There is change all around us. And don’t we know it!
For the first time in quite a few years, I picked up Ovid – the poet of continuous change. I remember originally being fascinated by his description in Metamorphoses of the four ages of man, from the golden age to the silver, bronze and then iron ages. A compelling account of the collapse of society, before Rome was founded. The work was published over 2,000 years ago.
But this time round, I am struck first of all by the idea of metamorphosis itself – of life undergoing constant change from one form to another – like a chrysalis becoming a butterfly. Ovid writes of the metamorphosis of an ivory statue into the flesh-and blood woman Galatea, of a self-infatuated young man into the flower Narcissus, of a love-sick nymph into Echo (whose disembodied voice can only repeat what she hears), of a suicidal young man into a swan, of the young woman Daphne who is transformed into a tree to avoid being raped by the voracious god Apollo.
Metamorphoses means The Book of Transformations in Latin, and in these often weird pages, we read of non-stop shape-shifting from one form to another. Ovid has Pythagoras say: “Nothing retains its own appearance permanently. Ever-inventive nature continually produces one shape from another. Nothing in the entire universe ever perishes, believe me, but things vary, and adopt a new form. The phrase ‘being born’ is used for beginning to be something different from what one was before, while ‘dying’ means ceasing to be the same. Though this thing may pass into that, and that into this, yet the sum of things remains unchanged.”
Second of all, I am struck by the wolf-like nature of Roman gods and goddesses, who seduce and rape handsome young men and beautiful young women at will, taking ghastly revenge whenever they don’t get exactly what they want – when they want it. The gods and goddesses are like apex predators, devouring mere mortals!
But coming back to the real and the imagined, there is something else that strikes me. The scene where the goddess Juno enters the cave of the god Sleep: “Voiceless quiet dwells there: but from the depths of the rocky cave flows the river Lethe whose waters invite slumber as they glide, murmuring over whispering pebbles…. Around the god lie empty dreams, made to resemble different shapes, as many as the corn ears in the harvest, as leaves in the woodland trees, or sand scattered on the shore. The goddess entered, and brushed aside with her hands the dreams that stood in her way….”
How wonderful to picture empty dreams as having a tangible, physical presence! Juno can walk up to them, recognize them for what they are, then push them away.
(The feature image at the top of this blog, Woman face with leaf texture and green eyes, was taken by Piotr Krzeslak, and is used here courtesy of Shutterstock.)