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Ovid's viscera: Tristia 1.7 and Metamorphoses 8

Caitlin Hines

University of Toronto

Ovid was the first Latin poet to employ the word viscera as a metonymy for both wombs and children (Bömer 1976). While a number of commentators have remarked on individual instances of viscera, observing that the word appears in “charged contexts” (Knox 1995) and “for shock effect” (Fantham 1998), no one has yet undertaken a comprehensive study of these metaphors. Even Adams (1982), despite his detailed examination of Latin vocabulary for the womb (100-109), adresses viscera only briefly as “a vague term for the internal organs…applicable to the female internal pudenda” (95). This paper proposes a more nuanced interpretation of the significance of viscera within Ovid’s corpus by investigating a particular moment from his exile poetry in which a visceral metaphor activates an intricate web of intertextual references.

In Tristia 1.7, as Ovid recalls his impulsive decision to cast the Metamorphoses into the fire, he positions himself as an Althaea figure, a parent responsible for the destruction of his children: utque cremasse suum fertur sub stipite natum / Thestias et milior matre fuisse sororem / sic ego non meritos mecum peritura libellos / imposui rapidis viscera nostra rogis (1.7.17-20). Ovid’s self-identification with Althaea is all the more resonant in light of the narrative of Meleager’s death in Metamorphoses 8. Here, Althaea declares, just before burning the piece of wood to which her son’s life is bound, rogus iste cremet mea viscera (8.478); as Meleager begins to die, “he feels his viscera burn with unseen fires” (caecis torreri viscera sentit / ignibus, 8.516-17); finally, when Althaea commits suicide, she drives the fatal blow through her own viscera (acto per viscera ferro, 8.532).

The viscera-as-child metaphor first serves Althaea as a symbolic displacement of violence against the child onto the parent, a theme familiar from other Ovidian instances of visceral children (Canace’s newborn, Her. 11.90 and 118; Andromeda, Met. 5.19; Itys, 6.651; Myrrha, 10.465; Medea, Rem. 59). Meleager then experiences the pain of his own death in the same body part that his mother just appropriated—and so Althaea’s viscera (as offspring) have viscera (as vital organs) of their own. When Althaea then dies by a wound inflicted upon her own viscera (as womb), the site of the injury underscores her betrayal of motherly duty. Within this brief episode, then, Ovid deploys viscera with particular elasticity of meaning: blood and guts, the metonymic child, the visceral womb.

We return to Tristia 1.7, where intertext with Met. 8 renders the valence of nostra viscera peculiarly evocative: the scrolls are Ovid’s children, rendered visceral at the prospect of material destruction at the hands of their creator. In the act of burning a physical copy of his libelli (as visceral children), Ovid also sets aflame the viscera contained within that text—including all of the instances of viscera in Book 8, to which this passage directly gestures. As Meleager’s viscera burn with a hidden flame, as Althaea appropriates these viscera and pierces her own, the material volume on which they are inscribed burns around them. We begin to spiral into a visceral mise en abyme.

The narrative voice of the Tristia, then, in tying authorship to parenthood by visceral means, suggests that poetic composition, as a form of production, makes an author vulnerable in the same way that parents are made vulnerable by the creation of children. The act of composition is entangled in the system of violence that mars so many of the parent-child relationships of Ovidian myth. This episode in Tristia 1.7 and its ties to Metamorphoses 8 thus exemplify the intricate machineries of Ovidian viscera; the charged self-referential moment in the exile poem presents, through an intertextual triangulation of visceral wordplay, Ovid’s representation of Althaea’s filicide as a proleptic refraction of the troubled authorial relationship to poetic production.   

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After the Ars: Later Ovid

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