Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: The Separation of Ceres and Her Daughter

There is a book, one book.

Everyone has a book.

For me it is Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, a lively collection of Greek and Roman myths. In this saucy Roman classic, the theme of metamorphosis links his elegant narratives of myths and legends. The poem begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. Much of it is comical, though he has his serious moments.

Ovid enchanted me as a young woman. I took Greek, then fell in love with Ovid, then added Latin, then went to graduate school in classics. As I read the Latin, I appreciated the maturity, flexibility, and joy of Ovid’s poetry, and its allusions to Greek and Roman literature and philosophy.

Many of Ovid’s retellings of myths make us  feminists uncomfortable, especially his tales of rape, which in our current political climate I have begun to read, perhaps not accurately, as  double tales of empire.  There is the myth of Daphne, a virginal nymph dedicated to Diana who would rather be turned into a tree than raped by a comically out-of-shape Apollo, huffing and puffing as he chases her and begging her to run slower.  Ovid makes it slapstick, but is it? We are in suspense as Daphne prays to her father, who thinks Apollo is a good match. After her  transformatione, Apollo claims the tree, a laurel, as his own.  Even as a tree, Daphne is colonized.  Is this a subtle criticism of empire?  Or just a myth?

Since my mother’s death,  I identify most with Ovid’s version of Ceres (Demeter in Greek)  and Proserpina (Persephone in Greek).  It is  a story of a mother’s loss of and search for her daughter. Ceres, the goddess of agriculture,  loses Proserpina to Pluto (Hades, god of the underworld), who abducts and rapes her after  he is struck by one of Cupid’s arrows.  And, horrifyingly, Ovid presents the rape of Proserpina  as another imperial mission.

Cupid’s shooting of Pluto is part of Venus’s political plot to expand her empire. She speaks to her son Cupid of  their conquest of the other two parts of the tripartite kingdom:  she says Cupid already rules Jupiter and Neptune , so why should Pluto hold out?

Ovid writes (and this is my literal abridged prose translation):

“..My son, pick up the weapons by which you conquer all,
and shoot your fast arrows into the heart of the god
who drew the last lot of the tripartite kingdom ( the underworld).
You rule the gods in heaven and Jove himself,
you rule the gods of the sea and Neptune himself.
Why should hell resist? Why not expand our empire?
The third part of the world is at stake.”

During Ceres’ search, she curses the earth and there is famine. She is violent:  she transforms a rude child into a newt, even though his mother prepared her a snack. Ceres is a god, and gods are terrible.  Ovid doesn’t sentimentalize.  No cozy mothers here.

And yet she  loses her daughter not only to Pluto and Venus, but to patriarchal politics.  Jupiter, the father of Proserpina and Pluto’s brother,  tells Ceres that Pluto is powerful and not a bad match.   Is he colluding with Pluto?  B Ceres cannot free her daughter from her marriage to Pluto ebcause Proserpina has eaten seven pomegranate seeds in the underworld.  (Don’t eat if you want to leave.)  But Jupiter arranges for Proserpina to spend six months above ground (and that’s spring and summer).

How were we like Ceres and Proserpina?  My mother lost me to my father in a divorce (not sexually). Like so many girls, I was enchanted by my hitherto absent father:  he began to park outside my school  and complained about his loneliness. He rented a dungeon-like basement (the underworld), with sinuous pipes and high narrow windows in the snot-green walls.  At night  I was terrified by the woman upstairs screaming at her voiceless husband, whose larynx had been surgically removed:  I thought he beat her, but could I have known this?   And after my father left town… well, I won’t go into it, but my mother was beside herself.

She never gave up, and we finally reconciled. Many years later our roles were reversed. As Ceres to her Prosperpina, I rescued her from neglect in an assisted living facility.  But I lost her again two years later.

At the funeral she appeared as an energetic poltergeist:  as the priest swung the censer, the incense burner flew off the chain.

Yes, I am sure it was my mom.