Ovid’s Fasti – New Year’s Day

I forgot to mention, one of my ideas for this year was to read Ovid’s Fasti. I actually conceived the idea for this last February, but since the Fasti was intended to consist of twelve books representing the seasons of the year (though Ovid only wrote the first six – or, at least, only six survive), I decided to wait till we got back to January again so I could read it a month at a time.

I don’t know much about Ovid’s Fasti other than it’s about the Roman calendar, explaining the significance of all the dates in the year and the festivities which accompany them. I suppose that doesn’t appeal much to a modern audience – rather in the same manner as Virgil’s Georgics.

Here is Ovid’s intent, explained in typically concise fashion in the first line:

tempora cum causis Latium digesta per annum

Events with their causes arranged throughout the Latin year

With what I take to be a more subtle motivation slightly further down:

Caesaris arma canant alii, nos Caesaris aras

Others sing Caesar’s arms, we Caesar’s altars

So this is a book not representative of the civil wars which culminated in the rule of Augustus, as for instance the arma virumque of Virgil, but of the subsequent peace.

Ovid begins with a dedication to Germanicus, then discusses why Romulus foolishly started with only ten months (apparently to fit in with the term of pregnancy – scilicet arma magis quam sidera, Romule, noras – truly you knew arms more than stars, Romulus), but Numa added another two months at the beginning of the year, the first of which was January.

Ovid then digresses about the existence of lawful (fas) and unlawful (nefas) days (i.e. days on which you can and cannot transact business), all of which reminded me very much of the Heian Japanese who allowed a similar superstitious obsession to determine their lives. Apparently it is not the Ides you should beware of (or the Kalends or the Nones) but the day after, which was defined as ater – that is, “black”, just as we define days of particular calamity in the stock market.

One thing we shall particular look out for reading Ovid is the variety of ways he manages to introduce what we’re thinking is otherwise going to be a tedious list of events. So for January, he has the god Janus appear to explain who he is (me Chaos … vocabant – they call me Chaos), why the year doesn’t begin with spring instead (because the real turn of the year is the winter solstice), why New Year’s Day is not a holiday (because you should start as you intend to go on, and not in idleness), why we wish one another a Happy New Year (sympathetic magic – if we say it, so it will be), why we give people honey and sweet dates on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic), why we give people small coins on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic).

Which is as much as he says about the first day of the year, so for now is where we shall stop (this is about a third of the way through the first book already; he’s going to pick up the pace over the rest of January).

I am reading this in an 1899 edition with typically schoolboy commentary (on the basis of a schoolboy’s ability in the late c19th) but no facing English translation, so requiring me to think a bit more than usual, which is good. Ovid is reasonably easy Latin, I find.

As usual, reading Latin at times causes me to reflect on the meanings of words in English. So today I contemplate the word difficilis, which gives us the word “difficult”, which in Latin has its opposite in facilis, from which we get not “facult” (though of course we have “faculty”) but “facile”; but “facile” isn’t really the opposite of “difficult”, “easy” is. “Facile” has other connotations. English really is such a strange mishmash of languages.

Troilus and Cressida Bk.1, by Geoffrey Chaucer

Readers of this blog will know of my scepticism towards a literary movement called modernism, but lately I’ve discovered myself increasingly questioning whether there was ever in literature such a thing as the renaissance. Of course, like modernism, this mostly depends on how you define it. The renaissance we are taking here as a literary movement around c15th AD.

The definition of the renaissance I most often have in mind is “a return to the ideas and ideals of the classical period – a rediscovery of same”. This seems problematic to me, since – while in, say, architecture, it is clear things were forgotten and then re-discovered around the c15th – the same can’t be claimed about literature. The major Latin writers were revered throughout this period. So we have such medieval writers as Dante and Petrarch making extenstive reference to them. Cicero in particular had a vast influence on style; Aristotle, of course, on thought.

If I defined the renaissance as “a tendency not to mention the church or God all the time”, perhaps this would mitigate many of these problems. But there were certainly writers throughout this period who didn’t continually reference the divine; who quite clearly pursued the classical model; and besides, that is to ignore the other side of the medieval world: its obsession with such anti-Christian things as chivalry and courtly love, though, of course, lip-service was occasionally paid to keep the clerical world happy.

So what to make of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida? – According to my edition at least, Chaucer wrote it after he had translated The Romaunt of the Rose (the classic work of courtly love) and Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy (that bridge-work between the classical and medieval worlds) into English. These were pretty much straight renditions of the originals; with Troilus and Cressida he begins to enter the realm of his own invention (at least to an extent: he still has his sources, including one Giovanni Boccaccio),although, it has to be said, in his familiar post-modernist way, he keeps up the pretence that he’s merely translating something out of Latin, a work by one Lollius; Chaucer as poet appears constantly, to remind us that here he is writing a poem, and using sources, and selecting his material.

He does make occasional reference to religion in Troilus and Cressida, but this usually comes across as forgetfulness, for instance the biblical apothegm in the following, closely pursued by an explicit classical reference:

“The wise seith, “Wo hym that is allone,
For, and he falle, he hath non helpe to ryse”; …

For this nys naught, certein, the nexte wyse
To wynnen love – as techen us the wyse –
To walwe and wepe as Nyobe the queene,
Whos teres yet in marble ben yseene.”

He mentions God every now and then (but then so do classical writers) often, in fact, but it has this anachronistic feel – Chaucer doesn’t really think through the lack of Christian doctrine inherent in the classical world, so his classical world becomes a strange mash-up of ideas. I’m not sure he ever explicitly mentions Cupid, but he certainly personifies the nature of love as the arrow-armed little boy-god whom none may escape.

Which brings me to Ovid. Now I don’t know, maybe it’s in his sources (Boccaccio, and a French writer called Benoît), but Chaucer does seem to like a spot of Ovidian irony. In fact, the whole of Book 1 is based on one large piece of Ovidian irony, which is this: Troilus has, up to now, particularly laughed at people who fall in love, but now he has fallen in love himself. Chaucer deals with this subject just as Ovid would – here is Troilus talking to himself:

He seyde, “O fool, now artow in the snare,
That whilom japedest at loves peyne.
Now artow hent, now gnaw thin owen cheyne!
Thow were ay wont ech lovere reprehende
Of thing fro which thou kanst the nat defende.

This is about halfway through the first book, and out of fear of being laughed at, he feels forced for the remainder of the book to conceal his love from everyone, most especially its object, not knowing how to deal with love, and gradually begins to waste away.

At one point he even manages to combine his appreciation of Ovid (and his irony) with his own post-modernist tendencies. As Pandarus attempts to get his friend Troilus to tell him what the matter is, he quotes a letter written by Oënone to Paris (Oënone being a nymph, who was thrown over by Paris for the sake of Helen). This letter, of course, never existed – it was in fact written by Ovid (Heroides, 5) as a literary exercise, but it is a nice conceit of Chaucer’s that Pandarus, living at the time, should now take it as real:

“Yee say the lettre that she wrot, I gesse?”
“Nay, nevere yet, ywys,” quod Troilus.
“Now,” quod Pandare, “herkne, it was thus:
‘Phoebus, that first fond art of medicyne,’
Quod she, ‘and couthe in every wightes care
Remedye and reed, by herbes he knew fyne,
Yet to hymself his konnyng was full bare,
For love hadde hym so bounden in a snare
Al for the doughter of the kyng Amete,
That al his craft ne koude his sorwes bete.'”

The only person the doctor cannot cure is himself. (This idea does appear in Heroides 5, but it is only a small part of it, and the skill of medicine is not attributed in it to Phoebus; indeed, it’s attributed to Oënone herself).

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.

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).