GIS 1/2/2013 – Is There a Cosmogony in ‘Metamorphoses’ 11?

I rocked up to the Faculty this morning all intent on writing another epic blog-post. Another 5000 words or so about Classics and War Films. Or Classics and Explosions. Maybe Classics and Really Loud Bangs. But would you believe it? As I was settling down in the Cast Gallery and opening up Word, who should appear to me but Cupid himself?

‘What d’you think you’re doing, you big wally?’ he asked (for he was in one of those moods). ‘Don’t you think people have read enough of your self-indulgent waffle for the time being? ’Ere, write something shorter, funnier. More polished. Write about that Ovid bloke. ’E knew what ’e was about. There was that seminar about him yesterday so it’s relevant an’ everything!’

So I laid aside my grand themes and lengthy word-counts and instead wrote this. Cupid’s favourite kind of Res Gerendae blog post* – the GIS summary.

It’s always fun to watch academic fashions come and go. I’m not referring to the day-to-day question of the Faculty bow-tie quotient or exactly how many people in the grad common room will be wearing brown cord trousers on any given day, but to what we all decide to study. And anyone who was present at the meet-and-greet sessions at the beginning of the year can hardly have failed to notice that Ovid is very much this year’s must-have specialisation among our new grad contingent. Never ones to fly in the face of popular opinion, or to miss an opportunity to chase attendance figures by giving the people what they want, this week your humble GIS Consuls** transformed the seminar into what – with the quiet dignity and scholarly moderation you’d expect from us – we’ve retrospectively decided to OvidPalooza 2013.

Our first paper this week came from Charles Northrop II, who asked ‘Is There a Cosmogony in Metamorphoses 11?’. As Charles explained, the themes and imagery of the creation of the universe at the beginning of the Metamorphoses’ first pentad are echoed in the story of Arachne and her tapestry at the start of the second. Should the structure not also then lead us to expect a third rehearsal of these ideas at the outset of the third pentad? Charles believes so, and took us through his idea that the beginning of Book 11 involves a kind of deferred cosmogony in which at first the demiurgic poet-creator figure of Orpheus is destroyed by the chaotic attack of the raging Bacchantes, only for order to be eventually restored by the foundation of Troy, paving the way for the final pentad’s prime focus – recent history culminating in Rome and the establishment of Augustan order.


Orpheus and the Bacchantes. Ovid must have forgot to mention the violin in his version…

Charles had a few reservations about his theory – why did the repeat of the motif of the four elements during the establishment of Troy exclude fire? And what are we to make of the fact that Troy’s foundation is separated from the Orpheus episode by the fairly lengthy story of King Midas? Many of those present had suggestions. Perhaps fire is implicit in the very idea of Troy because of the looming, ever-present knowledge of its destruction? And perhaps the Midas story itself is a kind of creation gone wrong? Could this not also be applied to Troy itself, with the entire pentad then being a series of abortive attempts at the final, mortal cosmogony until Augustus is finally able to provide it?

After Charles’ discussion of the Metamorphorses, we turned our attention to another of Ovid’s works, the Tristia. Christina Tsaknaki invited thoughts on the problematic nature of the text at 5.1.23-4.

Quod superest, animos ad publica carmina flexi

Et memores iussi nominis esse mei.

Can ‘animos’ really be the correct reading, she wondered, or is one of the alternatives that have been suggested by various scholars preferable. She plumped for Ehwald’s emendation ‘numeros’, which would have the poet addressing his verses rather than his mind. More problematic is ‘publica carmina’, which Christina felt contradicted Ovid’s repeated assertions elsewhere that the Tristia were private poems and not concerned with garnering public acclaim. Several suggestions have been made here but none of them are entirely satisfactory, either for metrical reasons or because they do not work in terms of sense. It wasn’t a problem on which we were able to offer any great progress. Suggestions were made, but generally failed to satisfy.

The dictates of academic propriety satisfied, we adjourned to the familiar sanctuary of the Granta, where discussion continued on many and varied topics, including why Apple products are overrated, which single work of ancient literature we would save if we could go back in time***, and pets. Anna Judson retains her crown for outstanding achievement in post-seminar discussion with her considered judgement that Ovid was ‘basically an elegiac poet troll’.

Which seems an appropriate note to end on.

troll ovid

 * I gather most of the rest of the Olympians are devotees of the Linguistics Cake series. As ever they reflect humanity in general, but amplified.

** Yes, that’s what we’ve decided on for our new official job title. It’s so much snappier than ‘co-ordinators’ or ‘chairs of the GIS’.

*** Those of us of a less literary bent contended that if we could have any wish it would more likely be large-scale excavation of Thebes or Tyre rather than adding yet another Ovidian text to our ample collection of Latin. Sadly, until either city can be purchased, evacuated and demolished in toto to make way for the archaeologists, we’re unlikely to get our wishes.

12 thoughts on “GIS 1/2/2013 – Is There a Cosmogony in ‘Metamorphoses’ 11?

  1. On a quibbling note: I would dispute that your self-delivered elevation in status to GIS ‘consuls’ is in flagrant contradiction to the previous qualification ‘humble’.

    However I will forgive this infelicity of phrasing for your fine illustration of Ovid the Troll.


    • I didn’t consider the acclamation of our consulate an elevation. More just a long-overdue clarfication of the job-title. Also do remember, we turned down the suggestion of Spartan Kings.


      • Though in retrospect I wonder now whether I ought to have held out for ‘Suffetes’. I’d quite like to be a Suffete.


  2. Nice metapoetics (metapost-etics?) going on there Philip 😉 Although I have to say I think Classics and Explosions would be an excellent title for a future post…


    • Metapost-etics? I thought we were putting puns that bad behind us! 😉

      Thank you, though. I can’t say Classics and Explosions isn’t tempting, but I’m not sure how many there would be to talk about. Vesuvius and the Parthenon. Some Byzantine weaponry maybe? Beyond that I think I might be struggling.


      • I’m sorry. That started as a genuine “I wonder what the term for a meta-blog-post would be?” but when I thought of metapost-etics I had to write that 🙂 I’ll admit that I can’t think of a lot of explosions off the top of my head, but I’m quite tempted to see if I can track down enough to merit a Weird and Wonderful post on Explosions. I haven’t done one of them in a while!


      • Well, I have to say that the Google results for ‘classical explosions’ and ‘ancient Greek explosions’, while not terribly helpful for blog post purposes, are quite entertaining – a combination of articles about population explosions in Greece, scientific papers about supernovae, and (my favourite, although since I’m in the library I can’t watch it) a Youtube clip entitled ‘Nuclear Explosions To Classical Music’


      • I definitely think you should do this post. I’d do it myself, but I’ve already got at least my next two blog posts planned and that’s not including GIS reports. Quite frankly, I think there’s more than enough of my writing on here.

        Googling ‘Ancient Explosions’ yields some mind-boggling/hilarious sites about nuclear war at Mohenjo-Daro (supported by ‘significantly prominent occultists’, no less!). The first genuine claim at explosives in the Mediterranean seems to be Greek Fire in the 8th C AD, which is pushing the definition of ‘Classics’ beyond breaking point. Otherwise the only big explosion I can think of apart from the ones I already mentioned is Thera.


      • Well, I’ll add it to the list, though given the number of posts I’ve been intending to write for about a year and still haven’t, it may be a while…But occult nuclear warfare in the ancient world may be too good to pass over. (I think Byzantium is ok; it’s *almost* Classics, anyway. But then, I’ve blogged about ancient China and pretended it’s relevant.)


      • Well, it counted when the Fitz had a Chinese exhibition I wanted an excuse to review (they had one label that mentioned the Roman empire, that was good enough for me). I’m not sure I can keep making it count every time I need extra material for a blog post that I can’t get from the Mediterranean. Also, gunpowder coming out of their ears sounds a bit messy.


  3. Pingback: Weird and Wonderful Classics: Warfare and Weapons | res gerendae

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