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Locus Suspectus: Landscape and the Uncanny in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Miriam Kamil

Harvard University

The locus amoenus, ‘pleasant place’, has been recognized as a topos of Roman literature since at least the time of Cicero (De Fin. 2.107). Vivid and beautiful, the description of a natural paradise has an ekphrastic function, arresting the action of a story and orienting readers to a new scene or to a change in tone (Zeitlin 2013). Ovid’s subversive use of the locus amoenus has been well documented, as his apparently sublime spaces tend to warp into scenes of violence (Hinds 2002; Parry 1964; Segal 1969). In the Metamorphoses, what at first seems pleasant and familiar has the potential to become disturbingly alien and sinister.

In this paper, I aim to supplement the work on Ovid’s use of the locus amoenus by examining another landscape found throughout the Metamorphoses, which is in some ways the inverse of the former: at first strange and unwelcoming, a sense of eeriness arises when we realize the landscape is all too familiar, for our very emotions and experiences live there. The dwelling places of Envy (2.760-767), Hunger (8.788-808), and Sleep (11.592-615) each present a distinctly uncanny landscape, whose blend of familiar and unfamiliar produces an unsettling moment in the epic poem.

For example, the dwelling place of the Fury-like personification Hunger (Fames) is set in the foreign land of Scythia (8.788). The landscape is further otherized by its likeness to the Underworld, which is apparent from an intertextual perspective, as its retinue of resident malevolent personifications (8.789-791) recalls the Virgilian Underworld (e.g. Aen. 6.273-284). Among them is Hunger, whose proximity causes a nymph of Ceres to experience hunger pangs (8.811-812). The poet’s narration through the nymph’s focal point allows the reader to share in this experience. The sensation of hunger would have been especially familiar for the readers of Ovid’s day, many of whom endured a famine at the very time he was writing (Pliny, NH 7.46; Wiedemann 1975). Hunger is the means through which the landscape ceases to be unfamiliar, for she embodies both this known experience and the bizarre landscape. As the landscape is barren (sterilis, 8.789) and hard (rigidi, 8.797), so we see Hunger’s dry (arida, 8.804) bones and hard (dura, 8.803) skin. The conflation of landscape and character culminates in the description of Hunger’s empty belly as a locus (8.805), a play on the ekphrastic formula which opens this section (est locus, 8.788). By scene end, the foreign and otherworldly landscape has come to transmit the uncannily familiar experience of hunger to the reader.

In his essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud discusses literature which arouses a sense of unease in its readers. He offers as a Latin translation of “uncanny,” locus suspectus, or ‘suspicious place’. Freud defines this term as, “everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open,” (Freud 2003:132). This concept lends itself to these Ovidian scenes, in each of which a bizarre and uninhabitable landscape is refracted through an externalized depiction of what normally remains within, whether a feeling like Envy, a physical sensation like Hunger, or a solitary experience like Sleep. It is this blend of unfamiliar territory and individual experience that results in an eerie tone throughout these tales.

Through this exploration, I observe how Ovid constructs three vivid landscapes in such a way that produces a sense of what Freud recognized as “the uncanny.” Much work has been done on landscapes in the Metamorphoses and some on Ovid’s malevolent personifications Envy, Hunger, and Sleep (Lowe 2008; Hardie 2012), but never have they been considered in tandem or with the aid of this psycho-literary theory. The notion of a locus suspectus therefore supplements scholarly understanding of landscapes in the Metamorphoses.

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Ovid and the Constructed Visual Environment

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