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Metamorphoses in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Concerning Ovid's Metamorphoses

p. 51

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Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

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1Matter and form. It has been shown that the poet was clearly inspired by the ideas of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apameia (ca. 135-51 BCE), even though we do not have detailed knowledge of Posidonius' system.

2Ovid was not a philosopher, and his poem is not a doctrinal presentation like that of Lucretius. In Book XV he barely gives a voice to Pythagoras for a 400-verse explanation of the reasons behind the rejection of animal sacrifice and meat consumption. Yet the underlying system in the Metamorphoses is not that of Pythagoras and of metempsychosis, it is altogether different. This can be seen from two points put forward by Heinrich Dörrie. In most of the metamorphoses described by Ovid, the soul has no part to play. The poet speaks only of the mutations which affect the human form. And, as with Posidonius, a person’s being is based not on biological charac­teristics shared by all, the psyche, but on the substance which exists behind the visible form of that person, their personality. And it is precisely in the metamorphosis that this essential core reveals its permanency as only the form changes. Without self-consciousness coming into play in any way, the existential core of a human being is always defined by a singular behaviour, a behaviour which is either a desire, a reckless demand, or a mistake. Hence, the amu­sing story of the Lycian peasants. One very hot day Latona, pregnant with Apollo and Diana, felt thirsty and sought to quench her thirst with water from a pond. The local peasants forbade her to do so, insulted her and stirred up the pond water with their feet. Tired of their quarrelling, the goddess made the wish that they should live in their pond eternally, and they instantly turned into frogs. Their new form forever bound them to the water, which they denied to others, and led them to constantly fight among themselves as their legs stirred up the mud of the waterways.

3According to Dörrie, this was their essential nature. Their mistake highlighted this characteristic and remained part of them even beyond the metamorphosis. This may be so, but we can also say that the metamorphosis had fixed their being in the very last form which was theirs: that of being attached to their water to the point of refusing it to others and insulting those who tried to quench their thirst. That is in fact their primary nature. The metamorphosis reflects their punishment, as it expresses in other cases the sorrow or the desire of those who are subject­ to it. It is as if the permanent form that these beings take on conveys their genuine primary nature. In this way Daphne, subjected to Apollo's increasingly brutal harassment as he was overcome by his powerful desire for her, asked her father, a river god, to free her from her overly enticing beauty through a metamorphosis. The god granted this and she was transformed into a laurel – dáphnê is the Greek word for laurel. Disheartened, Apollo accepted this with resignation and decided that, from then on, this tree's foliage would decorate his hair, his quiver and his lyre. Daphne was then forever fixed in this new exis­tence which joined her to her persecutor whom she had rejected.

4The second aspect of metamorphoses in which Ovid converges with the theories of Posidonius relates to the new exis­tence of metamorphosed beings. Metamorphosis bestows upon human beings a life expectancy which would never have been theirs in their previous form. By entering, through transformation, into one of the three kingdoms identified by the philosopher – the animal, vegetable or mineral kingdoms –, beings lose their form but not their substance. This substance, from then on, determines form according to new rules. However their name remains the same and their existential core, therefore, does not change. Daphne remains as enticing as ever to Apollo and bound to the god, while he may only carry her with him without ever satisfying his passion.

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John SCHEID, « Metamorphoses in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Concerning Ovid's Metamorphoses », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 10 décembre 2018. URL :

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