BOOK ONE CREATION
Ovid, lived around the time of Augustus (Jesus) wrote an epic, but not an epic like Homer. Not a mythological anthology either. Ovid is a comedian too, who is quick to turn the world upside down, and look at it from all kinds of funny, even perverted points of view. That's what comedians do.
Purpose: to expose philosophy and reason as inferior to the mythic imagination, that myth imagination is more faithful to reality than science and theoretical reasoning. It's not that Ovid believes these myths, but he believes that their imaginative, psychological way of working penetrates the complexities of the world of human experience better than philosophy.
Ovid begins with Chaos, but not a calm, empty space, as in Hesiod, but a Chaos in the modern sense, a commotion. Chaos is a "lumpy matter, confusion, with atoms warring against each other." Atoms of air, water, and earth fight like cats in a cat fight; there's all kinds of clashes, penetrations, explosions, metamorphoses until
"some God, or Kindlier Nature"
some Divine Reason imposes peace, establishes order.
How? By roping off the warring parties, drawing boundaries. No transgressions were allowed. Divisions and subdivisions, always with the warning: don't cross this line. And God shaped the earth as a sphere so it would be equal on all sides. Fenced everything off.
Order. Reason. Peace.
METAMORPHOSIS: But this is a poem about metamorphosis, changing shapes, changing forms, not about order. The most striking constant in the universe is metamorphosis. Change is the one thing you can count on.
How did we move from Order and Reason to METAMORPHOSIS?
A monkeywrench fell in the engine. God needed something, someone to lord over creation, a holier animal (sanctius animal) with a sharp mind to rule the world. What he got instead of his rational, lordly creature, was MAN. And with man something wasn't quite right.
Now right before the FOUR AGES section, where it says god needed something else more holy to govern his world, and then made man, Ovid says something very important. Apparently, the god of Reason, for whatever reason, delegated the task of creating man to someone else. The Son of Iapetus, Prometheus, fashioned mankind out of the earth, with a little water mixed in.
Significance? Prometheus is a mythological figure. This "Rational God" has quietly tip-toed off the world stage and will never return. As soon as man shows up, and is interjected into the scene, myth shows up, BECAUSE
Reason can't explain man, only myth.
[And in what way does Prometheus command mankind to be different from the animals? He bids him look heavenward. Why does man need to be told to look heavenward? The philosophers tell us that man has in him a divine spark that causes him to keep his eyes on heaven. But this is not that sanctius animal that the God of Divine Reason had hoped for.]
Prometheus had mixed water and earth and spirit. Bad. The other god didn't mix, he separated.
GOLDEN AGE: looks good at first; no laws, men are voluntarily trustworthy and just; men don't violate the order of the elements by removing trees from the land and sailing them on the water. They keep to their own shores and boundaries, so there in no war.
SILVER AGE: Jupiter ushers out his father Saturn and institutes a new order, one that includes change. The cycles of seasons, whose extreme temperatures force man to build shelters, till the land, institute private property and draw more boundaries.
BRONZE AGE: Once boundaries (surveyors do their work) are set up in an unnatural place, it's not long before someone transgresses them. The rise of belligerence and crime. Until the IRON AGE, where everyone lives by stealing (i.e., violating boundaries). So you get:
wood on water
bringing up metals from the ground
mixing them together to make weapons.
Now we have returned . . . to Chaos.
This is topped by the Giants, everything that is ugly, savage, lowly, attacking what is lofty. and children are born from their blood, and they stack mountains on mountains until Jupiter finally has to topple them.
And then we get the comical extreme between the sanctius animal and human nature as myth knows it: wicked stepmothers brewing their poison, and sons consulting diviners in the hope that their wealthy father will die soon. Piety and Justice leave the earth.
**It's as if Ovid is trying to say, "No, I don't believe that some Divine Providence is in charge of this world. The gods must be like us, loopy, irrational, given to fits of passion and disorderly conduct." Remember the movie, The Gods Must be Crazy?
THE MEETING IN HEAVEN
Now Jupiter calls a council of the gods, sort of like a Senate meeting in Rome on the Palatine Hill. He rants and raves about a fellow named Lycaon, who is a paragon of human presumption - he had the gall to
refuse to worship Jupiter
and plotted to murder him during the god's visit to earth.
Well, Jupiter turned him into a wolf, but now he wants to kill the rest of mankind with (a fire? no, the philosophers believed that) a flood, a mixing of earth and water again.
Jupiter says, I want to destroy man, all but two: Deucalion and Pyrrha, the most submissive couple, so they'll produce a more divinely disposed race than the previous one.
Aha! Jupiter is trying to produce a sanctius animal too, but he also fails. Where does the next race come from? Prophecy says to loosen your garments and throw the bones of your mother over your back. It's an unnatural act to do this to your mother's bones, so in the end they surmise that the bones must be stones, and the mother must be mother earth. So they loosen their garments and throw stones behind their back, then children grow up out of them. So we get a COMPOSITE PICTURE of the nature of a human being, made up of many different elements:
Prometheus: some divine seed still left in his man.
Deucalion and Pyrrha: piety
Golden Age: self-discipline
Stone Age: hardiness
Bronze and Iron Ages: Greedy, Belligerent
Giants' Blood: Rebellious
Lycaon: Gross Impiety
Ovid's view: human nature is an irreducible and ungovernable paradox. Not the philosopher's one-dimensional and unreal sanctius animal, the crown of a rational cosmos and the image of a divinely rational creator. In other words, the philosophers of Ovid's time, with their one-dimensional view of man as noble, can not explain man's complexities, his chaoticness. Myth, Ovid believes, is a better language to use to talk about the nature of a human being.
You might have thought that Ovid's story was cute, but intellectually he has flown in the face of everything most of us were taught by reading the book of Genesis. Or has he. Isn't Genesis ALSO about the failure of mankind to be the sanctius animal he was meant to be?