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Somnium Ovidi: Dreams and the Metamorphoses

Aaron Kachuck

Trinity College, Cambridge

This paper argues that dreams are central to the structure, style, and program of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Although recent scholarship (Tissol (1997), Hardie (2002), Von Glinski (2012), Lévi (2014)) has emphasized individual dreams’ functions as poetic metonymies, this work demonstrates that, when taken as a joined set, and when viewed in light of the role of dreams in the Greco-Latin epic tradition, Ovid’s dreams serve as privileged vehicle for this song of changed forms.

Following a brief review of how dreams helped structure Greek and Latin epic, and a survey of prophetic and divine dreams that one finds in Ovid’s Metamorphoses bks. 1-8, the paper shows that the incestuous dream of Byblis (9.468-517)—the Met.’s first wholly human dream—marks a structural turn from mythical to human history. By this ream’s placement, Ovid takes up Virgil’s own anticipated epic “from Tithonus to Caesar” (Vir. Geo. 3.46-8). It is significant, as well, that the beginning of human history (after the Seven Against Thebes, in the midst of the Minoan thalassocracy and on the cusp of the Trojan War) is marked not only by the first “human” dream, but, as well, by the first of the Met.’s stories focused on writing: Byblis not problematizes the utility of writing but, in her final retreat to Byblos, embodies literature’s fons et origo (in a literally liquid sense), rendering her a textual counterpart to the Muses’ Hippocrene.

From Byblis’ anthropocentric dream at one side of the Metamorphoses’ midpoint, this paper turns to that point’s other side, where Ovid’s poetic persona is mediated by the figure of Morpheus, an apparently Ovidian addition to the mythological cosmos. This divinity, “the artisan and simulator of appearance (artificem simulatoremque figurae— 11.634)”, serves, it has been noted (by i.a. Tissol (1997 pp. 79–81) and Von Glinski (2012 pp. 130–41)), as a mirror of Ovid, the poet of the Metamorphoses. A “master of mimesis” (Hardie 2002 p. 277), his very name, MORPHeus, predisposes him to be a rival to, substitute for, and master-figure of Ovid’s MetaMORPHoses (Ahl (1985 pp. 59–60)). Unlike his close kin, Icelos/Phobetor and Phantasos, who “become” (fit) animals and “pass into” (transit) soulless objects respectively, Morpheus’ magic works by his making himself into “a kind of moving work of art” (Hardie 2002 p. 136), that is, by a making that is implicitly a self-making.

Finally, this paper turns to the structure of the Met., and, in particular, the connections between the poem’s prologue and the variously divine dreams of Met. 15. This, the poem’s final book, opens with an inverted Aeneid plot (planting “Greek walls in Italy”) initiated by the divine (Herculean) dream of Myscelos, which in turns gives way to the (dream-like) discourse of the arch-dreamer Pythagoras: just as Pythagoras at the book’s beginning (15.60-74) travels (by mind, not body) into the celestial stratosphere, so too Ovid, at the book’s end, foresees his non-corporeal journey (parte…meliore mei—15.875) atop the highest stars and beyond the reach of threats material (iron, fire, time) and divine (Jupiter’s anger).

By reading Pythagoras’ dreams together with Ovid’s self-representation of poetic powers in the Houses of Sleep and Fame, and with the transmigratory implications of poem’s proem, this paper concludes by showing that the Metamorphoses as a whole is informed by the associative and self-fashioning logic of the dream: while it cannot escape the artful conditionality that the work’s final prediction leaves open, it still hopes to show Ovid as transcending even the aspirations of an Ennius to become a soul that carries itself into “new bodies in order to speak of changed forms,” a Tithonus freed, in the language of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, from the prison-house of a single body, and with a name more widely distributed, and more ubiquitously proximate, than even that of Caesar, who, in death, favors his petitioners, but from afar (15.870 faveatque precantibus absens).

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After the Ars: Later Ovid

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