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‘Born to Toil’
Part 5 of 8: Impressions of Metamorphoses by Ovid
© 2023 James LaFond
“Since the honor of having fought out weighs the shame of defeat,” says Alcilous the Caledonian River God, to Theseus, when he describes being a suitor of the same bride as Heracles and earning an epic defeat in the wrestle. Alcilous is a magician in human form who can shape change. Thus begins Book 9, as an earth god and a hero contest for a wife. The description of the fight is of a pankration bout, with Herakles achieving the rear ladder mount. Despite turning into a snake and then a bull, Alcilous is defeated.
This is fascinating and may stand, as with Heracles’ defeat of the Hydra, as a metaphor for the mixed race, bastard sons of the eagle-oriented Aryаn conquerors and their snake-worshiping Anatolian wives. Alcilous has a “third form,” that of a bull. He is defeated, when upon turning into this bull, Heracles rips off a horn, maiming the river god. Nyads use the horn as a horn of plenty and the river god tells of seeing Heracles battle Nessus a “monster with a double form,” as a centaur. The river god who changes into bull and serpent and the horse-man centaur seem to stand for assimilated invaders from the high steppe interior mixing with the conquered agrarian societies.
Heracles is poisoned by the venom of the hydra on his arrows that stains the centaur’s shirt and is returned to him as a loving gift. When he wears it at the flaming altar of sacrifice, the venom is activated and poisons him, burning his very blood and bones. The science-fiction writer wonders if this is a dim memory of some toxic technology, like the ichor that the gods bleed.
Heracles gives a savage prayer to his persecuting goddess, Juno, welcoming death, resulting in his ascension and rising to godhood. “Born for toil…with this neck I have held up I am facing some new disease, an all-consuming fire...are there men who still believe the gods exist…” rants the dying hero, who mentions vampire horses from Thrace, suggestive of a cannibal tribe of Aryаns. Lycas, is thrown by Herakles in his rage and turned to stone as a “little human form,” before burning himself on a funeral pyre, built by himself with trees he cut down, in his death throes.
I here posit the various accounts of Heracles in his death throes and ascent, his persecution by the goddess, as a possible echo of The Bronze Age Collapse or of an earlier failure of a warrior race to overcome their environmental challenges. He is armed as an indigenous primal European, not an Aryаn or Anatolian, with horses and cattle and centaurs [1] his enemies. His doom might represent the extinguishing of that hunting race, similar to the doom of Enkidu in Gilgamesh.
This heroic death troubles the gods who have concern for Herakles as a “protector of the earth,” [2] “he who overcomes all things,” “what he gets from me is everlasting, beyond death’s reach,” claims Jove in a speech to his under-gods about the half divine hero having earned a place among the eternal, rising from his pyre, “his better part grew strong...the Omnipotent Father bore him through clouds upon his four horse chariot and placed him among the stars, where Atlas felt his weight.” [3]
After the passing of Herakles, Ovid recites more human woes resulting in transformations of the victims of the gods into trees and birds, including the Myrrh Tree. The torment of women, such as Alcmene, whose womb was terribly stretched out by her divinely planted [Heracles] fetus, only to become the sacrificial object of a cruel goddess, is touchingly recounted. A slave witch midwife is able to see the evil goddess skulking “who looks after pregnancy” and tricks Juno into helping Alcmene, who curses her to become a four-legged creature and give birth through her mouth. Such is the fate spun for Alcmene’s “poor servant girl.”
More gods rape mortal women and nymphs who are punished by goddesses, recalling the Book of Enoch as a double supernatural intervention. The victims are variously transformed into fruiting trees and shrubs. An infant son is entombed within a nymph turned into a tree while pregnant.
The narrative device of women telling stories to each other about the terrible fate of themselves and other women with such touching prayers as, “If you can trust those in pain, I swear by the gods I am innocent,” is truly disturbing. It even bothers the gods, again, recalling Gilgamesh.
“Every god advanced the case of some mortal,” and the Gods of Heaven are troubled by the terrible, cruelties of Fate upon their favorite mortals below. In conclave to discuss how their certain mortals could be patronized with gifts of immortality, Jove Almighty scolds them. Jove reveals that Fate not only holds sway over mortals, but over the gods, and that even he, God, does not reign over Fate. [4]
More changes of mortal form, making a girl into a boy, a boy into a man, an old man into a young man and the transformative curses of mothers, with Iphus, “You who were a girl a moment ago are now a boy…what Iphus as a girl vowed she would do, Iphus as a boy is carrying through.” [5]
Book 10 begins with the terrible woe of Euridide bitten by a snake. To reverse the death for this his young bride, Orpheus, the poet enters the underworld with his lyre, “moved through crowds of insubstantial spirits, the remains of those who received full burial rites, where all we created [6] humans are fated to descend...”
Orpheus sang in hell, “until the spirits wept and even the Furies’ cheeks were wet with tears.”
“I beg you by the silence of this huge realm...all men come to this spot, our final home, and you possess the longest rule over the human race.”
Promising to return as all men do in death, Orpheus is told to not look back for his bride or he would lose her. He did and she fell back into hell. This recalls somewhat the fate of Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt.
“Numbed by the fact that his wife had now died twice,” Orpheus longed to return to hell. But the ferryman pushed him away and he becomes a wandering homosexual, despite being sought as a bride by many women.
Orpheus is a moving figure of decadent decay that this reader sees as a metaphor for a generation of active toiling folk as Herakles described himself as born to toil under Heaven, having given way to a generation of musing dreamers. It is fascinating that the largest civilized generation in the Western World, the Baby Boomers, chiefly produced music, somehow singing at the end of a cultural time. In this after age, as musicians of this generation tour into their 70s and 80s, and are knighted by the British Empire as crusaders, sea dogs and explorers were once honored, Ovids’ deeply empathetic account of Orpheus echos as a distant mirror of a similar social dismay.
A man named Atis was also changed into a cypress tree. A boy named Cyparisses feels terrible for slaying a stag and wishes to weep forever as a cypress. Such trees as this listened and danced to Orpheus and his songs, many of which were of Jupiter and many were of boys and girls abducted by gods and goddesses.
The sad fate of Hyacinthus the Spartan discuss thrower, being accidentally killed by Apollo, who is “bound by Fate,” to linger on, unable to join his friend in death, is redeemed and recalled as the origin of the hyacinth flower. [7]
A race of evil men who sacrificed guests on Jove’s altar of hospitality are turned into bulls by Venus, who also turned the first race of women to work as whores into flint.
One man and woman commits sex acts in a temple of the old gods and are transformed into lion and lioness, which serve to pull Cybele’s chariot, while the chariot of Venus is drawn by swans.
Book 10 closes with Adonis being gored in the groin by a boar and then transformed by Venus, who protested to the Fates, saying “not everything is in your power...I will change your blood into a flower…” and the goddess transformed her mortal son into the Enemonie flower, whose deep red petals blow away easily in the wind.
The metaphysical texture of Ovid’s mythos is over-woven with the beckoning of Heaven, under-woven with the gravity of Oblivion and inter-woven with the natural world, songs of the doomed rustling in the sentient trees and the blood of the damned nourishing flowers and the veins of rejuvenant leaves.
-1. Centaurs are obvious metaphors for the first horsemen, probably Scythian Aryаns.
-2. Making him something of a conflation of Enkidu and Humbaba the forest guardian, in mythic wise also closely related to Samson.
-3. The same understanding of Heaven as in Genesis, as a vault in which God places the stars and planets.
-4. The clearest difference between Judaic and Hellenic metaphysical structure. In Beowulf God Almighty is the weaver on the loom of Fate.
-5. The sex changing and Ovid’s adaptive homosexuality, after Fate having taken his wife from him, suggests a reflection of a failed and decadent civilization that experienced a masculinity crisis similar to our current gender politics.
-6. Ovid did not credit evolution but transformation as the adaptive aspect of creation.
-7. Suggests the subordinate gods as angels and archangels bound to an Almighty power.
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