Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Recurring Image of Stone in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Pygmalion, by Gerome, 1881.

One theme that connects a number of stories within Metamorphoses is that of stone. Ovid's recurrent use of stone comes under close inspection by Douglas F. Bauer, proving how such imagery plays an "important function in the scheme not only of the whole work, but also of each individual book” (2). Admittedly, Bauer’s taxonomic assessment borders on the ludicrous when in the closing pages of his study we find him bogged down in mathematical calculations used to audit the number of verses surrounding the Pygmalion episode. The mathematical preoccupations of a literary scholar can be a dry experience indeed. Quibbles aside, his examination of stone and its many manifestations provided enough impetus for me to dig a little deeper for more stone imagery. I uncovered three connected episodes showing how Ovid uses stone literally and metaphorically to convey the presence, or lack thereof, of life. Deucalion and Pyrrha are commanded by an oracle to “cast the bones [stones]” of the earth behind them in order to “repair the loss of [their] wretched race” (1.379-383). The rocks soften with the help of moisture from the earth, eventually transforming into an “outline of human form” featuring a “nature more gentle than stone” (1.400-403). Thus, the evolution of man from stone gives us one of the first striking pictures of human life in the poem. Moving to Book Three, the scorned and rejected Echo receives no love from Narcissus. The pain and shame drags her to the depths of despair, reflected in the loss of “all moisture” that shrivels “the lovely bloom of her flesh” (395-400). She is eventually transformed into stone, conveying both a haunting (only the echo survives) and chilling picture of unrequited love. We are reminded that love and life are associated with moisture and flesh; the inverse seen in Echo’s emotional death marked by stone. Moving finally to Book Ten, the ivory statue carved by Pygmalion “gradually loses its hardness, softening, sinking, [and] yielding” to her master’s loving hands (280-285). This transformation from the inanimate to the animate, from stone to soft and malleable flesh, recalls the first Deucalion episode in Book One. However, what differs in the Pygmalion episode is that it telescopes human creation down to the level of the individual and not the entirety of humanity as displayed in the Deucalion episode.

Bauer, Douglas F. “The Function of Pygmalion in the Metamorphoses of Ovid”. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93 (1962): 1-21.

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