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New Bodies with New Minds: Reasons to Re-visit Ovid

 

Head of a Woman with Horns of a Ram by Jean Leon Gerome, 1873

“My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed
into new bodies: O gods above, inspire
this undertaking (which you’ve changed as well)
and guide my poem in its epic sweep
from the world’s beginning to the present day.”

Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin

Turning the pages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the more challenging (but incredibly rewarding) reads you’re likely to encounter. Not because the language is difficult—in actuality it’s quite pared down and undoubtedly lovely—and not because there is a lack of story or action. In fact, packed into this voluminous literary classic are hundreds of tales each with their own individual story arch that happens seemingly in an instant. Some of the tales last for a mere couple pages, and suddenly things have changed.

And that is what makes it challenging: the change. This idea of transformation is counter-intuitive to most of our natures. When I encountered Ovid for the first time, I was enraptured with the idea of metamorphoses. Acteon sees the goddess Diana bathing and—poof—is turned into a deer as punishment, only to be torn apart by his own dogs. Echo follows her lover Narcissus through the woods, clinging to his last words, repeating them in an attempt to express herself until he becomes obsessed with his own reflection and transforms into a flower; and thus, the echo is birthed, haunting the woods by repeating the most recent sound. Baucis and Philemon accept the weary disguised Zeus into their home and are rewarded by being transformed into intertwining trees so they may never grow apart from the one they love.

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