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.

Literary Fantasy Parcel, # 2: Metamorphoses


I’m almost finished with the holiday gift fuss.  I’m  assembling book parcels, tied up with a ribbon and tucked into  cotton bookstore bags.  Every year I organize my book parcels by theme, hoping a stack of themed books will entice readers.   I am happy if my friends read one or two of the two-to-three books in the parcel.  (See yesterday’s post.)

This year’s theme is “Literary Fantasy.”  Why?  It has been a strange year. Reading fantastic literature teaches us about our conscious and unconscious selves, and can make us see our world differently.   We are still mourning the election, and our society doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction.  And so let’s read some fantasy.

Literary Parcel, # 2:  Metamorphosis

Woolf penguin Orlando+cover1. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors. And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando, is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet. He lives for more than three centuries, first as a man and then as a woman.  There’s too much whimsy in this fantasy for my taste, but Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, especially her description of a Renaissance winter festival on the frozen Thames. You can read my post on Orlando here.

2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid’s epic poem, a collection of Greek and Roman myths linked by the theme of metamorphosis, is the most brilliant fantastic comedy I have ever read.  As Ovid describes the clash between gods and ovid-metamorphoses-folio-mtsgoddesses, and their bizarre obliviousness and frequent violence toward human beings, we begin to understand our own reality and, beyond that, change and entropy.  We witness the extent of Ovid’s joyousness in his mythic exploration of metamorphosis in an imperfect world.  His style  is bubbly and elegant at the same time. His  descriptions of nature are charming and lovely, and his characters jump out of his vivid verbal sketches. There is much absurdity in Ovid:  Apollo, struck by Cupid’s arros, falls in love with the  nymph Daphne and asks her  to run a little slower so he can catch  her, but she prefers to turn into a tree than “marry” him, because she is a virgin dedicated to the goddess Diana.  At the same time as we laugh at Apollo, we imagine the nymph Daphne’s terror as she prays to her father, who tries to persuade her Apollo would be a good match.  In the end she turns into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.  So she gets away, but does she?

Here is an excerpt from Apollo’s comic complaint to Daphne

…But I, who follow,
Am not a foe at all. Love makes me follow,
Unhappy fellow that I am, and fearful
You may fall down, perhaps, or have the briars
Make scratches on those lovely legs, unworthy
To be hurt so, and I would be the reason.
The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.
—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries


humphries-ovid_meta1Like Apollo, many of the gods are bullies and even rapists, but the goddesses can be equally violent: in the moving story of Ceres and Proserpina, Ceres punishes the world with drought as she searches the earth for her lost daughter.  She turns an insolent boy into an owl to vent her rage at a rude remark. Finally she learns that Hades, king of the Underworld, abducted Proserpina. Ceres appeals to Jove, who is Proserpina’s father, but he believes Hades is a good match for her.  Ceres brokers a deal whereby Proserpina lives half the year above ground (and that’s how we get spring and summer).

As Woolf in Orlando, Ovid is also fascinated by the blurring of gender and the sexes. The story of Tiresias is short and strange:  he sees two serpents mating and strikes them apart and then is turned into a woman for seven eyars; seven years later he sees them again and does the same thing so he can turn back into a man.  It does not end well:  Jove and Juno have argued about who has more sexual pleasure, men or women, and Tiresias says women do.  Juno, furious that he disagreed with her, blinds him as a punishment, but Jove tries to compensate by giving him the gift of prophecy. Some compensation, some of us would think.

Ovid understands the randomness of fate. A lucky, lucky reader will get this in her Christmas parcel.

The Passion of New Eve angela carter 51BAQglKXzL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_3. Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve.  At the British Library, I saw the manuscript of Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve in a display case, and decided I wanted to read it.  A few blocks away at Skoob, a used bookstore, I found a copy.  I cannot pretend it is my favorite book by Carter, but it does fit in well with Orlando and Ovid.

In The Passion of New Eve, a surreal novel rich with symbolism and satire, she walks a fine line between feminism and tedium. In Carter’s mordant exploration of what it means to be female in a post-apocalyptic society, the ideal woman is defined by men in Hollywood, or by a cult of militant Earth-worshipping female plastic surgeons.

This novel is Carter’s homage to the myth of Tiresias, the Greek prophet who spent part of his life as a man and part as a woman. (Naturally, being a woman was best.) Well, the story is part Tiresias myth anyway: the rest is Caitlyn Jenner crossed with Charlie’s Angels.

You can read the rest of this post here.