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Creating ourselves: Creation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Maybe not what Ovid intended, but this gift
from a wonderful friend reminds me that even
rough-hewn folks know how to be tender.

The first book of the Metamorphoses involves the change from chaos to order and compiles multiple creations of the cosmos and of humanity. This tracks for me; lots of traditions have similar creation stories, and without ironclad faith one seems as reasonable as the next. The fact that they overlap at all, in fact, is comforting to some degree and hints at a unified human experience.

So when he starts by describing chaos, “an undigested mass/ of crude, confused, and scumbled elements” (3), I’m ready for him to establish some order, but he’s not very accommodating. His first mysterious creator is “a god—and nature, now become benign” (3). This god, whom he later calls the Architect of All (5), sorts the mismatched elements, and he shapes—in ways reminiscent for me of the Old English depiction of the Christian God as Shaper/Fashioner—the earth and heavens. It’s an image of god-as-sculptor, and in Ovid’s work this god first fashions mortals as well. God is an artist and humanity is glitter—an accessory to make the earth shine.

Or else Prometheus molds humans out of clay (6).

Or else they’re formed of giants’ blood by Gaia after the gigantomachy—the war between Gaia’s giant children and the Olympians (9).

Or else they’re grown from the rocks that Pyrrha and Deucalion drop behind them as they walk away from Themis’s temple after the Flood (18).

All of these stories exist alongside each other in Book 1 of the Metamorphoses. Ovid is certainly collecting and organizing source material, but he does not overtly privilege one version over the other. If anything, he orders them too. He starts with a god creating almost ex nihilo, then from mud or earth, then blood, so the material is moving up the Great Chain of Being as we go. Then the last one is back to stone, but they need no god—mortals create the next race of humans on their own, trusting to the earth to soften and shape the stones they drop/plant into people.

There are at least two ways to read that last account: either Pyrrha and Deucalion drop stones back in to Gaia—the womb of the world, who does the rough hewing—or they are responsible themselves for choosing the stones, placing them correctly, and letting them grow on their own. If you take the second reading, Ovid might be describing an evolution of creation.

And it’s this last story that compels me now, still in this weird limbo of a global pandemic, when we’re emerging but also hesitant and making conscious (often draining) decisions about how we re-enter the world. The stones that Pyrrha and Deucalion drop behind them “began to lose their hardness;/ they softened slowly, and in softening,/ changed form.” Their nature grew “more tender” (18).

Ovid reminds us to note our stony ancestry, our toughness and tenacity, but just now I’m more interested in that tenderness; for me, that way lies hope. That we can be tough but develop softness, tenderness, and compassion is very heartening right now, as we absorb the lessens taught by this trying time.

So that’s what I have for you tonight—a wish that you recall your strength but indulge your tenderness, and extend that mercy to someone else who could use it. Put some purposeful gentleness in to this next age of humanity we are shaping together. Thanks in advance. 😊

All quotes taken from The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A new verse translation. Trans: Allen Mandelbaum. Harcourt Brace 1993.

2 thoughts on “Creating ourselves: Creation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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