Metamorphoses III – Actaeon and Semele

No, I’m not even going to mention the bravura passage in Actaeon where Ovid names 33 of Actaeon’s hounds in 19 lines of hexameter verse, and then finishes off brilliantly with the throwaway line, “quosque referre mora est” / “and others it would delay us to mention”. I’m not even going to speculate on whether Ovid might manage to eke some irony out of a story about a hunter who is eaten by his own hounds. No, I want instead to discuss transition in the Metamorphoses.

Not, that is, transition from human to animal, as is Ovid’s subject matter, but transition from story to story – for, as my sixth form teacher never tired of pointing out, while the Metamorphoses is built up of a hundred or so disparate stories, Ovid is endlessly ingenious at getting from one story to another.

Actaeon and Semele – two stories, following one another – are a good case in point. But let me first give a brief resume of the two stories:

  • Actaeon – The hunt is over for the day, and Actaeon is wandering on his own through the woods when he stumbles on a grove where Diana is bathing with her attendant nymphs. Diana, in a fit of divine embarrassment, turns Actaeon into a stag, whereupon he is set upon and torn apart by his own hounds.
  • Semele – Semele is a nymph who’s been having an affair with Juppiter. Juno, Juppiter’s divine wife, is jealous and, in order to destroy Semele, dons the form of her nurse and persuades her to demand, next time Juppiter comes round, that he reveal to her his true divine form (to prove he’s not just someone impersonating a god in order to get into bed with her). Semele duly does this, whereupon she is destroyed by his divine appearance.

So yes, two stories which are basically the same, with the same moral: if a human should ever set eyes on God, the sight would destroy him.

Here’s the passage of transition between the two stories:

Rumor in ambiguo est; aliis violentior aequo
visa dea est, alii laudant dignamque severa
virginitate vocant: pars invenit utraque causas.
sola Iovis coniunx non tam, culpetne probetne
eloquitur, quam clade domus ab Agenore ductae
gaudet et a Tyria collectum paelice transfert
in generis socios odium; subit ecce priori
cause recens, gravidamque dolet de semine magni
esse Iovis Semelen

Translated very very literally as:

Rumour is on two sides: to some, more violent than just
the goddess seemed; others praise her and call her worthy
of her harsh virginity: each side comes up with reasons.
Only the wife of Jove [Juno] doesn’t speak, either to blame or approve,
but rather rejoices in the slaughter of the house of Agenor
and transfers the hatred she’s piled up from her Tyrian rival [Europa]
to the allies of her stock; see! the recent slight she sets under
the previous one, and she grieves that Semele is pregnant from the
seed of great Jove.

The Tyrian rival is a reference back to two stories ago – the account of the rape of Europa. Juno has been harbouring her resentment; another daughter of this same house is now sleeping with Juppiter, and she happens to listen to this story about how a human is destroyed by the very sight of a God. She is curiously silent, and offers no opinion about it. Ovid doesn’t make much of this: he doesn’t say explicitly that Juno takes this story of Diana and Actaeon, and determines to use it to destroy Semele; but this is exactly what she does then go and do.

And the contrast in motivation between the two stories is strong: Diana acts impulsively, and people (“rumor”) don’t know whether she did right or wrong – it’s certainly stated that Actaeon was merely unlucky to stumble on the grove; but Juno acts with spiteful deliberation and malice, entrapping and destroying the innocent Semele.

(I have Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. He translates both these sections, but unfortunately breaks them up, puts Semele two stories ahead of Actaeon, instead of behind, and gets rid of the transitions episodes entirely. Possibly he wasn’t so impressed with Ovid’s schematic structure).

An interlude about Tiresias is next, and then Narcissus and Echo.


Ah yes, you’re wondering about whether Ovid could find any irony in a hunter being eaten by his own hounds. Well yes, he does lever some in. In fact, there’s a whole long section where his hunting companions turn up to see the hounds tearing apart this stag, and they all wonder where Actaeon’s got to, and they can’t believe he’s missing it and if only he could be here:

vellet abesse quidem, sed adest; velletque videre,
non etiam sentire canum fera facta suorum.

he might have liked to be absent indeed, but he is present; he might have liked to watch
rather than feel the savage acts of his own dogs.

Well, I like that he still has a hunter’s instinct about him, even as he’s being torn apart.

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3 thoughts on “Metamorphoses III – Actaeon and Semele

  1. Wow, you can read Latin in the original. I’m more than impressed, especially when I remember sweating over Latin verses in high school.

    I read Ars Armatoria two years ago in a prose translation and I loved it. It was so modern.
    I’d like to find a good translation of The Metamorphosis, one that isn’t a word by word translation aimed at students but that gives back the spirit of their writer.

  2. Not to harp on it, but the George Sandys translation does wonderful things with the story-to-story transitions. He understood their importance. The Hughes rearrangement is crazy.

  3. I’m cheating a bit with Ovid, because I do have the facing translation (but it’s only there for when I’m really puzzled – a lot of the time I don’t need it). I’m amazed, actually – not having done much Latin in the last fifteen years – how much of it has stuck in my mind (vocabulary, especially).

    Hughes is quite good at capturing some of the spirit of Ovid – but I can’t feeling this might be the part of Ovid’s spirit which is more or less like Ted Hughes (his description of the hounds tearing apart Actaeon is quite in keeping). It’s a lot of the playing with language that’s missing – Ovid’s cleverness, as it were (but cleverness, thankfully, always undercut by humour).

    I guess Ted Hughes was only interested in Tales from Ovid, otherwise he’d have called his work Tales and Interludes from Ovid. It’s like a Best Of.

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