Zooming in on Ovid's acount of the Great Flood

Second installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Fresco of poet Ovid
Ovid artfully wove telling details into his poem.
It is up to us to notice them, if we would
understand the poem.
(If you haven't read the first installment, find it here.)

Reading, like so much of life, is all about seeing what is to be seen — not only what is visible in a cursory glance, but also patterns that lie beneath the surface to give meaning to the words, not to mention all sorts of little hints and clues “hidden in plain sight,” which provide an extra level of enjoyment and meaning to the attentive reader.  So now that we've looked at Ovid's general poetic purpose in writing Metamorphoses, it’s time to take a close look at the episode in which he describes a great flood that destroyed all living things in the ancient world, to see if we can discern the details that can tell us the meaning of this episode within the poem as a whole.

I frequently walk along the shore of the lake shore near my home. I enjoy both the panorama of the vast lake and its farther shore, as well as the fine details of the wildflowers that surround me as I stroll. With the passing of the year, the view is constantly changing, so there is always something new to notice. Usually I carry a camera with me, to take pictures of anything that looks new, unusual, or just interesting. Often, when I upload my photos to my computer and look at them on the monitor, I am startled to see that my camera has captured things that I never noticed with my naked eye, thanks to the 24X zoom lens.

When I looked at Utnapishtim’s account of the great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, I began with a panoramic view of the poem and then “zoomed in” to see how Utnapishtim’s story fitted into the larger story of Gilgamesh. Ovid’s Metamorphoses requires a different technique, I believe. The poem is what Aristotle would call an episodic story, a string of discrete event with no real temporal or causal connection. There is neither a clear plot nor an identifiable protagonist. The story of the great flood that destroys (almost) all mankind is merely one tale of transformation amongst many others. Therefore, I propose first to zoom in to look at the flood episode, and then slowly to widen the focus to see what meaningful connections can be found between this episode and the rest of the poem.

The flood account appears in the first of fifteen books (i.e., chapters or sections) in the poem. Book I starts with the creation of the world and its creatures by an unnamed god, and ends with the introduction of Phaethon, a young demigod. The story of the Great Flood occupies the middle of the book, ll. 177-437, describing an event that occurred back near the dawn of time. There is no no surviving witness  like Utnapishtim to tell the tale or interpret it for us, so we will have to pay close attention to how the poet invests that event with meaning.

Jupiter’s wrath and destruction, a new race of Man

The story begins with Jupiter’s anger. Jupiter (Zeus) calls the other Olympian gods together in council to tell them that he is worried that humans should not have been allowed to rule the earth. He is especially outraged that one man, Lycaon, behaved barbarously toward him when Jupiter visited him in human guise. Although he has already punished Lycaon by turning him into a wild wolf, Jupiter says that the entire human race must be destroyed. The other gods are equally outraged at Lycaon’s behavior, but many of them doubt the wisdom of destroying the entire race of Man, since this would leave the gods without worshipers, and would allow wild beasts (such as the one Lycaon has become) to roam the world freely. Jupiter placates them by assuring them that all will be put right.

Le déluge, by Léon Comerre (alt.)
Ovid's description of the flood inspires pity and horror.
Jupiter’s first idea is to rain down his trademark thunderbolts, but then he recalls that the world is destined to end in fire — he doesn’t want to bring about the end of the world, just to cleanse it of man's stain. So he decides that water will be a safer means of destruction, and therefore orders the various gods of wind and water to create a great deluge that will drown all humankind. Rain  pours down from heaven, but the seas and rivers also rise up and overflow the earth. Soon it is as if there were no earth, just a boundless ocean.

Ovid provides a pitiful description of the ravages of the flood. Men and beasts alike desperately, but fruitlessly, try to escape the rising waters. Houses, ships, crops are destroyed by the relentless deluge. Not only Man but all his works are destroyed, and the world is cast into confusion. Even the most powerful of beasts are helpless, and those people who manage to cling to trees and mountains above the floods die a slow death of starvation. When Jupiter sees that only two mortals survive — and these are decent, pious folk — he orders the waters to recede. Thus aged Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, in a small boat, find themselves lodged in the heights of Mount Parnassus. (Technically, these two are demi-gods, half-divine offspring of immortal Titans.) But when they realize that they alone of all humankind have survived — and that apparently by chance — Deucalion becomes despondent. They are old and all alone in the world and, unlike their immortal sires who could fashion creatures from the clay of the earth, they have no means of producing offspring.

By mysterious means, Deucalion and Pyrrha
bring forth a new race of man.
As they wander the mountaintop on which fate has cast them, the two chance across the abandoned shrine of a local deity, Themis. They promptly prostrate themselves, crying out to the goddess to help the devastated world by telling them how they can produce progeny to restore humankind. She responds with an oracular utterance which, like all oracles, is disturbingly ambiguous: they must leave the sacred precinct with heads veiled and robes ungirt, casting behind them as they go the bones of their great mother. This gives them pause — it would be sacrilege to disturb their mother’s grave, even if they could find it. That being so, they reason, it must not be what the oracle meant, for no god would ever instruct them to commit sacrilege. Deucalion guesses that by “your great mother” Themis must have meant Mother Earth. Her bones, then, would be stones.

With this as their working theory, they decide it won’t hurt to try. So they leave the temple, loosen their clothes, cover their heads, and toss some stones behind them as they go. The stones that Deucalion tosses — mirabile dictu! — turn into men, and those of Pyrrha are transformed into women. Ovid describes in detail how the miraculous transformation occurs, the stones gradually changing shape and then softening into human flesh, and he even ends the description with a little moral: the new race, thus created, is tough and durable like the stones from which they are formed.

Once the new race of man has been generated, the Earth herself spontaneously generates other kinds of creatures. The description of these other new living things, however, is not so magical.
Earth spontaneously created other diverse forms of animal life. After the remaining moisture had warmed in the sun’s fire, the wet mud of the marshlands swelled with heat, and the fertile seeds of things, nourished by life-giving soil as if in a mother’s womb, grew, and in time acquired a nature. So, when the seven-mouthed Nile retreats from the drowned fields and returns to its former bed, and the fresh mud boils in the sun, farmers find many creatures as they turn the lumps of earth. Amongst them they see some just spawned, on the edge of life, some with incomplete bodies and number of limbs, and often in the same matter one part is alive and the other is raw earth. In fact when heat and moisture are mixed they conceive, and from these two things the whole of life originates. And though fire and water fight each other, heat and moisture create everything, and this discordant union is suitable for growth. So when the earth muddied from the recent flood glowed again heated by the deep heaven-sent light of the sun she produced innumerable species, partly remaking previous forms, partly creating new monsters. (I:416-37, A. S. Kline translation)
 This description is based on the natural philosophy of Ovid’s day, and is therefore intended as a “scientific” explanation of how the earth was repopulated with all sorts of living creatures — including monsters such as Python, an snake so enormous that it covered a mountaintop, so poisonous that Apollo himself has to kill it with his arrows. Thus the flood account gives way to the next episode of transformation.

Details worth noticing

Poetry, like Nature, rewards the careful observer.
(Can you see the tiny grasshopper? Neither could I,
until I zoomed in.)

As we begin to think about what Ovid is trying say with this tale, we can start by noticing how this story of the Great Flood differs from the more ancient one in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The first significant difference is that Ovid, unlike the Gilgamesh poet, provides a motive for the destruction of mankind. The Gilgamesh poem doesn't attempt to conjecture what brought on divine wrath, saying simply, “The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood.”  In the Metamorphoses, on the other hand, a single god, the greatest of them all, Jupiter, is moved to destroy humankind, and he easily persuades the other gods to help in this endeavor, despite the misgivings of some of the others.

Utnapishtim said that some of the gods, after the fact, saw the problems stemming from the destruction of the human race, but only was because humans were, for the Mesopotamian gods, a kind of slave race that catered to their needs. In Ovid’s account the Olympians do not “need” mortal man, although they do enjoy the fragrant sacrifices that humans offer them. Yet some of the gods upset by Jupiter’s plan of destruction recognize that the world needs humankind even if the gods do not. Why? To govern the earth. Even Jupiter himself seems to acknowledges the beneficial role played by mankind, for he reassures his fellow deities with a promise that the destroyed race will be replaced.

The need for the human race

If we have read the poem from its beginning, we will understand why mankind was deemed, in some way, “necessary.” The early lines of the poem describe how, in the beginning, some unnamed god created the ordered Cosmos not ex nihilo (as Christians believe) but by creating order out of chaos (chaos, in this sense, is unformed primal matter). Chaos, before the divine touch, was not really “something,” it simply had the potential to become something.

This chaotic, unformed matter was a seething mass, in which various potentialities strove against one another. The creative act of the god was to give that chaotic matter form, allowing it to fulfill its potential, and order, ending strife. Thus the creator transforms primal matter into light and dark, earth and sky, seas and dry land. The winds are separated and sent to their corners, and the stars twinkle in the heavens as the gods take their places. Then the Earth is filled with creatures of the sky and sea and land. Finally, the creator takes the clay of the earth and fashions the first man:
But one more perfect and more sanctified,
a being capable of lofty thought,
intelligent to rule, was wanting still
man was created! Did the Unknown God
designing then a better world make man
of seed divine? or did Prometheus
take the new soil of earth (that still contained
some godly element of Heaven's Life)
and use it to create the race of man;
first mingling it with water of new streams;
so that his new creation, upright man,
was made in image of commanding Gods?
On earth the brute creation bends its gaze,
but man was given a lofty countenance
and was commanded to behold the skies;
and with an upright face may view the stars:
and so it was that shapeless clay put on
the form of man till then unknown to earth. (I:76-88, Brooks More, trans.)
So man was made “in image of commanding Gods”; this is why men stand upright with “lofty countenance” to “behold the skies” and “view the stars,” while four-legged “brute creation bends its gaze” toward the earth, in search not of transcendent truths but merely its next meal. In other words, men were given rational powers so that they might govern the Earth just as gods govern the Cosmos.

This is a distinctly Roman idea, one not found in Greek mythology. The Roman historian Sallust, for instance, in the preface to his history of the Catiline War, alludes to the connection between man’s upright stance and his rational powers, while Cicero in De Re Publica — specifically, in the surviving portion known as the Dream of Scipio — amplifies the idea that man’s god-given task is to govern the earth.

So it was to fulfill this noble purpose that man was first created. But the first race of man was fashioned from clay, and ultimately proved unworthy of the task of governing the world, since many men, like Lycaon, were hardly able to govern themselves. We might imagine, then, that this is why Man 2.0 is made from stone rather than clay. This is not, however, the explanation that Ovid gives; instead, he says, “[S]o are we hardy to endure / and prove by toil and deeds from what we sprung.” (I:414-15).

A fate larger than god

For the moment, let’s put aside the question of why the poet imposes this interpretation. We’ll come back to it in a later post. Right now I’d like to look at one other striking way in which this account differs from that provided by the Gilgamesh poet. Utnapishtim survived the flood because he had been forewarned by the god Ea, who instructed him in the means of survival. Deucalion and Pyrrha, however, get no such divine help. This is especially remarkable when we consider that each of the elderly survivors could boast of a divine parent, but either Prometheus (father of Deucalion) nor Epimetheus (sire of Pyrrha) helps them to survive, nor does any other god. The couple seems to have survived by chance, ill-prepared as anyone, alone in their little boat without provision.

But, one might object, Jupiter saved them, didn’t he? When he first announced his plan of destruction, he declared:
“Beneath my sway are demi-gods and fauns,
nymphs, rustic deities, sylvans of the hills,
satyrs;—all these, unworthy Heaven's abodes,
we should at least permit to dwell on earth
which we to them bequeathed.” (I:192-5)
He seems to be acting in accord with these words when he recalls the flood as soon as he notices that only Deucalion and Pyrrha remain, demigods both. Jupiter also reassured the other deities when he “promised them a people different from the first, of a marvellous creation” — and this is exactly what happens. Does this not prove that Deucalion and Pyrrha survive with Jupiter’s help, and for his purpose?

Perhaps his ability to see the big picture allows Jupiter
to remain ummoved by the destruction he has rained down.
Well, no, not exactly. Foreknowledge is not causation — Jupiter knew what would happen, but he did not cause it to happen. Although the greatest of the gods, whom none of the others dares cross, he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. More powerful than any other deity, he is not all-powerful — after all, he needs the cooperation of the other gods to create the worldwide deluge. And though he can foresee the outcome, his knowledge is not the same as control — he is aware of fate, but he does not cause it. Recall that Jupiter’s first idea was to destroy humankind with thunderbolts — but then he remembered that the world was fated to end in fire, and he feared being the one who would bring it about. Similarly, it would appear that he predicted the miraculous creation of a new kind of mortal not because he intended to make it happen but simply because he foresaw that it would happen. Jupiter is instrumental in allowing Deucalion and Pyrrha to survive the flood, but that is not to say that their preservation is part of any plan of his. Neither does he himself create the new human race — no more than he created the first one.

So who does turn those rocks into men and women — Themis? Again, I think not. Themis merely tells them what to do, but does not necessarily make it happen. Perhaps it is the unnamed demiurge, the anonymous god who first ordered the world out of chaos. We can’t know for sure, neither does the poet claim to know. It happens like magic, no explanation needed nor offered. A mystery, pure and simple. The world needed humans, so humans there were.

Notice, though, that while other species were spontaneously generated from the earth, the miraculous reinvention of mankind requires the cooperation of the two flood survivors. This is another significant way in which this story diverges from Utnapishtim’s tale. Utnapishtim and his wife were given immortality and then banished to the ends of the earth, while elderly Deucalion and Pyrrha remain mortal and are instrumental in the creation of a new mankind.

Meaningless without context

Ovid’s account of the Great Flood, taken on its own, seems to make even less sense than the story told by Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim had a clear message he intended to convey with his story — “don’t grasp at immortality, because it will not provide happiness.” He learned this the hard way, and wanted to spare Gilgamesh his own troubles. Ovid’s version is not so easy to interpret. Should we just accept it as merely one of many instances of transformation? If that were the case, then we would have to accept that the poem as a whole — which is, after all, one long string of transformation stories — is itself equally meaningless. Meaningless? Ovid would roll over in his grave if he thought we were going to dismiss his artful poem so cavalierly!

Next time: The poem as a whole -- how does the flood story fit in?

It looks, then, as if we are going to have to get some idea of the poem as a whole, and then figure out how the Flood story fits into that larger schema. That’s a pretty big task, which we’ll tackle in the next installment of our Adventures in Comparative Mythology. So let me reiterate the advice I offered last time: read at least all of Book I and all of Book XV, with a liberal sampling of the stories in between. You can find at least two good translations online, this poetic one and this one in prose. Read well and prosper!

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©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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