Ovid’s Metamorphoses begins with a retelling of the Greco-Roman creation myth. Since I’m about to launch my own set of new beginnings (France in four days! Eeeeeep!), I figured it was a wise time to explore his poetic description of the biggest beginning of all. NOTE: In this (and future) missives about Metamorphoses, I’ll be quoting from two different versions: first, a blank verse translation by J.J. Howard (JJH); and second, Ted Hughes’s marvellous free verse adaptation called Tales From Ovid (TH), which I highly recommend. If you’re interested in comparing other translations, click here.
From bodies various form’d, mutative shapes
My muse would sing:–Celestial powers give aid!
From you these changes sprung,–inspire my pen;
Connect each period of my venturous song
Unsever’d, from old Chaös’ rude misrule,
Till now the world beneath Augustus smiles. (JJH)
The very first potential metamorphosis in the book is a traditional invocation to the muses, asking these ill-defined demigods to help transform their own original tale of “mutative shapes” into something accessible by mortal eyes, and to “connect each period” in history into a single, sensible strand. The most challenging epoch to connect to anything is the first: “old Chaös’ rude misrule,” a phrase in which Chaos gets both anthropomorphized and granted an umlaut.
“Old Chaös’ rude misrule.” Here, ‘rude’ means something stronger than ‘unmannerly’—more like ‘wild’ or ‘destructive.’ But it also connotes an interruption, which is odd, since it’s the beginning of everything. It’s the same with every mythic origin story: King Chaös rules over everything, but he doesn’t deserve to rule, because a kingdom lacking order is no kingdom at all. So the Norse abyss of Ginnungagap gives way to Yggdrasil, the World Tree. And so “the darkness on the face of the deep” in Genesis gives way to light. The universe first occurs to us as an untenable status quo, a problem to be solved.
“Each element / Confusion strange begat” (JJH)—and again, ‘confusion’ has a stronger implication than we’d give it now. Shakespeare used it this way sometimes, as a critical failure of rationality to sort the problems of the world. It’s both the starting point and the worst case scenario; we struggled out of Confusion, and if we’re not careful, it’s where we’ll end up. Ovid frames Confusion in terms of negatives, inverting the traditional logic of the cosmos: “Unfirm the earth, with water mix’d, and air; / Opaque the air; unfluid were the waves” (JJH). I’m not even sure how to envision “unfluid” air, which is the point; forget everything you understand about waves.
That’s the tenor of so many primordial myths: they hint at the ineffable, through description-defying language which evokes and exploits that most ancient of human fears—the unknown. Yet there is also, maybe, a hint of our true origins: life which formed at the ocean’s floor, where the water is still (“unfluid”), thick (“unfirm the earth”), and as dark as space. How could Ovid, or any of the other myth-spinners, remember the habitat of humanity’s single-celled progenitors? There’s no rational answer, but myths defy the rational at every turn. Maybe the first, implied metamorphosis in Ovid’s book is also Darwin’s.
Chaös was also War. Ovid emphasizes the gap between the innate, endless conflict of the pre-human world, and the peaceful Golden Age which follows. Ted Hughes’s version describes the primordial Earth as having
Each thing hostile
To every other thing: at every point
Hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless
Resisted weight. (TH)
This image goes even further back, past the dawn of life and into the entropic formation of the planet, the solar system, even the universe. Imagine the churning volcanic upheavals and earthquakes that shook the world into its current shape, or the chains of nuclear reactions that give birth to stars and galaxies. Ovid only seeds us with this sense of scale, but now that our imaginations have been ploughed with Star Trek and Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, we can meet him halfway. “A huge agglomeration of upset,” writes Hughes, “A bolus of everything—but / As if aborted. / And the total arsenal of entropy / Already at war with it.”
Is war truly so deeply ingrained in nature? Is it there, beneath our DNA, in the atoms themselves—explosive echoes of pan-stellar salvoes, an astronomical inheritance that impels us to violence? Or have we, anthropomorphists par excellence, imposed the metaphor of war upon the mindless chemical reactions that surround us? Maybe “violence” is only violence when it’s organic, a brutal exchange between living souls. Yet, lacking the vocabulary to describe our universe, we steal from our own destructive past. There’s another Greek myth (not mentioned in Metamorphoses) involving Gaia, or Mother Earth, copulating with Uranus, the Sky God, and giving birth to the living world. Maybe it’s not so bad, to conceive of entropy as war and to picture the very first manifestation of order as an act of love.
The thing I love most about Ovid’s version of Creation is its coy erasure of authority. Some “deity unknown” (JJH), he says, was responsible for sorting out chaos, making the earth earthy and the waves wet, and setting up the proper orbits of the sun, moon, and stars. We can thank “God, or some such artist as resourceful” (TH). Without a name or a motivation, we are free to think of our cosmic creator as “the ingenious one” (TH)—a sly nod on Ovid’s part to the power of poetry and art to create worlds, not as act of war or conquest, but out of the sheer joy of creation, structure for its own sake. It’s right there in the invocation, at least Hughes’s version of it:
I summon the supernatural beings
Who first contrived
In the stuff of life.
You did it for your own amusement. (TH)