Reading Ovid in winter
There’s something very wonderful about the coming of winter, cold, and darkness. It allows a person to burrow in, curl up with the dog or cat, bask in the warmth of the hearth, and read things like Ovid. Culturally it’s the Season of Light. Falling close to the winter solstice, the Season of Light marks the darkest part of the year. Winter celebrations involving light date from the Stone Age if not before. The Romans had two winter celebrations: Saturnalia, sometimes depicted as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, and Sol Invictus, the festival of the sun God. Saturna, another pagan festival during the eight days up to the solstice, is depicted in the Jewish Talmud. The feast o Yule was celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples. Some of the old pagan rituals are similar to those in Christmas traditions. The Season of Winter, therefore, transcends any one religion or creed. So does most mythology, which is so distant in time and place from our world today. In reading it, you simply disconnect from the present time and watch the struggle of larger-than-life characters play out in your mind’s stage. You bring the stories back to our world.
Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) rewrote Greek myths for a Roman audience. For example he retells the myth of Persephone as the myth of Proserpine (Book V), and it is a myth that explains winter. Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine, the goddess of vegetation, plunges the earth into darkness. When Pluto steals this spirit of youth, spring, and growth into the underworld, crops die and Proserpine’s mother Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, mourns. In Metamorphoses (Mary M. Innes trans., London: Penguin Books, 1955), Ceres wanders the earth looking for her daughter, “holding in either hand a blazing pine torch kindled at Etna’s fires…through the darkness of the frosty nights, never relaxing her search.” Zeus intervenes and allows Proserpine to return to the earth and to Ceres for only six months each year. Then “she appears with radiant face, as when the sun breaks through and disperses the watery clouds that have previously concealed him.”
Also you will find in Metamorphoses (Book X) the myth of Atalanta (written elsewhere as Atlanta). Atalanta was a very beautiful girl and fast runner who raced any man who wanted to marry her. Orpheus sings this story told by Cythera, the goddess of love. As Cythera says, “That story is no idle tale, for Atalanta did indeed surpass all men, and it would be impossible to say whether she received higher praise for her fleetness of foot, or for her beauty.” It was Apollo, God of the sun and light, who advised Atalanta to avoid marriage. Atalanta challenged her suitors to a footrace, with the understanding that if they lost they would die. After many suitors had been slain, Hippomenes stepped forward. He prayed to Cythera, Cythera was moved, and she gave Hippomenes three golden apples that he used to distract Atalanta during the race. Hippomenes won the race and won Atalanta, who fell in love with him. However, the story does not end well. In his happiness Hippomenes forgot to give thanks to Cythera. Angry, she turned both Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions to “haunt” the forest forever.
In this dense, rich classic you will also find the story of the Phoenix (Book XV), that long-lived mythic bird that is the symbol of the city of Atlanta.
In contemporary meaning, the Phoenix is born out of the ashes of destruction and is a symbol of resilience. So after General Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground at the end of the Civil War, Atlanta rose up from the ashes to become an economic engine of the South.
In Ovid’s gentler version, this bird lives a long and enchanted life, dies, and a child is born anew out of the body of its parent. Jan Cahoun brings this version alive in the following sound clip:
Ovid’s version has no ashes but it has sun and light. The baby Phoenix, born in the fragrant air in which the parent Phoenix dies, carries the parent’s corpse to the city of the sun, laying the body before Hyperion, the God of wisdom and light. After this elaborate display of filial piety, it lives on for another 500 years.
Allen Peterson’s new phoenix sculpture on the Atlanta Beltline seems consistent with Ovid’s version. Atlanta, which was originally called Terminus and served as a major railroad transit during the Civil War, is reimagined as a new Phoenix made from recovered railroad pieces and standing on the site of the old railroad corridors. The new Phoenix is born out of its parent’s body.
Jan Cahoun is a graduate of Emory University, and she told me that Emory used to have an acclaimed literary magazine called The Emory Phoenix. I visited Woodruff Library to look for it and found versions dating from 1893. The magazine took many forms over the years, disappearing for years at a time, reappearing, and then ceasing abruptly in 1998. Will a new Phoenix be born again someday from these rich archives?