Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

Ovid
Metamorphoses (selections)

Introduction: Publius Ovidius Naso’s retelling of some of the greatest stories of classical mythology deserves our gratitude. However, there is more going on in the poem than an attempt to preserve ancient tales. It is not without significance that Ovid begins the collection of tales with a “creation myth.” It is equally significant that he ends the tale with the deification of both Julius and Augustus Caesar. Ovid certainly had a political motive for his praise of the Julian house, but again there is more to this praise than politics.

The literary form of the Metamorphoses begins with a creation story as introduction, continues with stories of miraculous deeds (in this case, they involve “changes”), and it climaxes with the metamorphoses of Julius and Augustus Caesar to divinity. In this manner, the whole work aims the creation story and the deeds of the Gods toward the city of Rome and the Julian house.

Such a pattern is familiar to those who study the religions of the Mediterranean basin. The common meaning of creation stories in antiquity in the Mediterranean region was to establish the religion’s home city as the center of the cosmos. Thus in the Babylonian poem Enuma Elish,1 the creation of order from chaos ends in the establishment of Babylon. Hesiod’s famous Theogony centers Athens as the goal of creation. The creation story in Genesis is the ground of one of the central two narratives which order the Pentateuch, the “David/Zion” story, a story that establishes the holy city Jerusalem as the center of the worship of Yahweh and gives legitimacy to the Davidic royal line.2Ovid has thus combined an aretalogical form (a list of extraordinary deeds that reveals divine power) with the creation story, establishment-of-theholy-city narrative.

Ovid generally applies moralistic meaning to his retelling of the classical myths, a meaning that was not central to the original telling of the stories. This is typical of the rationalistic stoicism and middle-platonism of Ovid’s time. The poet also gives such moralistic teaching to the final part of his story: the Caesars’ miraculous deeds are in their most admirable leadership of the people. For more on this, see the Introduction to this volume. For a contrasting treatment of rulers’ aretalogies, see pp. 131–33; 155; 162–63.

1. The English text of Enuma Elish is available in J. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958).

2. On this, see virtually any contemporary introduction to the Old Testament, e.g., W. Lee
Humphreys, Crisis and Story: Introduction to the Old Testament (Mountain View, Calif.: May-
field, 1990); Robert R. Wilson, “The City in the Old Testament,” and Jonathan Z. Smith,
“Jerusalem: The City as Place,” both in Civitas: Religious Interpretations of the City, ed. Peter
S.Hawkins (Atlanta Scholars Press, 1986).

-290-

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