Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ovid's Metamorphoses: Deucalion and Pyrrha

Jupiter (Greek Zeus) has grown angry at the wicked deeds of mankind. Helped by his brother Neptune (Poseidon), he decides to destroy the earth with a flood. This is one of the great flood myths; you can see many other flood myths at Wikipedia.

The two survivors, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, then ask Themis, the goddess of law and order, for advice about what to do next. Deucalion and Pyrrha are among the most ancient members of the human race: Deucalion was the son of the Titan god Prometheus, while his wife Pyrrha was the daughter of the Titan god Epimetheus (brother of Prometheus) and his wife Pandora.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).


The Flood

Jupiter’s anger is not satisfied with only his own aerial waters: his brother the sea-god helps him, with the ocean waves. He calls the rivers to council, and when they have entered their ruler’s house, says, ‘Now is not the time for long speeches! Exert all your strength. That is what is needed. Throw open your doors, drain the dams, and loose the reins of all your streams!’ Those are his commands. The rivers return and uncurb their fountains’ mouths, and race an unbridled course to the sea.

Neptune himself strikes the ground with his trident, so that it trembles, and with that blow opens up channels for the waters. Overflowing, the rivers rush across the open plains, sweeping away at the same time not just orchards, flocks, houses and human beings, but sacred temples and their contents. Any building that has stood firm, surviving the great disaster undamaged, still has its roof drowned by the highest waves, and its towers buried below the flood.  And now the land and sea are not distinct, all is the sea, the sea without a shore.

The world is drowned

There one man escapes to a hilltop, while another seated in his rowing boat pulls the oars over places where lately he was ploughing. One man sails over his cornfields or over the roof of his drowned farmhouse, while another man fishes in the topmost branches of an elm. Sometimes, by chance, an anchor embeds itself in a green meadow, or the curved boats graze the tops of vineyards. Where lately lean goats browsed, shapeless seals play. The Nereids are astonished to see woodlands, houses and whole towns under the water. There are dolphins in the trees, disturbing the upper branches and stirring the oak-trees as they brush against them. Wolves swim among the sheep, and the waves carry tigers and tawny lions. The boar has no use for his powerful tusks, the deer for its quick legs, both are swept away together, and the circling bird, after a long search for a place to land, falls on tired wings into the water. The sea in unchecked freedom has buried the hills, and fresh waves beat against the mountaintops. The waters wash away most living things, and those the sea spares, lacking food, are defeated by slow starvation.


Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha

Phocis, a fertile country when it was still land, separates Aonia from Oeta, though at that time it was part of the sea, a wide expanse of suddenly created water. There Mount Parnassus lifts its twin steep summits to the stars, its peaks above the clouds.

When Deucalion and his wife landed here in their small boat, everywhere else being drowned by the waters, they worshipped the Corycian nymphs, the mountain gods, and the goddess of the oracles, prophetic Themis. No one was more virtuous or fonder of justice than Deucalion was, and no woman showed greater reverence for the gods.

When Jupiter saw the earth covered with the clear waters, and that only one man was left of all those thousands of men, only one woman left of all those thousands of women, both innocent and both worshippers of the gods, he scattered the clouds and mist, with the north wind, and revealed the heavens to the earth and the earth to the sky.  It was no longer an angry sea, since the king of the oceans putting aside his three-pronged spear calmed the waves, and called sea-dark Triton, showing from the depths his shoulders thick with shells, to blow into his echoing conch and give the rivers and streams the signal to return.

He lifted the hollow shell that coils from its base in broad spirals, that shell that filled with his breath in mid-ocean makes the eastern and the western shores sound. So now when it touched the god’s mouth, and dripping beard, and sounded out the order for retreat, it was heard by all the waters on earth and in the ocean, and all the waters hearing it were checked. Now the sea has shorelines, the brimming rivers keep to their channels, the floods subside, and hills appear. Earth rises, the soil increasing as the water ebbs, and finally the trees show their naked tops, the slime still clinging to their leaves.

They ask Themis for help

The world was restored. But when Deucalion saw its emptiness, and the deep silence of the desolate lands, he spoke to Pyrrha, through welling tears. ‘Wife, cousin, sole surviving woman, joined to me by our shared race, our family origins, then by the marriage bed, and now joined to me in danger, we two are the people of all the countries seen by the setting and the rising sun, the sea took all the rest. Even now our lives are not guaranteed with certainty: the storm clouds still terrify my mind. How would you feel now, poor soul, if the fates had willed you to be saved, but not me? How could you endure your fear alone? Who would comfort your tears? Believe me, dear wife, if the sea had you, I would follow you, and the sea would have me too. If only I, by my father’s arts, could recreate earth’s peoples, and breathe life into the shaping clay! The human race remains in us. The gods willed it that we are the only examples of mankind left behind.’

He spoke and they wept, resolving to appeal to the sky-god, and ask his help by sacred oracles. Immediately they went side by side to the springs of Cephisus that, though still unclear, flowed in its usual course.

When they had sprinkled their heads and clothing with its watery libations, they traced their steps to the temple of the sacred goddess, whose pediments were green with disfiguring moss, her altars without fire.

When they reached the steps of the sanctuary they fell forward together and lay prone on the ground, and, kissing the cold rock with trembling lips, said, ‘If the gods wills soften, appeased by the prayers of the just, if in this way their anger can be deflected, Themis, tell us by what art the damage to our race can be repaired, and bring help, most gentle one, to this drowned world!’

The human race is re-created

The goddess was moved, and uttered oracular speech: ‘Leave the temple and with veiled heads and loosened clothes throw behind you the bones of your great mother!’

For a long time they stand there, dumbfounded. Pyrrha is first to break the silence: she refuses to obey the goddess’s command. Her lips trembling she asks for pardon, fearing to offend her mother’s spirit by scattering her bones.

Meanwhile they reconsider the dark words the oracle gave, and their uncertain meaning, turning them over and over in their minds. Then Prometheus’s son comforted Epimetheus’s daughter with quiet words: ‘Either this idea is wrong, or, since oracles are godly and never urge evil, our great mother must be the earth: I think the bones she spoke about are stones in the body of the earth. It is these we are told to throw behind us.’

Though the Titan’s daughter is stirred by her husband’s thoughts, still hope is uncertain: they are both so unsure of the divine promptings; but what harm can it do to try?

They descended the steps, covered their heads and loosened their clothes, and threw the stones needed behind them. The stones, and who would believe it if it were not for ancient tradition, began to lose their rigidity and hardness, and after a while softened, and once softened acquired new form. Then after growing, and ripening in nature, a certain likeness to a human shape could be vaguely seen, like marble statues at first inexact and roughly carved. The earthy part, however, wet with moisture, turned to flesh; what was solid and inflexible mutated to bone; the veins stayed veins; and quickly, through the power of the gods, stones the man threw took on the shapes of men, and women were remade from those thrown by the woman.

So the toughness of our race, our ability to endure hard labour, and the proof we give of the source from which we are sprung.

Next: Io



(1400 words)



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