LGBTQ Literature is a Readers and Book Lovers series dedicated to discussing literature that has made an impact on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. From fiction to contemporary nonfiction to history and everything in between, any literature that touches on LGBTQ themes is welcome in this series. LGBTQ Literature posts on the last Sunday of every month at 7:30 PM EST. If you are interested in writing for the series, please send a kosmail to Chrislove.
“Everything flows.” –Herakleitos of Ephesos, ca. 500 B.C.E.
Warning to readers and scholars: The diary author is not greatly learned in Latin. I’ve shamelessly relied on translators and others, including but not limited to that inconsistently reliable narrator, Wikipedia. Caveat lector.
CITY OF ROME, turn of what is now called the Christian Era. Augustus, succeeding the murdered Julius Caesar, has been proclaimed a god. Publius Ovidius Naso* -- or Ovid as he would be known to later students – middle-aged descendent of a wealthy family, maverick, always preferring literature to government, undertakes a new, book-length project.
“Of bodies changed to other shapes I sing...”
Not some Virgilian epic, lapidary as a Roman wall, consequential, ponderous.
Light-hearted and serious, quirky and tragic, grounded in tradition yet inventive, fleshly and philosophical, irreverent, satirical, fluid in its transitions, yet true to a demanding meter: his most ambitious project.
Concept: “one continuous song,” threading from the world’s creation through all the ages of myth, up to the god Augustus. A catalogue of myths; the stories flowing into one another, and each one a transformation.
Daphne to a laurel tree. Narcissus to a flower. Procne to a nightingale. Actaeon to a stag.
A man to a woman and back again. A man and woman into one person, double-sexed. A woman to a man.
Form flowing into form, surreal and miraculous.
The Metamorphoses itself has lived through many changes of form. Ovid’s Roman Empire, of course, descended to dust. His work survived. Shakespeare, among others, mined its pages. It has been available in English since 1621 and continues to inspire new works of art down to this day.**
(The verse quotes in this diary are from the translation by A.D. Melville, published by Oxford University Press in 1986. The prose is from an online version by Anthony S. Kline.)
It must be acknowledged that the modern reader, taking the Metamorphoses as a work in its own right, tends to blench. Rape. Rape, rape, attempted rape, and more rape. Worse – pedophilia. Infanticide. Horrendous tortures. Routine misogyny. Deities behaving worse than mortals. Dismemberment. Incest. Still more rape. (Those ancients seriously needed #MeToo.)
Why bother with this mythical rubble? Except to blast its sexism and other barbarities?
Well....suppose we think of it as archaeology of the imagination.
(And is it really worse than Game of Thrones? Or actual horrors in the news today?)
We in the 21st Century enjoy a nearly endless stream of science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, magical realism, literary surrealism, and superhero . (Forbes magazine reported last year that overall sales of fantasy and science fiction doubled between 2010 and 2017.)
To satisfy human appetites for the weird, wonderful and outright impossible, Ovid’s Rome had nothing exactly equivalent.
It was in the century after Ovid that Greek and Roman authors, it seems, first began producing what we would recognize as fantastical fiction.*** The earlier Greeks, I think, had none, though Plato took a step that way with his ideal Republic.
What the classical world did have, in Ovid’s day and earlier, was myth. Myth offered a vast storehouse of tales, well-known and mainstream, variant, obscure, deliberately tweaked in new directions by poets and playwrights. From this treasury Ovid drew. He chose, tailored, and linked together some 250 stories to construct the Metamorphoses.
Certain of his tales have what we would call “morals.” (“Vanity is dangerous,” “Be generous to guests, no matter who.”) Many do not.
Some are tragic, some “comic” in the old sense of ending well. Some are “just so” tales of how things got to be the way they are. Some are just odd. All are far removed from the mundane. And each one must have resonated with its audiences, or would not have survived.
Our own imaginative literature, at its best, does more than entertain. It sets us down in the country of imagination. Enriches our sense of possibility. Reshapes our minds. We differently perceive, under its influence, human nature, society, history, even our chronic existential pains.
So. Similarly, viewing mythology as imaginative literature, it may be is worth a moment to contemplate Ovid’s transformation tales involving gender, in all their weirdness.
We should of course not expect to find in Ovid our modern understanding, which draws a line between biological sex and personal, subjective experience of gender. Greek and Roman cultures were far from ready for that leap. But like all literature, the work also belongs to readers, who are left free to make their own interpretations, or even tease out meanings the author did not consciously intend.
Tiresias. (Book III. Male to female to male.) The story is older than Homer. Ovid keeps it short.
In his version, Tiresias was walking along one day when he happened across two snakes mating. He struck them with a stick. This transformed him from man to woman.
After seven years as a woman, Tiresias encountered another pair of snakes coupling. Reasoning that if it worked once, it might again, Tiresias attacked the snakes in the same way, and indeed, changed back into a man.
Ovid also relates that Tiresias was later asked to settle an argument, as to which gender enjoys the most pleasure in sex. Tiresias answered in favor of women; the goddess Juno did not like that answer, and blinded him in revenge. But her husband granted Tiresias, in compensation, the gift of prophecy.
Quite a life.
Ovid’s readers would probably have known the basic story already, as well as how the shade of Tiresias spoke to Homer’s Odysseus in the underworld; the prophet gave that hero sound advice about his voyage, which unfortunately was not followed.
The original readership would also have recognized Tiresias as the blind prophet of Thebes who advised Oedipus that the plague devastating the city meant divine anger for some transgression. Tiresias is supposed to have been a fixture in Thebes for seven generations.
Some other version of the myth told the sex-change story a little differently. In one version, Tiresias refrained from harming the second pair of snakes and therefore turned back into a man. In a more obscure version, he stepped on the snakes.
Some report that blindness struck Tiresias -- not for offending Juno, but for catching a glimpse of the goddess Athene naked. Or for telling mortals the secrets of the gods.
Later story-tellers elaborated: As a woman, Tiresias supposedly married and had several children; one daughter herself became a famous seer. The legend ramified; most of these details have been lost.
Wikipedia had this summing-up: “Tiresias [in Hellenistic and Roman literature] is presented as a complexly liminal figure, mediating between humankind and the gods, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, this world and the Underworld.” Couldn’t put it better.
Seers and poets must experience everything possible.
As Whitman wrote: “I contain multitudes.”
Hermaphroditus. (Book IV. Male and female to intersex.)
Another Greek import. Ovid’s is the only full version of the story to survive, though it is probably not the original one.
Hermes, the messenger god, and Aphrodite, goddess of love, produced a son named Hermaphroditus. He grew up into a handsome youth.
A water nymph named Salmacis developed a serious case of the hots for the inexperienced youngster. She persisted. He resisted. When he went for a swim, Salmacis followed him into the water.
At last, she entwines herself face to face with his beauty….as ivy often interlaces tall tree trunks. Or as the cuttlefish holds the prey, it has surprised, underwater, wrapping its tentacles everywhere….
“It is right to struggle, perverse one,” she says, “but you will still not escape. Grant this, you gods, that no day comes to part me from him, or him from me.” Her prayer reached the gods. Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.
At the request of Hermaphroditus, Ovid says, his parents worked some magic on Salmacis’ pool, so that any man who immersed himself in it would be weakened, leaving it as “half a man."
This seems to have started as “just so” story, explaining why a particular body of water was considered dangerous. It might also have been a "just so" story about intersexuality.
“Some say,” wrote historian Diodorus Siculus in the century before Ovid, “that this Hermaphroditus is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman....”
This sounds almost like the Hindu concept of gods becoming embodied by in various avatars through history.
Other people, the historian added, considered the birth of such a person to be, instead, some kind of omen.
The property of double sex was occasionally attributed to other classical deities, such as Dionysos.
The story of Hermaphroditus has has inspired quite an array of subsequent art and literature.
(Irrelevant but fun fact: the story of Hermaphroditus happens to appear the same book of Ovid as the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, with which Shakespeare created such a romp, as his play-within-a-play performed by rural amateurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
Iphis and Ianthe. (Book IX. Female to male. )
On the island of Crete, a husband informed his pregnant wife that if her baby turned out to be a girl, it must be killed; if a boy, they could keep it.
“Girls are more burdensome,” he told her, regretfully
The wife prayed over this awful edict. The goddess Isis came to her in a dream.
The moon’s crescent horns were on her forehead, and the shining gold of yellow ears of corn... With her were the jackal-headed Anubis, the hallowed cat-headed Bast, the dappled bull Apis, and Harpocrates, the god who holds his tongue, and urges silence….The sacred rattle, the sistrum, was there; and Osiris, for whom her search never ends….the goddess spoke to her, saying: ‘O, you who belong to me, forget your heavy cares, and do not obey your husband....”
Keep the baby, the goddess instructed, no matter what.
The child turned out to be a girl. The mother called her “Iphis,” a gender-neutral name derived (according to the notes in Melville’s translation) from a Greek word meaning “power.”
She raised Iphis as a boy. The father never knew a thing.
In time, the father arranged a marriage between his “son" Iphis and a girl named Ianthe.
And to complicate things more, it was love on both sides.
“Ianthe longed to fix the wedding day…
Poor Iphis loved a girl, girl loving girl,
And knew her love was doomed and loved the more.”
Iphis’ mother could not think how to get out of this fix. Finally, she took her daughter with her to the temple of Isis, where they prayed for help.
On the spot, Iphis transformed into a boy. The goddess even have her an instant haircut.
(Wait, what? I thought she was already disguised as a boy, why did she need a haircut?)
Ovid described a plaque in Isis’ temple, reading:
“These offerings, vowed by Iphis as a maid,
By Iphis, now a man, are gladly paid.”
And everyone lived happily ever after.
A similar tale or variation, was later included by the Greek author Antoninus Liberalis in his Metamorphoseon Synagoge (“Collection of Transformations”), about 200 C.E. (give or take a century). This version gives different names to family members, excludes the marriage angle, and attributes the transformation to a local goddess, Leto. The protagonist in this version was called Leukippos, “White Horse.”
Unlike Ovid’s casual acceptance of bisexual behavior on the part of the god Apollo and some others, it’s interesting that the poet put a long lament in Iphis’ mouth about how impossible and unnatural it is for one woman to love another. Apparently there were some things to which the imagination of an Ovid couldn’t extend.
We might possibly interpret Iphis, in modern terms, as a story of clandestine same-sex marriage. Ianthe herself could have been witting, all along, while the family invented all the rest as social camouflage.
Or there could be other ways to novelize it. In fact, at least one modern novel has been based loosely on Iphis and Ianthe.
Another fun fact: according to Wikipedia, “The 17th-century publisher Humphrey Moseley once claimed to possess a manuscript of a play based on the Iphis and Ianthe story, by William Shakespeare… ” Such a manuscript, however, has never turned up.
Caenis/Caeneus (Book XII. Female to male.)
Caenis, a member of the Lapith tribe, was the most beautiful girl in Thessaly. She had many suitors, but accepted none. One day, as Caenis walked on the beach, Neptune emerged from the sea and raped her.
The sea-god then turned around and offered to grant Caenis a wish.
So Caenis said,
“This wrong you’ve done me needs an enormous wish.
Put pain like that beyond my power. Grant me
To cease to be a woman–-everything
That gift will be to me.” She spoke her last
Words in a deeper tone; they might well seem
A man’s words. So it was...
...Rejoicing in the gift,
Caeneus fared forth to range [the river] Peneus’ ways,
And there in men’s pursuits he spent his days.
Caeneus reappeared a little later in the Metamorphoses during a famous battle between the Lapiths and centaurs.
This bloodbath, according to myth, broke out at a Lapith wedding. The centaurs who were guests got drunk. One swooped down on the bride and carried her away. The others decided they liked the concept and proceeded to grab any women they fancied.
(Sounds like something from Game of Thrones? And you kind of have to imagine Caeneus, disgusted, thinking, “Not this time, you don’t.")
Ovid puts the story of the resulting fight in the mouth of Nestor, an ancient hero of the Iliad, and writes it in a parody of Homeric style.
Caeneus disposed of five centaurs, one of them armed with a battle axe, when another called him out personally:
“You, Caenis, there!
Must I endure you? You, always a wench,
Always Caenis to me! Doesn’t your birth
Remind you, don’t you realize what act
Won your reward, what price you paid to seem
A spurious man? Just think what you were born,
Think what you bore! Away! Back to your wheel
And wool-box! Spin your thread. Leave war to men!”
Such were his taunts, and as he galloped by,
Caeneus let fly his spear…
...wounding the centaur. The centaur struck back, but Caeneus was so tough, the centaur’s spear bounced right off. Caeneus then slew his attacker.
The rest of the centaurs closed in on Caeneus. To their shock, no weapon could wound him. (Invulnerable, millennia before Superman!)
The centaurs then proceeded to strip the earth of huge boulders and uproot trees. They piled all this debris on top of Caeneus until a huge swathe of countryside was bare. (Scene in the header art of this diary.)
“Buried beneath the giant pile, Caeneus
Tossing and heaving under the weight of trees
Sustained on sturdy shoulders the vast mass
Of timber. Even so the burden towered
Higher than mouth and head and he could draw
No air to breathe...
At times he heaved, as if an earthquake shook...
His end remains uncertain. Some declare
The wood’s vast weight had forced him to the void
Of Tartarus (the Underworld). But Mopsus [a Lapith seer] disagreed.
For from the middle of the mound he saw
A brown-winged bird fly up to the bright air...
His eyes and thoughts pursued him and he cried,
“Hail, Caeneus, glory of the Lapith race,
Once a great hero, now a bird unique!”
Trans superhero — millennia ahead of Alysia Yeoh, Nia Nal/Dreamer, and (these days) quite a few others.
The story of Caenis/Caeneus dates back as far as Hesiod, contemporary of Homer. But Ovid’s version is the only extended version to survive.
Sithon (Book IV. ….to male...to female...to male...to female…?)
The merest tantalizing reference:
….Nor will I speak
Of nature’s law relaxed and Sithon’s sex
Ambiguous, now a woman, now a man.
Nothing whatever has been preserved about this gender-fluid mythological character by any other source.
We may imagine what we will.
No one can be certain why the Emperor Augustus, banished Ovid to the distant Black Sea port of Tomis (today Constanta, Romania).
Ovid himself referred only to carmina et error, “a poem and a mistake.” Some scholars connect this with his major erotic works, the Amores (Loves) and Ars Amatoria (Art of Love). Others believe he may have become entangled tangentially in a conspiracy against the Emperor. In the end, nobody knows.
From exile, Ovid continue to write and pleaded for repatriation, to no avail. After a decade of exile, he died in Tomis, about age 60.
Ovid was married to three different women, divorcing twice; the third time, about age 30, apparently was the charm. He left a single child, a daughter.
For Ovid’s enduring fertility as a source for writers and artists: read down.
"Game of Thrones" is not just a fantasy
What Is it Like to be Non-Binary? I'm Still Finding Out
In an ironic coda, perhaps, to Ovid’s banishment, the first published translation of Ovid’s Amores into English — by Christopher Marlowe -- was burned in London, June 1599, on orders from the Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, however, the Marlowe translation of the Amores survived. (The Metamorphoses itself would not appear in English for another 22 years.)
I always like to give some kind of shout-out to Marlowe on or near the anniversary of his deathday, May 30, 1593. Possibly the first “out” gay poet in English, at least the first we know of with that public reputation, Marlowe had outshone Shakespeare on the London stage at the time he was stabbed to death in what is usually described as a tavern brawl, aetatis 29. “His life he contemn’d [despised] in comparison of liberty of speech,” wrote Marlowe’s friend and sometime collaborator, Thomas Nashe (whose works also faced interdiction). There have been worse obituaries. R.I.P.
*Publius was the family name, Ovidius his given name and Naso a cognomen or distinguishing nickname, commonly appended back in the day. The ablative form of nasus, “nose,” the cognomen Naso apparently led to the poet’s being depicted with an exceptionally large proboscis. There was also, however, in Latin literature an association between satire and a sharp nose. So the full name translated to our own normal format would probably amount to “Ovidius Publius the Satirist.”
**Read down at the Wikipedia link for some of the more recent metamorphoses.
***The Metamorphoses of Apuleius is a (distinctly NSFW) novel surviving from the 2nd Century C.E.,in which – among other misadventures – the protagonist finds himself accidentally changed by magic into a donkey. Also from the 2nd Century, A True Story by Lucian of Samosata relates the earliest known story of a voyage to the moon; scholars disagree whether this work ought to be shelved with science fiction, fantasy, parody or satre. Both of these novels, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, embed tales collected from various sources.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Transl. A.D. Melville. Introd. and notes, E.J. Kenney. Oxford University Press, 1986. (Paperback reprint, 1992)
Ovid. The Metamorphoses, A translation Into English Prose by Anthony S. Kline. Open access for noncommercial purposes www.poetryintranslation.com/...
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