Craft and the Heroic in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Jeff D. Biebighauser

Valparaiso University

Recent scholarship on Ovid's relation to the epic tradition has, in an attempt to defend the epic status of the Metamorphoses, called attention to both linguistic and thematic allusions to Homer and Vergil.[1]  Largely neglected in these readings has been Ovid's revolutionary treatment of the heroic: both the absence of a single, stable protagonist and the subversive handling of traditional heroic figures mark conspicuous divergences from his predecessors. Ovid, in a fluid act of self-reflexivity, supplants the traditional concept of the hero by reincarnating himself as the recurring generic character of the Artist as a hero-type.

To elucidate this notion of the Artist-as-Hero, we must explore Ovid's internal representations of art and how they combine to inform our understanding of the craft and legacy of the artist.  The Artist appears variously as weaver, epic poet and craftsman, often as defined against a context of divinity, in an attempt to establish Ovid's own relation to poetic, political and religious authority.[2]  I contend that Ovid reflects these separate but parallel reincarnations explicitly in his images of his own art, setting up a dialectic between the carmen described in his proem and the opus described in his epilogue.[3]  In the various narrative manifestations of this tension, Ovid searches the general capacity of art to preserve either dynamic or static immortality of both the subject matter and the artist's self.  This search culminates with the final vivam of the poem,[4] with which he establishes a firm connection between poetic craft and heroic immortality.  Discussing Ovid's suggestion and resolution of the artistic tension, I hold that the Metamorphoses form for us, simultaneously, a search and an apology for the poetic self.

[1] See particularly Brooks Otis, Ovid as an Epic Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966); Alison Keith, “Sources and Genres in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1-5,” Brill’s Companion to Ovid (New York: Leiden Brill, 2002); Stephen E. Hinds, The Metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the Self-conscious Muse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[2] Arachne, the Pierides and Daedalus are archetypes of these three genres of art.

[3] I.4 and XV.871, respectively.

[4] XV.879.

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