Fishing with Ovid

Ethan Adams, College Of The Holy Cross

      The topics of ancient didactic poems range from grand themes like the nature of the universe to rather more recondite topics such as poisonous animals and the remedies for their bites. Ovid and his contemporaries weighed in with their own contributions to this specialized genre. Ovid translated Aratus’ celestial poem and wrote a series of erotodidactic poems, while his contemporaries crafted technical works on birds (Aemilius Macer’s lost Ornithogonia) and hunting (Grattius’ extant Cynegetica). Ovid’s name would be attached to this specialized genre with the Halieutica, a brief and unfinished poem on fishing which is usually regarded as spurious. Though perhaps an exilic dalliance, even if not by Ovid, the poem contains Ovidian flourishes which reflect a relationship not only with the Greco-Roman didactic genre (as epitomized by Hesiod, Aratus, Nicander, Lucretius, et al.), but also with Ovid’s past as a maker of didactic poetry dedicated to the chase (namely the Ars Amatoria and the technical lore of the Medicamina Faciei Femineae). The theme of fishing, indeed, is not unOvidian. In this paper I examine Ovid’s frequent use of fishermen and fishing as a metaphor for amatory pursuit, as a marker of generic space, and as a symbol of metapoetic ars.

      Throughout the Ars Amatoria, Ovid likens the pursuit of a love-interest to the art of hunting or fishing (e.g., AA 1.45-50, 1.391-4, 1.759-66, 3.425-8). As befits a poem whose generic identity flirts with didaxis from an elegiac standpoint, Ovid’s advice for the would-be lover adopts the didactic tone of the farming and hunting and scientific manuals of the past. Ovid’s erotodidaxis creates a skilled pupil who learns an ars—the ability to ‘catch a fish’—from a master. The example of successful fishing imbues the otherwise lowly profession of angling with a high degree of ars. Ovid brings fishing into the world of didactic poetry, inscribing it as a creative endeavor whose craft is dependent upon successful deception.

      Ovid also features the motif of fishing throughout his Metamorphoses, a slippery poem which, though avoiding a generic label, has been read under a didactic as well as an epic lens. In his hexameter magnum opus, Ovid continually peoples his world with fishermen. Fish and fishing appear often, positioned regularly throughout the poem: Books 1-3, 8, and 13-15 all include cameo appearances by various anglers; and, mirroring Ovid’s own structure, Pythagoras begins and ends his didactic teachings with references to the deceptive craft of fishing. Thus at the beginning, middle, and end of the poem, Ovid baits his lines with fishermen.

      Many of these fishing characters in the Metamorphoses are aesthetically loaded: Acoetes (3.582-96), Mnestra (8.852-70), and Glaucus (13.904-65) are all shape-shifters, and two are actually gods. While always portrayed as being, on the surface, from the lower classes, Ovid’s anglers nevertheless are able to deceive their opponents, thus using their status as inhabitants of a lower (i.e., non-epic) generic world to fool their opponents, who are, it should be noted, rarely fish. Bacchus, for instance, claims to be a fisherman, and wholly deceives the Tyrrhenian pirates; Mnestra dons a fisherman’s garb to escape Erysichthon; and the hapless Glaucus is a deified fisherman who attempts, unsuccessfully, to catch Scylla.

Ovid’s fishermen use deceptive strategies and rely upon the credulity of their prey. The art of fishing becomes, in Ovid, a close analogue to the art of writing; the chief weapon of the angler, the fishing pole (harundo) is also a word for a pen (Sharrock, 1994). Angling is a metaphor for his own art, which, like fishing, requires the art of deception in order to lure and catch the reader’s attention.


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