Procul este parentes: Mothers in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Donald Lateiner

            Although every person since Hebrew Eve has needed one, mothers are marginal or entirely invisible in many genres of Greek and Roman literature--more so than sex-partners and wives. Mothers in Greek epic are exceptionally tender and tough: Thetis and Penelope, Andromakhe and Antikleia. Mothers in Vergil’s Aeneid also have important roles (Aeneas' notoriously distant mother, Iulus' abandoned mother, and eloquent grieving Amata). In Greek historiography (Herodotos excepted), in philosophical dialogues, and even in the fictional ancient novels, mothers appear primarily as décor or minor blocking figures (e.g., Heliodoros' Persinna). We know less of Socrates’ mother than of his neglected wife. Mothers’ relations with their children are strained, negative, and even malevolent (as, a fortiori, with the wicked stepmother, e.g., Phaedra or Heliodoros’ Demainete). This rarely nurturing or attractive presentation of parent-child is perhaps refreshingly unsentimental. Mothers in Attic tragedy are certainly central, but murderous or unhelpful, as a glance at Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Medea, or Agave suggests. Ovid's myths and legends mention many mothers, often mere genealogical links like Symaethis, mother of Acis (13.750) or Liriope who got to ask a question. This paper considers a few noteworthy examples, although nearly every book of the Metamorphoses has a mother spotlit for anxiety, devotion, or cruelty or all of the above.

            Arrogant Phaethon's mother Clymene is stung to anger by her son's pestering questions about his impertinently doubted paternity (1.747-79). His pestering embrace and her directions lead to his crispy death (2.325-8). Andromeda’s boastful mother is guilty for her daughter’s naked  bondage (4.692: ambo misere, sed iustius illa). Ceres grieves and rages for her raped daughter Proserpina (5.356-571). The goddess manages to recover her daughter in a 50-50 timeshare with the divinely approved abductor Pluto. We may forget that mother Venus initiated the problem, goading her son Cupid to wound Hades’ lord--an imperial scheme with flattery that echoes the Aeneid (5.365; cf. Aen. 1.664). Mother Niobe’s absurd pride in quantity, her twelve children, directly causes their nasty deaths at the hands of wrathful Latona’s mere two offspring (6.146-312). Latona’s mothering need to drink water as a breastfeeder earlier made her request politely from some Lycian peasants nature’s bounty. The boors’ pointless refusal goads the goddess-mother to transform the selfish mortal tormentors into squalid frogs (6.317-81).

            Distraught Procne kills her beloved only son Itys--”so like his father” (621). Her vacillation (displaced from Medea’s analogous filicide) yields to clear-eyed homicide (nec vultum vertit), the only punishment equal to her husband’s rape and mutilation of her sister (6.412-674). Medea is perhaps the archetypal Black-Widow mother, in Ovid as elsewhere (7.394-7), although Ovid spends few verses on her notoriously vengeful filicide, concentrating rather on her purely sadistic persuasion of Pelias’ daughters to commit patricide. Mother Althea, another early paradigm of confused or unexpected blood-bonding hierarchies, becomes enraged enough at Meleager’s killing her brothers after the quarrel over the huge boar’s spoils (8.445-525) that she triggers her son’s fatal-brand death. Myrrha, sex-crazed for her father Cinyras, consummates her sexual longing during his enforced but impatient nine-night abstinence from her chaste mother during a Ceres festival. She, pregnant, then is transformed as a mitigating grace into a tree and painfully gives birth to incestuously conceived, doomed Adonis (10.431-514). Ovid imitates Homer’s ugly omen at Aulis: the serpent attacks and devours a mother bird’s eight fledglings; their mother is helpless to prevent it, and suffers the same fate (12.13-17)--to Calchas’ joy.

            Hecuba, like Thetis (11.221-8), emblematizes a mother's grief for her gore-clotted, dead, and mutilated mortal children--nineteen sons and Polyxena (13.449-575). The desolated representative of bereaved mothers of military men then finds the unburied shorewashed corpse of little Polydorus, supposedly sent off to safety. Finally, the prophecy of the barking, dehumanized bitch, known from Greek epic and tragedy, becomes an actual canine transformation.

            Parallel to non-mother figures, Ovid’s human mothers suffer severely and goddess mothers usually gain a questionable revenge. Mothers played more prominent roles in real Roman families than in Greek. We may identify some Roman matronly characteristics in Ovid's mostly Greek mothers.

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