Alison Sharrock looks at a modern emergency through ancient poetry.
The current ecological crisis has come about a result of environmental changes which have increased exponentially since the industrial revolution in the last 200 years, and widespread awareness of which has only begun to dominate in the last 20 years. While modern literary eco-critics, especially from the Romantics on, can meaningfully discuss the role of poetry in reflecting and shaping attitudes to the natural world in the last two centuries, what can a poet from two millennia ago contribute to contemporary reflections on this most urgent but intractable of problems? Ovid and his first century readers didn’t, in any straightforward sense, know anything about climate change, so what is the point in reading his work with an eye to ecological issues? The answer I’d like to offer in this brief article is that there is a great deal of point: first, because while the Romans may not consciously have experienced climate change on the scale with which we are contending now, they were aware of anthropogenic environmental effects, including significant damage to what we would call ecosystems; and, second, because there are passages in Ovid’s poetry which seem remarkably prescient of contemporary concerns. Great poetry is good to think with, and indeed can only ever be read from a modern perspective, which is what I propose explicitly to do. In his delightful book, The Song of the Earth (Macmillan, 2011), the English-literature scholar Jonathan Bate glosses a discussion of ‘keystone species’, i.e. those the loss of which cause widespread breakdown of the ecosystem, far beyond what one would expect from their apparent importance, with a comment which I suspect is only partly tongue in cheek: ‘Could the poet be a keystone sub-species of Homo sapiens? The poet: an apparently useless creature, but potentially the saviour of ecosystems.’ I don’t want to risk over-claiming on behalf of my favourite poet, but I would like to offer you a few passages from Ovid which strike me as speaking to our contemporary crisis.
The last few years have seen an extraordinary increase in destructive wildfires, from Australia to the Arctic. While in the pre-modern world wildfires are by no means always detrimental to long-term environmental stability, the recent extent, the frequency, and the ferocity of their occurrence has been, I believe, unprecedented – it has certainly been very distressing. Recently rereading Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses 2 of the destruction visited upon the Earth by Phaethon’s careering ride in the chariot of the Sun, I was struck by how powerfully it speaks to the modern condition.
The Fall of Phaethon Johann Liss (1590-1629)
Here we have an insecure young man, who is traumatised by uncertainty over his identity and peer pressure relating to his sense of self. He seeks assurance from the father who has played too distant a role in his upbringing, by demanding to drive his Ferrari, even though he doesn’t have a licence. (Only in describing the chariot of the Sun as a Ferrari have I moved significantly away from Ovid’s text.) Phaethon, of course, cannot control the wild horses and the flaming chariot which constitute the (chariot of the) Sun, bringer of light and life to the world but also of fiery destruction when the delicate balance of the solar system is thrown out of kilter. The Earth catches fire (Met. 2.210ff) and great cracks appear as the juice is sucked out of her veins. Right from the beginning of the description, the Earth is subtly presented by this language as a living, female being. After many lines of conflagration, with a catalogue of rivers dried up and the Earth cracking open to expose the underworld (2.260-1), the suggestive humanisation of the Earth takes on explicit personification as a woman and universal mother (2.272ff). The Earth, Tellus, grammatically feminine as well as conceptually so, is described as alma, a word derived by ancient etymologists from alere, to nourish, nurture, and cherish. This word has entered into modern discourse in the phrase ‘alma mater’ to refer to the institution in which one was formed and educated.
When this nourishing mother Earth appears, she is seen giving refuge to springs of water which ‘have hidden themselves in the innards of their dark mother’ (2.273-4). In their commentary on this passage (Fondazione Lorenzo Valla 2005), Alessandro Barchiesi and Gianpiero Rosati detect an undercurrent of incest in the action of the rivers plunging into mother Earth. Given the frequent tragic undertones in the Metamorphoses and the extensive role of incest in Graeco-Roman divine mythology, this would seem not implausible. On the other hand, the image that springs to my mind is of the mother, be she human or hen or otherwise, shielding her terrified children who take refuge under her protection. In the context of the Australian fires, it even evoked for me the idea of the marsupial species, where young return to the maternal pouch at any sign of danger. Ovid, of course, knew nothing of kangaroos, but plenty about motherly protection.
The suffering Earth lifts up her arid face, shielding her eyes with her hand against the oppressive heat, and delivers a speech of complaint. It is addressed to the ‘thunderer’, the ‘greatest of the gods’, i.e. Jupiter, but it seems to speak to all those children of Earth who have been nurtured by her and repay her only with exploitation. Tellus complains that she can hardly speak because of the heat, her hair is burnt, and her eyes are filled with ash (2.282-4). Then she invokes the sexual-agricultural metaphor which has been so strong in Graeco-Roman myth, marriage formulae, and the history of science, indeed pervasive through European culture. ‘Is this the reward, this the honour that you give me in return for my fertility and my duty, when I bear the wounds of the curved plough and hoes and I am cultivated/harassed/exercised (exerceor) year-round, when I provide leaves for the herd, kindly nourishment and crops for the human race, and incense for you [gods] also?’ (2.285-9). Although the imagery may be ancient and pervasive, and hardly original or striking in its basic conception, the particular manifestation of it here seems to me to speak painfully to a human culture which is not living in harmony with its environment. Tellus stresses the violence of agriculture (she might prefer Charles Dowding’s no-dig methods of cultivation!), in language that, as often in Ovid, especially the Metamorphoses, exposes the violence also of sexual penetration on victims. On the other hand, this Earth is not just being ‘ploughed for the production of legitimate children’, as the engagement formula goes, but is of her own accord providing the nutrition required by gods, beasts, and humans. They did not have to wear her out in this way, and they should certainly not be repaying her bounty by this inferno.
You may feel that I am reading modern concerns into an ancient text, to which I would on the one hand happily plead guilty, as I do consider that texts have a life beyond the perception of their ‘original audience’, which in any case can never have been either single or stable. We might compare the case of Cypassis in Amores 2.7+8. This is the enslaved woman, Corinna’s hairdresser, who is tricked and bullied into colluding with the Ovidian elegiac speaker in a sexual deception of her mistress. There are three forms of hierarchical power-structures at work in the diptych, two of them (gender and class) potentially available to both an ancient and a modern audience, while the third (race: Cypassis is fusca, ‘dark’) has a substantially different meaning for a modern audience, on this side of American race-based slavery and the history of discrimination on the basis of skin-colour which continues to blight contemporary culture, than it would in the ancient world. This does not mean, however, that the poems are any less good to think with for a modern reader – rather, even more so. Indeed, the very fact that one aspect (race) in our response to the diptych is rather clearly different from the original can help to draw out the ways in which the gendered and status-based elements in our response may actually be more culturally dependent than we might like to think.
To explain my second answer to the accusation of anachronism, I returned to where I began. It is true that anthropogenic environmental degradation has speeded up to a terrifying extent over the last 200 years and that awareness of the situation has increased in the last 20 years, but there is evidence from 2000 years ago both of actual environmentally damaging human activity and of cultural awareness of it. I don’t myself know much about real agricultural practices in the ancient world, as opposed to literary representations and metaphors, but I do know that Ovid used the agricultural metaphor for sex in a context which depends on the notion of a need to leave fields to lie fallow in order to avoid the degradation caused by over-farming. In the second book of the Ars Amatoria, when the teacher of love is advising his pupil on the best way to keep a relationship going, he suggests that once you are sufficiently confident about the relationship to be sure that you won’t immediately be forgotten about, it can be a good idea to keep away sometimes – since, as the cliché goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. But the image Ovid uses is that of the fallow field: ‘Give it a rest: a rested field gives a good return on what is entrusted to it, and dry ground sucks up the heavenly waters’ (Ars 2.351-2). The thinly veiled evocation of the eroticism of the so-called hieros gamos of Heaven and Earth combine with the agricultural image of fertility to make the didactic point: excessive ploughing and cropping will degrade the field, literal and metaphorical. In discussing this passage, I am by no means romanticising the attitudes of the Ovidian speaker either as relationship-coach or as an environmental activist. I am simply indicating that even this most urban of ancient poets knows that if we are to enjoy the Earth’s bounty we have to let it recover.
The last issue I would like to put before you relates to the question of deforestation. I understand that there is a debate among environmental historians and archaeologists about the extent to which anthropogenic deforestation had a substantial impact on the ancient Mediterranean landscape, soil-fertility, and climate (more in the question of moisture-levels than actual warming). A good overview for those who are interested is the article of veteran (now late) historian Donald Hughes in the Journal of the History of Biology (2011), entitled ‘Ancient Deforestation Revisited’. TLDR (as the kids say): it happened. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is certainly not a manifesto for reforestation in order to combat climate change, but it does have a great deal with which modern tree-huggers can relate – and more seriously it does explore, imaginatively, the point of view of trees. In this fantasy world, trees are so far imbued with human characteristics is actually to be metamorphosed humans.
On the large scale, the landscape of the Metamorphoses is highly susceptible to major change brought about by anthropogenic (human, part-human, and anthropomorphic-divine) activity, not only in the extreme cases of the flood in Book 1 and the fire in Book 2, but also in moments such as the battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths. The Centaurs are frustrated by their inability to kill the miraculously impenetrable Caeneus by the normal ‘civilised’ means of spears, swords, or arrows, and so hit upon the idea of burying him under a pile of logs. In the space of a few lines (Met.12.511-13), the result is that the previously wooded mountains Othrys and Pelion are completely denuded of trees and no longer provide any of the shade which is so crucial to Mediterranean life – and poetry (for which it stands as a symbolic marker).
Piero di Cosimo ‘Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths’ (16th century)
Pre-modern deforestation might seem trivial compared with the current devastation of the Amazon rainforests, but in many historical times the needs of trade and warfare have had a substantial impact on environment such as ancient oak forests and others required for shipbuilding in the early modern world. In contrast to the environmental devastation caused by the Centaurs for military purposes, arboreal shade is miraculously drawn to a previously grassy hill, when Orpheus begins his long song which makes up most of book 10. A catalogue of trees, some of them explicitly metamorphosed humans with appropriate back stories, is drawn to listen. Poetry not only requires shade but even creates it.
On a smaller scale, trees have a special place in the metamorphic world of the poem. From the Heliades to Daphne to Baucis and Philemon to Myrrha and many others, trees constitute some of the most evocative and elaborate descriptions of metamorphosis, in which the affinity between humans and trees is extensively explored at the linguistic as well as symbolic level. Often the transformation seems somehow incomplete, in that the tree retains human characteristics: the daughters of Helios screaming in pain when their mother tries to release them from the bark which seems to be enclosing them but is in fact part of their very being the transformed Daphne still shrinks from the unwanted attentions of Apollo; and the pregnant Myrrha-tree writhes in silent agony until Lucina takes pity on her and enables the birth of Adonis from a crack in the trunk. Perhaps most immediately relevant to the modern ecologist is the story of Erysicthon in Book 8: this arrogant master orders his slaves to chop down a grove sacred to Ceres, trees whose boles measure span fifteen outstretched arms (8.748-9). Erysicthon is appropriately punished with unquenchable hunger until finally he consumes his very self. A better image of destructive human greed would be hard to imagine.
Alison Sharrock is Professor of Classics at the University of Manchester. With Alison Keith she edited the volume Maternal Conceptions in Classical Literature and Philosophy (published in 2020), and with Mats Malm and Daniel Möller she edited Metamorphic Readings: Transformation, Language, and Gender in the Interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (also published in 2020): her book Seduction and Repetition in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria 2 was published in 1994 by OUP. She gave the 2009 Stanford Lectures (published as Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence by CUP) and is the author of numerous articles on ancient literature.