Creation in Ovid's Metamorphoses Essay

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Ovid, Metamorphoses

Ovid's Metamorphoses begins by promising to describe the way in which bodies change into new forms, but immediately follows into a primal myth of the creation of the world. Indeed, the poem as a whole is seemingly obsessed with myths of creation, human and divine. I would like to examine three particular episodes in Ovid's epic -- the myths of Arachne and Daedalus in Books VI and VIII, and the speech of Pythagoras in the final book (XV) -- in order to examine Ovid's handling of myths of creation. I hope to demonstrate by way of conclusion that although Ovid interestingly explores the correspondences between craftsmanship (a way of creating things) and parentage (a way of creating human beings), his ultimate concern is with his own medium, which is poetry. In some sense, the proliferation of creation myths within Ovid's poem are all directed toward a covert self-analysis by the poet of his own art.

Ovid's handling of Arachne would seem to have a relatively obvious moral: creation here is figured as a form of hubris. Arachne's downfall in this story is caused by her own pride, although the poet is careful to give the reader as much mitigating circumstance to make Arachne's pride seem justifiable. We are told, for example, that she comes from humble parentage, from an out-of-the-way place, and that her parents were of humble birth as well and her mother is dead. Despite all this, Arachne has become famous in such a way that even attracts divine attention: Ovid tells us that river and mountain nymphs would come to take a look at what Arachne creates. We must recall, of course, what precisely Arachne's creativity is directed towards: she is a weaver, she creates elegant cloth with woven designs. This makes Ovid's detail about Arachne's deceased mother a more interesting character note: weaving is historically a woman's art, of course, but one taught by mother to daughter. Arachne's amazing talent at producing woven cloth -- which has made her famous in her region of Greece (Lydia) and also managed to attract the attention of nymphs, and ultimately of a more powerful goddess -- seems to be a natural gift.

Certainly that is how Arachne herself would like it to be seen, because what sets the story into motion is the issue of who taught Arachne how to weave. This is why Ovid's detail about Arachne's parents -- "Her mother now was dead" (Mandelbaum 177) -- seems so be frontloaded in the story. We might imagine most girls who learn to weave are taught by an older woman, if they are not indeed taught by their own mothers. But Arachne's preternatural skill, according to Ovid, gave the viewer a different sense of where her talent had come from: "one knew that she was surely Pallas' pupil." This is slightly odd, because Pallas (Athena or Minerva) is a goddess and we are not told Arachne received divine lessons -- instead this seems to be a reference to the goddess's patronage over such things as craftsmanship and wisdom. What Arachne's story devolves into is a contest between girl and goddess over who is the better weaver. Minerva comes in disguise to warn Arachne to exhibit more gratitude toward the goddess, and Arachne speaks slightingly of the goddess, without realizing that she is doing it to the goddess' own face. Yet there is a more interesting dramatic irony to Arachne's taunts here beyond the obvious dramatic irony that she is insulting a disguised goddess:

Old age has addled you; your wits are gone; too long a life has left you anile, stale, undone.

Your drivel might appeal to your dear daughter-

in-law, if you have one, or else your daughter, if you have one. As for advice, I can advise myself. And lest you think your warning changed anything, be sure of this: I am still sure of what I said before. Your goddess why doesn't she come here? Why not accept my challenge?" Pallas answered: "She has come!" (Mandelbaum 178)

The actual phrasing of Arachne's taunt to Minerva, with its repetiation for rhetorical emphasis -- "your dear daughter-in-law, if you have one, or else your daughter, if you have one" -- surely bears extra weight when we consider that Minerva was, indeed, the virgin goddess. Obviously virginity is subject to a variety of different cultural constructions that can give it all sorts of meanings. But one thing that it does not have outside of Christian mythography is the notion that a virgin might have children: the virgin is, by necessity, not a being that creates other beings. This is interesting again because -- in this story about female creativity and creation -- we are again seeing hints of the most obvious thing that women create (which is children). The seeming substitution of Minerva for the girl's absent mother is the first sidelong reference, but Arachne's rhetorically-highlighted reference to this old women's putative children -- not knowing she is talking to a childless divine virgin (and patroness of wars) -- seems again to raise the same issue obliquely. And indeed sexuality and parentage resurface throughout the rest of Ovid's handling of the myth. When Arachne and Minerva compete, Ovid gives descriptions of each of their tapestries -- I will return to this fact in my conclusion, but it is enough to note that there are two enormous shocks for the reader regarding Arachne's work. The first is that it is directly embarrassing to the gods themselves, and apparently depicts in detail a number of the more lurid sexual seductions that the gods accomplished with women, usually after the god has taken an animal form first:

The kind mother of harvests, golden-haired, knew you as stallion;

Whereas the mother of the winged horse -- she

Whose hair was wreathed with snakes -- knew you as bird;

And when you took Melantho, you were dolphin.

And each of these -- the actors and the settings

Is rendered to perfection by Arachne. (Mandelbaum 182)

This seems like the most deliberate form of hubris possible (depicting the gods in the medium of cloth-based bestiality-porn) however the bigger shock arguably comes when we learn that even Minerva acknowledges Arachne has won this contest at weaving. This does not mean that Arachne will go unpunished, however, and once again the issue of childbirth and parentage is included by Ovid in the very language of Minerva's curse upon the girl:

Live then, but, for your perfidy, still hang, and let this punishment pursue all who descend from you: thus, you must fear the future -- down to far posterity. (Mandelbaum 182)

This serves an obvious function on the most basic level of relating the myth. Arachne is turned into the first spider, and so the story becomes a story about where spiders (and their marvelous skill at weaving) come from. But it is again worth noting that Minerva's parting shot deliberately brings up the issue of childbirth: it is as though Ovid cannot describe female creators (neither of whom actually have children) without incorporating the idea of parenthood.

Many of the same motifs are repeated, in different ways, in another story of a preternaturally skilled creator in Book VIII. This is Daedalus, the famed inventor, who is introduced into Ovid's story as the builder of the labyrinth that will contain the monstrous child, the Minotaur, of King Minos. Having used his phenomenal creativity to build a prison for the king's child, Daedalus finds himself the king's prisoner too, effectively speaking. The only escape from Minos's island kingdom of Crete would be through the air, and so Daedalus uses his skill at inventing things in order to escape through the only route possible, which is the sky. Ovid describes how Daedalus builds wings using wax and feathers, layering them in different length so they resemble pipes that country people used to fashion where from unequal reed to reed the rise is gradual. And these he held together with twine around the center, at the base he fastened them with wax, and thus arranged he'd bent them slightly -- they could imitate the wings of true birds.

As he worked at this, his young son, Icarus, inquisitive, stood by and -- unaware that what he did involved a thing that would imperil him delighted, grabbed the feathers that the wind tossed, fluttering, about; or he would ply the blond wax with his thumb; and as he played, the boy disturbed his father's wonder-work. (Mandelbaum 255)

The imagery here, comparing the wings Daedalus builds for himself and his son to pan-pipes played by shepherds, is an accurate way of describing the layering of feathers on actual bird's wings, but it also seems to serve the function of likening this form of creativity -- the invention of a technological device whose results seem almost magical -- to artistic creativity. The pan-pipes are an image of song and, by extension, even of poetry itself. However, Daedalus's creativity works with physical…

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