Living · Reading · Teaching

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.

Teaching · Uncategorized

Back to School: Fall 2021

What. A. Year.

And by “year” I mean 17 months that feel like five years. And by “what” I mean quelle castastrophe, che bello, que año de cambios.

How are you? Are you still there? What is left and lost and undone and reshaped of you? I am tired. But just now, quiet and still and hopeful.

I’m teaching on campus again–just one class–so far, just one hour. And one of my husband’s classes was moved online after one day, so I’m very clear how precarious everything is, but one hour is more than I got all last year, and it was glorious—masks and anxiety and all.

It’s Myth as Literature again. And myth reminds me to think broadly, and we start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which reminds me to notice how beautiful humanity is and how ubiquitous change is, and I can feel some of my mushy insides congealing into a new butterfly.

So here is a teeny blog for re-emerging, as the academic year begins:

I hope you are finding parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and that you put them to use.

I hope if you’ve been working, you’re staying safe; if you’re rejoining the in-person workforce, I hope you’ve been safe and you begin to feel more confident every day.

I hope where you’ve lost has been healing, and that those holes give you some new perspectives to help you move forward.

I hope you read some things that distract you and challenge you that aren’t news items. And I hope you have the means and space and energy to pursue something new during this transition.

I hope you have let yourself grieve and continue to. And I hope even more that you let yourself rejoice.

And I hope when we get this pandemic under control and start thinking about how we want to live this next phase of our lives, we can agree that a butterfly would beautiful, but a phoenix would be better.


Orpheus is Hip Again

He is timeless, of course. The impulses are all just as real, the loss just as horrible, the potential just as tempting. In the new Broadway musical, Hadestown, Hermes keeps repeating “It’s a sad song, but we’re going to sing it again.” It really never gets old.

Orpheus is a worldsinger. He is able, through his music (helloooo, poets!) to control the natural world. His music makes trees uproot themselves and walk closer to him. It makes rocks hurled at him fall out of the sky and roll up to his feet, prostrating themselves before him, asking forgiveness for their audacity (at least in Ovid’s rendering.)

His music makes the furies cry. It makes Hades relent. It changes the world.

Orpheus plays the lyre.

When Orpheus goes to hell to find his bride, all lovers and artists go with him. Anyone who has ever tried to write something or create something to capture the spirit of someone they’ve lost knows what he’s doing. If we can remember our loved ones, they’re still with us. So we take pictures and write letters and bake their favorite cake, and try to feel what it was like when we still had them.

But Orpheus actually goes after her. His art gives hope to all of us; it succeeds. He makes Hades feel remorse. He makes Hades feel empathy. He reminds Hades of his own love, and Hades relents. He agrees to let Orpheus take his bride back, conditionally, of course.

This is the magical moment in the new musical by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown. In this version, Hades has turned the underworld in to a mine, and the inhabitants are working for him. Hades has been working to craft jewelry to keep Persephone happy. He has been convincing the dead souls that they need him and a wall to protect themselves. He has doubts—about his love, about his power, about everything.

In Mitchell’s hands, the story of an artist weaving a spell capable of overturning death takes on shades of class and social justice and ageism, along with the birth of seasons and love. Mitchell’s Hades is a surly foreman and a jealous, older husband who returns for Persephone early because he misses her and because he doubts.

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus, respectively, in Hadestown

The descent of Persephone brings the onset of winter, which makes Eurydice hungry. In fact, hunger is Eurydice’s defining characteristic in this production. She is poor but scrappy, and she ultimately trades her life with Orpheus for the comfort and lack of want that Hades peddles. Perhaps that is the greater tragedy here—not that art cannot bring love back, but that art is a luxury that many can’t afford, can’t even survive long enough to enjoy.

When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, Persephone advocates for him. Against all odds Eurydice remembers him, and Hades succumbs to his magic. But as they leave, Hades adds the condition—Orpheus must not look back. He must not give in to doubt. This is made all the more clearly a test, given that Hades has already exhibited even he doubts his love. What chance does Orpheus, just a poor boy with a song, have?

The possibility that others will follow Orpheus and Eurydice looms in the musical as well as the myth. If Orpheus can escape, why not others? This is the underlying problem with people like Orpheus; their unearthly power threatens the natural order. Letting Eurydice go back would be one thing. Starting a zombie revolution is quite another.

But that’s another of the threads woven through this new retelling—revolution. The possibility of revolution in response to poverty is terrifyingly real. And the idea that despondency can be alleviated by art and beauty is powerful—empowering. For me the take home message of Orpheus has always been that love, expressed through art, has the power to change everything.

Yeah, Orpheus will never not be cool.

Living · Reading

Life Hacks from Ancient Myth #2: How to treat a chest wound, or “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.”

At my house whenever something unexpected happens, you’re liable to hear someone say, pensively, “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.” It’s a line from the 1993 rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, from the crazy dinner conversation full of crossing narratives and non-sequiturs, and it struck us as so random that it stuck, and we’ve been variously applying it and misapplying it ever since.

Today, as I write another installment in the Life Hacks from Ancient Myth, I have a lesson that seems less broadly applicable, but is still surprisingly relevant from time to time, so we feel like it’s a truth that no one sees coming: If someone takes a spear to the chest, don’t just pull it out right there. Resist the temptation to relieve your comrade of the stabby thing that seems to be paining them. Be calm.

This is, believe it or not, a recurring lesson throughout literature. I know it from two pretty dissimilar texts—one Roman, and one Anglo-Saxon. It comes up more often than that, really, but these two are very vivid for me.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, completed in the year 8 CE, he parodies the Trojan War material with a raucous wedding scene where a centaur tries to steal the bride. (That hilarious parody and Ovid’s neat reduction of the Trojan War to a couple embarrassing moments for Achilles is the subject for another blog.) Today I’m interested in the tragic love story he drops in the middle of the ‘red wedding’-style brawl.

As humans slaughter centaurs in defense of the bride, and centaurs rise (or not) to glory in self-defense, the narration pauses to hold a light on perfect love: Cyllarus and his beloved Hylonome have come to the wedding as a happy couple to celebrate another happy couple. They are described as almost nauseatingly sweet—“she honeys him” at 12.411, and just as we’re imagining this loving centaur couple (for me, thanks to the Disney animators of Fantasia, I have a very clear image), Cyllarus takes a spear to the chest.

We’re told that it did not pierce his heart, but it’s close, so for a moment the possibility of his survival fills our hearts. Then Hylonome, crazed with fear and grief, rips out the offending projectile.

Oh, Hylonome.

Did she not take War Time Triage 101? When she pulls out the spear, hoping to help, she instead rips his chest open, and his lifeblood pours out. She tries kissing him to stop his soul escaping with his breath, but she’s already lost him. She runs herself through with the same spear, and the tragedy is complete.

So what have we learned? Centaurs are terrible wedding guests; they arrive drunk and only get worse. But also, beware of chest wounds. They need special care.

A later example of this type scene comes from the Old English poem ”The Battle of Maldon,” wherein the defending earl of an English tribe is hit with a spear from an invading Viking ruffian. Byrthnoth, the lord, has exhibited tremendous arrogance in allowing this battle to take place at all (he gave up a position of advantage out of pride). And to prove his manhood, just seconds before the fatal chest wound, he had wrenched a spear out of his own shoulder and sent it back at the Sea Dog who threw it.

So perhaps we forgive poor Wulfmar, who at fifteen years old is fighting his first and last battle. He sees his lord go down and rushes to help. But our narrator reminds us it’s his inexperience that is to blame. You can almost hear a chorus of seasoned warriors scream “NO!—Don’t do it!” as he slides the spear head out and Byrtnoth slumps to the ground.

Why wasn’t this covered in basic training? In both tales someone pulls the blade who didn’t know any better—a woman, a new soldier—because everyone else knows not to do that until you can treat it carefully.

But now we know. If you or someone you love is ever pierced by a spear, don’t try to remove it on the battlefield. Or in the classroom. Because Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.

In a Texas elementary school in October of 2000, six-year old Destiny Lopez was trotting back to her desk when she fell on her newly sharpened pencil, and it pierced her heart. A pencil is just a small spear, after all—wooden shaft, sharp point.

Her heroic and self-possessed teacher did not act rashly. She lay down on the floor with Destiny as the pencil pulsed with the beat of her heart. She did NOT remove the weapon from the wounded warrior’s chest.

And that little girl lived.

So let that be a lesson to us. And go get some first aid training, or at least read some good battle poetry.

Here are two articles about Destiny and her teacher:

Nora Ephron, screenplay and director. Sleepless in Seattle. 1993. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starring.


Life Hacks from Ancient Myths, volume 1

Sometimes in the middle of unpacking a myth’s metaphoric meanings, the story can seem pretty wild and ridiculous, and if I’m still looking like I think it’s cool, my students start to look at me like I’m slightly cracked. That’s when I try to make it relevant. Today’s handy lesson was “When you’re grappling a shapeshifter, just hang on until they run out of forms.”

We read the myth of Erysichthon, the sacrilegious cretin who chops down a giant oak sacred to Ceres (goddess of grain and fertility and motherhood). Inside the tree is a nymph, so it bleeds when he chops it down. Ovid’s treatment is wonderful: in response to this crime, Ceres seeks out her opposite, Famine, and sicks her on Erysichthon. Famine breathes want in to his bones, and he gets hungrier as he eats.

                Just as the sea receives
                the rivers of the earth, but then can drink
                still other streams that flow from distant parts;
                and just as a devouring fire will not
                reject more fuel, but feeds on countless logs,
                becoming ever more voracious with each gift:
                so for the sinner Erysichthon’s lips,
                each banquet only adds to what he’s missed.
                For him food calls for food, glut calls for glut;
                his being full amounts to emptiness.
(Metamorphoses 8; Allen Mandelbaum, translator)

And here we have a doodle of the tree Erysichthon mutilates. It was big enough for fifteen nymphs to dance around, hand in hand, and decorated with ribbons and votive tablets.

When it gets very bad (which doesn’t take long), Erysichthon tries to sell his daughter for food. However, in an offscreen back story, she had been previously raped by Neptune, and in compensation he had granted her the ability to shape-shift. So every time Erysichthon sells her, she transforms in to a different animal and escapes her new master. Eventually he eats away at his own flesh.

That message seems clear. Don’t willfully challenge the gods, or they will respond in kind. Erysichthon’s greed is magnified until it consumes him. It’s not even reciprocal justice; it’s just turning up the volume.

But we were talking about shapeshifters. Erysichthon’s daughter sparks comparison with other shapeshifters: Proteus, who is name-dropped in this same book of the Metamorphoses and Thetis, mother of Achilles, who will come up later.

Both these shapeshifters are gods, so the boon to the mortal girl had been to make her godlike. Proteus and Thetis are both compelled to do something against their will, and their shapeshifting turns out to be a detriment. When Menelaus, the king of Sparta, is trying to get home from the Trojan War, he learns he needs to get directions from Proteus to do so. He must sneak up on Proteus as he’s sunbathing and hold on to him no matter what he turns in to. If he can keep his grip until Proteus grows tired and runs out of ideas and returns to his original form, Menelaus will have power over him.

The same thing happens to Thetis, the sea goddess whom Peleus overcomes. In her case she’s trying to avoid rape, so she turns into a literal hellcat (ok—tiger) and some other scary things in order to get away. She does get away the first time, but the second time, Peleus gets some coaching and learns he just needs to hold on. It’s still a rape narrative. If you don’t like that, and I don’t, it helps to think of Thetis bearing the child Achilles who will be the greatest warrior the Greeks ever produce. He is so great because he’s a goddess’s son, but no goddess would submit to being dominated by a mortal willingly (except Venus), so she needs to be “won.” Still not awesome by 21st century standards, but if we read it mythically and remember that she is the sea, we see Peleus wrangling the ever-changing sea and that power is channeled in to Achilles.

This is what happens for Menelaus too; he conquers Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, so metaphorically the sea itself. What he gains from that conquest is power over the sea—the ability to navigate it safely and get his crew home. And it reveals our life hack for the day: hang on.

No matter what crazy things happen, no matter how fast things change and how overwhelming or even terrifying they seem, don’t let go. Don’t give up. Every fight teaches you something, so if you fight ten things in quick succession, you learn ten times as fast. Grappling a shapeshifter is like taking a two-week winter session course instead of the whole semester–not for the faint of heart.

Reading · Teaching

Every Story is a Palimpsest

Spring semester classes started today for those who have a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. This semester I am teaching classical and medieval mythology and postmodern novels—quite a spread in time, if not culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes up a little over half of the myth class, and the postmodern author I’m teaching is Italo Calvino, so there’s overlap in Italy, albeit 2000 years apart.

I often take some time to impress upon the myth students how valuable it will be to have learned these stories. I show them how the same motifs and characters keep getting reused through the centuries, how some of the stories even inform our language, as in the case of the myth of Narcissus giving us ‘narcissicism’ and the Hercules myth leaving the metaphor of a ‘Herculean effort.’

Today as I was teasing that idea out, we discussed the need for some familiarity in our stories. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but no one wants everything about a story to feel new either.  So even stories that are set in wildly inventive places use character types and plot lines that we’re familiar with. We need a foothold or an entry point. If it’s all new—new setting, new character types, new plot elements, new structure—we can’t make sense of it. We say it’s too weird. It’s stupid, or that most damning of student responses: it’s boring.

But if you give us something familiar—a reluctant hero, say—in a new context—let’s say the futuristic world of the Matrix movies—then there’s enough for us to follow along with.

This strikes me as a Cosmic Truth related to “It’s all connected.” And it’s one I think is most succinctly captured by Alberto Manguel in his recent book, Packing My Library.  He writes, “Every story is a palimpsest…” (80). And he’s absolutely right.

A palimpsest in its strictest sense is a piece of paper or vellum that has had something written on it that has been erased, so something new can be written over it. In the Middle Ages it was very common, because vellum was so expensive to produce, that scribes would scrape off the top layer of skin and with it the original text, so they could use it again. In later times, you can imagine erasing from paper and getting the same effect. What matters here is that some of the old text remains, kind of a ghost in the background, still visible under the new text.

Manguel’s use of it is metaphoric, of course, but no less vivid. Every story we tell has ghosts of other stories behind it. Sometimes that ghost is the plot, like a new rendering of the King Arthur tales or the Trojan War or a biblical story. Sometimes it’s a character type, like Neo’s reluctant hero archetype in the Matrix example. Sometimes it’s structural, like the frame narrative structure (of stories within stories) of the Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales or Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

As I begin another semester with three new groups of students, watching them pick through the pages of the past, introducing them to characters they already know but didn’t realize how old they were, I think this might be my favorite part of the term. It’s a type scene too, of course—the Hero on the Frontier: where you stop and take stock and think about what’s about to happen, planning the best approach and reveling in the anticipation.

When I get older and my filters drop, I’ll probably start saying the things I always think: ”Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Turn the page. Read this story again. You already know it, but now we’ll look closer, go deeper.  Let’s just hope I stop before getting to the part where we close the wall up with our English dead.

Reading · Teaching

Creation Myths as Backstory, or When Your Papa Really Was a Rolling Stone

I’ve always been interested in Creation Stories. Where we think we came from says a lot about where we want to go—who we want to be.  As I think through how my mythology class will change when my campus converts from quarters to semesters, I’m considering what texts to add. Now I teach Greco-Roman and Norse—the obvious addition would be another culture. Egyptian, maybe. But I’m also considering an anthology of a type of myth, like a broad, comparative collection of Creation stories.

Ovid serves wonderfully to illustrate the prevalence of Creation stories by supplying no fewer than four different accounts in the first book of his work.  Either humans were made by the great architect-god who separated the heavens from the earth, or maybe Prometheus sculpted them out of clay. Or maybe, after the war between the giants and the Olympians, when the conquered giants’ blood spilled on to their mother, Gaia’s, ground, she used the blood and dust to form humans.
Or maybe we’re all descended from Deucalion and Pyrrha’s stone babies.
In this fourth account of the creation of humankind, Ovid recounts the great flood that Jove visits on the earth to exterminate the corrupt humans. Of all the world, Deucalion and Pyrrha alone are spared as virtuous and deserving of mercy. If it sounds like the story of Noah and his family, it should. Deucalion and Pyrrha are both grandchildren of Iapetus, the titan father of Prometheus and Epimetheus, and his name is a cognate for Japeth, one of Noah’s sons.
So Deucalion is the son of Prometheus, and Pyrrha is the daughter of Epimetheus. They are first cousins, so the incest taboo didn’t apply, and they complement each other beautifully. But Deucalion is descended from Prometheus, whose name means “forethought.” It is Prometheus who creates humanity in one version of the Creation, and it is he who either gives the gift of fire or who teaches his creation how to sacrifice. If you believe the fire story, the gods became jealous because humanity acquired a skill that raised them above their prescribed station.
In another story Prometheus counseled mankind to sacrifice the useless parts of the animal to the gods, putting them on top so Jove would see them when he descended in his eagle form to retrieve them, and thereby saving the meat for the good of humanity. This first sacrifice became the norm, and Jove was tricked out of the best parts of the animal forever. In both these myths, Prometheus infuriates Jove to the point where he chains Prometheus to a rock and commands that an eagle rip out his liver daily. He must have been pretty angry.
Epimetheus, however, means “afterthought.” Poor Epimetheus. Second born, and second-class. Even though Prometheus warns him not to accept gifts from Jove, he can’t resist Pandora when she appears. And we have that happy couple to thank for all the ills of society that emerge when Pandora opens the forbidden box.
But this was a story about Deucalion and Pyrrha. Deucalion is Prometheus’s, but Pyrrha is Epimetheus’s child. When the flood comes, they cling to one another and sail in a tiny skiff, just trying to survive. When Jove lets the waters recede, they disembark and find a shrine of Themis to pray. The goddess hears their prayers and pities their loneliness, and her oracle gives, for an oracle, pretty direct orders: as you leave this temple, drop behind you the bones of the great mother.
Poor Pyrrha is scandalized. How can she desecrate her mother’s corpse by throwing her bones on the ground?
But Deucalion, the first literary critic, suggests they think metaphorically. Maybe the great mother is the Earth, and her bones are stones.
Pyrrha is pacified, and so is Themis, and the stones they drop behind them soften and shape themselves in to human forms—Pyrrha’s stones become women, and Deucalion’s become men. And we have our toughness, our hard-headedness, maybe also our rough edges, from our stony origins.
In an age where people take online quizzes to tell them what Harry Potter character they are or what color their aura is in the present, maybe it’s time to revisit the stories of our pasts. Knowing something’s true name or its origin gives you power over it, or so the stories go, so the real power will be when we can discern our own beginnings and understand why we are the way we are, not just bicker over the superficial results of those origins.
Oh, it’s going to be another good quarter.
(Picture taken on a trip to Bryce Canyon in Utah, 2017.)
Living · Teaching

Ancora Imparo: I am still learning

I’m glad to say I’m still learning.
Over the first ten years of teaching, I really worked on developing my teaching persona.  Who I am in the classroom is a little different from who I am in my street clothes.
Also, I have developed (or appropriated) some tag lines or truisms that have come to characterize my approach to the world and to literature and language: It’s all connected; There’s treasure everywhere; Never trust a vowel.
When students realize that Big Bang Theory is making use of ancient type scenes, or when they realize they can figure out the meaning of an old, say Middle English, word because they know a modern Spanish cognate, I say “It’s all connected.”
When they think a text sounds ridiculous (the titles of The Mabinogion and the Nibelungenlied always get snickers), or that it’s too old and foreign to matter to them, but they find some gem that sparkles for them, and that leads them in to loving it, I remind them “There’s treasure everywhere.”
When they beat their heads against the wall (figuratively!) trying to figure out how to translate Chaucer or Beowulf, sometimes a well-timed “Never trust a vowel” leads to an epiphany.
This year I’ve discovered a new truth: Context is everything.
I’ve taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses for ten years, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for fifteen, and they still remain fresh and vivid to me. Classics can do that. But part of my enjoyment is shifting this year, as I look deeper in to the order of events and stories within the works.
I have always encouraged students to look for structure and order in the works we read, but somehow this year, the context of ideas like the tragic deaths of children in Ovid (Apollo loses his son Phaethon and Inachus the river god loses his daughter Io, and both fathers mourn deeply) seem to come to a head in later stories, or at least to lend gravitas to them. After seeing several parents pine for their lost children, the story of Demeter succeeding in regaining her daughter from the land of the dead, even for half the year, is a consolation to all the grieving parents thus far.
In the Canterbury Tales, too, I’ve often noted that the connections between the tales get more subtle but also more numerous as the Tales go on, but this year I was compelled to read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in the context of the earlier “Reeve’s Tale” (where there is a rape which is treated as a lark by its grim, bitter narrator, despite the obvious discomfort of the audience). The Wife’s tale, then responds to that whole scene—the Reeve’s introduction, his tale, and its reception—with a tale of rape that is not laughed off, but punished, the rapist threatened, put through an ordeal, and apparently rehabilitated. Yes, she’s a strong woman writing a tale of wish fulfillment for herself, but after she shows the Reeve what she thinks ought to happen to men who perpetrate or cosign such violence.
As a medievalist, part of my job is drawing attention to texts that came before the ones we read, helping my students to see the progression of ideas (or not) and the continuity of traditions. It makes us feel part of a historical continuum and lends a richness to contemporary and pop culture.
But this year, I’m devoting more attention to the connections within the text itself—adopting and exploring the idea that the text itself teaches us how to read it most fully. Context is everything.  We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of that.
*There’s Treasure Everywhere” comes from the delightful 1996 Calvin and Hobbes treasury by Bill Watterson. I use it for wildly different texts and scenarios, but it remains a pretty universal truth.
** Ancora imparo is Italian for “I am still learning,” and attributed to Michelangelo and therefore appearing on plaques and paperweights everywhere, as well as the top of this blog.
Reading · Teaching

Transfiguring Grief

I taught the story of Phaethon in my Myth as Lit class last week.  In some ways, it’s become trite:  Young Phaethon gets caught up in his desire to drive his father’s car, to step in to his shoes too soon, and ends up literally going down in flames.  Phaethon’s dad happens to drive the sun, not just a Camaro, so when he goes too high he scorches the heavens, and when he drops too low he sets the world on fire.

Jove, his grandfather, has to shoot him out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Apollo, his father, mourns so that the world is sunk in to darkness, for he is too distraught to go to work. The only light comes from the burning wreckage of the earth. This sounds pretty dramatic as I write, but still the story of Phaethon taking on his dad’s role before he’s ready is pretty well known, and can feel obvious.

I classify it in class as one of the 18-year-old-itis tales—one where the only “tragic flaw” is youth. He is in that period of life when boys (girls too, but statistics bear out mostly boys) start taking big risks without realizing the consequences. When they feel bullet proof.  But they’re not.  And they die.  Icarus falls here too, of course, and for similar reasons—flying too high, too fast.

So that’s why it feels overused, I suppose, because it is. There are lots of stories of young men dying because they underestimate laws of physics and overestimate their own abilities. But reading it this time, I was struck not so much by that lesson, but more by the grieving family he left behind.

In Ovid’s tale, Apollo mourns his son with a depth and a humaneness that staggers me.  When he refuses to show up to work, he cries, “Let someone else/ now guide the chariot that bears the light!/ If none will do that, and the gods confess/ they can’t, let Jove himself take on that task!/ And when he plies my reins, at least for once/ he’ll have to set aside the thunderbolts/ he uses to strip others of their sons.” He is devastated, and he is a god. What chance, then, have the mortals who love Phaethon?

His mother mourns.  She wanders the world looking for a sign of him, any trace of his lost body.  When she finds the grave that nymphs have made for him, she throws herself on it and bathes it in tears.  His sisters follow, and in their grief, they transform in to poplar trees.  The mother loses more children, as she tries to tug at the branches to free them, only to be told the branches are their arms, and she’s hurting them more by holding on. 

A cousin, too, transforms in his sorrow, this time to a swan.  (His name is Cycnus, which means ‘swan,’ and we still have ‘cygnet’ in English, meaning a baby swan.) Ovid uses this and other opportunities to show that we have an underlying nature that can be revealed by transformation. Cycnus wails for Phaethon as a swan, while his sisters are rendered immobile by their grief.  Paralyzed.  They are able only to cry tears of sap, which, beautifully, transform in to amber. Those who could not abide the pain of grief gave themselves over completely. 

This message seems clear to me: grief is transfiguring. If we let it, it can undo us. It always changes us. In the context of Apollo and his creed–Know thyself; and Nothing in excess—we can come to see even grief can be excessive, but the gods also grieve, so there must be something noble in feeling loss so profoundly. 

In the larger context of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it anticipates the story of Proserpina’s (Persephone) marriage to Pluto, which bonds life to death in an unbreakable union, promising that death will never just be death; there will always be life attending—following in sequence as the seasons follow one another, and living together with death, so we can bear death more easily.

This scene struck me last week when I taught it. It resonates even more today, in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in recent American history. I hope we let this grief transform us too, and resolve to take action to prevent it happening again.  Young men do lots of crazy things that put their lives at risk, but going to a concert shouldn’t be one of them.
[image from]


Orpheus and Eurydice–a retelling from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Once upon a time there was a man called Orpheus.  He was an artist—a poet, a singer, a lyre-player (which is sort of like a harpist without the drama).  His music was ethereal.  He was so talented, when he played his lyre and sang his songs, the trees lifted their roots and moved to be closer to him.  The rocks rolled over too, drawn by his melody and magic.  Of course animals gathered.  People were transfixed.  He was a World Singer: he cast spells on the world with his songs. The child of Calliope (the Muse of Epic poetry and the reason that “epic” means “great”) and Apollo (the God of Music and Light and Healing and Civilization and Just About Everything Light Can Symbolize), he seems like he should have been a god himself, but he was nevertheless wholly mortal.  And he was phenomenal.
Orpheus loved Eurydice.  He loved her with the kind of love they tell about in stories (like this one).  The day he married her was the happiest day of his life–and the saddest. When the ceremony was over, Eurydice, on her way to the celebration, stepped on a viper, and it bit her heel.  She died on the spot.  Orpheus was undone.
He more than mourned.  He wasted.  For months.
Then he mobilized and strategized.  He was not the kind of hero to challenge the gods.  Not the kind of hero to undertake a katabasis—underworld journeys were not his style.  His strength lay in his music, not his muscles.  He was no Hercules.  Still, his love fueled his imagination, bringing images to his eyes and songs to his lips, and he went to Hades to get her back.

They heard him coming.  His music compelled everyone there to listen and react, to draw near him, to respond to him.  His song was so sad and so consuming, all who heard it wept.  Persephone was a fountain of tears from the moment he stepped off the ferry, rivers of tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping on to her dress.  The river Styx swelled with tears the dead shouldn’t have been able to cry.  The Furies, who had never wept before and who have never wept again, cried burning tears they could not control.  Hades relented.  He would give this Orpheus his wife; of course he would.  But he named one condition:  Orpheus must walk out of the Underworld ahead of Eurydice, leading her out, but without looking back to be sure she followed. If he looked back, she would go back to Hades, where she belonged, and Orpheus would never get back in to try a second time.
Of course he looked. He tried, honestly he tried, and he made it quite far, really.  He walked up a long staircase that wound around the curves and crevices of the rocky walls of hell, and he kept a slow, steady, rhythmic pace, so that she could certainly keep up.  He had to trust that she would follow, that she could follow.  He had to trust that nothing would grab her, that her injured foot didn’t slow her down, that the climb wasn’t exhausting, that Hades wasn’t lying.  That’s a lot to trust.  And his love made him vulnerable.  What if she had fallen behind?  This was his only chance.  Of course he looked.
When he did, she began slipping down, her near-solid form losing its substance and floating down the steps away from him.  He reached and tried to grasp her hand, but only closed a fist.  He shot his arms out to embrace her one last time, and there was nothing to embrace.  Her voice filtered up from the depths, saying she loved him, she forgave him, she would remember him.  She loved him.  And he lost her.  Twice.
Anger possessed him.  He swore he would never love another woman like that again, and he didn’t.  He couldn’t open himself up to that kind of pain again, and he couldn’t forget Eurydice anyway.  He kept the pain like a memento, and instead he turned to young boys to satisfy his body and his music to satiate his soul.  And he loved her.
The women of Thrace grew to hate him for his love.  It was irrational.  There were lots of lovely Thracian girls and women who should have been able to give him a good life.  He chose none of them.  His shunning women entirely and turning to boys was the last straw.  One hellish night during the Bacchanale, they turned on him.  They came for him with their wild, ivy-strewn hair and their tattered dresses, lifting a thyrsus in the air and shrieking.  “There he is!” they yelled, “the one who spurns our love!”  They swung their staffs, and Orpheus started playing.  They threw rocks, and the rocks fell at his feet, rolling gently toward him, looking oddly repentant.  The spears they threw changed direction in mid-air, avoiding him at the last second.
But more women came.  Throng after throng, and while the first ones fell in his power, the growing number of howling women eventually drowned out his song.  He sang louder, but more women arrived.  The last to arrive heard nothing but their sisters’ screeching, and they got near and ripped and tore at Orpheus.  Their sacred staffs were used as weapons–sacrilege and murder and madness all together.  They mauled him like a pack of savage predators.  They pulled him limb from limb, harp from hand.  They threw his head and his lyre in the river and exulted as they bobbed in the stream.  Orpheus was dead.  But his head kept singing, and the lyre made music on the waves.
And all Creation wept.
As his head tumbled near the shore, a snake opened its mouth and poised to strike.  Apollo, mourning father, froze the snake in stone; it gapes still.  Orpheus’s severed head kept singing.

Finally, though, his journey ended.  On the shores of the Styx, he crossed with purpose, leaning out over the side of the ferry, anxious to find his Eurydice.  She was there.  She smiled.  She took his hand and led him over the fields, and they walk there still, taking turns leading and following, neither worried that the other will fall behind.