended by ‘a dwarfish beldam’ who keeps her company with chatter and ‘apish merriment’. Before she knows it she’s said ‘Come thither’ but is immediately ashamed, regrets her boldness, casts her hands up to heaven – but Cupid beats down her prayers, turning her tears to pearls.

The digression about Hermes and the Destinies

At this point the entire narrative shifts scene and the last hundred lines (377 – 484) go off at a strange tangent, describing a peculiar story using Greek characters but, apparently made up by Marlowe himself. In this digression, Hermes messenger of the gods, on the same day he laid Argus asleep, spied a country maid and pursues and woos her and tumbles her to the ground, but as he’s undressing her she suddenly starts up and runs off shouting, so Hermes follows her, wooing her with stories and these make her stop to listen. At length she asks him to bring him a cup of the ‘flowing nectar’ on which the gods feast, and so Hermes pops up to heaven and steals some off Hebe, handmaiden to the gods and returns to earth to hand it to his shepherdess-lover.

Zeus discovers this theft and is more angry than he was when Prometheus stole the fire (everything is more than, the best, the toppermost). Zeus banishes Hermes from heaven and the sad god goes wandering up and down the earth till he bumps into Cupid and tells his tale of woe. This is all the prompting Cupid needs to take revenge on Zeus, and he shoots the ‘adamantine Destinies’ with his golden darts so they fall in love with Hermes and will do anything he asks.

Hermes goes way over the top and commands the Destinies to topple Zeus from his throne and replace him with his father, Saturn, who Zeus had overthrown. But barely was Saturn upon the throne and Zeus incarcerated in hell than Hermes stopped paying court to the Destinies, they noticed this and felt scorned, forswore Love and him, and promptly restored Zeus back to his throne.

Hermes nearly ended up locked in hell except that learning will always overcome all obstacles and rise to heaven and so Hermes, as the patron god of learning, eventually regained his place.

Yet, as a punishment, they added this,
That he and Poverty should always kiss;
And to this day is every scholar poor:

And explains why rich fools always seem to lord it over the Muses’ sons, well-educated wits, and the ‘lofty servile clown’ ‘keep learning down’. In other words, why deserving poets like Marlowe are always short of money and dependent on aristocratic fools.

It has the neatness of a fable, the folk tale origin of a proverb. Except that it is easy to overlook the fact that Marlowe just described the overthrow of the king of the gods by the keepers of the universe. He is, on other words, a poet whose imagination is always soaring off into the uttermost extremities of enormity.

Sestiad two (334 lines)

It’s a bit of an effort to click back to the original story, and find Hero playing hard to get, skipping off from Leander’s clutches, but turning round and eyeing him coyly, dropping her fan oops. She seems to make it home because the next thing we know Leander sends her a love letter, she replies telling him to come to her tower, and he arrives to find the front door wide open, and her room strewed with roses. He asked, she gave ‘and nothing was denied’. Marlowe is a very sexy writer:

Look how their hands, so were their hearts united,
And what he did, she willingly requited.
(Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet,
When like desires and like affections meet;)

Then she is overcome with guilt and shame and then fear that she has given herself too easily and he will tire of her, so she goes to him again, throwing herself on his bosom, making her body a sacrifice to her own anger at herself.

Leander, meanwhile, is a relatively naive and innocent lover and he is nagged by a suspicion that he hasn’t done enough or isn’t doing it right, and so he clasps her to him even more and suddenly finds his ardour rising again and the pleasing heat revived ‘Which taught him all that elder lovers know’. And yet she fled, keen to maintain ‘her maidenhead’ (in which case, all the shenanigans the poet has been describing must be merely foreplay).

Dawn comes, deliberately slowing her pace to let the two lovers take a long, drawn-out farewell. Hero gives Leander a myrtle to wear in his bonnet, a purple ribbon round his arm and the ring wherewith she had pledged her devotion to Venus. He is so liberally festooned with love’s tokens that Leander has barely got back to Abydos before everyone in both cities knows all about their love.

But Leander burns with love, flames for Hero’s absence. Leander’s father notices and pooh-poohs his love which only makes Leander burst out even more passionately like a wild horse that tamers try to restrain.

Sitting on a rock looking across the Hellespont to Hero’s tower, Leander’s love overcomes him, he tears off his clothes and leaps into the sea. But Poseidon god of the ocean, is convinced by his beauty that the legendary Ganymede has entered his element, and grasps Leander.

Leander strived; the waves about him wound,
And pull’d him to the bottom, where the ground
Was strewed with pearl, and in low coral groves
Sweet-singing mermaids sported with their loves
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure
To spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure;

It’s brilliantly vivid and colourful. Poseidon at first embraces Leander but our hero wriggles free of his grasp and, realising he is not Ganymede, Poseidon drops his lustful intent and turns to sporting with Leander. He fixes Helle’s bracelet on his arm so the sea can’t harm him and then frolics, as Leander strides through the water towards Hero, Poseidon swims between his strong arms and kisses him.

He watched his arms, and, as they open’d wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn’d, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
And dive into the water, and there pry
Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
And up again, and close beside him swim,
And talk of love. Leander made reply,
‘You are deceiv’d; I am no woman, I.’

Hm, many people seem to be mistaking Leander for a woman. Is this sexy? Is it gay? Or is it more a kind of imaginative exuberance, a super-sexed hyperbole which transcends love or sex or gender, reaching for a kind of super-human vivacity and energy.

Poseidon starts telling a story about a shepherd who dotes on a boy so beautiful, who played with

a boy so lovely-fair and kind,
As for his love both earth and heaven pin’d;

(OK, maybe it is gay) but Leander is in a hurry to get across the strait and pulls ahead of Poseidon lamenting he is going so slow. Angered, Poseidon throws his mace at Leander but immediately regrets the decision and calls it back, where it hits his hand with such violence it draws blood. Leander sees it and is sorry, and Poseidon’s heart is softened by the lad’s kind heart.

Leander finally staggers ashore and runs to Hero’s tower. She hears knocking at the door and runs to it naked but seeing a rough dirty naked man in the doorway, screams and runs off to hide in her dark room. But here Leander follows her, spying her white skin in the gloom, she slips into her bed, Leander sits on it, exhausted, and speaks these lovely lines:

‘If not for love, yet, love, for pity-sake,
Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;
At least vouchsafe these arms some little room,
Who, hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swoom:
This head was beat with many a churlish billow,
And therefore let it rest upon thy pillow.’

She wriggles down inside her bed, making a sort of tent of the sheets, while Leander whispers and entreats to her, and reaches in and begs and she is tempted but resists and is finally, at length, won like a town taken by storm,

Leander now, like Theban Hercules,
Enter’d the orchard of th’ Hesperides;
Whose fruit none rightly can describe, but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.

He appears to take her virginity:

she knew not how to frame her look,
Or speak to him, who in a moment took
That which so long, so charily she kept;

But I made the mistake of thinking they were having sex earlier, when it was only foreplay and here, again, what happens is obscure because next thing we know Hero slips out of the bed like a mermaid and stands and a kind of twilight breaks from her, and Leander beholds her naked for the first time. And at this moment Apollo’s golden harp sounds out music to the ocean and the morning star arises, driving night down into hell.

And it is there that the poem breaks off.

Famous quote

The poem contains one of Marlowe’s two most famous lines. Early in the first sestiad Hero is stooping down to a silver altar within the temple of Venus with her eyes closed. As she rises she opens her eyes and Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow through Leander’s heart, and Marlowe breaks off for a little digression on the nature of Love:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul’d by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

We know not what we do – or we have no idea why we like one thing instead of another, even when they’re indistinguishable like two identical gold ingots. We can’t explain why we love one thing instead of another just like it. It is fate.

Footnotes

Just some of the scores of Greek myths Marlowe refers to. Notice how many of them are about sex.

  • Before the advent of carpets, rooms in houses rich and poor, were strewn with rushes i.e. dried grasses.
  • Actaeon a fair youth, out hunting he accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked and as punishment she drove his hunting hounds into a wild frenzy so that they tore him to pieces.
  • Argus was a hundred-eyed monster sent by Hera to watch over beautiful maid Io and prevent Zeus sleeping with her, so Zeus sends Hermes to slay Io.
  • Cupid’s arrows According to Ovid, Cupid has two types of arrow, gold-tipped to kindle love and lead-tipped to extinguish it (Metamorphoses I, lines 470-471).
  • Ganymedea beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the shape of an eagle and brought to heaven to be the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin for Ganymede is Catamitus which is the origin of the English word ‘catamite’ denoting a pubescent boy in a pederastic relationship with an older man, or the receiver of anal intercourse.
  • Ixion was the treacherous king of Thessaly who murdered his father-in-law. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus where Ixion promptly repaid his kindness by trying to seduce Hera. Learning about this, Zeus created a fake model of Hera out of clouds and sent it to Ixion. The fruit of their union was the race of centaurs. Ixion was punished for his hubris by being bound to a wheel perpetually turning in hell.
  • Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus, cut up, cooked, and served at a dinner of the gods. Only Demeter actually ate anything, though, unknowingly eating Pelops’ shoulder. When Hermes was subsequently tasked with reconstituting Pelops, he gave him a shoulder made of ivory. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, VI, l.403-11.
  • Phaëthon was a son of Apollo, the sun god. He undertook to drive the chariot of the sun but lost control of the horses and was destroyed by Zeus to prevent him setting fire to the world (Metamorphoses II, 30)
  • Proteus the sea god, a byword for continual continual change.
  • Salmacis was a nymph who loved the fair youth Hermaphroditus who ignored her. But she embraced him and begged the gods that they never be parted, the gods granted her wish and transformed them into one being with the attributes of a man and a woman (Metamorphoses, IV, 285ff)
  • Tantalus was King of Lydia and a son of Zeus. He stole nectar from the gods to give to men and was consigned to hell where he suffered permanent thirst and hunger with goblets of water and plates full of rich food just out of reach.

Sources

An ancient work, The Double Heroides, is attributed to Ovid and, among other fictional letters, it contains an exchange of verse letters between Hero and Leander. In that text Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather and her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.

But research has shown that most of the details in Hero and Leander are taken from the much later 340 line-poem by the 6th century Byzantine poet Musaeus, who is actually namechecked in Marlowe’s poem (although Marlowe makes the error, common in his time, of mistakenly thinking Musaeus was a contemporary of Homer).


Related links

Marlowe’s works

King Harald’s Saga

Introduction

This is a relatively short and straightforward read in an excellent, fluent translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson.

It was published in 1966, 900 years after the events of the Great Year which it describes, for this is the life story of King Harald Sigurdsson, known as Harald Hardrada (hard ruler), the Norwegian king who invaded the north of England in late summer 1066 before being brought to battle, defeated and killed by Harold Godwinsson, King Harold II of England, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

The same ill-fated Harold of England who then had to force-march his army 270 miles south to confront that other invasion, from the Norman pretender William the Bastard, where things didn’t turn out quite so well.

King Harald’s saga is significantly different from the 15 or so sagas I’ve read hitherto for the following reasons:

It is authored 

All the so-called Family sagas are anonymous, whereas Harald’s was written by a known and famous medieval author and historian, Snorri Sturlason.

Poetry

All the other sagas include poetry and several of them are about famous poets (Egil Skallagrimsson, Gunnlaug Wormtongue); but the historian Snorri uses poetry not as illustration but as evidence, carefully assessing what it tells us about the events it decribes.

It is an excerpt

All the so-called ‘Family sagas’ are self-contained stories (though some key characters appear in more than one saga); whereas Harald’s saga is an excerpt from a much longer work, the Heimskringla, which is some 850 pages long.

Linear

The ‘Family sagas’, although they concern the deeds of actual historical people, are consciously shaped and moulded for artistic affect; whereas Harald’s saga, being an almost year-by-year account of his career, is much more linear.

Interference

We often know nothing more about the heroes of the ‘Family sagas’ than their sagas tell us and, given the artistic intention of the texts, it is satisfying and sufficient to accept their narratives and stories at face value without needing to delve deeper; whereas King Harald was a real historical figure and a major player in the events of the dramatic year of 1066 which are taught to all schoolchildren. So his character – and the events described in the narrative – are easily swamped by our outside knowledge of him and his doings from numerous other sources.

Snorri Sturlason

One of the key figures in the creative upsurge which led to the explosion of saga-writing in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries was the Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturlason (c.1179 to 1241).

Snorri was an astonishing renaissance man – poet and historian, politician, chieftain and lawyer. It is to Snorri that we owe one of the two key texts about Norse mythology, the Prose Edda.

This long text was designed as a primer on poetic technique, leading up to a long section about the different stanzas and methods available to Icelandic poets, the opening section about the Norse myths was only intended as a kind of background briefing for these poets. But as most other sources have been lost, the Prose Edda now stands as an invaluable source – often the only source – for many of the tales of the Norse gods.

As if this wasn’t enough of an achievement, Snorri is also famous, in Norway, for having written the definitive history of the kings of Norway from the earliest mythical times up to around the time of his birth, 1177, in a vast book titled the Heimskringla.

The Heimskringla

This vast text is a comprehensive history of the kings of Norway from the mists of prehistory, when they were caught up in the doings of Odin and Loki, through to factually accurate accounts of the kings who ruled just before Snorri’s birth. It is divided into 16 chapters which are, in style and structure, very like sagas. By far the longest chapter consists of the saga of St Olaf, taking up two thirds of the total.

But unlike the Family sagas, Snorri’s long text is very aware of the problems of historical technique, of weighing and comparing sources, of choosing which version of events to follow, and so on. Snorri explicitly addresses these problems in his preface and in other places.

Maybe the most striking aspect of the book is the very strong reliance on poetry as a form of historical evidence.

Poetry

Over 90 verses of skaldic poetry are quoted in the saga, there’s a verse on every page, and most of them are credited to named individuals since the kings of Norway had a special fondness for keeping poets around them to sing their praises and Harald was no exception. I particularly liked this verse by Bolverk Arnorsson:

Bleak showers lashed the dark prows
Hard along the coastline;
Iron-shielded vessels
Flaunted colourful rigging.
The great prince saw ahead
The copper roofs of Byzantium;
His swan-breasted ships swept
Towards the tall-towered city.

Interference

The Magnusson translation is wonderful, no problems there. It has a really useful introduction, good maps, invaluable family trees, and potted biographies of almost everyone mentioned in the text. In addition there are ample footnotes on every page, so that many pages are often more notes than text.

And it’s here that a teeny-tiny problem emerges, because at key cruxes of Harald’s biography – his time with the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, his wars against Svein Ulfsson, king of Denmark, and Earl Hakon Ivarsson, nomadic chieftain, and in the detail of his final campaign against Harold Godwinsson in England – the notes intrude up into the body of the text to give really detailed explanations of the complicated genealogical and political connections between the main characters, and this:

  • swamps the text you’re reading: for example, after two pages of factual scholarly notes detailing just what Harold Godwinsson promised Duke William of Normandy, it’s difficult to rejoin the fictional narrative in the same, rather fairy-tale frame of mind
  • undermines the text because, unfortunately, it turns out that the saga is plain wrong in many of its factual claims

The notes, in places, become a kind of anti-text which is actively warring against the saga, undermining its facts and interpretation.

This doesn’t happen in the ‘Family sagas’ which are much more like, say, the tragedies of Shakespeare in that they use genuine historical figures but are obviously crafted to produce dramatic twists and confrontations.

Snorri, also, creates dramatic moments in this tale, but they are continually undermined by the scientific tone of the footnotes, which leap in to correct Snorri’s many historical errors and so continually interfere with your enjoyment.

In a nutshell, the first time you read the Magnusson translation, I suggest you skip the notes, just read the narrative for the speed and excitement of the story.

Plot summary

The story opens when Harald is 15 and fighting alongside his half-brother, King Olaf, at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Olaf loses and is killed and Harald flees east to Sweden. From there he journeys south-east through Russia, stopping to impress King Jaroslav before carrying on down to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, the elite band of mercenaries mostly from Scandinavia who served the emperor directly. He fights for the Byzantines in Greece, Sicily, then in the Holy Land where he makes pilgrimage to the shrines. Back in Constantinople he asks to return home, is refused and thrown in prison, is released by a miracle and takes part in some kind of uprising against the emperor in which he is said to have personally put out the emperor’s eyes. He and his fellow Scands escape across the Black Sea and back upriver to Russia, collect the loot they’d been stashing with King Jaroslav, and return to Norway.

The middle part of the saga details Harald’s numerous confrontations, battles, negotiations, treaties with and double crosses of King Magnus of Denmark (his nephew), his successor King Svein Ulfsson, and the slippery chieftain  Earl Hakon Ivarsson who fights first for one side then for the other then against both. It is a confusing picture made more so by the tangled skein of intermarriages among the royal families of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and the endless squabbles about who promised who which kingdom when they died.

Thus, in around 1038, King Magnus of Norway had made a pact with King Hardacnut of Denmark (son of Cnut the Great who actually ruled England from 1016-1035) that if either of them died childless the other would inherit their realm. Hardacnut died childless in 1042 and so Magnus claimed Denmark. But since  Hardacnut’s father had been king of England, Magnus also claimed the English throne. When Edward the Confessor had himself crowned English king after Hardacnut’s death, Magnus had planned to invade England only to be distracted by war with rebellious chieftains nearer home. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald considered that he’d inherited England along with Denmark. Edward negotiated with his both Harald and William of Normandy throughout the 1050s and managed to keep both at bay. But after his death in January 1066 both William of Normandy and Harald of Denmark considered themselves cheated of the kingdom when Harold Godwinsson got himself crowned, and they both set out to invade and conquer the land they thought rightfully theirs.

And that account not only partly explains the reason for Harald’s invasion, but gives a good flavour of how the fictional or artistic aspect of the saga, the creation of telling vignettes and insightful dialogue, is unfortunately swamped in the great sea of factual prose which is required to explicate these complicated events.

Harald sails Norway with 300 ships and maybe 6,000 men, lands on the Yorkshire coast, wins a battle at Fulford near York and is recovering with his men when the huge army Harold Godwinsson has raised attacks. The slaughter takes place in three terrible waves and leaves a battlefield glutted with corpses and Harald dead, killed by an arrow. Only 20 or so ships suffice to take the survivors back to Norway, and the memory of the slaughter more or less ends Scandinavian ambitions to invade let alone rule England.

In its last few chapters the saga has an obituary of Harald with a 13th century assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.  His old adversary Svein of Denmark gathers forces to invade Norway yet again, but wiser heads prevail to defuse the threat and preserve the peace, and Harald is succeeded by his sons Magnus (d.1069) and Olaf (d.1093) who preside over a long period of much-deserved peace.


Related links

Other saga reviews

The Saga of Eirik the Red

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). Eirik’s saga is slightly longer (13 chapters versus 8) and is thought to be the later of the two, though both only reached their final form during the 13th century which saw the great flowering of anonymous Icelandic prose narratives we call the sagas.

The fine detail of who landed where and what they called it is admirably covered in this new and very thorough Penguin edition which contains maps and detailed notes as well as appendices on subjects like Norse boat design, the nature of outlawry and so on.

The overall message of the two sagas to the non-scholar is a) the astonishing adventurousness of the Old Norse/Viking peoples, their willingness to explore further and further afield from their Scandinavian base until their destinations stretched from the  Black Sea in the east to American in the west; b) but that these specific expeditions marked the limit of that urge: Vinland (the name they gave to the fertile land they sighted and settled for a year or two, probably Newfoundland, maybe further south along the northeast coast of America) was settled for a short while, but then abandoned, too far beyond the usual lines of communication, the natives too dangerous and threatening.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Oleif the White raids round Ireland and conquers Dublin. He marries Aud the Deep-Minded, daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose (both of whom feature at the start of the Laxærdal Saga). Their son is Thorstein. When Oleif is killed in battle Aud and Thorstein decamp to the Hebrides. Thorstein rises to become a king of Cithness etc but is then killed by the Scots. Aud makes her getaway to the Orkneys. She marries off her daughter royally before proceeding to Iceland and claiming all the land around Hvamm. One of her crew is Vifil, high born but made a slave in Britain. Aud frees him and gives him land.

2 – Introducing Thorvald who has a son Eirik the Red. They’re involved in killings in Norway and so flee to Iceland. Thorvald dies. Eirik marries and builds a farm at Eiriksstadir (whose ruins can still be seen today). But feuds: his slaves cause a landslide which kills some servant; Filth-Eyjolf kills the slaves; Eirik kills Filth-Eyjolf and more besides. He flees to an offshore island. He is outlawed at the Thorsnes Assembly. He tells his followers he intends to find th eland spotted by Gunnbjorn when blown off course. He sails west to Greenland (985). He names places, staying in Eiriksey Island. The next spring travels round to Eiriksfjord where he settles. All told three years of exploring and building camps. Eirik returns to Iceland and publicises the new place he has christened Greenland.

3 – Vifil (from chapter 1) had two sons. One of them was Thorbjorn who marries and has a daughter, Gudrid. She is fostered by Orm. Einar is a succesful merchant son of a freed slave. He visits Orm with mechandise and sees Gudrid and is smitten. He asks Orm to ask Thorbjorn for Gudrid’s hand. Thorbjorn is predictably cross at receiving a humiliating proposal from a slave’s son. At that year’s autumn feast he surprises his friends by announcing he will sail to the land his friend Eirik told him about. He sells his goods and farm and sets off in a ship with thirty crew. they are storm-beaten and then illness strikes. Unlucky Orm and his wife die. Finally they arrive at the southern tip of Greenland, named Herjolfsnes, and a farmer named Thorkel gives them shelter for the winter.

4 – Thorbjorg the Seeress An unusually long and detailed account of the clothes and rituals practiced by Thorbjorg the Seeress who the locals ask Thorkel to host and ask the future. Afte ra day of preparation she prophecies for everyone, most notably for Gudrid, saying she will marry well, return to Iceland and have many noble descendants (and we know this is written with the hindsight that at least three Icelandic bishops are descended from her). In the spring Thorbjorn sails with his daughter round the coast to Brattahlid where he is greeted by Eirik and given land.

5 – Leif Eiriksson Eirik has two sons including Leif (saga of Greenlanders tells us he has four sons and the psychopath daughter, Freydis). (999) Leif sails to Norway where he serves a while with King Olaf Tryggvasson. He is driven off course by winds and makes land on the Hebrides. He falls in love with a woman, Thorgunna, whom he makes pregnant. Leif is reluctant to abduct her against the wishes of her powerful kin, and so abandons her. Later she follows him to Greenland with her son Thorgils. But for now Leif sails to Norway and becomes a retainer of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Olaf asks Leif to convert Greenland to Christianity which he’s reluctant to do but sets sail. (1000) Leif lands somewhere rich with wheat and vines. Then encounters a ship wrecked on skerries and takes off all the passengers, then makes land on Greenland, and is known thereafter as Leif the Lucky. He goes to his home farm of Brattahlid and is welcomed by his father Eirik. He preaches the gospel and the new way. His father is reluctant but his mother Thjodhild enthusiastically converts and builds a church (which archaeologists have found and reconstructed). People say they should go explore the land Leif had brielfy seen. Eirik’s other son Thorstein becomes th eleader. He urges Eirik to come with and, although riding down to the ship Eirik has a fall, he goes nonetheless (opposite of Greenland Saga). (1001) But it is an ill-fated expedition, they are washed around by the waves, sight Iceland, see Irish birds, everything except Vinland and end up washed back ashore on Greenland.

6 – The plague This Thorstein whose expedition failed now marries Gudrid. Confusingly, they go to stay with another man named Thorstein and his wife Sigrid and disease strikes. The farmer’s wife Sigrid dies, but not before she’s had a vision of the dead lined up outside. And Thorstein Eiriksson dies. Then sits up and asks to speak to his wife, and delivers a Christian homily, saying Greenlanders must stop pagan burial practices and bury bodies in a churchyard – you can hear the true sermony voice of medieval Christianity. All the bodies are buried in the church in Eiriksfjord. Then Gudrid’s father Thorbjorn dies too, leaving her all his money.

7 – Thorfin Karlsefni comes from good family ultimately going back to Aud. With two ships they sail from Iceland to Greenland making land at Brattahlid, and Eirik generously offers to put them up. After a spell Karlsefni asks for Gudrid’s hand in marriage. The Yule feast becomes a wedding feast.

8 – (1005) Snorri and Karlsefni, Bjarni and Thorhall, Thorvald and Thorhall set sail for Vinland in three ships with 140 men. A detailed description of the  lands they see and name until they moor in a fjord (Straumsfjord) for the winter. But, fascinatingly, they nearly all starve, unprepared and unable to live off the land. Thorhall goes mad and is found after three days talking to himself. They find a beached whale and cook it and are all sick and throw themselves on God’s mercy and the weather improves and in the pring there is game, fish and birds eggs.

9 – They disagree how to proceed. Thorhall takes nine men and sails north, after reciting some pagan poems. They are washed off-course as far as Ireland where they are caught and enslaved.

10 – The rest head south to a tidal pool which is teeming with fish, the land with game and self-seeded wheat. It is paradise. After a while nine coracles approach, the short threatening natives get out and observe them, then go their way.

11 – A fleet of natives returns and the Icelanders trade with them until a bull bellowing scares them off. They return a few weeks later in warlike mood and there is a fight. Karlsefni and his men turn and run but Freydis, an illegitimate daughter of Eirik, picks up the sword of one of the dead and turns on the natives and, extracting a breast from her shift, beats it with the flat of the sword. This frightens the natives so much that they turn and flee (!) but Karlsefni and Snorri realise the natives make the land uninhabitable. They pack up and sail back north, past a headland packed with deer where the main party camp and Karlsefni sails north and wet, vainly searching for Thorhall.

12 – A one-legged creature emerges from the woods and fires an arrow which hits Thorvald and kills him. They pursue him north catching sight of the Land of the One-Legged (! presumably a longstanding fantasy land). They spend their third winter in Straumsfjord, and Karlsefni’s son Snorri is born. They sail back north past Markland where they capture some natives and convert them to Christianity, before arriving back in Greenland with Eirik.

13 – The sea of worms Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew are borne past the Greenland Straits and into the Sea of Worms. Worms infest the ship’s timbers and everyone behaves as if that’s it for the ship. They draw lots to see who will survive in the ship’s boat. Bjarni is goaded by a young sailor until he gives up his place for him. ‘People say that Bjrani died there in the Sea of Worms, aboard the ship.’

14 – The next summer Karsefni sails for Iceland with his wife Gudrid. The last sentences in the saga describe how three of Karlsefni and Gudrid’s great grandchildren are notable Icelandic bishops. Do these sagas exist solely because the Christian bishops, or their descendants, commissioned these stories about their ancestors to be written down?

A one-legged creature? A sea of worms? These sound like later, medieval accretions to the basic story.


Related links

Other saga reviews

Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum

This spring’s blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum is a massive one about the Vikings, the first show on the subject since 1980. It’s an international affair, mounted in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It is wonderfully comprehensive, covering almost every theme or element you can image including trade patterns, coins and precious objects, religion and idols, war and weapons, homes and domestic arrangements, and the legacy of placenames and language.

Background

My experience was heavily influence by two readings of Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross. What makes that book so pleasurable is his willingness to lay out the (often ambiguous and obscure) evidence, explain the different interpretations historians have put on it, and leave us to make our own minds up. Thus he shows that the start and the end point of the ‘Viking age’ depends which country you’re talking about and a number of other factors, for example defining at what stage Scandinavian leaders ceased to be raider-chieftains and became something like what we mean by ‘kings’ – a pretty grey area.

In England the Viking Age probably starts with the famous attack on the mainland, at Lindisfarne in 793, and lasts until the defeat of King Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) who attempted to recapture the Kingdom of York and was defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – a date generally more familiar from the battle Harold then had to fight a few weeks later down on the south coast, and which didn’t turn out so well. In Ireland they date the end to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In Normandy the start and end points are different again. And so on.

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. (Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark)

The exhibition cuts through these and other problems/issues/enjoyable quibbles by defining the The Viking Age as 800–1050. Similarly, they boldly define the word ‘viking’ – which Ferguson spends pages explaining is obscure and has a variety of possible meanings and derivations – in the traditional way as meaning pirate or raider.

I can see the practical need to define terms and set clear parameters, but the exhibition sometimes skims over issues. It is very broad, covering all aspects of life and trade and war and domestic arrangements and boat-building and burials and gods and farm design and building projects and politics: but sometimes feels a little light, lacking follow-up on themes just as you’re starting to get interested. Then again, that’s what the shop is for, providing plenty of resources to investigate further, including the  weighty catalogue and many history books like Ferguson’s. It can be seen as a very comprehensive taster.

Images

The exhibition largely consists of objects and artefacts, most of them small, many of them coins and brooches etc. By contrast with these small objects (which are frequently difficult to see because of the crowds – this exhibition is PACKED), the most memorable images for me were a series of stunning photos of the Vikings’ stomping-grounds and locations.

A wonderful video in an early room held me spellbound as it traced the routes of Viking expeditions across the North Sea, to Iceland and Greenland, round France to Spain, across the Baltic and down the Russian rivers to the Black Sea etc – and for each route brought up large and beautifully composed photos of, for example, a carved cross in Ireland, the site of the settlement in Greenland, the steppes of Ukraine, a beaver dam in Poland, which conveyed more than anything else the physical geography, and therefore the mental and imaginative terrain, these people inhabited. These photos are almost works of art in themselves!

Network and Empire

For one major emphasis of the exhibition is on the trading aspects of Viking culture, on the amazingly farflung nature of its communications and commerce, so that silver dirhams from Baghdad are found in ship burials in Iceland etc. Thus the Vale of York trove is displayed in its entirety (and the main affect on me was surprise at how small a space such a famous haul amounts to: it looked like it could all fit into a cereal bowl).

Photo of the Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver. (British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum)

There’s another interesting thread running through the exhibition explaining how Viking artefacts show the influence of designs from Anglo-Saxon England or from the Frankish empire, explaining in detail how slightly differing designs can help both date and locate objects, scholars are now so expert in regional variations and styles.

Objects

Case after case displayed the kinds of objects you associate with archaeology: coins and brooches and pins and combs and pots (interestingly, in their home territory they had no pottery but used carved stone or wood), rings and bracelets and necklets made from silver or gold.

I particularly liked the objects which had runes carved into them – for example, the Christian reliquary which had runes naming the new heathen owner is evocative of raids and pillage and the great culture clash which Ferguson puts at the heart of the Viking story, between literate Christians and illiterate pagans.

Photo of a carved Odin figure

Odin or volva figure, 800-1050. Lejre, Zealand, Denmark. Silver with niello. (Photo Ole Malling. Copyright of the Roskilde Museum)

The boat

The exhibition publicity gives pride of place to a huge longboat which dominates the final, enormous room. That’s true and not true: certainly the exhibition leads through half a dozen normal sized rooms into a massive bay or airplane hangar of a space and fitting almost the entire length is the metal frame of a vast longboat.

Photo of the Roskilde 6 boat

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. (Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.)

This warship is one of a series found at Roskilde in Denmark and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long with forty oars to each side, you see it from a viewing platform slightly above, and then, as you walk along the side, it looms larger and larger, until you are on ground level next to its keel and experience a powerful feeling of just how strong the rowers must have been, how fast and sleek it must have moved through the water, how terrified anyone on the receiving end of its raiding must have felt.

However, I was slightly disappointed to realise that almost the entire object is made of modern metal struts, including both prow and tailpiece. No romantic carved dragon, just a modern steel strut. Only long rows of planks along the very bottom give you a sense of the clinker-building technique and looks, frankly, like a very long rowing boat. Nonetheless, the sheer length, as you walk along it, does give you a hair-raising sense of the mighty physical presence, of the fear and terror it must have inspired.

The Jelling Stone

As vivid and wonderful, for me, as the ship, was a replica in the same room of the famous Jelling Stone, a massive 10th century runestone located at the town of Jelling in Denmark. Ferguson tells the story that it was found on the beach and ordered dragged to its present location by the mighty King Harald Bluetooth who ordered one side carved with Heathen zoomorphic patterns, the other with a carved image of Christ, and runes inscribed along the bottom which read: ‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

As with classical statues, it is a dizzying shock to see the thing painted in bright day-glo colours and realise the world of these people of long-ago wasn’t as black and white and sparse as the few surviving relics often imply, but was as bright and colourful and decorated as their means allowed.

Audio commentary and price

The audio commentary was voiced by Sandy Toksvig who can’t really escape the comic tone which 30 years as a stand-up comedian and TV presenter have ingrained into her voice. A generation ago it would have been narrated by Magnus Magnusson, saga scholar and historian, pointing out depths and connections. Now, a comedian, making it more ‘accessible’.

The exhibition costs £16.50 to get in, plus £4.50 for the audio. If you add the transport and any merchandise you’re tempted to buy, it’s a pricey experience. But if you’re a fan, totally worth it!

Vikings: Life and Legend continues at the British Museum until 22 June.

Related links

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Sagas

Eyrbyggja Saga 2

Could be called Snorri’s saga, as Snorri the Priest is born in chapter 12, dies in the last chapter (65) and dominates most of the action in between, if only as peacemaker between the various gangs which come to inhabit the Snæfelsness peninsula in north-west Iceland where it is set. He inhabits a larger proportion of the text than Egil or Njal do of their sagas.

Eyrbyggja as a late, carefully-crafted text

Eyrbyggja uses material from other sagas: chapters 12 and 13 give a brisk summary of the main plot of Gislis saga. In chapter 47 Snorri recounts the story of Gunnar’s last stand from Njal’s saga. The opening chapters about Ketil Flat-Nose seems to come from, or certainly parallel, the opening chapters of Laxdæla saga which also describe the reasons for Ketil leaving Norway for Iceland, and also echo the account in the Landnamabok. Towards the end the text refers overtly to Grettis saga and Bandamanna saga and Heidarviga saga and chapter 24 gives a summary of part of Eirik’s saga. At key moments in the Thorbrandssons versus Thorlakssons sections, the fights at Alftafjord and Vigra Fjord, the author quotes a long poem on the subject, the Lay of the Raven by Thormod Trefilsson, as well as poems supposedly created by the protagonists. Right at the end he quotes Gudny Bodvar’s-daughter as an eyewitness to the bones of Snorri, Bork the Stout and Thordis Sur’s-daughter being dug up and transferred to the new church at Tongue.

Eyrbyggja definitely feels late – it feels as if the author had good written accounts of numerous sagas, long poems and short verses which had been handed down, along with factual accounts of key events and legends and ghost stories, all of which he used carefully to amplify and enrich his narrative. This strength is also its weakness as it lacks the clarity of narrative of Egils saga or Njals saga and suffers, especially in the final third, from feeling like an anthology of interesting legends and anecdotes. Still, for this very reason, its variety of tone and incident, and also because this is a very fluent and readable translation by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, complete with good map and useful notes, I’d be tempted to recommend this as a first saga for the beginner.

Synopsis

The first settlers from Norway

1 – Ketil Flat-Nose is a great chieftain in Norway and married to Yngvild. King Harald Fair-Hair forces Ketil to combat exiles from Norway who are ravaging the coast. Ketil packs wife and sons and sails to the Hebrides where he crushes the Vikings and makes peace with the local chieftains with no intention of handing them over to Harald who promptly confiscates all Ketil’s property in Norway. Ketil marries his daughter to the most powerful chieftain in Britain, Olaf the White.

2 – Ketil’s son Bjorn had stayed on in Norway, goes south to his father’s estates and expels the king’s men. In response Harald outlaws Bjorn and sends men to kill him. Tipped off, Bjorn sails south along the coast to a place named Mostur Island and takes refuge with Hrolf.

3 – Hrolf is a friend of Thor, in charge of Thor’s temple and has an impressive beard so is known as Thorolf Mostur-Beard. Thorolf sends Bjorn with his son Hallstein across the sea. When Harald learns Thorolf has been sheltering the outlaw Ketil’s son, he outlaws him.

4 – Thorolf consults his friend Thor who advises him to go to Iceland. He takes Thor’s temple, timbers and some earth. On sighting Iceland he throws overboard the high-seat pillars and vows to build where they land. They sail into a broad fjord which he names Breida Fjord. The pillars land at a promontory which he calls Thorsnes. Thorolf builds a farm Hofstad and a new temple. On the ness is a mountain which Thorolf declares so sacred that no man can look at it without washing, and he names Helga Fell. He institutes the Thors Ness assembly and the land is so holy no-one is allowed to poo there but must go out to an island just offshore known as Dritsker.

5 – When Bjorn rendevous with his family in the Hebrides, his father Ketil has died. He discovers his mother and brother have converted to Christianity and becomes alienated from them. They call him Bjorn the Easterner.

6 – After two years in the Hebrides Bjorn and his friend Hallstein Thorolfsson sail to Iceland, to Breidafjord where they settle and build farms.

The second generation

7 – Other settlers arrive: Geirrod builds his home at Eyr, along with Ulfar the Champion and Finngeir. Vestar has a son Asgeir. Bjorn the Easterner dies, succeeded by son 1 Kjallak the Old who marries Astrid and has Thorgrim the Priest, Gerd and Helga – their descendants are many and known as the Kjalleklings; and son 2 Ottar marries Gro, has Bjord father of Vigfus and Osvif the Wise, father of Gudrun the ill-fated heroine of Laxdala saga. In old age Thorolf Mostur-Bear marries Unn and has a son Thorstein, nicknamed Cod-Biter. Hallstein, Bjorn’s sailing companion, has a son Thorstein, fostered by Thorolf and nicknamed Thorstein Surt.

8 – Geirrid sister of Geirrod of Eyr comes to Iceland and Geirrod grants her land. She has a son who grows up to be Thorolf Bjornsson a great Viking. He thinks the land his mother has too small and challenges Ulfar the Champion to a duel and kills him not before Ulfar wounds his leg so that he walks with a limp and is known as Thorolf Twist-Foot. Thorolf has a son, Arnkel (who will squabble with Snorri), and a daughter Geirrid who marries another Thorolf and has Thorarin the Black (who will kill Thorbjorn and be exiled).

9 – Thorolf the founder dies and is succeeded by his son Thorstein Cod-Biter. The Kjalleklings (descended from Bjorn the Easterner) are arrogant. At the Thors Ness assembly Thorgim Kjallaksson announces they will poo where they want and no longer go to Dritsker. Thorstein Cod-Biter, defending his father’s holy soil, musters his men and attacks the Kjalleklings driving them down to the beach where there is a big pitched battle with some deaths.

10 – Thord Gellir, at that time leading chieftain of Breidafjord, is brought in to make a settlement. He moves the assembly to a new location and makes Thorgim half responsible for maintaining the temple, from which point he is known as Thorgrim the Priest.

11 – Thorstein Cod-Biter dies. He had a son Bork the Stout then, aged 25, another baby he calls Thorgrim and dedicates to Thor to become a priest. That autumn shepherds see the north side of Helga Fell open revealing fires and the sounds of feasting and the names of Thorstein and comrades. The next day they learn Thorstein was drowned on a fishing expedition to Hoskuld Island.

Overlap with Gisli’s saga

12 – Thorgrim marries Thordis Sur-daughter of Dyrafjord and goes to live with his brothers-in-law Gisli and Thorkel. Thorgrim kills Vestein Vesteinsson at a festival and, the following year, aged 25 like his father, Thorgrim is killed by his brother-in-law Gisli at an autumn feast. A few days later Thorgrim’s widow Thordis gives birth to a son named Thorgrim after his father – Thorgrim Thorgrimsson. She marries her brother-in-law Bork the Stout and goes to live in Helgafell. Little Thorgrim is fostered out to Thorbrand of Alftafjord where he is so troublesome he acquires the nickname Snorri, eventually to become the famous Snorri the Priest. Thorbrand has five sons and these Thorbrandssons are blood brothers to Snorri. The fearsome Viking Thorolf Twist-foot has a son Arnkel. Thorgim Kjallakson who started the fight at Thors Ness has three sons: Brand, Arngrim who is so mean he is nicknamed Styr, and Vermund the Slender. Asgeir of Eyr has a son Thorlak who marries Thurid and has sons Steinthor, Bergthor, Thormod, Thord Blig (the Thorlakssons who are going to be involved in feuds) and daughter Helga.

13 – When he’s 14 Snorri travels to Norway funded by his uncle Bork. The following year he returns and there is much joking that his colleague wears elaborate clothes and armour, whereas Snorri rides a plain mare in a black cloak. One day 12 armed men walk into the hall at Helgafell led by Bork’s kinsman, Eyjolf the Grey (son of Thord Gellir, biggest chieftain in the area who made the peace in chapter 10) who announces his crew have just killed Gisli the outlaw. This is as Bork wanted because Gisli killed his brother Thorgrim. But it is bad news for Bork’s wife Thordis as Gisli was her brother. As she goes to serve them, Thordis seizes Eyjolf’s sword and tries to stab him, only succeeding in gashing his thigh. Bork pushes her and Eyjolf would attack her but Snorri steps in to protect her. Bork gives Eyjolf self-judgement and gives him ample compensation, who rides off feeling very dissatisfied with all his hard work for Bork. This widens the gap between Snorri and his uncle and foster-father Bork.

Snorri’s career

14 – Snorri kicks Bork out of Helgafell which rightfully belongs to him. He surprises Bork by being able to pay the price Bork names. Thordis divorces Bork for hitting her and takes half his belongings so Bork ends up with very little.

15 – Snorri’s farm at Helgafell flourishes and he becomes the priest of Thor’s temple. A widow called Katla lived at Holt, west of Mavahlid with her son Odd, a trouble-maker. Thorbjorn the Stout’s son Gunnlaug often goes to study witchcraft with Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter. He stops in to chat to Katla and she insinuates that he makes love to Geirrid and that she fancies him. As he’s accompanied by Odd on these journeys he often stops off at Mavahlid and Katla always invites him in and he always refuses.

16 – On one of these visits Geirrid warns Gunnlaug not to go home. When he and Odd reach Holt, Katla invites him in and he refuses as usual. The next morning Gunnlaug is found almost dead covered in piercing deep scratches. He has been ridden by a night witch. Snorri and Gunnlaug’s father Thorbjorn ride over to Mavahlid and serve a summons on Geirrid for being a witch. But at the next assembly a lot of her kin support her and the case is rejected.

17 – At the same assembly a big fight breaks out, one side led by Thorgrim Kjallakson over the dowry of Illugi the Black’s wife. Men are killed before Snorri manages to separate the sides and broker a peace for which Illugi is grateful.

18 – Thorbjorn the Stout’s prize horses go missing. A man with second-sight called Spa-Gils strongly implies it was Thorarin the Black, son of Geiridd from Mavahlid. Thorbjorn rides there with a posse. Thorbjorn calls a door court and starts to accuse Thorarin. In a typical moment, it is goading by his mother calling him a coward which prompts Thorarin to leap forward attacking and a fight starts, until the women intervene and Thorbjorn and his men ride away. In the frenzy Thorarin’s wife Aud’s hand is cut off. He rides to where Thorbjorn’s men are recovering and hears them joking about it which drives him wild and he leaps forward and splits Thorbjorn’s skull in half. A fierce battle ensues until Thorbjorn’s men run away. (Odd is protected by the magic tunic his mother has given him.)

19 – Thorarin rides to see Vermund who advises they go see Arnkel. They know Snorri will prepare a case on behalf of Thorbjorn who was married to his half-sister.

20 – Geirrid of Mavahlid says it was Odd Katlason who cut off Aud’s hand. Thorarin and Arnkel ride to Holt: there is a strange folk tale scene where the men search the house for Odd three times but each time Katla bewitches them so they can’t see him. Only when Geirrid arrives do they put a bag over Katla’s head thus stymying her magic and find Odd. They hang him and stone her to death.

21- Arnkel advises Thorarin to go abroad. Message is sent to Bjorn the captain to ready his boat.

22 – On the Summons Days Snorri assembles a big force and rides to Alftafjord to summons the killers for manslaughter. Then he rides to the coast, seizes the Norwegian captain and burns the boat Thorarin was going to flee in. Whereupon Arnkel and Vermund and Thorarin row north across Breidafjord and buy another boat, and Thorarin and Vermund sail away. Snorri attends the assembly and successfully gets Thorarin and all his crew sentenced to outlawry, then confiscates all their property.

23 – Vigfus has a layabout nephew called Bjorn. At a big annual sorting of the sheep Bjorn accuses Snorri’ shepherd Helgi of stealing sheep and attacks him, Snorri’s uncle Mar Hallvardson goes to his defence and injures Bjorn. Vigfus takes the case to the Thor’s Ness assembly, but Snorri counter-charges Bjorn who is found guilty of starting.

24 – At the same assembly Eirik the Red is accused of a killing. His friends the Thorbrandssons gather supporters and Styr asks Snorri not to join the attack on Eirik after the assembly in exchange for his support any other time. They see Eirik off to a boat and he sets sail: it’s on this expedition that he discovers Greenland, in 986.

25 – The Swedish Berserks Vermund and Thorarin the Black arrive in Norway and go serve Earl Hakon the Good. With him are two Swedish berserks. The next year Vermund asks if he can bring them back to Iceland though Hakon warns him against. So he brings them back to Iceland where they soon start arguing. Vermund holds a feast for his brother Styr, Arnkel and other men of Eyr. He tries to persuade first Arnkel, then Styr to take the berserks and at first they get on well.

26 – Vigfus commissions one of his slaves, Svart, to kill Snorri. He breaks a hole in the ceiling of the porch and waits, but he thrusts down with his halberd just too late, misses Snorri and wounds Mar. Svart jumps to the ground but slips and is caught. Svart confesses it was Vigfus and Snorri sets off with six men, surprises Vigfus making charcoal in the woods and kill him. His slaves tell his widow who tries to raise support from Arnkel who refuses, saying it is the Kjallakings and Styr’s business.

27 – Vigfus’s widow Thorgerd goes to Styr asking for help. Styr points out the pledge he made to Snorri in exchange for Snorri not attacking Eirik. So, no help. She goes see Vermund who says, No help. She goes see Steinthor who says I’m too young. Exasperated she goes back to Vermund who says chop off Vigfus’s head and take it in a bag to Arnkel. Which she does and this shames and horrifies him into agreeing to launch a case against Snorri in the spring. But Snorri vigorously launches a counter action for attempted manslaughter and for the wounding of Mar, claiming Vigfus was lawfully killed. Moderators step in and Snorri agrees terms: he pays a large fine and Mar is exiled for three years.

28 – The end of the Swedish berserks One of them asks Styr for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not keen, Styr goes consult Snorri and they go atop Helgafell: ‘plans made there have never been known to fail’. Snorri advises Styr to set the berserks two massive tasks, build a dyke and a sauna. When they enter the sauna Styr kills them. Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis, binding them together.

29 – Thorodd Tribute-trader and Bjorn Introducing Thorodd who goes a sailing trip to Ireland. Earl Sigurd of Orkney has just made a raid demanding tribute from the Isle of Man but is shipwrecked. Thorodd sailing by hears them shouting from the shore and, reluctantly sells them his two boat in exchange for the tribute. So people call him Thorodd Tribute-Trader. Back in Ireland he stays with Snorri at Helgafell and marries his sister Thurid, widow of Thorbjorn who Thorarin the Black killed after the dispute about horses (chapter 18) and they go live in the farm at Frodriver. Soon Bjorn Asbrandsson starts calling on her and rumours start. Thorodd unhappy. One day, going home, Bjorn is attacked by Thorodd and servants – who he wounds – and the two sons of Thorir Wood-leg (the Thorissons), who he kills. Thorodd asks Snorri to mount a case against Bjorn for killing the Thorissons. Bjorn is outlawed and banished for three years. Bjorn sails to Norway, then Denmark, then on to join the legendary Jomsvikings.

Incidents concerning Thorolf Twist-foot, his feuds and ghost

30 – Thorolf Twist-Foot is an old mean man who doesn’t get on with his son Arnkel. Thorolf gets Ulfar’s advice about the weather and haymaking but pays him back badly by getting his men to fetch in Ulfar’s hay as well. Ulfar rushes out to the fields furious, but withdraws in face of Thorolf’s threats and goes to see his son Arnkel for compensation. Thorolf refuses to listen to Arnkel, so he pays Ulfar the compensation then kills seven of Thorolf’s oxen and claims that’s his hay-price returned. Thorolf is livid.

31 – About Christmastime Thorolf has a feast, gets his servants drunk, and tells them to go burn Ulfar’s farm. Over at Bolstad Arnkel sees the fire, rushes over with men to put it out, and seizes his father’s slaves and hangs them in the morning. Ulfar wisely makes over all his property to Arnkel, thus gaining legal support against threats from Thorolf. But this angers the Thorbrandssons, whose freedman Ulfar was and who think the property should revert to them. Thorolf rides to visit Snorri and offers him ownership of the woods on Krakaness if he will take up the case against Arnkel for killing Thorolf’s slaves. Driven by need for the woods, Snorri accepts and prosecutes Arnkel who points out he prevented a burning. Mediators step in and award Snorri 12 ounces of silver per slave ie the minimum which he gives to Thorolf who abuses him. Thus Thorolf is angry, Snorri is angry and Arnkel is angry.

32 – Ulfar’s brother Orlyg dies and Ulfar quickly gets Arnkel to come take joint protection of his property. The Thorbrandssons are cross again, reckoning their freedman’s property should be theirs and go see Snorri who refuses to take up the case against Arnkel, seeing as how his previous case wasn’t a particular success. In the autumn Arnkel gives a feast. Ulfar attends. Thorolf bribes his friend Spa-Gils who needs the money to lie in wait and murder Ulfar, which he does then runs off. Arnkel sees what’s happened and sends men after Spa-Gils. Thorolf sees Spa-Gils running and sends men to the Thorbrandssons so they can get to Ulfar’s property and claim it. Arnkel’s men catch and kill Spa-Gils. Arnkel and his men are at Ulfar’s property before the Thorbrandssons arrive so they fail to claim it again!

33 – Thorolf Twist-foot becomes angry that Snorri is using up too much of the wood and rides to confront him. Snorri calls witnesses to confirm Thorolf giving it to him and Thorolf rides on to his son Arnkel at Bolstad, but Arnkel refuses to get embroiled in another law case with Snorri so Thorolf rides home to Hvamm livid, sits in his high chair and in the morning his staff find him dead. Arnkel knocks a hole in the wall behind Thorolf, has him pulled backwards and his body placed on a sledge pulled by oxen up to a burial place where they build a cairn over the body.

34 – Thorolf’s ghost haunts the valley: the oxen which hauled his body are ridden to death by demons; every animal that goes near his grave goes out of its mind; the ghost kills shepherd and sheep; any bird alighting on Thorolf’s cairn drops dead. The ghost haunts vigorously and drives his widow out of her mind till she dies. First the farm at Hvamm is abandoned, then the whole valley. Arnkel gets recruits, loads Thorolf’s corpse onto a sled and drags it miles away to Ulfarsfell Ridge where they rebury it in Twist-Foot’s Knoll.

35 – Arnkel inherits his father’s property & rights and gets just as cross as his father with Snorri for using Krakaness woods. He waits till Snorri’s friend Hauk is supervising some slaves loading timber onto pack horses, then attacks. Hauk lunges at him but Arnkel deflects with his shield and spears Hauk, takes the horses and wood. Next spring Snorri brings a case against Arnkel for murder but Arnkel argues that Haul attacked him and the case is defeated. Simmering tension.

36 – A man called Thorleif is an outlaw. He comes to Snorri asking for sanctuary; Snorri rejects him but after a long talk. Then Thorleif goes to Bolstad to ask sanctuary of Arnkel and while they’re talking Thorleif takes up Arnkel’s adze and tries to kill him but Arnkel is too fast and kills him. Word gets about that Snorri commissioned him.

37 – Snorri holds a big Winter feast. He gives gifts to the guests. As the Thorbrandssons leave he gives Thorleif Kimbi a fine axe and they make an agreement to kill Arnkel. One night before Christmas Arnkel is working with some of his men at haystacks. Snorri is tipped off and joins with the Thorbrandssons, 15 in all, to attack. Arnkel holds off a long time but is finally killed.

Arnkel was mourned by everyone, for of all men in pagan times he was the most gifted. He was remarkably shrewd in judgement, good-tempered, kind-hearted, brave, honest and moderate. He came out on top in every lawsuit, no matter with whom he had to deal, which explains why people were so envious of him.

38 – Arnkel’s heirs are all women who don’t pursue the case very well. Only Thorleif Kimbi is outlawed.

A new dispute – between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons aka the men of Eyr and the men of Breidavik

39 – Thorleif takes ship to Norway. They are joined at the last minute by a stranger who turns out to be Arnbjorn Asbrandsson, going to look for his brother Bjorn (the one who was exiled and went off to join the Jomsvikings in chapter 29). After landfall in Norway it’s Thorleif’s turn to make porridge but Arnbjorn is still making his so after some argument Thorleif grabs the pot, spills Arnbjorn’s porridge out and walks away but Arnbjorn hits him on the neck with the ladle which was still very hot and marks him. Arnbjorn saild south to find his brother.

40 – After two years exile Thorleif Kimbi returns to Iceland pleased with himself. The same summer Arnbjorn returns with his brother, now known as Bjorn Breidavik-Champion. Together they are known as the Men of Breidavik. Arnbjorn settles at Hakki in Hraunhaven on the south side of the Snæfelsness peninsula. At a big gathering of farmers Bjorn bumps into Thurid, the housewife of Frodriver, over whose affair he was exiled. Bjorn resumes seeing Thurid. An upset Thorodd pays Thorgrima Witch-Face to cause a blizzard. Bjorn is lost crawls into a cave and only just survives three days cooped in the cave.

41 – Fighting between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons That spring at the Thornes Assembly Thorleif Kimbi (one of Thorbrand’s five sons, the Thorbrandssons) makes a marriage offer for Helga Thorlak’s-daughter, sister of Steinthor (Thormod, Bergthor, and Thord Blig, the sons of Thorlak, the Thorlakssons). He is rudely rejected by Steinthor and Thord. Next morning the Thorlakssons are walking by as the Thorbrandssons are playing the turf game. A great chunk of sandy turf hits Thord Blig on the neck and he turns to see all the Thorbrandssons laughing. Both sides draw swords and a fight starts. Eventually Steinthor and Snorri are brought in to make peace.

42 – The Thorbrandssons try to kill Arnbjorn That summer a ship puts in at Hraunhaven on the south of the peninsula. Snorri has business with it and rides south. He is joined by the Thorbrandssons, one of whom is Thorleif Kimbi who was humiliated by Arnbjorn who now lives at Hakki near Hraunhaven. They peel off from Snorri and attack Arnbjorn’s farm, climbing onto the roof but he fights them off, until Snorri returns and tells them to stop which, reluctantly they do. The Men of Breidavik arrive and both gangs are in the market at Hraunhaven in a very uneasy peace.

43 – Egil’s failed assassination attempt The Thorbrandssons tell their slave he will be freed if he sneaks into the autumn games and kills one of the Breidavik men, either Bjorn or Arnbjorn or Thord. People say Snorri advised Egil to hide in the hills until the pass was full of smoke of evening meals then sneak down and kill one. Egil does just that but as he enters the hut where Bjorn and Thord are making dinner he trips and they catch him. They extract the full story of his assassination mission before witnesses then kill him. (The strange incident of the talking head.) It is the custom to pay recompense to the owner of a murdered slave. Steinthor gathers a vast posse of nearly a hundred to ride to give payment. When he learns from spies that Snorri is sitting doing nothing Steinthor decides to reduce the party so as not to provoke anyone. Bjorn tells him he’ll regret it.

44 – The Battle of Alfta Fjord Snorri quickly musters his supporters and takes them to Karsstad telling everyone to behave. Stainthor rides up to the door, dismounts, nails a pich with 12oz of silver to the door, calls witnesses that he has paid the debt. As usual, it’s a woman taunting the men inside who make them furious and Thorleif Kimbi comes rushing out followed by the other hotheads and they start fighting. However Snorri comes out and gets them all to stop and promises Steinthor safe passage. However, he then discovers his 12 year-old son Thorodd has been injured by the very man he’s given safe passage and the red mist descends: they chase after the Thorlakssons and there’s a big fight up a scree called Geirvör. Eventually Aslak of Langadale and Illugi the Strong and Vermund the Slender and all their men come between them and stop the fighting. Snorri reaches out his hand to shake Steinthor’s who abruptly hacks at it with a sword, though the sword hits a gold arm-ring. Everyone pleads with Steinthor to make peace and eventually he does, a ceasefire till all sides get home. Some say Snorri could see the Men of Breidavik riding along Ulfarsfell as reinforcements to the Thorlakssons and that was why Snorri was keen to peacemake.

45 – The Battle of Vigra Fjord That winter Steinthor of Eyr with seven companions is loosing a boat in ice-bound Vigra Fjord when they see six man approaching, their enemies the Thorbrandssons. The Thorbrandssons climb a rock surrounded by massive shards of ice while Steinthor and his posse attack. After fierce fighting they lay all the Thorbrandssons low, only Freystein Bofi is dead (who he? ) but all the others badly injured and Thorleif Kimbi’s leg is chopped off. Snorri, alerted by his farmers, arrives and carries them all back to Helgafell and nurses them back to health. Thorleif Kimbi walks with a wooden leg the rest of his days.

46 – In the spring a lot of their neighbours work hard at the Thors Ness Assembly to make a settlement: elaborate pairings of injuries and killings make both sides about equal, and they shake on the deal, and the peace lasts while Steinthor and Snorri lived.

47 – That summer Thorodd the Tribute-Trader hosts Snorri to a feast and asks him to sort out the ongoing shame of Bjorn visiting his wife, Thurid, Snorri’s sister. Snorri decides they’ll attack and kill him and they ride to Kamb. Interestingly, Snorri uses the example of Gunnar’s last stand, in chapter 77 of Njal’s Saga, as an example of how one man can fight off an attacking crew. Daringly, Bjorn walks straight up to Snorri and puts his shearing knife to his heart and they discuss the issue. In a nutshell, Bjorn promises to stop bothering Thurid. Snorri and gang leave. Bjorn packs his belongings and takes ship at Hraunhaven. Nothing is heard of him for a long time, until the mysterious penultimate chapter 64, in fact.

Peace – the end of the Thorlakssons versus Thorbrandssons feud

48 – Snorri Thorbrandsson and his brother Thorleif Kimbi sail to Greenland where Thorleif lives to a ripe old age and Snorri voyages on to Vinland where he dies like a man fighting the Skrælings. Thorodd Thorbrandsson takes over the farm at Alftafjord and lives in peace.

49 – Christianity is brought to Iceland by Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti. This is very briefly described, as if the author knew that other, fuller accounts existed (eg the five chapters in Njal’s saga). Snorri the Priest does more than anything to convert the Western fjords and it may be for this reason that the Christian author makes him the hero of the saga.

The next six chapters are a respite from fighting, telling the story of the haunting of Thorgunna and Thorodd

50 – Thorgunna arrives in a ship from Dublin, she being from the Hebrides. She is big-boned and stout and has a trunk full of treasures such as English sheets and hangings. Thurid of Frodriver (wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader and sister of Snorri) is madly jealous and invites her to stay though Thorgunna insists on working for her keep and angers Thurid by refusing to part with her wondrous belongings.

51 – Thorgunna joins in with raking the hay when there is a sudden shower and when it clears they see it was of blood. She takes to her bed dying and makes Thorodd promise to burn all her bedding. (In evidence of the lateness of composition Thorgunna asks to be buried at Skalholt which only develops into a centre of Christian learning and holiness in the 11th and 12th centuries). Thorgunna’s body is buried and Thorodd builds a fire to burn the bedding but Thurid begs him to keep it and he acquiesces. They carry the coffin a long way to Skalholt over rain-sodden moors in sleet, stopping at a farm named Nether Ness where the farmer gives them shelter but no food. In the middle of the night they hear noises and find Thorgunna stark naked making food in the kitchen. She brings it into the living room at which the farmer hastily welcomes then and Thorgunna walks out and vanishes. They eat the food she’s prepared and are fine.

52 – Back at the farm at Frodriver, once the coffin-bearers have returned, the household sees a weird half moon appearing on the wall. Thorir Wood-Leg says it is a fatal moon.

53 – Something starts haunting. It kills a shepherd. When Thorir Wood-Leg goes to the privy the shepherd’s ghost blocks his way and throws him hard against the door so that he sickens and dies. Now the two of them haunt. Soon farm hands start dying one after another. Thorodd goes fishing with five men. A ghostly seal appears, head first, emerging out of the floorboards at Frodriver, no matter what people do to it.

54 – Thorodd and servants put out to sea and are all drowned. When news arrives at Frodriver Thurid and Kjartan hold a funeral feast. At the height of the feast Thorodd and his men walk in drenched, dripping seawater.

Everyone welcomed Thorodd and his men, and thought this a happy omen because in those days it was believed that drowned people had been well-received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they came to their own funeral feast. At that time a good many heathen beliefs still prevailed, though people were baptised and supposed to be Christians.

Thorodd and his men go sit by the fire. They do this every night till the fire burns low, then leave. After some days the guests all leave but Thorodd and his men still come and Thorir Wood-Leg now appears, along with the five servants who are buried, and they are all covered in mud and earth, which they start throwing at the drowned ghosts. Kjartan has the idea of building a long fire in the all and a smaller one in the household room, and the ghosts take the long fire and the household take the small one and this goes on all winter. An ox-tail is fond wagging in the fish pile which skedaddles away and all the fish are revealed to have been eaten, then Thorir Wood-Leg’s widow, Thorgrima Witch-Face, dies and another round of illness decimates the farm: six more people die and the rest run away.

55 – Not before time Kjartan goes to see his uncle Snorri who happens to have a priest staying with him. On Snorri’s advice they return to Frodriver on Candlemas, burn all of Thorgunna’s bedding, summon the dead to a door-court and charge them one by one. As the judgements are passed each ghosts leaves, saying they only stayed as long as they were let. Then the priest carries relics and sprinkles holy water into every corner and the dead men are banished.

Snorri swaps houses with Gudrun, the heroine of Laxdæla saga

56 – Snorri lived at Helgafell for eight years after Christianity came to Iceland (ie till 1008). In the spring Snorri exchanges farms with Gudrun Osvif’s-daughter and moves to Tongue in Sælingsdale, two years after Gudrun’s husband Bolli was murdered by Kjartan’s kin. Why? Though Gudrun hasn’t appeared in this saga yet, Snorri has already appeared in Laxdæla saga as a wise man Gudrun turns to. There it is explained Gudrun needs to get away from her vengeful neighbours and much the same motive drives Snorri, though his behaviour doesn’t change much after the move.

Styr’s death and Snorri’s revenge

It will be remembered that although Styr is the son of Thorgim Kjallakson (12), he does a deal with Snorri not to attack Eirik the Red (24) and keeps his word by not attacking Snorri after Vigfus’s murder (27), and asks Snorri’s advice about handling the berserks (28), as a result of which Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis. So when Styr is killed Snorri rides south with 400 men to avenge him. But he is met by 500 of his adversaries and there’s a stand-off. Snorri summons Gest for killing Styr but at the Althing their case is dismissed by Thorstein Gislason. Later Snorri rides south with 14 men and kills Thorstein Gislason and his son Gunnar. At the next Althing another Thorstein, of Hafsfjord, blocks Snorri’s plans and bad feeling quickly degenerates into a pitched battle. Ten or so men die until others step in and a comprehensive settlement is made. —This episode feels bolted onto the narrative, and the numbers (500 men!) and the unusual way the build-up to Styr’s death isn’t explained, make it stand out from the rest of the saga, much of whose interest derives from tracing the way trivial disputes snowball into massive feuds.

Ospak

This is another self-contained episode that could almost come from any saga, anyone’s life. Ospak is a rustler and after a lot of hassle Snorri is one among the many enemies he’s made who band together and kill him. The only failing in this otherwise excellent Penguin edition is that the map which excellently shows all the key locations on Snæfelsness peninsula, doesn’t show any of the locations of the Ospak episode, all of which (I think) happen to the north of Breidafjord.

57 – Ospak raids along the north coast with half a dozen men. He conflicts with Alf the Short and Thorir Gold-Hardarson. He has a fortified stead at Eyr (but not, apparently, the same Eyr as the one in Alftafjord). One day a whale is washed up. Alf and others cut it up, as they have driftage rights. Ospak and crew row up and start taking the already cut whalemeat: Thorir intervenes and Ospak knocks him out with the back of an axe.

58 – Ospak and fourteen men go to Thambardale and raid Alf’s house, stealing everything. Servants warn Thorir at Tongue who goes after them with eighteen men. A full scale battle in which Ospak strikes Thorir over the neck but hits his knife-on-a-strap, more fighting then Ospak and men run off to their fortified farm.

59 – Snorri represents Thorir and Alf at The Thors ness assembly and gets Ospak and crew outlawed. Snorri rides to enact the confiscation only to discover Ospak and his men have packed all their goods and sailed far north, where they set up a base and continue raiding.

60 – Snorri enacts the confiscation anyway and divides what was left of the belongings among Alf and Thorir. At summer’s end Ospak and crew sail south to Bitra, put in at Eyr and carry the loot to the fortified farm, where Ospak’s wife and son had remained. They sail onto Tongue in Bistra, drag Thorir out of bed and kill him on the spot, steal all his goods, then carry on to Thambardale, where Alf the Short hears them coming and esapes through a secret door. Again they loot everything they can and return to the fortified stornghold at Eyr, haul the boats inside and make it impenetrable.

61 – Snorri takes in Alf and his family and makes sure of the lie of the land. Just before Christmas he calls on Thrand Stigandi.

62 – Snorri calls on Sturla Thjodreksson and other neighbours till he has fifty men. At Tongue thirty more join and they ride north to Eyr. The fight starts with both sides throwing lots of stones. Finally Sturla’s spear knocks Ospak down and Sturla kills him, then they kill two more and the vikings surrender. Snorri gives them safe passage so long as they split up. He lets Ospak’s widow and son keep the farm. Glum marries Thordis, sister of Grettir the Strong, and their son was that Ospak who quarrels with Odd Ofeigsson (the plot of the Bandamanna saga).

Thorolf’s ghost (part two) and the magic bull

63 – Another story or legend which could, frankly, be attached to anyone. We thought we’d heard the last of Thorolf Twist-Foot in chapter 34. Now, after all this time, he is back haunting farms at Ulfarsfell and Orlygsstad. Farmers call on Thorodd Thorbrandsson to help. He goes with slaves to Twist-Foot’s Knoll, break open the grave and roll Thorolf’s corpse down to the shore where they create a pyre and burn it. Coming back they witness a cow break a leg. They patch it up and let it roam on the hill where it seen frolicking with an unknown bull and licking the stones where Thorolf was burned. It gets pregnant and has a bull calf which grows with uncanny speed. Thorodd’s foster-mother, old and blind, predicts no good will come of it and they should slaughter it. But Thorodd deceives her, keeps it, feeds it as it grows into a monster and call it Glaesir. In the summer, after a heavy rain, Glaesir runs mad in the home meadow attacking the hayricks. Thorodd goes out to calm him, ends up wrestling with him and is finally tossed and gored in the guts. He limps home where he dies in bed. This same Thorodd was one of Snorri’s companions in the killing of Thorolf Twist-Foot’s noble son, Arnkel (37) and a participant in the Battle of Vigra Fjord (45). He is buried in the local church.— This story is a stand-alone anecdote which needn’t have been in the saga at all.

Vinland

64 – A marvellously haunting and romantic chapter in which a man named Gudleif Gudlaugsson sets out from Norway in the reign of King Olaf the Saint (1015-30), heading for Dublin but is blown way off course by stormy winds, arriving at a big country where they are cpatured by hundreds of locals and dragged before their big grey-haired leader who, to their astonishment addresses them in Norse, asks after Iceland, then about the west fjords, then specifically about Thurid and her son Kjartan. He refuses to name himself but asks them to give Thurid a ring and Kjartan a sword, then bids them leave in a hurry before the locals kill them. Legend has it this man was Bjorn the Breidavik-Champion, who we first met making unwanted visits to Thurid, Snorri’s sister, back in chapter 29, before he was exiled and went to join the Jomsvikings. It is a strange and haunting almost-ending to the book.

65 – Snorri’s descendants The actual ending is a final chapter lovingly describing the descendants of Snorri’s many children.

Sayings

  • What happens to others can happen to you. (32)

Helgafell

Helgafell

Helga Fell or Holy Mountain where Thorolf Mostur-Beard settles and which no man is allowed to look on unless he has first washed (Wikimedia Commons)


Translations

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