Ted Hughes

Image after image. Image after image. As the vulture
Circled.
(Prometheus on his crag, Poem 20, by Ted Hughes)

This overview of Ted Hughes’s career is by way of preparing for a review of Ted Hughes’s volume of translation, Tales from Ovid, in the next blog post.

Ted Hughes (1930 to 1998) was one of Britain’s best poet-war poets. Born in 1930 in Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, Hughes was a countryman through and through, brought up as a boy ranging over the rainswept moors and farms of his home region, coming across the bones of dead sheep or birds, ranging over a landscapes of ferns and thistles, bracken and broom, and harsh northern birds – crows, hawks – flinging themselves into the wind over his head.

Early career

Hughes went to Cambridge to study English but found its traditionalism stifling and switched to Anthropology and Archaeology, developing an interest in shamen and the supernatural which would last his career. He had the usual scattering of odd jobs until his first volume, The Hawk in The Rain, published in 1957, won prizes and his literary career was launched. There followed an infrequent but extraordinary series of volumes:

1957 The Hawk in the Rain
1960 Lupercal
1967 Wodwo
1970 Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow
1975 Cave Birds
1977 Gaudete
1979 Remains of Elmet
1979 Moortown
1983 River
1986 Flowers and Insects
1989 Wolfwatching
1997 Tales from Ovid
1998 Birthday Letters

The early books are full of poems about otters, hawks, ferns, thistles, thrushes, pike, the kind of animals he grew up observing, fishing or hunting, all described with a feral brutality and supernatural ability to inhabit their lives, all glinting eyes and tearing talons:

As Wikipedia says, ‘The West Riding dialect of Hughes’s childhood remained a staple of his poetry, his lexicon lending a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical.’

Intermixed are other subjects, the Great War (Bayonet charge, Wilfred Owen’s photographs), animals in the zoo, like the Jaguar. The early poems in their concern for standard stanzas and his occasional bathetic lapses of subject matter, sometimes remind you that he wasn’t born fully formed but emerged from the very traditional 1950s, from John Osborne’s 1950s of angry young writers raging against the dead hand of the older generation. The early poems, trailing traces of traditionalism, often indicate the effort required to break free of black and white, provincial Englishness and find his voice.

Hence a poem describing a DH Lawrence-style argument between a miner and his wife or the poem taking the mickey out of a retired colonel or satirising a Famous Poet – these satires or kitchen sink dramas seem a bit, well, obvious and trite, placed next to the more mind-bending visionary poems. Somehow unworthy of his extraordinary gift.

The Great War

His obsession with the First World War apparently derived from the fact his father fought in it. Hence:

  • the three-part poem, Out, about his father’s wounds and ominous silence
  • or the sweaty terror of a bayonet charge
  • the last thoughts of a man shot through the head
  • the five anti-war poems in the sequence Scapegoats and Rabies
  • the dense Larkinesque poem about the photograph of a group of six young men from Hughes’s village who were all killed during the war
  • the inclusion in Crow of a battle scene, Crow’s account of the battle
  • reference to the Battle of the Somme in ‘Crow improvises’

But nevertheless the subject feels a little, well, obvious, compared to the visionary poems. And the anti-war sarcasm of Scapegoats and rabies feels, despite the fancy phrasing, straight out of Siegfried Sassoon. Old.

When he writes that war is sweat and terror it is what thousands of others have written; but nobody else had realised that November is ‘the month of the drowned dog’, that the attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn are terrifying in their single-minded obsession with bouncing and stabbing and dragging some writhing thing out of the wet earth; or that thistles are a fistful of splintered weapons thrusting out of the grave of a rotting Viking. This was, and remains, news from another dimension.

Books for children

In another mode it’s surprising, given his reputation for searing descriptions of the harshness of nature, how very sensitive some of the poems are, first dew on fresh cobwebs:

A reminder that alongside his harsh and symbolical works for adults, Hughes wrote no fewer than 16 books for children, some of them very successful, for example the tale of the Iron Man. But the delicacy of those two poems and a handful like them, when it appears is marvellous but is comparatively rare.

Extraordinary intensity of vision

The weakness of Hughes’s adult style was that he started off at such full throttle, with maximum brutality, animals killing each other, young men blown to smithereens in the Great War, God invoked as a helpless witness of the universal bloodshed, that is was hard to know where to go next. Right from the start the human mind (well, Hughes’s mind) is under relentless attack, assaulted by the bestial savagery of the natural world.

Dead and unborn are in God comfortable.
What a length of gut is growing and breathing –
This mute eater, biting through the mind’s
Nursery floor, with eel and hyena and vulture,
With creepy-crawly and the root,
With the sea-worm, entering its birthright.

In small doses, an individual Hughes poem is like an icepick to the imagination. Over any length, the relentless extremity becomes pretty wearing and, worse, begins to lose its impact. There is a staggering visionary power to his imagery and phrasing, again and again, which feel like they’ve been ripped out of the windswept landscape of the North:

The farms are oozing craters in
Sheer sides under the sodden moors…

Or see deeper into reality, expressing levels of perception most of us didn’t know existed:

The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.

Such weight and thick pink bulk
Set in death seemed not just dead.
It was less than lifeless, further off.
It was like a sack of wheat.

‘It was less than lifeless’, what a dynamite idea, what an insight. There are hundreds of moments like this in Hughes’s oeuvre, which take you beyond the horizon of your thinking, yanking together worlds of perception, brilliant.

His earliest poems in the 1950s followed traditional poetic forms, employed regular stanzas and rhymes and all, although always pushing at them with half rhymes and embedded rhymes and assonance. By 1967’s Wodwo he was using a lot more free verse, the individual line getting the space and impact its utterance deserved rather than following the same metre as all the other lines in the poem, some only one word long if that was what was required, others becoming very long indeed, all of them unfolding a science fiction, otherworldly intensity of vision:

I listened in emptiness on the moor ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging—

‘Horizon’ is a favourite word in the early poems, the narrator’s spirit flying off over the edge of normal perception, spinning into the prophetic otherworld inhabited by his killer animals.

… He meant to stand naked
Awake in the pitch dark where the animal runs,
Where the insects couple as they murder each other,
Where the fish outwait the water.

I agree. As a Darwinian materialist I see a vast universe of complete indifference, on one tiny planet of which life forms have evolved through a never-ending cycle of relentless competition and mass murder. And we humans are unavoidably part of the choiceless animal kingdom – as portrayed over and over again in Hughes’s oeuvre, for example in Crow Tyrannosaurus, where Crow disgustedly sees all other life forms condemned to eat screaming victims, then finds himself unable to avoid doing the same.

Myth making

But, having established this territory of panic-stricken intensity, where was there to go next? Hughes’s answer was to double down on the anthropological aspect of his work, increasingly turning the animals he described with such staggering vividness in the early poems into heavyweight symbols in a symbolical mindscape:

The bear is digging
In his sleep.
Through the wall of the universe
With a man’s femur.

The bear is a well
Too deep to glitter
When your shout
Is being digested.

The bear is a river
Where people bending to drink
See their dead selves.

The bear sleeps
In a kingdom of walls.
In a web of rivers.

He is the ferryman
To dead land.

The trouble with this kind of writing, innovative, mind-opening, astonishing as it first appeared in the 1960s, is that it can quickly come to seem too easy, too glib. Replace ‘bear’ with any other big mammal you can think of, tiger, bison, rhino, whatever. I admit it does make a bit of difference, but not enough. And Hughes wrote scores of poems like it, outlandish, fluent, increasingly pretentious but, worst of all, with whole stanzas or passages which were interchangeable. Identikit. Rentamyth.

Somewhere Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems rarely present an argument but leap from one dazzling image to the next, and you can see it in action in ‘The Bear’. Each of those little sections isn’t a stanza in the traditional sense of a unit with a predictable number of lines, with a predictable metre and system of rhyme – they’re more like items on a list, each little unit a miniature parable clustered round one of Alvarez’s dazzling images, each one lasting exactly as long as it takes to express that image.

Too much pretentious abstraction

You can trace this runaway fluency in Hughes’s increasingly casual use of the word ‘God’. To begin with it has some vestige of Christian meaning and therefore feels transgressively powerful when mentioned in the early, pagan beast poems. However, the term soon becomes something more like an anthropological abstraction, as much a part of the merciless world as the howling wind and biting rain, equally as driven and powerless. And then, as Hughes became more prolific and apocalyptic and symbolical, the word ‘God’ is thrown around with increasing abandon, losing some of its poetic charge with each iteration.

When Hughes ended his poem about the terrifying crabs which emerge clattering from the sea at night by calling them ‘God’s only toys’, it is not as powerful as it ought to be because of so many other animals or experiences which have, by now, been associated with this ‘God’. Ultimately, the word becomes somewhat cartoony.

When I was a young man bursting with hormones, ‘A childish prank’ struck me as a profound insight into the bittersweet world of sex. Now it strikes me as on a level with a roadrunner cartoon. Too often in the mythological poems everything is everywhere all the time – terms like the universe, infinity, God, Death become increasingly empty counters. His mythological character Crow:

peered out through the portholes at Creation
And saw the stars millions of miles away
And saw the future and the universe

And:

The body lay on the gravel
Of the abandoned world
Among abandoned utilities
Exposed to infinity forever

And:

Crow looked at the world, mountainously heaped.
He looked at the heavens, littering away
Beyond every limit

And:

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take

And:

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.
Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.

And:

Crow roasted the earth to a clinker, he charged into space –
Where is the Black Beast?
The silences of space decamped, space flitted in every direction.

And:

He sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards an answer.

And:

People were running with bandages
But the world was a draughty gap
The whole creation
Was just a broken gutter pipe.

And:

Without a goodbye
Faces and eyes evaporate.
Brains evaporate.
Hands arms legs feet head and neck
Chest and belly vanish
With all the rubbish of the earth.
And the flame fills all space.

The same kind of extremity and exorbitance, the same kind of phraseology about ‘the universe’ and ‘space’ and ‘Death’ in every poem. Gets a bit boring.

The same could go for the word ‘crucifixion’. When it first appeared in one of the 1950s poems it had a shocking impact appropriate to an era when the Church of England was still a power in the land. It crops up more and more regularly as Hughes moved into the 60s. And by the time of Crow (1970) it had become just one more of his pseudo-mythological reference points, appearing on pages 35, 36, 63, 68, 77, 82 of the book. It had become routine. ‘God’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘space’, ‘Death’, ‘infinity’ – all became steadily overused.

Having invented a searingly intense new way of seeing the world, perhaps it was inevitable that Hughes would go on to flog them to death and, in doing so, turn his dazzling insights into a new set of stereotypes and clichés.

(The way Hughes burst on the scene with a radically violent and personal vision, tinged with unhinged psychosis, in the late 1950s, flowered in the 60s, decayed in the 70s and then became a prolix echo of himself from the 1980s onwards, is strongly reminiscent of the identical career arc of the visionary novelist, J.G. Ballard, born in the same year, 1930.)

Crow

1970’s Crow saw Hughes give full throttle to his anthropological interests. It consists of 89 pages of poems devoted to the figure of ‘Crow’ seen as a nature god, a shamanistic figure who caws and pecks his way through a series of bleakly powerful fables and parables. A disenchanted, non-human observer of the disasters of Creation. The creation of a new mythic character, and the abstract flinty style of the cosmic parables, is an extraordinary achievement,

But from a technical point of view, even if, as a poet, you reject conventional forms and stanzas, you still have to find some way organise your lines on a page and it turns out one of the most basic ways to do that is with repetition, the basic forms of incantations, spells and liturgies. Look at the obsessive use of repeated phrases in these poems from Crow:

Even simpler than variations on the question and answer format, the easiest way to create a poem is simply to line up a sequence of images and just put ‘And’ at the start of each of them:

When the owl sailed clear of tomorrow’s conscience
And the sparrow preened himself of yesterday’s promise
And the heron laboured clear of the Bessemer upglare
And the bluetit zipped clear of lace panties
And the woodpecker drummed clear of the rotovator and the rose-farm
And the peewit tumbled clear of the laundromat

This isn’t ‘about’ anything: it feels like a dazzle of images. It may be aiming for the fake sonority of an Old Testament genealogy, but it is just a glorified list with smart variations. And once you get started with this kind of thing, it proves difficult to stop. The ‘and’ thing becomes addictive, leading to a fluency which starts off impressive but ends up becoming steadily more meaningless:

While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud
And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun
And the wryneck crooked in the moon
And the dipper peered from the dewball

Wodwo

1967’s Wodwo had expanded the notion of a collection of verse by including a set of short stories and a play wedged between two suites of poems i.e. as soon as he could, Hughes was interested in experimenting with other forms. Crow is a collection of invented folk tales or parables. 1975’s Cave Birds continued this interest in playing with forms, Hughes himself describing it as ‘an alchemical drama’.

Gaudete

1977’s Gaudete took this a step further, creating a innovative hybrid form of narrative, a sort of novella told entirely in highly charged poetic prose, or in lines of verse so free they range from one-word lines to lines which contain entire paragraphs.

Gaudete is a deeply weird book. The plot, such as it is, concerns an Anglican clergyman named Lumb (with his ‘long-jowled monkish visage,’ p.87) who is abducted by spirits and replaced by an identical copy of himself. This changeling is driven like a machine to tup every woman in their little village, maybe in a bid to conceive the next Messiah (at least that is the explanation given by Evans the blacksmith’s girlfriend on page 113).

The 200-page text describes the last day of fake Lumb’s existence in the village as he drives from manor, to farmhouse, to open field, in order to service women who are all mindlessly infatuated with him, gagging for abandoned sex.

In the second half their various husbands and boyfriends all tumble to the fact that their women are being tupped by this relentless shagger (helped by 18-year-old poacher Joe Garten who take incriminating photos of couples in the act or, at the very least, of Lumb’s distinctive blue Austen van outside everyone’s houses while the husbands are away).

The cuckolded men meet to drum up Dutch courage in the local pub and decide to confront Lumb at that evening’s women’s meeting in the church, which is in fact some kind of black magic coven wherein the women strip naked, take magic mushrooms, wrap themselves in dead animals skins and lose themselves in primitive drum music, before performing The Ritual.

It’s like The Archers remade by the director of Emmanuelle, except in a tone of relentless hysteria – part 70s soft porn, part Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The key words are ‘scream’ and ‘skull’, ‘dead’ and terror’. Blood and guts spill across every page:

But already hands grip his head,
And the clamp of tightness, which has not shifted,
Is a calf-clamp on his body.
He can hear her whole body bellowing.
His own body is being twisted and he hears her scream out.

He feels bones give. He feels himself slide.
He fights in hot liquid.
He imagines he has been torn in two at the waist and this is his own blood everywhere.

The retired naval commander Estridge’s daughter, Janet, hangs herself when his other daughter, Jennifer, tells her that she, too, is in love with Lumb and is carrying his child. Dr Westlake, tipsy after a pub lunch, confronts Lumb in his wife’s bedroom and tries to shoot him with a shotgun. The young architect, Dunworth, discovers Lumb in flagrante with his wife and, after failing to shoot either of them with his handgun, puts it into his own mouth but also fails to pull the trigger, and is left a broken shell of a man as Lumb drives off and his wife ignores him. Young poacher Joe Garten spies Lumb tupping Betty the barmaid from the local pub (the Bridge Inn) among the bluebells, and gets home to find his mum adjusting the rabbit cages which she has upset during her just-completed coition with Lumb – at which point he sets out to gather as much incriminating evidence against the vicar as he can. Maud gets fucked, Felicity gets fucked, Mrs Holroyd too, in a delirious merry-go-round of rural rumpy-pumpy.

It sounds ridiculous and it ought to be, but the whole thing is told in fast-moving 1-, 2- or 3- page sections of extraordinary, hallucinatorily intense prose poetry.

It is a very long poem on acid (in fact, in the climactic black magic scene in the crypt of the church, the women are dosed with magic mushrooms, p.140). But no drugs are needed for most of the characters to be continually in the grip of wildly extreme emotions, and the poetic prose to be off-the-scale in over-vivid intensity.

Commander Estridge’s arrival at the Bridge Inn could have been described in a matter-of-fact, realistic style, whereas Hughes gives us a charged, symbolical description of how triggers psychological impact on the other men already gathered and grumbling.

His arrival
Is like permission: it flings open all limits.
His ferocity, concentrated in that bulbous hawk’s eye,
Delegates, as in a battle,
A legitimate madness to each member. (p.143)

Although the characters go about often recognisable activities – poaching, shopping in town, sunbathing, idling away the afternoon looking through a telescope – and there is more than enough precisely observed detail to fill a novel, yet the inflamed prose poetry conveys a continual sense of unreality and weirdness.

All over her body the nerves of her skin smoulder.
The cream suit is an agony.
A lump of boiling electricity swells under her chest.
Wild cravings twist through her
To plunge to the floor
As if into a winter sea
And scour her whole body’s length with writhings. (p.38)

As a student I read it in one all-night sitting, too terrified to get out of bed to go for a pee or put it down. I distinctly remember the moment when Lumb is driving his blue Austen van round the curve of a hillside when out of nowhere two hairy arms reach over his shoulders, grab the wheel and wrench it to the side, sending his van tumbling down the hillside and hurling Lumb into another of the terrifying Samuel Beckett-type nightmares which punctuate the main narrative. (He has a vision of all the women he’s tupping buried up to their necks in mud and screaming in terror as some underground monster approaches to tear and shred their trapped bodies. The muddiness of this mud world reminded me very powerfully of Samuel Beckett’s 1964 text, ‘How It Is’, depicting a man out of his mind crawling through a world of mud).

Now, rereading it 30 years later, I noticed two things:

1. That in such a long book, effectively a novel in poetic prose, there isn’t a scrap of dialogue. Odd. Eeerily so. Some of the characters, especially towards the end as the husbands band together, are described as talking, but we never hear any actual dialogue. I think this was a deliberate choice because nothing anyone could say could match the delirious intensity of the narrative voice.

2. Second thing: it is a very great relief to be out of Hughes’s head. Ok, so all the character experience life in a very Hughesian way, drowning in extreme emotions, are shaken with terror, clutching their skulls and silently screaming etc. But actually a) there is a range of human characters unprecedented in his oeuvre, and b) there is more effort than in any other Hughes work to differentiate between the characters, in terms of names, professions, activities, descriptions of their homes, their attitudes and experiences.

[Mrs Davies having sex p.93, Mrs Walsall having sex p.96.]

Sylvia?

After the main narrative is over, if you have any mental energy left, Gaudete presents 20 pages of short fragmented poems, supposedly from the notebook of the real Reverend Lumb, supposedly addressed to some kind of female deity, but which are obviously fragments which have no place in the main story.

Only one of them made any impression on me, but really stood out. I wondered if it was a veiled memory of Sylvia Plath. Here it is in its entirety:

Once I said lightly
Even if the worst happens
We can’t fall off the earth.

And again I said
No matter what fire cooks us
We shall be still in the pan forever.

And words twice as stupid.
Truly hell heard me.

She fell into the earth
And I was devoured.

Moortown

Like a lot of creative people who took things to the limit and beyond in the 1960s and on into the long hangover of the 1970s, it feels like Hughes eventually exhausted the vein of his own weirdness, burst the bubble of mythographic pretentiousness, and reverted to a more sober, factual style. Up to a point, anyway.

Thus 1979’s Moortown contains a sequence of 34 poems describing his work on a sheep farm in Devon. They have his characteristic brutal honesty about the blundering cruelty of nature – the poem about the bloody process of dehorning cows is particularly stomach turning, in fact it is such a traumatic procedure that he had already spent a couple of pages of Gaudete describing it in unnecessary detail – but are nonetheless a reversion back to the more naturalistic subject matter of his early period (albeit with cosmic burps). It opens with a brilliantly vivid description of rain in the countryside.

Mist-rain off-world. Hills wallowing
In and out of a grey or silvery dissolution. A farm gleaming,
Then all dull in the near drumming. At field-corners
Brown water backing and brimming in grass.
Toads hop across rain-hammered roads.

The recurring descriptions of the bloody process of cows or sheep giving birth and the many calves or lambs which are born dead or get stuck halfway and strangled so their heads have to be sawn off etc are grimly, sadistically naturalistic, and often deliberately repellent. With the result that my favourite poem is the one about a tractor frozen in the deep winter.

The tractor stands frozen – an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails.

I love that when they finally get the frozen tractor to start, it abruptly bursts:

with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

‘Where Where?’ Even Hughes’s most ‘adult’ poems often come perilously close to his children’s poems in their wide-eyedness.

Reading ‘Moortown’ made me realise Hughes is not such a Darwinian materialist as I had thought. In fact he’s more like a Platonist. His poetry believes there are huge primeval forces, universal abstract forces, continually at work in the world and that individual entities – foxes, hawks, cows, ewes, humans – are pathetic tatters which get caught up in the maelstrom of these forces, treated like puppets, tortured, thrown away once they’re used up.

Animals, and especially people, are only really interesting for Hughes insofar as they embody or trigger these eternal forces – in humans the embodiment coming via the primal experiences of sex, death, rage, despair and so on.

And the landscape only appears to be made up of trees and fields and hedges because beneath it all Hughes’s imagination sees archetypal science fiction forces, ‘the earth’s furnace’, the snow is ‘star dust’, ‘space’ is continually entering the woods or pressing onto the grass, the sun is eating the moon, the moon drinks the sea, the wood disappears over the edge of the world, and so on.

In this vein Hughes uses the term ‘radioactive’ twice in the sequence, not because there is any radioactivity anywhere but as a 1970s symbol for the enduring, invisible, science fiction forces which underpin the mess of living and dying things.

Orf

The poem ‘Orf’ maybe demonstrates the four levels of Hughes’s cosmology. Level one is naturalistic descriptions of nature, in this case a sickening description of the illness and sores which plague a lamb and refuse to get better (which I won’t trouble you with). So Hughes shoots the lamb in the head, at which point we get level 2, a kind of detached and carefully alienated vision of what follows, observation of nature as by a robot, by someone completely outside the normal frame of human and humane reference. He shoots the lamb and then:

He lay down.
His machinery adjusted itself
And his blood escaped, without any loyalty.

This is a brilliant mentation of the act of dying, only a little undermined by the fact that this trope, of comparing a living thing to a machine, is a very common Hughes tactic; it occurs throughout Hughes’s oeuvre. Just a few pages later, here’s a newborn calf learning to suckle at the udder:

He got going finally, all his new
Machinery learning suddenly.

Anyway, back to ‘Orf’, Hughes then moves the narrative to level 3, to the shaman-pagan plane, as he imagines the dead lamb’s soul standing up in front of him and asking permission to be dismissed.

But the lamb-life in my care
Left him where he lay, and stood up in front of me
Asking to be banished.

OK. I get this as a transformation of the lamb into a mythological figure. Because I’ve read the visionary weirdnesses of Crow and Gaudete this doesn’t surprise me as much as it might someone new to Hughes.

And so, finally, to level 4: ‘Orf’ is useful because it is a little more explicit than most of the poems about where all this is taking place i.e inside Hughes’s deeply fevered imagination. It happens:

Inside my head
In the radioactive space
From which the meteorite had removed his body.

Thousands of lyric poets talk about their feelings, go on at great length about their feelings, about their lady love or a Grecian Urn or Tintern Abbey or whatever. Not many poets describe their own minds as ‘a radioactive space’ which has been hit by a meteorite. I find this brain damage aspect of Hughes’s verse is often overlooked. Critics analyse the obvious subject matter but overlook the obvious fact that the poet frequently refers to himself as deranged.

Hughes’s science fiction vibe

Also: surfing the internet for essays and reviews and notes on Hughes, I’ve come across plenty of critics who point to his interest in black magic, the Kabbala and whatnot. This is a relatively easy subject to discuss because a) Hughes himself frequently mentioned it, b) it’s at the centre of Gaudete and other works, and c) magic it has its own texts for critics to plunder and quote and juxtapose with similar passages by Hughes. Essays on a plate. By contrast, I haven’t seen anyone pointing out the persistent theme of science fiction imagery in his poetry. Sure, the sun and the moon might be interpreted as basic symbols found in primitive writing around the world or pagan religions etc. But not radiation or meteorites.

Prometheus on his crag

Next to the vivid descriptions of the farm poems, the ‘mythological’ sequences ‘Prometheus on his crag’ (21 poems) and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’ (12 poems) seem like a throwback to the Crow period but without the cocky swagger of Crow; they come over as forced and pretentious.

‘Prometheus’ is all babies being dragged out of wombs, exploded heavens, screaming entrails, insane laughter, the sea retching bile and so on – so hyperbolical and inordinate it’s quite an effort to take seriously or care. (And includes a few more references which support my science fiction thesis: Hughes mentions ‘one nuclear syllable’ (17) and ‘atomic law’ (20), and the buzzword ‘space’ has a little splurge in poem 19:

So speech starts hopefully to hold
Pieces of the wordy earth together
But pops to space-silence and space-cold

Emptied by words
Scattered and gone.
And the mouth shuts
Savagely on a mouthful

Of space-fright which makes the ears ring.)

The sequence titled ‘Orts’ contains 22 poems, none of which meant very much to me, which I skimmed because they all sound the same.

Adam and the Sacred Nine

But for me the utter nadir of meaninglessness, the point at which Hughes’s endlessly repeated schtick of screaming universes reached absolute rock bottom, was in poem 8 of ‘Adam and the Sacred Nine’.

The nine in question turn out, rather disappointingly, to be common or garden English birds.

There’s a poem about the wren which I thought was rubbish; I have a jenny wren nesting in my garden that I love to watch flitting about among the ivy and and bushes, and Hughes’s cosmic bullshit completely failed to capture the look and feel and activity of an actual wren, at all.

But the rock bottom of his cosmic style arrives in the poem about the owl. Here it is in its entirety:

And Owl

Floats. A masked soul listening for death.
Death listening for a soul.
Small mouths and their recriminations are suspended.
Only the centre moves.

Constellations stand in awe. And the trees very still, the fields very still
As the Owl becalms deeper
To stillness.
Two eyes, fixed in the heart of heaven.

Nothing is neglected, in the Owl’s stare.
The womb opens and the cry comes
And the shadow of the creature
Circumscribes its fate. And the Owl

Screams, again ripping the bandages off
Because of the shape of its throat, as if it were a torture
Because of the shape of its face, as if it were a prison
Because of the shape of its talons, as if they were inescapable

Heaven screams. Earth screams. Heaven eats. Earth is eaten.

And earth eats and heaven is eaten.

For me, by this stage, Hughes had destroyed his own gift. He had turned his style into a cupboard of clichés – the same ludicrously hyperbolic cosmic vision, the same handful of key words (universe, scream, torture, death, birth, heaven, earth, blah blah blah) repeated with minor variations, everything turned into everything else which is probably having its womb ripped open or its skull staved in, blood weltering, with lots of screaming all round. The one good line:

Nothing is neglected in the Owl’s stare

tells you how crisp and precise his writing had once but it’s in fact a repetition of lines and attitude first and best expressed in ‘Hawk roosting’ from 1960:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Some of the same brilliant intensity is here, obviously, but a) it’s a repetition of something he did better 30 years earlier and then b) it collapses into the ludicrous morass of overblown tripe of the poem’s final lines.

Depression and confessional poetry

There’s a case to be made that Hughes’s entire oeuvre amounts to the author struggling with depression and worse, with recurrent feelings of howling despair, or whatever the technical term is for a continual, hallucinatory over-intensity of perception and feeling directed in an unremittingly negative, death-obsessed direction.

The 1960s saw an increasing number of artists in all media letting it all hang out. The phrase ‘confessional poetry’ was coined in 1959 and applied to a number of American poets (notably Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton) and to Hughes’s ill-fated wife, Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide in 1963).

You could argue that his most memorable poems are the ones which maintain a precarious balance – containing his violent feelings and endless visions of pain, screaming skulls, flames crashing through space etc within a framework of detailed real-world observation. Certainly that’s why I love the early poems about the pike, otter, thistles, pig, bull, hawk, thrushes and so on – the dominant element is the wonderfully observed real-world imagery, behind which the shamanistic, universal anthropological vibe provides the fuel, supercharging the details, making them luminescent.

In the increasingly anthropological poems of the 1960s Hughes doesn’t exactly bare his soul – he rarely if ever speaks in his own character, rarely if ever about his own emotions per se. But he uses his animals to convey very strong emotions indeed, murder, rape, sexual disgust, despair. I thought Crow was the peak of this process, a great primal scream of a book, for example:

  • in ‘Crow’s account of St George’, which is a horrifying bad acid trip nightmare description of a man hacking his wife and children to pieces
  • ‘Criminal ballad’, where the man looks at his children playing in the garden and can’t hear them for machine guns and screaming
  • A bedtime story about a man who can never manage to do or be complete

But in retrospect a lot of the Crow poems still maintain a kind of balance, a sort of restraint and so command respect, because the mad intensity is contained within the form of parables or fables or lessons.

Similarly, hundreds and hundreds of lines in Gaudete although they contain a relentless bombardiment of hysterical extremity are, nonetheless, contained and controlled by the requirement of telling a narrative, the need to describe actual real-world incidents and to depict the large cast of actual human characters. This serves to rein in Hughes’s derangement and limit and focus his hysteria.

By contrast, the other sequences contained in Moortown (beside the title series which is avowedly naturalistic in intent) abandon any restraint, like a fat man taking off his belt, and the result is the great splurge of cosmic diarrhoea which characterise ‘Prometheus on his crag’ and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’.

I thought these poems were so drainingly absurd, such repetitive drivel, that I gave up buying new Ted Hughes books after Moortown. I thought his appointment as poet laureate in 1984 was a bizarre decision and read his laureate poems with dismay, as he struggled to reconcile his mythological blah with the modern world of tiaras and royal receptions.

Hughes seemed to be sinking into irrelevance until the sudden publication, right at the end of his life, of Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998), which changed everyone’s perception of what had come before.


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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

The poems of Propertius translated by Ronald Musker

He errs who expects the madness of love to end;
Love that is true can know no measure…
In life I shall always be hers; in death
I shall be hers still.
(Book 2, elegy 15)

Robert Maltby’s introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the elegies of Tibullus is outstanding in its clarity and authority and includes elements which make a good introduction to Propertius, too.

Maltby explains that in the last decades of the first century BC, Rome was home to a small cohort of leading Roman poets who took the Greek metre associated with elegies and which had come to be called ‘elegiacs’, and repurposed them as vehicles to describe very personal (or personal sounding) love affairs. Or, in Propertius’s words:

Priestlike I lead the way from the crystal spring
To adapt Italian rites to Grecian measures.
(3.1)

To repeat what I wrote in the Tibullus review:

What is an elegy?

The modern sense of ‘elegy’ as a lament for the dead only crystallised during the 16th century. Two thousand years ago, for the ancient Greeks and Romans the word had a much wider definition – elegies could cover a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war).

The defining feature of them was that they were written in elegiac couplets or ‘elegiacs’, which consist of a dactylic hexameter line followed by a dactylic pentameter line i.e. six ‘feet’ in the first line, five in the second. In English it looks like this, 6 beats, followed by 5:

My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard (6)
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight. (5)

I’ve often tried to banish pains of love with wine,
but sorrow turned the uncut wine to tears.

Obviously you’re not meant to say it out loud emphasising these beats, that would be silly. It’s just a structuring device, a convention, a code buried under the words, a rhythm you’re meant to be only dimly aware of, if at all, which gives a subliminal sense of regularity and rhythm.

The effect of a long line followed by a slightly shorter one was to create a kind of dying fall, repeated every two lines – hence its attraction for poets who wanted to write an elegy in our sense, a lament for someone who’d died, and the elegiac couplet was in fact the metre used for writing funeral inscriptions and sometimes examples of these were included in elegiac poems. However, the most famous of the Roman elegists copied the way that late Greek or Hellenistic poets had taken to using it to express personal and often ‘amatory’ subject matter.

The variation between the two lines helped to build the impression that elegiac couplets were more appropriate for the expression of ‘direct and immediate concerns’ i.e. the poet’s personal life, than a poem written entirely in hexameters, which was felt to be the metre for continuous narrative, as in Homer’s epics.

Catullus (84 to 54 BC) was the first Roman poet to co-opt the form from the Greek Hellenistic poets and adapt it to Latin for his scandalous love poems and execrations. Catullus was followed by Tibullus (55 to 18 BC, in his elegies), Propertius (50 to 16 BC in his elegies) and Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD, in a series of works, namely the Amores, Heroides, Tristia and Letters from Pontus).

Elegiacs as love poems

The classic Roman elegists used the form to write love poems, often surprisingly candid about their own love affairs. The convention quickly arose of devoting some or all of the poems to a Beloved Mistress, who receives the poet’s devotion despite being often capricious or antagonistic.

‘Your theme shall be flower-wreathed lovers at someone’s door,
And the signs they leave of their drunken flight through the night…’
(The Muse Calliope telling Propertius what his subject should be, book 3, elegy 3)

Catullus (b.84 BC) can be said to have invented many aspects of this convention in his poems to ‘Lesbia’, universally taken as a pseudonym for the Roman aristocrat Clodia Metelli with whom he (if the poems are to be believed) had a passionate affair and then an equally emotional falling-out. (Catullus and Lesbia are mentioned a couple of times by Propertius; he consciously compares his love for Cynthia with Catullus’s for Lesbia, 2.32, 2.34C).

In the next generation Tibullus (b.55 BC) is a little unusual in addressing elegiacs to three figures, two women and a boy. The dates of publication of Tibullus’s two books interlink with the first books by Propertius. Propertius (b.50 BC) is more typical in addressing most of his elegies to just the one figure, who he names ‘Cynthia’. A little later, Ovid (b.43 BC), wrote love elegiacs addressing a figure named ‘Corinna’, though there is widespread agreement that she probably didn’t exist but was a poetic convention.

In Maltby’s opinion Ovid rang pretty much every possible permutation on the use of elegiac as love poem and made it obvious that he was experimenting with the form for its own sake. Maltby thinks he used it up and hollowed it out and as a result the metre fell out of fashion.

Publishing in ancient Rome

Using the word ‘publishing’ gives a misleading impression. There were no printing presses in the West for another 1,500 years. ‘Publishing’ meant that a hand-written manuscript of the text was given to secretaries or amanuenses to copy out in full, by hand, on rolls of papyrus. These rolls were then rolled up and slipped into tubular containers. A library’ consisted of numerous tubes containing manuscripts.

As this implies, not many copies were made, generally scores, rarely into the hundreds. There was no question of making money from this process. The aim was a) if you were rich, to gain a reputation among the people who counted, the educated class or b) if you were less well-off (as Virgil, Horace and Propertius were) to win the patronage of a rich sponsor, as all three were lucky enough to do with Maecenas, who gave land, property and money to both Horace and Virgil.

Ronald Musker’s introduction

I read Propertius’s poems in the 1972 Everyman edition translated by Ronald Musker. In his introduction Musker points out that Propertius came from the equestrian class i.e. the second rank of the aristocracy below the senatorial class. His family had extensive lands in north-central Italy but, like many of his class and generation, lost a substantial amount during the enforced confiscations of Octavian after the Battle of Phillippi.

Too early you gathered up your father’s ashes;
And you had to accept a straitened hearth and home,
For many an ox had turned your rich lands over,
But the ruthless surveying rod took your wealth away. (4.1)

It also appears from one of the elegies, that a close relative or perhaps guardian was killed in the bitter localised civil war known as the Perugine War because it ended up with the rebels (led by Mark Anthony’s wife and brother) holed up and besieged by Octavian’s forces in the city of Perugia, near Propertius’s birthplace. Musker considers the trauma of these events may explain the tone of melancholy which recurs throughout his poems.

In Rome young Sextus Propertius was a friend of fellow poets Gallus and Virgil and, through them, was adopted by the renowned patron of the arts, Gaius Maecenas. His poems survive in 4 books containing around 92 poems. Actually the number varies because editors of book 2 in particular think some poems are jumbled together which must once have been separate poems and so snip and separate them; other scholars disagree; hence the difficulty of giving an exact number.

The translator, Musker, appears to have given each poem a tabloid-style title, which aren’t in the original. These are actually quite helpful in distinguishing between them and indicating the topic of each poem at a glance.

Book 1, 25 BC (23 poems)

Cynthia is the main subject, the first word of the first poem and mentioned in over half the other poems. The poems proceed through the set subjects and attitudes of the afflicted male love for his mistress, including mad declarations of love, promises to be true, lists of her achievements and perfections, jealousy of other men, despair at being abandoned, rage at being abandoned, laments on why women are so fickle and/or easily bought by rich men with shiny trinkets – and so on.

It includes a paraclausithyron i.e a poem describing the lover at the locked door of his beloved. Apparently, Propertius’s version of this is a novelty because he has the door itself speak – we get the door’s point of view, a rather cutting description of the wretched poet pining outside.

I noticed, reading Propertius, that the way these poets created the bulk of a poem, most of its content, is to address a friend, sometimes a rival or enemy – either calling them to witness aspects of your sorrow and affliction, or giving wise advice to them if they fall in love, or any other kind of address.

This conceit of addressing the poem to a pal a) makes it more dynamic b) makes it more like a speech than a solitary meditation. At many points a poem reminded me of Cicero’s legal speeches. All of them, without exception, make a case.

Also, addressing a friend in a poem makes it very public because you have to respect politeness and decorum. The two friends whose names crop up most frequently are Gallus and Tullus, apparently, historically verified real people.

Why, Bassus, by praising all these other girls
Must you try to change me… (1.4)

Put an end, my envious friend, to your tiresome talk… (1.5)

I am not afraid, my Tullus, to learn with you
The Adriatic’s moods… (1.6)

While you, my Ponticus, tell of the city of Cadmus… (1.7)

I told you, my scornful friend, that love would visit you… (1.9)

You, as your way is, Gallus, will be delighted
At my plight… (1.13)

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that the poet addresses a cohort or circle of friends and they are all men. A group of men talking about a woman, one woman’s behaviour. Hmmm. Very much a one-sided perspective, not just a guy talking about a girl but a buy recruiting all his mates to pile in behind him and back up his interpretation.

Although the Cynthia poems felt competent, the single poem which stood out for me was the ante-penultimate one, number 20, which Musker titles ‘Beware of the nymphs!’. This advises his friend, Gallus, on his love affair with a boy, warning him that the (unnamed) boy is so beautiful that he, Gallus, should keep him away from predatory girls, otherwise he’ll lose him, just as the legendary Hylas was lost to Naiads (spirits of the water) on the voyage of the Argonauts. Apart from 4 or 5 lines at the beginning and end, this is a verse description of Hylas’s story i.e. an extended fantasia into Greek legend, describing the way Hylas was sent off by Hercules to gather firewood but wandered too far and was seduced by the water nymphs while Hercules’ voice echoed wanly from afar. This was genuinely haunting.

This raises the issue of the extent to which Propertius not just incorporates Greek myth and legend into his poems, but packs them with mythological references (see below).

Book 2, 24 BC? (55 poems, including 10 or more ‘fragments’)

Book 2 for the first time features poems addressing Augustus’s great ‘minister for the arts’, Maecenas. He is described, rather unctuously, in the first poem as:

True heart alike in peace or war

and:

hope of the youth of Rome
And their envy, and my true glory in life and death…

Scholars deduce that the first book brought Propertius to Maecenas’s attention and in this second one he has become one of the great man’s circle. So not only does it address Maecenas himself but also, as was required, directly addresses Augustus.

Book 2 contains as many poems as 1 and 3 put together so some scholars think it actually combines 2 separate books. This is also suggested by the poor state of many of the poems in it. This has led some scholars to drastically rewrite the poems, taking bits which from poems where they seem out of place and stitching them into other poems where they seem to fit better. I can imagine this leads ultimately to a nightmare jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of fragments on the table in front of you as you rack your brains to recombine them in more ‘sensible’ ways.

Musker explains all this and concludes that, although many of these scholarly editions are intriguing for experts in the field, in this edition he rejects almost all of them. Because there is an alternative explanation – which is that Propertius deliberately made sudden swerves and juxtapositions in his verse, as policy. One of the elements that contributes to what Musker calls Propertius’s ‘elusiveness’ and has made him less popular in modern times that the far more sensible, down-to-earth Horace, or the scandalously sexy Catullus.

The subject matter of the poems is more varied though still circling round the figure of Cynthia. Several describe a rich rival who appears to have won her affections with jewels, and throw deep hatred his way. But then the next one might be another hymn of fulsome love and devotion. So the poems follow no order i.e you can’t make out a narrative, in fact they seem almost deliberately randomised.

Book 3, sometime after 23 BC (27, including 2 ‘fragments’)

The poems start to range in subject matter beyond simple love songs to tackle more public themes. For example, several invoke Augustus’s previous victories against Antony and Cleopatra and his current campaign in Parthia (3.4) (cf the long poem in book 4 celebrating the battle of Actium and repeatedly criticising Cleopatra).

There’s one very close to the royal family, lamenting the death of young Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew, who he legally adopted then married to his daughter Julia, only for him to die in 23 BC, his twentieth year (3.18).There’s one on the standard topic of how Rome has become corrupted by foreign riches and let its shrines and temples fall into shameful disuse:

Proud Rome is falling, crushed by her own prosperity. (3.13)

Several of the early ones are recusatios, a stock type of poem in which the poet bashfully excuses himself from writing the grand epic poem about Rome’s heroic military victories which society expected, and instead gets a Muse or god to explain that the poet’s real vocation is love poetry.

Wars I would tell of in patriotic verses,
But, alas, how weak the notes that sound on my lips! (4.1)

He writes a long poem to Maecenas saying everyone has his own nature and his (Propertius’s) is emphatically not either going to war or writing about war. The only war he enjoys is the battle of love (‘love’s sweet strife’, 3.20B). In fact this is continuing a trend which began in book 2, with 2.34 actually mentioning Virgil as the great epic poem of Propertius’s time.

Cynthia still pops up. In some he celebrates Cynthia’s birthday (3.10), but overall he seems to be tiring  of her, and the final poems declare himself well shot of her:

False is that trust of yours in your beauty, woman,
Whom my favouring eyes have long made overproud.
Yes, Cynthia, greatly indeed my love has praised you;
It shames me now that through my verses
You gained such fame. (3.24)

And the last poem in the book is an execration, calling down curses on her, and looking forward to her aging and withering and losing her beauty (3.25).

Book 4, published sometime after 16 BC (12 poems)

Book 4 contains only half the number of poems as book 1, leading some scholars to speculate that it may have been published posthumously, a tidying-up operation. Several of the poems imply that Cynthia is dead – in 4.7 her ghost complains to Propertius that her funeral wasn’t lavish enough.

The other poems move well beyond love poetry, addressing a variety of subjects. They include several ‘aetiological poems’, a genre which explains the origin of various Roman rites and landmarks. They’re longer than before, too. Many poems in book 1 were one page long. All those in book 4 are at least 2 pages long, some 3 or even 4.

  1. The poet describes the early history of Rome for 2 pages and the original rural appearance of Rome in terms very reminiscent of the Aeneid before the second half is spoken by a Babylonion priest predicting Propertius’s horoscope.
  2. The Etruscan god Vertumnus speaks, speculating about his own origins and purpose; he is a chameleon and can be male or female or take any role or profession.
  3. Two-page poem in which a young wife, Arethusa, writes to her husband, Lycótas, away at the wars, describing her sadness and devotion.
  4. Three pages describe the iniquity of Tarpeia, a vestal virgin back in the earliest days of Rome, when it was little more than a village, who falls in love with Tatius king of the neighbouring tribe of the Sabines; she betrays a secret path up the Palatine Hill into Rome but when Tatius marries her, as he promised, he gets his men to crush her with their shields for her treachery. This, supposedly, is the origin of the name of the Tarpeian Rock on the Palatine.
  5. Execration of a procuress named Acanthis, who incited his (unnamed) love to spurn the gods, whore after gold, reject his love, and so on.
  6. Three pages celebrating Augustus’s victory at the Battle of Actium. Always good policy to suck up to the emperor.
  7. Cynthia’s ghost comes back from the tomb to upbraid him on the evening of her funeral. At the end he tries to embrace her but her ghost vanishes into air which reminds me of the umpteen time the same thing happens in the Aeneid.
  8. To get his own back on Cynthia (see how the poems are not in any narrative order) the poet organises a little orgy with two hand-picked courtesans at the height of which Cynthia storms in, drives the girls out scratching and screaming, then demands complete submission from the poet, before fumigating the place. Then they have championship sex.
  9. Another poem describing what Rome looked like before it was founded i.e. was idyllic countryside – very reminiscent of book 8 of the Aeneid – here the backdrop for the legendary moment when Hercules stopped on the site only to have his cattle stolen by Cacus. The poem describes the Forum when it was just a grazing ground and explains the origin of the Great Altar which still stood in Propertius’s time. I wonder if it was Augustus and Maecenas’s pressure which led him to drop love poetry and turn to accounts of Rome’s founding legends.
  10. If a Roman military leader defeated the leader of the enemy in single combat and kept the latter’s arms and armour, these were called the spolia opima and brought back to be dedicated in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius. It had only happened three times in Roman history and this poem describes those three great personal achievements, by Romulus, Aulus Cornelius Cossus (consul in 428 BC) and Marcus Claudius Marcellus (consul in 222 BC).
  11. The final poem is a touching address by the recently deceased Cornelia consoling her husband, Paullus Aemilius Lepidus (77 to 11 BC). This man’s father had been brother to the Lepidus who was in the Second Triumvirate alongside Anthony and Octavius. Not long after Cornelia’s death, he married Claudia Marcella Minor, a daughter of Octavia the Younger, sister of Augustus. So like the lament for Marcus Claudius Marcellus (3.18) this is by way of being an imperial commission. However, its stately beauty has led to it being described as the ‘queen of the elegies’ and it is commonly considered the best poem in the entire collection.

Musker’s translation

Having carefully explained what the Latin elegiac metre was, Musker then goes ahead and cheerfully ignores the strictness of it in his own translation. His versions are very free and all the better for it. Try and spot traces of the hexameter-pentameter combination in the following:

Whence, you ask me, come all my poems of love,
And my book that sounds on men’s lips its note of langour.
Calliope does not sing me these songs nor Apollo;
A girl provides me with all I have
Of poetic talent.
(2.1)

Instead of couplets defined by the elegiac metre, Musker uses the verse paragraph. Each poem, instead of presenting a solid column of verse –as they do in the original Latin – is divided into 3 or 4 or 5 verse paragraphs of 5 or 6 lines, the last one or two lines always notably shorter, maybe a kind of recreation of the ‘dying fall’ of the original. Thus:

Penelope, who was worthy of many suitors,
For twice ten years was able to live untouched;
To defer remarriage by feigning a womanly industry,
Then unwinding by nightly stealth the weft of the day.
And though, grown old with waiting, she had no hope
Of ever seeing Ulysses again,
She yet stayed true.
(2.9A)

This not being faced by a wall of verse, instead being able to read a paragraph at a time, makes the poems immensely more readable, as does Musker’s relaxed approach to metre

Conventions of the love poem

Scholars have suggested various real-life models for Cynthia but there is no consensus. As usual all we have to go on is hints within the poems and one remote historical reference.

Propertius mentions that Cynthia is a descendant of the Roman poet Hostius. He frequently compliments her as docta puella meaning ‘learned girl’. He tells us that she herself was a writer of verse. This kind of autobiographical clue-hunting strikes me as pointless. Even when you have confirmed that Lesbia was a codename for Clodia…does it change anything? If anything, it reduces the impact of the poems, which they gain from being about a shadowy unnamed woman.

Instead, the poems are artifices; they rehearse a number of postures or attitudes or emotions related to love affairs. These may or may not ever have been ‘genuine’ or related to ‘a real person’ but it’s a question of taste whether you need to believe that to enjoy them. I don’t.

Poems are verbal machines designed to evoke psychological states in the reader; some of these might be mimetic, directly replicating the emotion described in the poem. But once you’ve read a certain number of poems and start to recognise the same topics recurring in the same treatment, at least part of your mind becomes capable of detachment, regarding even the most moving poem as a verbal artifact, a device.

Mythology

Apparently, Propertius is often criticised because of his excessive use of references from myth and legend. For example, elegy 2.6 kicks off with a flurry of mythological comparisons: he cites three of the most famous courtesans from ancient times and the crowds of men who flocked around them and then claims they were all nothing compared to the hordes of men who swarm at Cynthia’s door. In other words, it is a poem about male jealousy.

The house of Laïs at Corinth, though at her door
All Greece paid court, was never thronged like yours;
Thaïs, famed by Menander and once the darling
Of Athens, attracted no such swarm;
Nor yet did Phrynë, enriched by all those lovers
So that she could have re-erected
Demolished Thebes. (2.6)

In his introduction Musker defends Propertius against the charge of introducing too much mythological matter into his poems. His defence is:

  1. The ancients thought through mythology. Lacking anything remotely like a modern scientific understanding of the laws of nature, their extremely dense and multi-layered mythology provided not exactly rules or laws but stories from history which suggested underlying tendencies, among humans and among the fate which seems to hover over them. Mythology helps to make sense (albeit a chaotic and violent sense) of the world.
  2. Sheer swank. Propertius’s jealousy risks coming over as petty, small-minded, unaristocratic. But if he devotes a paragraph to comparing himself and Cynthia to figures from myth and legend then he obviously flatters her, bigs himself up, and turns a personal peeve into what sounds like the grand statement of some general law rather than a trivial tiff between pampered layabouts.

Personally, I enjoyed Propertius’s use of mythology. In Horace the mythological references often felt dragged in – I think it’s because Horace is such a regular guy, his entire schtick is about living for the moment and enjoying life in a very realistically described Rome, his is such a down-to-earth, sensible philosophy, that Achilles and Apollo seem wildly out of place in it.

Whereas Propertius from the start is more intense and shrill, a little more hysterical and extreme, and so his use of myth and legend genuinely helps to expand and enhance the poems, gives them size, like adding echo to a voice track.

The Romans expected their lovers to give them prominent love bites (note to 4.3, p.220, and 4.5).


Credit

Poems of Propertius, translated by Robert Musker, was published by Everyman books in 1972. All references are to the 1972 paperback edition.

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

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (2nd edn 1968)

Chapter 8 – Teutonic Mythology (pp 245-280)

Almost without exception the legends which were told among the ancestors of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons have not been handed down to us. Hence in any account of Teutonic mythology the Scandinavian traditions must of necessity form a major part. (p248)

The Eastern Goths converted to Christianity on contact with Byzantine civilisation in the 4th century. Hardly anything survives of their language or pagan religion. The Goths of central/northern Germany also left few records. Believe it or not the most thorough account we have of their beliefs is in the ‘Germania’ of the Roman historian Tacitus from the first century AD. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain began converting to Christianity in the 600s and were so thoroughly Christianised that from the 690s they began sending missionaries to Germany, whose work was later reinforced by Charlemagne (742-814), very effectively obliterating any records of Teutonic pagan beliefs. Thus it is in Iceland, at the remotest furthest point of Europe, only settled by pagan Norsemen from the 870s and only Christianised as late as 1000AD, that a relatively free, surprisingly well-educated population lovingly preserved all the stories, myths and legends stretching back centuries of their ancestors from the Continent, as well as composing numerous sagas of more recent Scandinavian and Icelandic heroes. This astonishing abundance of material, of sagas, poems, histories, directly or indirectly gives us a wealth of information about the beliefs of the various tribes and cultures who inhabited north Germany, Anglo-Saxon Britain and Scandinavia in the so-called Dark Ages.

The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains all this very lucidly before embarking on a detailed anthropological account of the Teutonic gods, pointing out the sociological and economic origins of different deities, referencing their counterparts in Roman or Greek or Indian mythology, but also telling the main adventures in straightforward narrative. The illustrations are good. I can’t find anywhere in the internet pictures which show in their entirety the narrow tall porch reliefs showing scenes from the adventures of Sigurd from the wonderful stave church at Hylestad in Norway.

Creation

  • In the beginning was the yawning void, Ginnungagap: vast glaciers and ice lakes from which crystallised a giant frost ogre named Ymir
  • Ymir slept, falling into a sweat, and under his left arm there grew a man and a woman, the first of the Frost Giants
  • Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she exposed a man’s hair in the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri and he begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.
  • Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin, Vili and Vé. These three brothers promptly murdered the primal giant Ymir. From his wounds came such a flood of blood that all the frost ogres were drowned except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a tree trunk (the Norse avatar of the universal myth of a few survivors of a world flood). From this couple sprang the families of frost ogres.
  • The sons of Bor carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from his corpse. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.
  • Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. They acquired human understanding and the appearance of men although they lived in the earth and in rocks. They are the dwarfs.
  • From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides. Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.
  • The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds. Then they took the sparks and embers that were flying out of the fire region of Muspelheim and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to be the stars and sun and moon.
  • The earth was surrounded by a deep sea around which coiled an immense serpent.
  • To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold and named it Midgard or Middle Earth.
  • While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman. Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask and the woman Embla. From Ask and Embla have sprung all the races of men who lived in Midgard.
  • Odin (Woden, Wotan) married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. These early gods are the members of the Æsir. They built themselves a stronghold named Asgard, the house of the Æsir. In Asgard was the great throne Hlidskjálf where Odin sat looking out over the universe, when he was not riding through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, or roaming Midgard, the world of men, in disguise. On his throne report of all the doings in Midgard was brought to him by his two ravens Huginn and Muginn, meaning Memory and Thought.
The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • For being the father of gods and the father of men, Odin is known as the All-Father. Odin sought wisdom throughout the world. Most famously he asked to drink from the spring of Mimir among the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil; but the price was his eye. Thereafter Odin is always depicted as a one-eyed man with a wide flat hat and magic spear, Gungnir.
  • The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor (Donar, Donner, the thunder god). Thor is next most powerful god to Odin. He wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, and rides a chariot drawn by two goats,  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Many Thor hammer amulets have been found across Scandinavia. I like the idea that pagans wore the in Christianised areas as a gesture of defiance.
  • The gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst which is known as the rainbow bridge. At the top, defending the entrance to Asgard is the god Heimdallr, ready to blow his horn as a warning to the gods of any attack by their immemorial enemies, the giants.
  • The nine worlds of Norse mythology subsist within the vast overarching structure of the heaven-tree, Yggdrasil. On its peak sits an eagle. Watering its roots are the three Norns, equivalent to the Greek Fates who tell the past, present and future.  Every day the Norn Urd draws water from her well to water the roots of the tree. Chewing one of its roots is the dragon Nidhoggr. Scampering up and down it is the gossipy squirrel, Ratatoskr.

The Vanir

Interestingly the Teutons have two races of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are gods of power – the AllFather Odin, the thunder god Thor, the god of war Tiu. The Vanir, by contrast, are gods of fertility, originally a group of wild nature and fertility gods and goddesses, considered to be the bringers of health, youth, fertility, luck and wealth, and masters of magic. The Vanir live in Vanaheim. There were many of them but the two principle ones were the twins Freyr, god of fertility, and Freyja, goddess of love.

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

The Nine worlds of Norse mythology

  1. In the first level was Asgard, the home of the Aesir.
  2. Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir.
  3. Alfheim, the home of the Light Elves.
  4. In the middle was Midgard “Middle Earth”, the home of the Humans.
  5. Jotunheim, the home of the Giants.
  6. Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves.
  7. Nidavellir, the home of the Dwarfs.
  8. Niflheim was to the north, inside somewhere under the ground were Helheim home of the dead was.
  9. Muspelheim was to the south, it was the home of the fire Giants and Demons.
The nine worlds of Norse mythology

The nine worlds of Norse mythology

There is no spirituality in Norse culture, no religious feeling. There is fighting, deal-making, and laconic understatement which puts a brave face on the fact we will all fail and all die. The entire cycle of stories lives in the shadow of the foretold and inevitable Last Battle between Gods and Giants when the world will go down in flames: Ragnarök. Until then men and gods alike face their doom with stoic defiance.

“The Germanic gods were never thought of as more than men of superior essence; and like men they were mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.” (p252)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Wikipedia Commons)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Sagas

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