quae tamen ex illis aliquo pars umida suco
et terrena fuit, versa est in corporis usum;
quod solidum est flectique nequit, mutatur in ossa;
quae modo vena fuit, sud eodem nomine mansit;
inque brevi spatio superorum numine saxa
missa viri manibus faciem traxere virorum
et de femineo reparata est femina iactu.
inde genus durum sumus experiensque laborum,
et documenta damus qua simus origine nati.
Cetera diversis tellus animalia formis
sponte sua peperit, postquam vetus umor ab igne
percaluit solis caenumque udaeque paludes
intumere aestu fecundaque semina rerum,
vivaci nutrita solo ceu matris in alvo,
creuerunt faciemque aliquam cepere morando.
sic, ubi deseruit madidos septemfluus agros
Nilus et antiquo sua flumina redidit alveo
aetherioque recens exarsit sidere limus,
plurima cultores versis animalia glaebis
inveniunt; et in his quaedam perfecta per ipsum
nascendi spatium, quaedam modo coepta suisque
trunca vident numeris, et eodem in corpore saepe
altera pars vivit, rudis est pars altera tellus.
quippe ubi temperiem sumpsere umorque calorque,
concipiunt et ab his oriuntur cuncta duobus;
cumque sit ignis aquae pugnax, vapor umidus omnes
res creat et discors condordia fetibus apta est.
ergo diluvio tellus lutulenta recenti
solibus aetheriis altoque recanduit aestu,
edidit innumeras species partimque figuras
rettulit antiquas, partim nova monstra creavit.
Illa quidem nollet, se te quoque, maxime Python,
tum genuit […]

(Met. 1.407-39)

However, the part of these [stones] that was moistened with some liquid
and was made of earth, was turned into flesh;
that part that was solid and refused to bend, turned into bone;
where there were veins in the rock, they got to keep their name;
and in a brief space [of time] the rocks, with [the help of] the gods’ power
that were thrown from the man’s hands took on the face of men,
and those that were thrown by the woman became women.
From this act, we are a tough race, good at labour,
and we give proof of the origins from which we were born.
The Earth brought forth animals in different forms
by her own will, after the old waters were heated by the fire
of the sun, and the mud and the moist swamps
rose up from the heat, being fertile with the seeds of things,
which were fed by the living soil, as in a mother’s womb,
[the animals] took shape and took on faces with a little delay.
As when the seven-flowing Nile recedes from the soaked fields
and its flow returns to its ancient bed
and the new mud heats up in the star’s heat,
farmers observe animals coming forth from the clods they overturn;
and among these, they some that grew completely in the
space where they were born, while others are just beginning [to form]
cut off from their limbs, and often in the same body
one part is alive, and the other is rough earth.
Of course, then the water and the heat
begin to make their proper mixture and all things arise from these two.
and when there is a clash between fire and water, the humid vapor
creates all things, and the discordant concord between them is apt for birthing.
Therefore, when the Earth, muddy from the recent flood,
reheated with its airy soil and high temperature,
she produced numerous species, some of which
brought back old shapes, and some created new monsters.
Although she certainly did not want to, hugest Python,
she bore you then too […]

We get to have a little scientific excursus (basically Latin for “tangent”) about biology.  Ovid puts forward a theory commonly known as ‘spontaneus generation‘.  Ancient science often proclaimed that animals grew out of the Earth – not just at special cosmological moments, but every day even.  And it was a persistent belief: spontaneous generation wasn’t disproved until Louis Pasteur‘s experiments in the 1850s, almost two millenia after Ovid!  Until that point, it was accepted scientific fact.  Vergil gives a recipe for growing bees from a cow carcass in his Georgics (4.295-314).  Ovid was probably thinking of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), though, when he wrote this bit.  Specifically, he is referencing De Rerum Natura book 5, where we get a number of references to the phenomenon.  Ovid loves Lucretius; just look back the cosmogony, and you’ll see how much Ovid’s used his work.  Still, I sometimes wonder whether Ovid uses Lucretius because he is genuinely invested in the science, or if the all the scientific jargon just makes the fiction sound more plausible.  Is this like a science-fiction writer searching Stephen Hawking’s book for convincing lines to give the scientist character?  Barchiesi (2008: 200) notes that Ovid also seems to reference Empedocles with the description of the animal that is partially formed in the mud.  That would suggest a deeper connection with Lucretian thought than if Ovid had just blithely flipped through the De Rerum Natura.  A similar thing happens in Book 15: Segal (2001) describes how Ovid uses Lucretius, Empedocles and even Pythagorean thought; they create a chain of philosophical schools that each influenced the next.  It seems like Ovid did his homework… But. BUT. I still think Ovid might be more interested in using scientific poetry to help justify his mythology.  In direct comparisons between texts, Ovid is often found to be following the versions by Latin authors more closely; this is especially true in the case of Lucretius and Vergil.  The elements of Empedoclean and other Greek schools are usually ones that can be found in their Latin imitators as well.  This would imply a direct engagement with Latin poetry, and perhaps a cursory glance at Greek thought.  Then there are the specific examples from older philosophers that he cherry-picks.  The Empedoclean imagery of a half-formed body reinforces his point, but it is also coincidentally a grippingly visceral image.  The translation and image I used in the comic don’t quite capture the ooey-gooey of the Latin: “trunca” (Met. 1.428) implies a limb that appears to be hacked off.  It doesn’t necessarily support the scientific argument any, aside from offering a claim about the existence of the phenomenon, but it does help to build a poetic image that will remain throughout the poem: Ovid likes to depict not just metamorphosis, but the stages of metamorphosis.  The fact that Empedocles did the same thing gives Ovid a chance to justify his mythological history in scientific terms, making it easier for the erudite and cynically jaded Romans suspend their disbelief.  It’s not so much different from our science-fiction writer I mentioned above.  Rather than diminish Ovid, however, I hope that this excursus can give you new-found respect for those writers who put in the extra effort to incorporate science more than superficially, in the hopes of making you enjoy a story more.

On the subject of the “trunca” part, I was in two minds as to how to depict it.  On the one hand, the Latin is pretty graphic, and I thought about showing a zebra (or whatever) lying in the mud with its legs cut off.  However, I decided to go a bit more meta and depict what I think is the source of this myth.  One reason spontaneous generation remained convincing for so long was the number of animals that do grow underground or inside things.  People see maggots growing in a cow-carcass, 0r cicadas emerging from the ground, or indeed frogs popping out of the mud and assume they must have been born there.  I went with a less-visceral interpretation of the half-formed creature, where its legs are simply still buried in the mud (you can kind of see their outlines in ripples).  Another, more gory theory might be that the farmers unwittingly hacked the animals apart with their tools by accident, and believed they had found half-formed critters gestating in the mud.  We’ll never know for certain – this myth probably developed like a game of “telephone”, with stories being passed down for generations of farmers before scholars and poets got ahold of them.  This is what I like about the Metamorphoses, though; it’s an ecclectic collage of myths, stories and scientific theories, all incongruous but still compelling when set into the larger narrative.  Even when it’s scientifically inaccurate, the poem still reflects the wonderfully wierd, confusing, contradictory nature of the world.  It remains compelling, whether or not you believe it.

That’s it for the Flood, by the way – I imagined you figured that we were winding down when the waters receded, though.  There will be more apocalyptic scenarios to come, but now we head into “the poem proper” as many scholars like to point out.  What this actually means is that the next few stories will be more representative of the kinds we’re going to see throughout the poem.  Up to now, we’ve had several scientific tangents and many stories on a cosmic scale.  Now, we’ll have just one more cosmic feat, the battle between Apollo and Python, before we get into the stuff you’ve all been waiting for…  Personally, I like the coming narratives too, but I have been very happy to spend some more time getting to know these early stories.  Remember, the Metamorphoses defies any attempts to compartmentalise it: the cosmology is just as important as the erotic, heroic or fantastic narratives, and viceversa.  So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, I hope you have enjoyed and appreciated the stories surrounding the creation of the world as we know.  Now, get ready for a whole new set of epic narratives!