Monday, February 5, 2024

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Canto 6 - the sexual assaults - Because the lewdness of the Gods was so blazed in it.

Back to Ovid.

First, I have just begun Paul Barolsky’s Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Boticelli to Picasso (2014), a work of art history about Ovid written in the spirit of Ovid.  The book is of the highest interest, and is a long way from the catalogue of paintings that it might suggest, again, much like Metamorphoses, the catalogue of myths that is not like that at all.  Many thanks to the real-life Ovid readers who pointed me towards this book.

Second, Cantos 6.  Canto 6 in particular is a good place to discuss the sexual assaults in Metamorphoses, all of the rape and attempted rape.  Ovid, among the most pro-sex writers of the Roman world, treats the rapes as terrible crimes, whether committed by gods or men.  The number of assaults is perhaps wearing, but Ovid’s attitude is not so far out of line with what I will presume to call ours.  He is more of a fatalist, I suppose.

Canto 5 ended with the a chorus of women turned into birds for daring to challenge the Muses to a singing contest.  Canto 6 begins with Arachne challenging Athena – Minerva – to a weaving contest.  Minerva weaves a self-congratulatory piece that includes, hilariously, another time she won a prize (for creating the olive tree).  Also, in typical Ovidian fashion, four bonus metamorphoses, all of poor saps punished for challenging gods, are depicted in the corners.

Meanwhile Arachne creates a tapestry showing eighteen examples of various gods, transformed into bulls and horses and grapes (?) and so on, raping women.  Unwise strategically, but outstanding as a form of protest.  And Arachne does not even lose the contest:

    Not Pallas, no, nor spight it selfe could any quarrel picke

    To this hir worke: and that did touch Minerva to the quicke.

Who thereupon did rende the cloth in pieces every whit,

Bicause the lewdnesse of the Gods was blased so in it.  (Golding, p. 140)

Arachne becomes a spider.  Ovid takes every opportunity to blaze the lewdness of the Gods, but since he does not really believe in them he does not fear punishment.

The rest of the canto is nothing but horror: the slaughter of Niobe’s children by Apollo, described with Ovid’s usual delight in gore (“a second arrow punched right through his throat,” Martin, 200), then a glance at he flaying of Marsyas, “entirely one wound” (Martin, 205), and ending with the worst, and likely now most famous of them all, the nightmarish rape and mutilation of Philomela by her brutal, barbarian brother-in-law.  Golding spends five lines, Martin six, just describing Philomela’s severed tongue.  Pure horror and cannibalistic revenge.  I have seen people wonder why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus.  If we think of young Will wanting to outdo his favorites, Ovid and Seneca, it is clear enough what he is doing.

Anyway, my main point is that although Ovid certainly writes about sexual assault a lot, he does not excuse it.  He may perhaps indulge in the horror. 

A paradox of his style is how it feels so light.  Terrible subjects in a light, quick, elegant style.


  1. I totally agree about the lightness of touch, but the delight in the horror and gore is still evident, but somehow, I can peak through my hands. Ovid is now a real favourite, and we are in good company. If he's good enough for Shakespeare, then he's good enough for me.

  2. The Paul Barolsky book I just read, about Ovidian art, made it clear how often Renaissance painters took subjects that are not sexy in Ovid - Jupiter's various assaults, for example - and made them erotic, on up to pornographic. Not Ovid's fault!

    "Peak through my hands" is good. Ovid would likely be a fan of modern horror movies, much more than I am.