BR: ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid

‘Metamorphoses’ is a Roman epic poem which chronicles everything from the mythical beginnings of the world to the foundation of Rome and the deification of Julius Caesar. I was very impressed by the fact that David Raeburn had translated it into hexameter verse, the meter in which it is written in Latin, so that the narrative swings along without losing any of its original charm as a poem. It features some of the best-known classical myths such as those of Daedalus and Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts and Theseus and the Minotaur, but perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me was discovering lesser-known ones such as that of Myrrha, who is changed into a myrrh tree due to her incestuous desire for her father. I also loved the tense debate between Odysseus and Ajax, in which Ovid’s rhetorical training was clearly visible.

Something that surprised me while reading the poem was how little humanity has changed over time. I expected such an old text to be reasonably prudish, but actually there were more accounts of rape – or attempted rape – than I could count, and there was even one incident with a female perpetrator. Ovid’s attitude towards women was also more liberal than I expected – although many were presented as stereotypical virtuous maidens, Ovid was genuinely interested in female perspectives on classical mythology. For example, he gives a voice to Byblis to explain why she is tempted to incest, and seems more interested in Medea than her lover, the hero Jason. The poem was also extremely gory in parts: in the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs, ‘as globules of blood and fragments of brain poured out of the wound,/ the centaur, vomiting wine from his mouth, fell backwards and drummed/ with his heels on the sodden sand.’ I could imagine the author relishing these details with boyish glee!

My least favourite aspect of the book was the long lists of place and character names because they didn’t mean much to me and probably lost some of their beauty in translation. However, on balance I would say that the poem was very pacy and rarely dull because it was split into small stories instead of forming one long narrative. I would certainly recommend it as an exciting and not at all intimidating introduction to classical literature.

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