Metamorphoses III – Cadmus

I remember once at university trying to explain what was so great about Virgil to a friend; and him telling that my explanation was in vain since he didn’t understand Latin; and me replying that he must at least understand the idea of beauty in art; or something of that sort, it was a while ago.

So I thought I’d read some Ovid and try and explain a bit about Ovid as a Latin stylist. Because I often wonder what the non-Latin reader must make of Ovid, and even more so Virgil, who is interminably dull in English translation but in Latin is the greatest poet who ever lived.

So what was Ovid like as a poet? – Well, Ovid was a poet with an inordinate amount of raw talent. Here his greatness lies and, for some, his downfall. For you can’t read Ovid for long without being amused at this inordinate talent of his (rather, in a similar way, you find with Dickens).

Latin poetry is pretty untranslatable. As I’ve argued before, Latin needs to be read from left to right, like English, and Latin poetry especially so but, unlike Latin prose, this isn’t easy to render into English – there are too many poetic effects in Latin which break up this simple word-for-word translation: in particular, the divorce between nouns and their adjectives. What Latin loves, instead, is little blocks of meaning.

Ovid offers a marvellous example of this noun/adjective effect in l.5 of Book 3 (the last line of this):

cum pater ignarus Cadmo perquirere raptam
imperat et poenum, si non invenerit, addit
exilium, facto pius et sceleratus eodem.

Which means something like, very very literally (Zeus, in the shape of a bull, has just made off with / raped Cadmus’ sister Europe, who’s the girl referred to here):

then his father unknowing to Cadmus to seek the snatched girl
ordered and punishment, if he will not have found, added
exile, by the deed pious and wicked the same.

or, in sensible English:

then his father, still very much in the dark, ordered Cadmus to find the kidnapped girl, adding, if he couldn’t, then he shouldn’t come back – which showed up his moral and immoral side at the same time

Chiasmus is an effect endlessly used in Latin, and hardly ever in English (I’m always pleased when I get in a bit of chiasmus): it involves a sequence of the sort: A B C B A.

The five words “facto pius et sceleratus eodem” is a nice example: using case (though you don’t have to use case), this is: ablative, nominative, conjunction, nominative, ablative. The two ablatives are an adjective and a noun which agree with one another and mean “by the same deed”; the two nominatives are in apposition and are entirely contradictory of one another – the chiasmus draws out the contradictory, almost oxymoronic effect, and mean “good and bad” (as least if you hedge around those concepts with some idea of religious taboo / pollution); “et” means “and”.

It’s also an example of another Latin poetical obsession, for which I don’t know the literary term, or even if there is one, so which I’m going to call “wrapping”. “facto” and “eodem”, two words which agree, are walling in a kind of sense unit. This is ridiculously common in (good) Latin poetry – indeed, its absence (having nouns and adjectives all over the place, and not keeping to accepted Latin word order) is generally taken to be an example of poor style – you’re incapable of fitting your words into hexameter verse.

The effect of this line is one of amusement at the irony of a command which can be both good and evil at the same time. Ovid likes these kinds of ironies, as we shall see.

Here’s another line using the same effect, but this time stretched across an entire hexameter line:

nullum servitii signum cervice gerentem

which goes C G C A C, i.e. the 1st, 3rd and 5th words all agree. The A and G here (ablative and genitive) form part of the overall sense unit enclosed (“wrapped”) by all those agreeing accusatives. The sentence, which is describing a heifer, means literally:

no of servitude sign on the neck bearing


bearing on her neck no sign of servitude (i.e. a yoke)

It’s a nice touch leaving “gerentem” till the end; – it amused me anyway.

Putting all this together, we get lines 96-98, which I refuse to believe anyone can read without a grin creeping over their featuress, and you don’t even have to understand any of it (I will remove all the modern punctuation):

vox subito audita est neque erat cognoscere promptum
unde sed audita est quid Agenore nate peremptum
serpentem spectas et tu spectabere serpens

Now that’s some goddamn chiasmus, there in that last line (noun, verb, bit in middle, same verb, same noun) – and that’s without the perfect metrical repetition of “audita est” and the “p-emptum” bit – and it contains, as you might expect, a nice irony, something like:

that snake you’re looking at, you’ll look like a snake yourself

He’s killed this snake you see, in the proceeding part, and this disembodied voice is telling him his punishment will be to become a snake himself (a familiar enough irony in the poem), though, due to the marvels of Ovid’s elliptical structures in Metamorphoses – all those stories within stories – Cadmus doesn’t actually get turned into a snake until most of the way through Book IV. Next comes the story of his grandson, Actaeon, and we all know which passage in Ovid that means!

Yeah, that’s right: books bought is up to 19. (I knew I wasn’t going to stop buying books). I bought Roa Bastos (for the Lat-Am Readalong (fair enough!)), some history books, Larry Niven’s other Ringworld books, a Philip K Dick, The Story of the Stone vol.1 and Zola’s “Savage Paris” (I always like these Elek Books editions, with their gaudy covers and deceptive titles – I figure it’s what’s known in French as Le Ventre de Paris).


10 thoughts on “Metamorphoses III – Cadmus

  1. Fantastic. Fantastic. You’re right, I do not need Latin to enjoy that passage, though the commentary surely helps.

    What George Sandys did with Metamorphoses is make it into a great English poem following the conventions of a superb period of English poetry. What relation that poem has with the Ovid you are reading I can only guess.

  2. Interesting although I don’t share your fondness of the Latin language I’m afraid. 8 years of Latin at school with the oldest possbile teachers damaged me for life. When we started at age 10, all we had to learn were words for different ways of killing people to be able to read the first book – De Bello Gallico. The Metamorphoses were much later. I must confess I bought a bilingual copy of it as I would read some of the episodes again.

  3. What I was perhaps trying to say about the line “facto pius et sceleratus eodem” was that, in terms of word order, the contradictory concepts of “pius” and “sceleratus” are contained quite literally within “facto eodem”.

    Yes, in some ways you’d think Ovid was one poet you could translate the essence of, since the essence of Ovid is something quite distinctive – but perhaps it is an essence which is too tied up in the Latin language. It is why he reminds me of Dickens, no doubt: that there is a joy in the use of words themselves that is difficult to translate.

    Yes, De Bello Gallico doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’m thinking of using it as a test-case, though, for my theory that you can translate Latin (prose) into English without changing the word order.

  4. A fine and illuminating post. You’re right, the English versions of The Aeneid are uniformly poor fare, and that must have contributed to my own lack of respect for Virgil vis a vis eg Homer (whose translators have at least been able to make the stories rollick).

    I left a non-Latin teaching school for a Latin-teaching one midway through what was then the O-level cycle so never learned the language – I wasn’t allowed to join the Latin class as I was assured that I’d never be able to make up the years I had missed come exam time. Is it a regret? – well, maybe, but I have bigger ones.

  5. Funnily, I also recently bought that Zola – The Belly of Paris in my Oxford Classics version. I read La Cureé for starters and was very taken with it.

  6. I’ve never made it far through any English version of the Aeneid. I think it’s worst to make it rhyme: rhmying epic has a habit of sounding like doggerel.

    I started Latin at age 8; I’ve never met anyone else in my life who started that young. (Caroline’s 10 is quite impressive though). On the other hand, I started Greek age 16, and got a B at A-Level two years later. But, I do admit, I’m pretty rubbish at Greek in comparison.

    There should be Zola post coming sooner or later – I bit through a large chunk of The Sinful Priest at the weekend. (La Curee is one of my favourite Zolas). March though has become a bit of a project to get as many books finished as possible – so that I’m reading 15 at once; I just want to clear the decks so I can get properly into the TBR pile. Perhaps there will be a lot of book reviews suddenly at month end.

  7. Yes but considering that I started at age 10 and we had 7hrs per week for the first two years and the it went down to 4 and I’m barely able to read more than the Vulgata now without serious help …
    Until very recently you needed Latin to study languages, history or philosophy at Swiss universities. Some sort of hidden numerus clausus.

  8. It sounds like my French – learnt French from 7-16, can barely put together a sentence. What was the point? – Well, I suppose it did give me a good grounding to try and pick it up again now.

    I think needing Latin to study at university should probably be re-introduced; it would solve a lot of the funding issues our government currently has around higher education.

  9. <>

    Interesting. Having been educated in comprehensive school and red brick universities, I have no Latin and no Greek (and, much to the disappointment of my late grandfather, no Sanskrit either), but, whereas I have been enthralled by the translations I ave read from the Greek, Latin literature in translation has made very little impression. I read the Aeneid in translations by Fitzgerald and by Fagles, and, apart from such marvellous set-pieces as the taking of Troy, the story of Dido, and the descent into Hades (all in the first half) it made very little impression: certainly nothing like the impact made on me by Homer, also in the Fitzgerald and Fagles versions. Neither have I come across anything in Latin literature that makes an impact comparable to that made by the Athenian tragedians. I have long suspected that Latin does not translate as well as does Greek. However, I am enjoying very much your illuminating posts on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Raeburn, and while I did enjoy it in bits and pieces, much of it, I fear, rather passed me by.)

  10. It is an interesting question, why Greek translations work better. Hardly likely to be to do with the language, one would have thought (Greek is a much harder language to convey in English). It must be the subject matter, or the type. – But there’s a lot of Greek that doesn’t mean much to us: Pindar being a fine example.

    The first half of The Aeneid is notoriously more interesting than the second.

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