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‘From that High Place’
Part 6 of 8: Impressions of Metamorphoses by Ovid
© 2023 James LaFond
Sacred mountains form a beacon like theme in this most rural of Ovid’s accounts. In the case of accursed Peleus, praying from a high place to stop the ravages of a great wolf, that high place is a tower of a citadel that comforted sailors when they viewed its beacon by night. That account occurred, while a sun of Lucifer, the last star at night who ushers off the stars to make way for rosy Aurora had finished telling Peleus of the curses of Kione and Dedalion, with Kione cursed by a goddess for having been impregnated by two gods. In despair, Dedalion, another son of god and mortal, heaves himself from a cliff and is turned into a hawk by Apollo, remaining the enemy of others of his kind.
In Ovid, there is a true sense that the stars and the moon are powers and the sun a great light towed by a power. Metaphors of hand to hand warfare and of tillage of the land and the care of domestic animals are thick within the text. Book 11 begins with mournful Orpheus being murdered by the savage women who he has spurned in favor of boys in the wake of twice losing his beloved wife. These women are further cursed and turned into wild things, half wild as they are already.
The tale of Midas as the fool who asks of a god that whatsoever he touches turns to gold, is told with much scorn for Midas. Midas then witnesses a Mountain God “shaking the trees from is ears,” judge a contest of musical skill between Pan [All], god of flocks, and Apollo, god of arts, pipes against lyre strings. Pan is judged the lesser and Midas objects, and is twice cursed, given the ears of an ass. Most interesting in terms of human society is the subtextual story of how the slave of Midas who is charged with cutting his hair, and helps conceal the ass ears under a purple turban, is terrified that he might mention his master’s curse to someone. Yet he burns to tell the tale and therefore digs a hole and speaks into it, filling it with dirt so that his crime against his master will not be known.
The wolf that ravages the beef herd is turned to stone by a goddess when Peleus wife, the sea goddess Thetis adds her voice to his unheeded prayers. As with Kione and Dedalion, Peleus, having the great glory of intercourse with a deity is cursed, the poet returning often to the lesson that fortune and misfortune are two sides of an oft flipped coin.
“The Fates did not permit the exiled Peleus to settle in that land,” Peleus being hounded by the Furies in concord with the Fates.
“Oceans and the grim face of the sea I find frightening,” speaks the wife of a Cyex, who has wed this daughter of Eolas being a wind god, Cyex being the sun of Lucifer, the Last Star of Night, the usher of his kind. Alciane, the daughter of Winds, swoons when her husband sails off, making her way numbly to her empty bedroom. As her husband embarks on a quest to free the shrine at Delphi from those blocking the road to it.
The account of the storm wracked flight of this ship is the most harrowing tale of ancient literature. Commands are assigned to the captain, whose words are drowned out by the winds and roaring seas. The crew stow oars, bail water, lash spars, lash down sails and do their part to survive the storm:
“The sound is deafening, men screaming…”
“At times the sea turns yellow from sand stirred up from the bottom, at other times black…”
“Chance blows batter that ship...lifting it if the crew were gazing up from a deep pit of Acheron…”
Ovid surges on in brutal metaphor, equating the Ocean’s attack on the ship with the fury of a pride of lions, with the battering rams and war engines that assault a shattered city wall, the waves with the surging of soldiers up and over that wall…
“The wedges slip, and now as waxed seams open up...and then the waters breach the hollow haul and pour into the ship…”
This terrible event is back-lit by the lightning that makes the ocean seem to glow and burn.
“Their seamanship has failed them and their spirits fall, one man cannot hold back his tears, the other stands in a daze, another prays...”
The rare curse of the sailor is that he will not have a proper berth in the afterlife having been robbed of proper burial.
As a massive final wave crashes down and “Strikes the ship and drives it to the bottom of The Deep…” the ship is shattered.
“Lucifer was not permitted to leave the heavens and hid his face behind a cloud…”
Alciane prays to Juno, which bothers the goddess so that she sends a servant, Iris, “Go quickly to the languid halls of Sleep,” so that Alciane might be informed in a dream about the fate of her husband. Sleep, has his home in the furthest northern realm near Cimmeria, where the Sun never kisses the earth and perpetual mist clothes her. “An uncertain gloom, where no crested cock calls for Aurora...there quiet silence reigns...inducing sleep.”
The mouth of the cave of Sleep is surrounded by poppies. The God himself lies alone on a bed of dark sheets, surrounded by half formed dreams. Iris, servant of Juno, pushes unformed dreams out of the way and lights his chamber.
“Command a dream, which goes in the shape of the real man,” messages Iris, who must then flee the cave as she feels sleep overtaking her…
“From the huge crowd of his thousand sons, Father Sleep roused Morpheus, who has the power of imitating human shapes. Morpheus is the only one who copies human beings.” [1] Other sons of Father Sleep appear as animals and landscapes and inform generals and kings. [2]
“I myself, a victim of that shipwreck are telling you of my fate and do not send me off unlamented to Tartarus,” speaks Morpheus as Cyex. Alciane has servants, including a nurse, as do the other heroes and heroines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, attended by a mob of anonymous slaves.
The body of Cyex floats back to his wife and she tears her face and hair in mourning, offering one of the less bitter ends a subject of the ancient powers could experience, to be attended at a proper funeral. Thanks to the pity of the gods the husband and wife are turned into two birds that mate for life and have generated off spring. Eolos, calms the winds for seven days each winter so female birds might nest on the gentle water.
Isacus,a Trojan hero sees a pretty nyph, daughetr ofa river god and chases her in love. She runs and is bitten bya snake and dies. He blames himself more than “the beast,” and hurls himself off a cliff. But a goddess intercedes and tuns him into a bird. Wanting nothing more than to die in the sea he loves, the hero, “elongated” by love transforms into “The Diver” fish forever hurling himself into the sea.
-1. Ovid’s account of Morpheus, Son of Sleep, seems to have inspired the scientist who distilled heroin into Morphine in naming that substance.
-2. The dreams of Charlemagne in the Song of Roland are of this latter type.
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