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Ovid the naturalist

By Jane Alison


Ovid was born on the 20th of March (two thousand and fifty-some years ago): born on the cusp of spring, as frozen streams in the woods of his Sulmo cracked and melted to runnels of water, as coral-hard buds beaded black stalks of shrubs, as tips of green nudged at clods of earth and rose, and rose, and released tumbles of blooms.

The extraordinariness of living-change: this would be the life-breath of Ovid’s great Metamorphoses. In his poem are changes as real as being born, falling in love for the first time, or dying. In it, too, are changes that seem fantastical: a boy becomes a spotted newt; a girl becomes a myrrh. But is it so much more surprising to see a feather sprout from your fingertip than to look between your legs, at twelve, and find a new whorl of hairs? Or feel, growing in your belly, another small body? Many of even the fantastic transformations in Ovid’s poem are equations for natural change, as if to make us see anew. To portray his transmutations, both fantastic and real, Ovid studied closely the natural shifts in forms all around him.

He looked at the effects of warm blood rising within skin, for instance, or sunrays streaming through cloth. Here’s Arachne, caught in a moment of brashness:

A sudden blush filled her face–
she couldn’t control it–but vanished as fast,
just as the sky grows plum when dawn first comes
but with sunrise, soon glows white.

Atalanta, mosaic, 3rd or 4th century. Scala / Art Resource, NY
Atalanta, mosaic, 3rd or 4th century. Scala / Art Resource, NY

Or Atalanta as she runs races to avoid being married:

A flush runs over the girl’s pearly skin,
as when a red awning over a marble hall
suffuses it with the illusion of hue.

Several mythical girls in Ovid’s poem turn into springs. How render this? Byblis cries uncontrollably once her brother has refused her love:

Just as drops weep from the trunk of a pine tree
or oily bitumen oozes from soil
or ice loosens to liquid under the sun
when a warm breeze gently breathes from the west,
so Byblis slowly resolved into tears, slowly
she slipped into stream.

Cyane is overcome, too, when she can’t save a girl who’s been stolen:

In her silent mind grew
an inconsolable wound. Overwhelmed by tears,
she dissolved into waters whose mystic spirit
she’d recently been. You could see limbs go tender,
her bones begin bending, her nails growing soft.
Her slimmest parts were the first to turn liquid,
her ultramarine hair, legs, fingers, and feet
(for the slip from slender limbs to cool water
is slight). Then her shoulders, back, hips, and breasts
all melted and vanished in rivulets.
At last instead of living blood clear water flowed
through her loosened veins, with nothing left to hold.

And how might new forms come to be? Ovid considered coral:

But a sprig of seaweed–still wet with living pith–
touches Medusa’s head, feels her force, and hardens,
stiffness seeping into the strand’s fronds and pods.
The sea-nymphs test the wonder on several sprigs
and are so delighted when it happens again
they throw pods into the sea, sowing seeds for more.
And even now this is the nature of coral.
At the touch of air it petrifies: a supple
sprig when submarine in air turns into stone.

For a new flower to be born and be a yearly testament to Venus’ grief when her lover, Adonis, is gored to death, Ovid thought of peculiarly animate earth:

Venus sprinkled
scented nectar on Adonis’ blood. With each drop
the blood began to swell, as when bubbles rise
in volcanic mud. No more than an hour had passed
when a flower the color of blood sprang up,
the hue of a pomegranate hiding ruby seeds
inside its leathery rind.

And in the story of Myrrha, Ovid elides psychological, naturalistic, and fantastic transformations. Myrrha has seduced her father and, pregnant, fled into the wilds. When her child is about to be born, she cannot bear to live inside her own skin, so she prays:

“If alive I offend the living
and dead I offend the dead, throw me from both zones:
change me. Deny me both life and death.”
Some spirit was open to her words, some god
willing to grant her last prayer. For soil spread
over her shins as she spoke, and her toenails split
into rootlets that sank down to anchor her trunk.
Her bones grew dense, marrow thickened to pith,
her blood paled to sap, arms became branches
and fingers twigs; her skin dried and toughened to bark.
Now the growing wood closed on her swollen womb
and breast and was just encasing her throat–
but she couldn’t bear to wait anymore and bent
to the creeping wood, buried her face in the bark.
Her feelings have slipped away with her form
but still Myrrha weeps, warm drops trickling from the tree.
Yet there’s grace in these tears: the myrrh wept by the bark
keeps the girl’s name, which will never be left unsaid.
Then the baby that was so darkly conceived grew
inside its mother’s bark until it sought a way
out; on the trunk, a belly knob, swollen.
The pressure aches, but Myrrha’s pain has no words,
no Lucina to cry as she strains to give birth.
As if truly in labor the tree bends and moans
and moans more, the bark wet with sliding tears.
Then kind Lucina comes and strokes the groaning
limbs, whispering words to help the child slip free.
The bark slowly cracks, the trunk splits, and out slides
the live burden: a baby boy wails.

A panoply of metamorphoses, fantastical and real, shifting from life to loss to life again. And the baby just born is Adonis, who, though adored by Venus, will die, and his blood will sink into the earth–but then bubble up as an anemone, and it will be springtime, again, and again.

Jane Alison is author of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Her previous works on Ovid include her first novel, The Love-Artist (2001) and a song-cycle entitled XENIA (with composer Thomas Sleeper, 2010). Her other books include a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), and two novels, Natives and Exotics (2005) and The Marriage of the Sea (2003).

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