How to Read Ovid Without a Trigger Warning

In 2015, a group of Columbia University students said that works like Ovid’s Metemorphoses were “triggering and offensive.” No, they were not members of the Evangelical right-wing, the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, or Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles. But you’d think they would be from just that statement. 

I mean, there’s plenty of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll in Metemorpheses to scandalize anyone. Rape, incest, cruel treatmetns of humans for being all too human. In short, Metamorphoses reflects the cruelty and barbarity of the world at any give moment of history without any apology. 

The students who lodged the complaint were quite correctly denied. One of their fellow students, wrote “Ovid Had no Trigger Warning” about their complains and pointed out that Ovid himself didn’t get a trigger warning. 

Ovid, you see, died in exile. We don’t know why, but it’s largely suspected that Metamorpheses as well as some of his other work, had offended some very powerful people. Not because it was obscene, but because Ovid took jabs at the rulling classes, particularly Jove and the entire pantheon. 

Can’t have that, now can we? God(s) will not be mocked. Even if they are Ceasar Augustus. Right? 

Don’t assume you know Greek or Roman mythology. 

Unless you were exposed to Greco-Roman mythology early, don’t assume you know it. You’d be shocked at how much schooling and what’s considered “required” has changed over the past 30-40 years. 

When I was coming through school, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was on the standard reading list for my school district. I read Thomas Bullfinch’s Mythology––itself a classic in its own right. When were these assigned? Oh, about middle school or early high school. 

I grew up on on Greco-Roman mythology. I can still remember going to Blockbuster and rending the original Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts. This was also the time and age when Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules TV series was on prime time and Xena, Warrior Princess was coming out. Gladiator was a family-favorite movie.

So, when I read about Jove’s roving eye and Juno’s extreme revenge, I’m not all that shocked. At some level, I already knew these stories weren’t warm fuzzy kid stories. 

But if you’ve not had any exposure aside from, say, Harry Potter or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, then Ovid will definitely come as a shock. Even if you avidly watched movies like Immortals or the re-make of Clash of the Titans, you won’t necessarily be prepared. 

Depictions from mythology. Apollo and Daphne, as Daphne is turning into a laurel tree. Laocoon and his sons being attacked by snakes. Ajax carrying the body of Achilles.
Created with Canva. Upper left: Apollo and Daphne. Lower left: Ajax with the body of Achilles. Main: Laocoon and his sons attacked by snakes sent by the gods.

Don’t assume that because Ovid is telling these stories, he’s glorifying any of the actions. 

This is what makes a lot of people stumble. Ovid isn’t telling these stories because he’s proud of what Jove has done. Or Apollo, or Venus, or Juno, or any of the other mythical and semi-mythical figures in Metamorphoses. He’s not bolding rocounding how great everything is, and how superior the Romans are, and how far above men are to women. 

Read his text very carefully. He snipes at Jove more than a few times. He makes comments about punishments not fitting the crime, and the injustices the gods practice upon mankind. He shows and sympathizes with heartbreak, and exposes the laziness of the other gods, their lack of care for others’ feelings at times, and mourns with the fate of the luckless humans who fall prey to their clutches. 

He’s not proud. He’s showing the world for what it is and it’s not a nice Disney ending.

Rape, incest, mysogyny, and misanthropy have been part of our shared human experience for millennia. Ovid wasn’t the first to chronicle these phenomenon nor was he the last. He was displaying the world in all its horrific, violent, and hateful filth. 

Let’s face it, no one likes being patronized. Not really. So, don’t baby yourself when it comes to Metamorphoses. Assume you can handle it and then read boldly on.

Consider Ovid’s own trauma and how it’s like your own. 

We know from reading Shakespeare and Tolkien that both men had seen horrible things in their lifetimes. We know by Dante’s own fevered imagination as he traverses the afterlife that he too suffered. What can we know of Ovid’s suffering? 

Little is known of his life. We know he was married three times, only had one daughter, and that he was exiled in his 50s. He was tried by Ceasar Augustus himself and we don’t even know what for except that it was a “grave error” and that he claims to have seen something he shouldn’t have. 

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? 

Ceasar Augustus was many things, one of them being a very rigidly moral reformer. In the course of my research, I even read comments similar to the fact he was like Oliver Cromwell in some respects. The same Cromwell that closed the theaters thereby effectively banning Shakespeare, by the way.

Did Ceasar Augustus perhaps become offended by Ovid’s poetry and so exile him? But the fact that while Ovid was in exile, he grew more depressed and more desperate to return to Rome, should tell you the state of his mind. 

We know because he continued to writer letters and poems to Ceasar Augustus and Emperor Tiberius until his death, asking to be recalled to Rome. Asking if he could return home. 

Can you imagine if you were “cancelled” for expressing yourself? For displaying who you are? I should think that more than a few of you know what it’s like to be rejected from home and to never be forgiven for who and what you are. 

Makes Ovid sound a little more human doesn’t it? Perhaps then too, you’ll find the stories in Metamorphoses not full of inspiration, but at least of the sense that others before you have suffered similarly. 

Replica bronze status of Ceasar Augustus.
Created with Canva. Statue of Ceasar Augustus.

Ovid’s version of Greco-Roman mythology is very pointed in its attacks, enjoy it and look for the hidden barbs. 

Ovid’s title refers very specifically to how bodies are changed from one thing into another. But, unlike Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, these changes come about because of something the pantheon of gods did to human beings. Or to each other for that manner. 

The famed myth of Apollo pursuing Daphne against her will? The real reason why that took place is because of a disagreement between Apollo and Cupid. Cupid chose Daphne as the victim and then made sure she’d reject Apollo regardless of how he wooed her. Sounds fairly twisted, doesn’t it? 

Just wait until you read what Juno does to any nymph or human who happens to catch Jove’s eye. She doesn’t blame him–she blames the girls involved and takes out her revenge on them. As if they’re powerless to refuse Jove in the first place. Who would refuse the so-called King of the gods? Could you, even?

From the time Jove ascends the throne of heaven in the Silver Age, there’s very little good said about him or his actions. In fact, it’s his overthrowing Saturn that ends the Golden Age, according to Ovid.

These aren’t just tales. There’s veiled commentary in them about religion, the gods, and the rulers and, yes, also of human nature.

And we cannot help but be human in any time or age, now can we?

OVID AMONG THE SCYTHIANS, Eugene Delacroix. This is a painting depicting Ovid during his exile on the shores of the Black Sea.
Created with Canva. OVID AMONG THE SCYTHIANS, Eugene Delacroix.

Don’t shy away from older translations. 

Still don’t relish the thought of Jove forcing himself on nymphs and the horrific punishments Juno inflicts on the girls afterwards? Who would, right? 

This is also where, I think, we need to lean on earlier translations. Our forbears romanticized certain portions, not to make the acts any less heinous but to make them more bearable. 

Do you want to read about rape in detail? I don’t. I don’t think rape victims want to relive it either. So why are we so focused on the grisly details? 

This was may main issues with Game of Thrones–it was just too depressing and too focussed on gore. It’s also why I don’t care for Steinbeck. Why are you resorting to the baser details of living? Who wants to read any of that? 

The most recent translation I have is from the 1950s. It doesn’t leave out the main details of the stories but it’s no where near as graphic as some of the books out there on the market now. It’s not even as graphic as a Steinbeck novel. 

And if you can take Colleen Hoover or Game of Thrones, then you shouldn’t have any problems with Metamorphoses. 

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3 thoughts on “How to Read Ovid Without a Trigger Warning

  1. Great post, Kathleen. I grew up with the old school texts like Bullfinch too, though only with excerpts of Ovid. I’m pleasantly surprised that the Columbia students were rejected. It seems that univ. admin. cave-ins these days are abject and rapid. It’s depressing to see how ludicrously misnamed “progressives” are more successfully at purging literary history than the conservative censors of the previous generation. The whole point is to glimpse the bygone age with all its good, bad, and ugly. At least that’s the take of this old progressive (by the def of the term circa 1963-2011). Some of my friends disagree, but I still love them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That surprised me too. But then, this was 2015. If they made the same petition today, I have no doubts they’d succeed. It’s sad because it’s exactly the same authoritarianism used in cults like IBLP and FLDS and the more rigidly religious. Even the same levels of ignorance are involved with the same level of heinousness. You cannot preach to people about being enlightened or holier if you don’t allow them the very tools to help them become so or to understand their being in a wider context.

      Thanks for reading, Gary, and for your feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

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