Year of Ovid 2018

This year is the 2000th, anniversary of the death of Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to the world as the Roman poet Ovid, one of the ‘mighty three’ along with his slightly older contemporaries Virgil and Horace. All rose to prominence under the first Roman Emperor, Augustus; Virgil died in 19BC, Horace in 8BC. Ovid was one of Augustus’ favourite poets, but in mysterious circumstances he fell from favour and was exiled to a remote spot on the Black Sea (in modern Romania), where he died in 18AD. His life therefore overlapped that of Jesus Christ.
Ovid’s writings include his immensely influential Metamorphoses or ‘Transformations’ which have inspired artists and others down the centuries and are a keystone of Western culture. They relate some 250 of the ancient myths of the intermingling of gods and humans.
Many of the humans are turned into other creatures because they offend the gods; Actaeon the hunter becomes a stag and is eaten by his own hounds, Acoetes the sailor sees his crew turned into dolphins, the weaver Arachne foolishly challenged the goddess Athena to a competition and was turned into a spider; the goddess Latona comes to a lake to drink but is driven away by the humans, whom she promptly turns into frogs. Others are treated as pathetic creatures, like Niobe who boasted that she had more children than the gods, and was turned into tears.
But others are transformed out of sympathy: the old couple Baucis and Philemon love each other so much that they dread being separated by death, so they turned into intertwining trees on a river bank; the unjustly treated Philomela is turned into a nightingale so that she may for ever sing her wistful song; Mestra the slave is given the gift of changing shape into any creature in order to escape.
All this comes from the Greco-Roman world. The Jewish world knows none of it. Moses causes a plague of frogs in Egypt, but the frogs aren’t former humans. The Nile turns into blood, but that isn’t human either. Even when Jesus transforms bread and wine into himself – his Body and Blood – this is a transformation that can only be appreciated by faith.
Nor does the Judaeo-Christian world believe in reincarnation, which could be called ‘Transformation’s little cousin’.
So what do we have, then? We have the gift of being transformed into humans fully alive, humans made into god(s), humans who are transformed into Christ: as St. Paul says, “we have the mind of Christ”.
That may be less spectacular than the versions in Ovid, but is more lastingly satisfying.