In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora.
With these words, Publius Ovidius Naso begins one of the most famous and influential books of the ancient world, his Metamorphoses.
“Now my spirit brings me to speak of changing forms into other bodies.” In the poem, he recounts hundreds of mythological stories, all to do with transformation. Nothing in his universe is permanent; everything seems to change into something else, women into birds, men into horses, gods into bulls. The poem recounts such tales with the wit and fizz of a supreme ironist.
The Metamorphoses is a compendium of Greek and Roman mythology. It is the primary source for later writers who use it to retells the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Daphne and Apollo, King Midas, Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe and Phaethon and the sun chariot. Some of the myths are found only in Ovid. He is primary source for Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and hundreds of others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales.
He was popular in his time, largely derided as “pagan” in the early Christian centuries, rediscovered in the Renaissance, enjoyed in the enlightenment, again avoided in the Victorian era of high-mindedness and didacticism, and only again come out of the shadows after mid-Twentieth Century with a spate of new translations. (The most recent trend is away from him once more, in a “Me-Too” era that takes umbrage at all that rape and patriarchy.)
With all that shapeshifting, it makes me think of how I manage to read the poem: in English. In the past year, I have read three different translations, plus I have re-read Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. And I have loved every moment.
And so, now my spirit brings me to speak of changing language into other words. Specifically, how can we translate from one tongue to another, from Ovid’s Latin to my English. It should be simple: Just take the ancient words, one by one, and turn them into English words. But if we do that, we get gibberish. “In now bring spirit change to speak forms bodies.”
To say nothing of the multiple meanings of each of the Latin words. A few bits: animus can be “mind,” “soul,” “feelings,” “heart,” “spirit,” “courage,” “character,” “pride,” or even “air.” Corpora may mean “body,” but it also means “person,” “self,” “virility,” “flesh,” “corpse,” “trunk,” “framework,” or “collection.” So, which of each of these do you choose. A possible, but nonsensical translation, borrowing synonymous meanings from the words in the opening sentence, could read, “Within the extraordinary, pride wins a substitute for pleading a collection of patterns.”
Huh? Of course, no on thinks that is what Ovid was trying to say. It is completely unidiomatic. But how do you make meaning in English from a language spoken 2000 years ago?
One of the first translators into English was Arthur Golding. In 1567, he gave the first line as, “Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate.”
The most famous translation, by John Dryden in 1717, makes it short and sweet: “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.”
In 1899, Henry T. Riley gave it as: “My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies,” which is fairly literal.
“My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed to bodies new and strange!” Brookes More, 1922.
Horace Gregory, in 1958 has it: “Now I shall tell of things that change, new being out of old.”
William S. Anderson, rather clumsily makes it nearly unreadable in 1978 with: “From bodies various form’d, mutative shapes my Muse would sing.”
I have collected (a “corpus” of data) some 20 different versions of this single sentence, including Hughes’ “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed into different bodies.”
Ovid’s Latin is not only light and ironic, it is often self-consciously poetic, and other times comically demotic. Because of the different structures of Latin and English — the Latin being built of case endings, declensions and conjugations — it is impossible to recreate accurately the tone and content of the original. Parallels must be found, and those vary from age to age, mandating new and current translations.
Outside of Hughes, who is near perfect but only translates barely a tenth of the whole, my current favorite is Charles Martin, which is easy to read, idiomatically English, but able to shift tones when needed. It is also in a swift pentameter, unlike those hexameters so many try to match Ovid’s own verse form, which is oddly ungainly in English.
But, what I started out to say, before shifting off into all this about language, is that the same piling up of version in language has its counterpart in imagery. Ovid’s tales have been subject matter for countless painters and sculptors.
So, now I am moved to write about verse changed into other art media. I wanted to take a single tale and decided, since I feel so European, I might consider the continent’s eponym, Europa.
In the Metamorphoses, Jupiter, head god, gets the hots for the young woman, Europa, and seeing her among her herd of kine, plots to abduct her.
“The great father and ruler of the gods — whose right hand is armed with the three-forked lightning, who shakes the world with his nod — puts on the appearance of a bull, and having mixed himself with the bullocks, he lows and walks about beautiful on the tender grass.
“He is as white as the untrampled snow before the south wind turns it into slush. His shoulders brawny, his dewlap dangles on his broad chest. His horns are curved but as if they were hand made and flawless as pearls.
“He seemed unthreatening and his eye filled with no anger; he was all peaceful.
“And so Europa, the daughter of Agenor, wondered at him that he was so beautiful and gentle. At first she was afraid to touch him, even though he promised no threat, but she did approach him and held out flowers to his white mouth. The would-be lover rejoices and biding his time till he gets what he wants, he kisses her hands. It isn’t easy for him to hold back.
“And so, he fawns upon her and gambols on the green grass, he lays down his snowy side on the yellow sands; her fear evaporates slowly. He offers his breast to be stroked by the virgin’s hand and his horns to be snared by her garlands. She dared then to sit on the back of the bull, not knowing who he really was.
“The god by slow degrees plants his foot in the sand, leaving prints there, moving incrementally to the edge of the waves, and then suddenly he goes off farther through the waves into the wide sea. She trembles and being carried away, she looks back on the shore left behind, holding his horn with her right hand while the other was placed on his back. Her windswept garments shook behind her. And so, the god, having then changed back from his lying bull form, confessed himself to her.”
The story is later picked up in Book 6, in the story of Arachne, challenging Minerva to a weaving contest. Arachne weaves a picture of Europa “deceived in the form of the bull: You would have thought it a real bull and real waves in the tapestry. Europa is seen looking back to the shore she has left and calling to her companions, afraid of the surging water and nervously lifting her feet.”
It’s in little details, like the feet, that Ovid makes his stories palpable.
I have now collected more than a hundred images of drawings, paintings, sculpture and relief depicting Europa and the bull, usually with the girl holding the animal’s horn and her clothes sailing off behind her.
The earliest of these predate Greek mythology: There are Babylonian figures of a woman riding a bull, and others from the Middle East.
And of course, there are all those images of bull umping in Mnoan Crete.
There is a depiction on red-figure Greek vases and on the walls of Pompeii
and numerous floor mosaics — The Rape of Europa seemed to be a popular image for Roman homes.
But it was later, in the Renaissance and Baroque ages that Europa exploded with painters and sculptors. Every artist who was anybody did at least one version of the story, usually a vast mythological scene with the bull and the virgin, but also various putti and godlets swirling around.
The iconography is fairly uniform: The bull is usually white, the girl hangs on for dear life to a bull horn, and her clothes sweep away in a grand gesture. In some, the shore features her distraught friends, in others she sits lovingly on the gentle beast, before the mad dash.
There are modern versions, too. Some are by serious artists, such as Gauguin, Max Beckmann and Hans Erni.
Some are more kitschy or popular.
There are modern sculptures.
There are figurines by the dozen.
And there is at least one drawing that, compared with the Rococo version of Jean-Francois de Troy, make absolutely clear the brutality of the story as rape.
It needs to be pointed out also, that the bull shows up over and over in mythology, like with Hercules and the Cretan Bull, or, closely paralleling the story of Europa, there is Dirce, who is punished by her twin nephews by being tied to a bull and ridden to her death.
But I want to end with a version that may not have been intentional, but has a wonderful resonance as it makes a contemporary political point. It is the girl facing the bull on Wall Street. Called “Fearless Girl,” by Kristen Visbal, it was originally a kind of publicity gimmick for a Wall Street firm, erected in 2017, but became a symbol for feminism and anti-capitalist protest, as it was first positioned in front of the iconic 1989 “Charging Bull” by artist Arturo Di Modica. Complaints from De Modica and support from protesters and NY Mayor Bill de Blasio ended in a 13-month standoff, but eventually, the “Fearless Girl” was moved.
I think of it as Europa gets her own.
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