Tracing Changes in Pythagoras' Speech in Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Tracing Changes in Pythagoras' Speech in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Change in Ovid, as well as in life, seems to be the only constant. Change is the subject of the Metamorphoses and Ovid's purpose in recounting myths is established from the very beginning: "My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms... with a poem that runs from the world's beginning to our own days" (1.1-4). From this foundation, Ovid launches into his stories, using metamorphosis more as a vehicle for telling his stories than as an actual subject matter. Although he retells religious myths, Ovid is not writing a religious manuscript. Rather, the product is a work of literature. Ovid is conscious that he is writing literature, not religion, and implied in his intention to tell "of bodies changed" is also to demonstrate how skillful he can retell these stories. Ovid could have dealt with the metamorphoses theme in a philosophical manner, but philosophy seems out of place in this rich literary work. For this reason, the speech of Pythagoras in book fifteen seems to be an odd shift in tone. Using Pythagoras as a mouthpiece, Ovid's playful narrative abruptly turns into a long diatribe against meat eating. Given the informal nature of the previous fourteen books, this scene seems out of place. But the Pythagorean episode is not without its purpose. Pythagoras' speech on the nature of metamorphosis is Ovid's way of contrasting his own eloquent style of narration in the Metamorphoses.

By contrast, Pythagoras' speech is a rather dry oration. It is a reminder on Ovid's part of what the Metamorphoses would have been had he concentrated on metamorphosis as an actual subject rather than a literary vehicle.1 Unlike Ovid's oth...

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... part, immortal, will be borne above the stars; my name will be remembered... I shall be living always" (15.867-879). This is a highly ironic ending, especially since in the Pythagorean episode, Ovid has asserted that nothing save the soul is immortal. Ovid seems pretentious to assert that his poetry will be "immortal." But we have not read the Metamorphoses correctly if we take this seriously. Ovid's tone is tongue-in-cheek in a large majority of his poem, and it be would out of character for him to assert this. It is a bit of subtle humor on Ovid's part. Humorous or conceited, Ovid so far has proven to be correct.

1 Karl Galinsky, Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects, University of California Press, 1975, p 106.

2 Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., Philosophy Before Socrates, Hackett Publishers, 1994, p 81.

3 Galinsky, 48.
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