Hysteria passio

Mary Lefkowitz, Medical Notes, "THE WANDERING WOMB," The New Yorker, February 26, 1996, p. 194

For women, certainly, anatomy is destiny. Not so much because of what they lack as because of what they possess, which is to say wombs, vaginas, breasts: the female reproductive system is a weakness of both the body and the mind. That, at any rate, is how men seem to have thought of it for millennia. At the beginning of this century, male educators argued that women would injure their wombs if they studied Greek or mathematics. Ancient doctors believed that the womb could move about in a woman's body, putting pressure on other organs and so causing serious illness, and even death... Tells about Egyptian beliefs of 1900 B.C.: a woman who was unwell was said to be "womby"... How could such diseases of the womb be cured? According to 4th century Hippocratic doctors, there were two viable courses of treatment. One was sexual intercourse, especially if it resulted in pregnancy. The other course of treatment involved medication... Tells about various treatments, including sweet-scented vaginal suppositories, fumigations or vapors, animal excrement, and human excrement mixed with beer froth. Greek doctors prescribed cow or goat dung or bird droppings, often in combination with fragrant wine or rose oil (Cures derived from animal excrement are used today: a form of estrogen used in hormone-replacement therapy is extracted from the urine of pregnant mares... Even today, when wombs have stopped wandering, medicine tends to pathologize the vagaries of the female reproductive system, from menarche to menopause. Women of ancient times themselves looked back with nostalgia on the carefree years of their childhood. Who could blame them for dreading, in sickness and in health, the prospect of their womb-dominated years?


PRECIS: He is always already a captive of reptition.

Irigaray contests that the "outside" world and the cave are one in sameness. Both are representations of the other. The cave Socrates or Plato invisioned plays images of the world, through shadows, and in that way the images of the world are an adaptation of the cave shadow. As individuals, we must take into account both versions and see them as equal truths. The sun and the fire both produce light.


"The/a woman cannot be collected into one volume, for in that way she risks surrendering her own jouissance, which demands that she remain open to nothing utterable but which assures that her edges not close, her lips not be sewn shut" (240).

This provides a nice preface to the treatise on the Allegory of the Cave that follows.  Here Irigaray emphasizes the way in which a patriarchal society has limited woman's means of expression and experience by, among other things, incorporating both man and woman into the universal general term of "man."  To do so creates a sort of roadblock in language, one that prevents the female from accurately describing or quantifying experience, since it will always be done behind the screen of male-dominated linguistic metaphor.  She extrapolates on this to a certain extent, then, by talking of the inherent phallocentric nature of the allegory of the cave, and how additionally exposes "man's" obsession with reminiscence of the womb.

source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irigaray



Proteron is used by Irigaray to counterbalance the concept of hysteron in the equation of the originality of thought. Irigaray writes that we are destined to look forward and try to see what is about to happen, but when we are looking forward we are actually seeing something that has a history and is therefore part of an eternal circle of influence. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines proteron- as a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order (as in “then came the thunder and the lightning”). This can be related to Irigaray’s direct definition, “Proteron, defined as what is in front, is also earlier, the previous” (Irigaray 244). The irrational way of thinking highlighted by Irigaray is a good description of our inability to approach the process of influence as a cycle.

The path forgotten?

"the passage is forgotten"

Irigaray seems to argue that "the passage" from ignorance and knowing has been somehow glossed over by readers of Plato's Cave, proceeding to "explain" what this passage actually is and what its purpose is. But isn't the passage, from the veiled and illusory images seen in the cave to the knowledge of reality in the light of the sun outside the cave, isn't this the road that anyone who studies philosophy or related sciences walks? Even if we are unaware of it, is not everyone in the world somewhere between the depths of the cave and the light of the sun, on this forgotten path, with no one at either extreme?
It may be that I am misunderstanding something crucial, but I do not really get Irigaray's point on this matter.

Precis: Sarah Knoth

Irigaray has an uncanny way of finding the opposite of everything that Plato says in the Allegory of the Cave, yet she somehow says exactly the same thing; a talent I should learn. She seems to have this internal yet external conflict with the fact that Plato called the edge of ignorance a cave instead of a womb. She believes that women have been taken out of the philosophical picture and that it’s all about the men (iep.com ---link below). Honestly, I believe she has just made another excellent metaphorical version of Plato’s allegory. She does bring up some interesting thoughts about the origin of knowledge or if there is an origin; I found her idea about the “forgotten path” intriguing and how there is “neither outside nor inside, that is between the way out and the way in” (246). She writes about the process of negotiation in the path to enlightenment and perhaps finding oneself out of the in-betweenness. In this whole essay, I think Irigaray is trying to get across the fact that there is truth in everything and that we need to pay more attention to “representation” “repetition” and “images” in our, what she likes to call, our womb—our chest of knowledge. She says quite articulately that the world is the cave and the cave is the world. Perception is key. Even though she has apparent, distinct opinions about her own theories she still questions the authenticity of things such as this: “what is behind, and what behind is. Invisible.” In this case, she is talking about the men who technically cannot see what is behind them, but, with this quote, she says that “behind” is a relative place. I hope this makes sense, but it might be just as confusing as Irigaray’s writing. 




Irigaray uses the word "measure" in a couple of different situations placed next to each other, causing an interesting effect to take place. She uses the term "measure" in relationship to those who are prisoners in the cave and what their capabilities are. "A prison that these men can have no measure of, take no measures against, since they are restrained by other or like, chains or images of chains" (249). In this same sentence, the word "measure" is used not only as a form of measurement that the prisoners can take no "measure of it" but also as taking action against. When "measure" is used in close conjunction with the prominent images of chains, it connotes ideas of rising up against that which is holding you back. Irigaray's use of measure is interesting because she uses it with different meanings but plays those meanings off of each other with her word placement.

Phrase: "A phallic direction, a phallic line, a phallic time"

When Plato penned "The Allegory of the Cave," he had to have vagina on the mind, right? We'll never know for sure, but Luce Irigary, author of "Plato's Hysteria," dares to speculate just that. In "Plato's Hystera," Irigaray makes a bold assertion that the cave Plato was referring to could very well be referencing a woman's anatomy. Not only is the cave representative of a womb, the author states, but the path leading up and out is clearly a phallic symbol. "A phallic direction, a phallic line, a phallic time," Irigary writes, describing how the men are aligned in a straight line as well. Irigary's comment on the womb, which "has been forgetten," in the ancient allegory is an almost feminist reading of the text. The men are straining with genitals aligned without even realizing the instrument in which produced them, the "abortive" spawn that have been interrupted during the reproductive process and have never quite reached the light. They are continuing in the same place, the same line--a phallic line--and they will never break the hymen and escape unless they realize the importance of the device that conceived them (a woman) and mix the light and darkness of man and women to come to be higher beings. In this wonderful and interesting social comment, Irigary reiterizes woman's importance.

Luce Irigaray: The Wall

Irigaray's approach to The Cave goes into a discussion of walls in a few different forms. She begins with the wall of the cave, "which will serve as a backcloth" (245). She immediately continues her discussion of the ways in which The Cave is phallic, eventually leading her to discuss the wall as a hymen. She says that the wall is "never, ever, crossed, opened, penetrated, pierced, or torn" (249). I found her discussion interesting and surprising in comparison to Plato, for, in Plato, looking upward is meant as a way of extending one's knowledge. Irigaray's approach interprets ascending the cave as "Vertical. Phallic even" (247), so to say that the idea of the male is more prevalent in the cave, and the female knowledge is left out. The wall in The Cave was a screen for shadows, though we typically use walls to keep things from entering or leaving, and that's exactly the direction Irigaray is going with the backcloth, hymen, and diaphragm.

For those disappointed that I didn't relate the text to Pink Floyd, please accept this as my apology:

PRECIS: If it's a hole, it MUST be a vagina, right?!

In Irigaray's work, she makes an EXTREMELY detailed comparison between Plato's cave and the vagina. Step by step, she takes her readers through the 'cave', making absolutist claims that certain parts of the cave represent certain parts of the vagina. Irigaray goes into depth about the 'invisible' curtain in the cave that separates man's reflection from himself as the hymen. She does actually speak of mimesis occurring here with the reflection description, which seemed for an instant like a breath of fresh air away from her heavy comparisons. Of course, she seemed to make up for her absence from the vagina/cave comparison by then speaking of (what she considered to be) crystal-clear phallic symbols within the straight lines of the cave. Personally, I don't instantly think "penis" when I see a straight line. I also believe that, at one point in her work, Irigaray claims to have had some epiphany that the cave is not, in fact, a vagina, but is an inverted penis! Hopefully, I just suffered from a bit of confusion and did not follow her point there.

She also speaks of the cave/vagina as a place of light, of spectacular theatre, and a place of origin. I can, of course, see how the cave serves as a sort of "womb" for the child-like, innocent men inside it. These men have never seen the outside world, and they must be "born" into the light, in order to find knowledge. I'm not sure that Irigaray's ideas surrounding why the men are chained with the faces and genitals facing the front/back of the cave/vagina is dead-on, however. I thought she definitely became murky in her logic here.

Overall, I don't believe she makes any huge claim or fascinating theory. She compares Plato's cave to the vagina as if Plato himself OBVIOUSLY meant for his cave to represent the vagina. She is quite certain about about this, and leaves the reader with no room to disagree.

Theatre of the cave

Irigaray's essay "Plato's Hystera" takes a close reading of Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave," and makes the comparison of Plato's cave to a theater. The characters within the cave cannot breach the line between one another, but they can watch one another and assume a storyline. The cave, like the theater, allows for a certain amount of interpretation as well as makes for a certain amount of disproportion. "Here a theater, text, that has yet to reflect upon its perspective. Here the properties of the eye, of mirrors--and indeed of spacing, of spacetime, of time--are dislocated, disarticulated, disjointed, and only later brought back to the perspective-free contemplation of the truth of the idea" (253). Basically the cave is upside down and inside out and turns everything up on it's respective head before anyone has any idea what is going on, but like the theater, it has an origin and (hopefully) a purpose.

WORD: vagina

Vaginas are good. Merriam-Webster Online defines "vagina" thus,

: a canal in a female mammal that leads from the uterus to the external orifice of the genital canal 2 : a canal that is similar in function or location to the vagina and occurs in various animals other than mammals

Well, there you have it. Irigaray attempts to represent the cave in Plato's allegory of the cave as one of these. Men are invisibly chained to this canal and they orient themselves in only one direction, or aim, which is towards the back of the cave, thus continuously plunging into darkness and ignorance. The fire inside the vagina-cave gives the ever-ignorant men a false sense of reality and awareness, and they are too far inside to realize their light, the fire, is only a man-made representation of the sun, truth, and beauty, so they stay in the vagina all their lives.

This reading was gibberish to me. I apologize for my lack of academic contribution.

-Kip Carter

Precis Irigaray

Irigaray in her essay "The Speculum of the other Woman" criticizes and analyzes Plato's allegory of the cave under a very close reading. In the analysis, she takes certain liberties in using Plato's story as part of her own personal metaphor whose purpose is to further her own arguements and ideas. Given this, it feels like she is not using Plato's story to attempt to garner any truth from a reading of it, but rather is using Plato's story to fit in with her own metaphor that she. She uses which parts of it she wants to futher her ideas. Of these ideas, some interesting ones are ideas about the dichotomy between the two worlds. In the passage, "The Forgotten Path" Irigaray examines the separation and significance of the separation between the cave and the outside world. This can be read many ways, between good and evil, between the way men have been allowed to live and how women have been allowed to live, and light and darkness. The simple idea the the path leads in a straight progression upwards is not even safe from her critisisms, the path is considered of being "Phallic even?"

-Henry McDonald

Precis: The World is not always as it seems to be.

In Irigaray's Speculum of the Other Woman, she takes Plato's Cave and puts a brand new lens over it. Here the cave is meant to be seen as two things: on the one hand she depicts it as a replica of the world we live in, an artificial world. Irigaray quotes, "For if the cave is made in the image of the world, the word -- as we shall see -- is equally made in the image of the cave. In cave or "world" all is but the image of an image" (246). I feel like this is an important point because what does this say of the world in which we live in today? Perhaps the way in which we see the world is not necessarily by our own choosing, and if it isn't, how would we know?
On the other hand, and most importantly, she describes the cave as being compared to a woman's womb. Irigaray describes it as the "original/matrix womb" (244) which also lends itself back to the idea of an artificial world. In essance, she describes the cave where the men are chained womb-like, and only barely separated from the neck of the cave (a phallic image) by a thin curtain (hymann) inwhich the light (a fake sun represented by fire) can produce shadow images against the back side of the wall. This interpretation of the cave is a very interesting, not to mention very fruedian way of expanding on Plato's Hystera.

Science words like Speleology

Word: Speleology
OED: "The scientific study of caves."

Irigaray uses several scientificly-rooted words to describe and indeed support several of her claims that she admits are "impossible" to reconcile with the text that Plato gives us (243). Science--the "state or fact of knowing"--seems to be a far cry from "metaphorical projects" .... and theatrics, and fantasies, and fiction, etc. (243-257). Science seems more concerned with the truth of things--their origin--which is clearly one aspect, if not one of the central aspects, of Irigaray's work.

The cave, however (obviously), does not literally exist--at least, we cannot be in a "state or fact of knowing" that it does or does not exist, so it's not really science (maybe). But using scientific words is certainly convincing. I chose Speleology because I wasn't sure what it meant--but Irigaray uses other familiar words like topography (the "science of describing a particular place"), supposition, deduction, fission, "proofs of objectivity"--and even Speculum is defined as "a mirror or reflector used for some scientific purpose" (oed.com). I kept having to remind myself that this is a fictional place--it's "a place like a womb" that doesn't exist. While I'm not sure how much of this I comprehended, I still found myself convinced by the scientific words that I must trust for some naive and disappointing reason.

Precis: When Worlds Collide

Irigaray extends Plato's Allegory of the Cave into a Metaphor of the journey from the maternal womb towards the knowable father. Leaping over the wall to the paternal side of light, man is baffled by the wealth of truth he finds. He comes to see the cave, the womb, as merely shadows of an 'inferior' reality and soon despels and forgets it. Socrates saw the Light as the only pure reality. Irigaray counters that it is just a different reality, and by disregarding the cave, we distance ourselves of the opposite, equally valid, world of the maternal-cave. Instead of gaining the truth of both worlds, the symmetrical truths of male and female, according to Irigaray, we believe in only the male world of light. She argues that we undermine the maternal cave. We do not experience a camel for the first time when we see its corporeal presence in daylight. We already had an image of a camel by its shadow. Now we just have a different perspective of the same thing. Following such an idea, it is the maternal reality that shapes our interpretation of the world, regardless of the truth we imagine. Do not forget your time in the cave. Do not underestimate the value of female intellect. By integrating it with male knowledge, greater truths can be revealed to us.

Kalmar, Gyorgy. "The Gendered Other of Metaphysics." Central and Eastern European Online Library. 2002. University of Debrecen. 17 Sept. 2008 <www.ceeol.com>.

This Little Light of Mine

"It is a light that gives little light."

With regard to "the myth of the cave," Irigaray presents an important point about the artificial nature of the light that is present in the cave. When considered within the view that we are in fact the inhabitants of the cave, there are immense implications with regard to the way in which we view our own world. To assume that the description of the cave is intended to mirror our own world, it is crucial to ask, from what angle is our light shining? From what perspective is our world manipulated to represent? At the end of this particular section (A Fire in the Image of A Sun), Irigaray addresses some of these concerns by stating: “For if the cave is made in the image of the world, the world […] is equally made in the image of the cave.” Thus, it is not an individual perspective that shapes our environment, but one that is collective and reoccurring. As a result, to understand our world is to understand it as a construction, one that is both an original and a duplicate, altered by the light we chose to shine on it.


Pygmalion and Galatea

Jean Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890

Don't Look Back

Albrecht Dürer, Lot and his Family Flee from Sodom, 1496

Genesis 19:17
And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.

Repetition / Reflection

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903

Prometheus' Creation

Metamorphosis and the slide of the signifier

"the first explicit reference to an 'empty signifier' of which I am aware is that of [Roland] Barthes in his essay 'Myth Today' (Barthes, 1957). 

"Whereas Saussure [a structuralist] saw the signifier and the signified... as being as inseparable as the two sides of a piece of paper, [...]  poststructuralists have rejected the apparently stable and predictable relationship embedded in this model. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote of 'the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier'"  

From Daniel Chandler, Semiotics (NY: Routledge, 2002), 75


What is given (an a priori principle) in this?


WORD- Gravity

GRAVITY is discussed in length through "The Creation", though it is only referred to in name a few times. "...and after these were separated out and liberated from the primal heap, he bound the disentangled elements each in its place and all in harmony," (p 15-16, lines 31-34). This seems to be the moment of gravity's creation. According to "Gravity and Geodesy" in Science of Everyday Things, gravity holds earth's natural resources (water, land, etc.) in place. They also say that gravity is the reason the earth is round. So despite it's minimal acknowledgment throughout "The Creation", the entire story is arguably based around the creation and effects of gravity.

The Word: AETHER

Ovid uses the word, AETHER, repeatedly in his opening section referring to the creation of the Earth, specifically when discussing the skies. Ovid describes this AETHER as "fluid" (p.15, line 29), "fiery and weightless... leap[ing] to heaven's vault" (16, 34-35). The Oxford English Dictionary surprisingly redirects AETHER to "ether", defining the word as "The clear sky; the upper regions of space beyond the clouds; the medium filling the upper regions of space, as the air fills the lower regions". This is evident in Ovid's ensuing description of the distribution of elements, as "Air was suspended over all of this, / proportionately heavier than AETHER, as earth is heavier than water is" (17, 72-74, emphasis mine). This term serves as what we would now call scientific reasoning. Modernly, ether is known to be highly flammable, lending reason to Ovid's description as "fiery". In contrast, interestingly enough, the second definition the OED offers for "ether" is "As the element breathed by the gods; ‘diviner air’." Reading into both the ancient and modern definitions, the text suggests an aspect of fire to the gaseous element. Being that this element, in Ovid's text, exists only in the highest of the skies to be breathed by the gods, he suggests that humanity must succumb to beings of flame as higher... reminding us only that Iblis, from the Qur'an, was born himself of fire, complicating Ovid's reasoning.


In Metamorphoses, Ovid uses heaven in two different contexts. In "The Creation," "some god" makes order of the disoriented elements by separating them so that they may exist in their own environment. By this earth, the sea, air, and the cosmos took form. The first story refers to heaven as an opposing force to earth or as the OED defines it, "The part of the atmosphere above and closest to the earth's surface, within which humans observe terrestrial weather systems, flight, and other activity in the sky local to earth. Chiefly with allusion to biblical use." But this is not the only definition to which the word is prescribed. In "War with the Giants" the giants devise an invasion so that they may "rule in heaven by themselves" (21). This heaven is "the abode of the gods of classical mythology" (OED). The giants, and mortals, are in conflict with a celestial mass that their gods inhabit. The gods live in a world counter to earth, one that a human can never attain.


Ovid's "Metaphorphoses" is a retelling of creation and many other stories of human fault and triumphs.  In the first story called "The creation" he tells the story of how earth became to be what it is.  He theorizes though that the earth was nothing but chaos in the beginning.  Ultimately the gods brought order to the chaos so therefore man was able to inherit the earth.  The air, water, and winds all had to be separated in order for the planet to function.  He also says that the wind must be controlled at all times because when left alone it can cause massive destruction and damage.  
In the story of Narcissus and Echo he tells the story of a man who is so preoccupied with his own beauty that he condemns another woman without knowing.  Echo helped a bunch of nymphs escape so she was punished by Juno.  Juno took away her ability to speak coherently and not only repeat what she has already hear.  At this point Echo still has a body and isn't just a rambling voice.  Echo sees Narcissus in the woods one day and attracted to him she follows.  Her inability to express herself in conversation confuses and enrages Narcissus.  Their conversation embarrasses her so much she runs for the mountains where her body wastes away and is nothing but a voice now.  If Narcissus had realized that Echo had her speech problem in the beginning he may not have brought her so much shame that she allows herself to be exiled.
I think that Orpheus and Eurydice is a story about making deals with the devil and also not trusting your partner.  His wife does and he mourns for however long he thinks is appropriate and then immediately goes and tries to make a deal to get his wife back.  The only thing he has to do in order to bring Eurydice back is to walk away without looking back at her to see if she is following.  He can't do it.  He looks back and Eurydice is forced to die twice.  If he had trusted her completely he wouldn't have looked back and they would have gotten to start all over again.  He trusted the governor of Hades more than he trusted his wife.  His mistake lead him to live a miserable life in the mountains alone.
The most confusing tale of all of them is Pygmalion's.  He wants a woman completely pure of any kind of indecent, inappropriate behavior so he creates a fake woman.  He worships this fake woman so much he even buys her clothes, jewelry and showers "her" with gifts.  Rightfully so he calls her his Ivory Maiden.  I think the Ivory maiden part represents the statues pureness and chastity.  He asks the goddess to make her human and it really does happen. What I don't understand is why does he get everything that he wants? He is worshiping a statue that is so unlike anything on earth it's almost a goddess itself.  Is it because he does so with such  unwavering commitment?  I can't really understand the lesson or human flaws with his story.
I think Ovid's stories are little tales to explain a fault or flaw in the human race or to tell stories of warning.  I think they do so pretty well except for the fourth story that seems to be missing the underlying meaning that the others have.  

"PHRASE- Such is the discord between brothers.

Henry McDonald

..."For even now, with each of them in charge of his own kingdom, and their blasts controlled, they scarcely can be kept from shattering the world, such is the discord between brothers." - Proem, "The Creation

The story, or rather the question, of creation is an often exanined question. The story set forth by Proem here takes on the question in the form of story-telling. This story is filled with elements of the formation of the land, sea, and sky, followed by the creation of man, followed finally by the presentation of evil, malice, greed, and all things bad into the world as a result. What insight into the true natures of humanity are present in this age old story. The world was once a place where the earth knew no plow, where humans knew no war, but alas, humans can "scarcely keep from shattering the world. Such is the discord between brothers."


Since the stories in Ovid's Metamorphosis are mythological stories instead of writings that take argumentative stances, I decided that instead of reviewing a main argument it would be of equal importance to highlight the main point, or "moral" of one of the stories. The tale of "Orpheus and Eurydice" warns against impatience and being overtaken by emotions. In the story, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies at a very young age. Orpheus, who is in love with Eurydice, goes to the underworld and begs the powers to release her back to the world of the living. His pleading strikes a chord with the Gods so they allow Eurydice to return to life so long as Orpheus doesn't look back at Eurydice until they have reached the upper world. Ultimately, Orpheus looks back and immediately Eurydice floats backwards, back into the underworld. Orpheus wasn't able to control his emotions and longings to see Eurydice; he was unable to be patient. In the end, Orpheus has to endure the pain of not seeing Eurydice much longer than if he had just been patient and waited until they had reached the world of the living.

Indecent Aspirations

The crux of Ovid's argument seems to rest on the idea that human beings have, since creation, never been able to achieve 'godliness' and in their flawed nature as humans, always damn themselves or their neighbors. Since we are human, we are automatically "marked by hatred of the Gods, by cruelty and eagerness for slaughter." Like the race of giants whose remains come to form the shape of humans, our aspirations at greatness are forever stricken at the 'base' as Mount Olympus was. Narcissus, though not a mortal man, was punished for his behavior as one; for his pride and arrogance. Echo is punished for her attempt at misleading Juno, an immortal much greater than her. Pygmalion, though he is rewarded after a fashion (one could argue that he is deeply disturbed), it is for his rejection of indecent women that he is rewarded; for his rejection of humanness. He prefers a statue. Poor Orpheus, in his human desire to look back, is plunged into eternal despair, after failing in his one chance to please the immortals.

Phrase--Sarah Knoth

...Chaos was its name,
a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk
and nothing more, with the discordant seeds
of disconnected elements all heaped
together in anarchic disarray.
(pg 15)

Metamorphoses is a Roman poem of instructions on how to live one's life. I found this particular passage interesting because I like to compare creation myths, and this particular passage reminds me of Genesis, among others. The main difference I found between Genesis and Ovid's vision of the world was the noun he used in which to describe the world in which we live. He uses the word "chaos." I think this is a genius way to describe the world because it seems as though there is no difference in the way in which Ovid describes the world in the passage, eons and eons ago, and the world today. Many, I'm sure, would agree that today's world still has many "discordant" elements that people still refuse to agree upon. From the Crusades to the war in Iraq, we still live in a "disconnected" world. It is amazing to think that someone who so eloquently describes the creation of the world in its simple, chaotic mass of stuff that, in this same description, we can still find a definition of life today. If you are a reader who is pondering taking Metamorphoses off the shelf and into your hands for reading, then this is what I have to say to you: You are in good hands. Ovid uses unique language and relatable diction that allows his readers the chance to learn how to live a good, pure life. Ovid takes Metamorphoses as a chance to share with the reader mythological instructions on how to have a prosperous life, and he goes on to show you that life will remain chaotic if you choose to live it without making good, conscious choices. 

The Word: AETHER

Ovid uses the word, AETHER, repeatedly in his opening section referring to the creation of the Earth, specifically when discussing the skies. Ovid describes this AETHER as "fluid" (p.15, line 29), "fiery and weightless... leap[ing] to heaven's vault" (16, 34-35). The Oxford English Dictionary surprisingly redirects AETHER to "ether", defining the word as "The clear sky; the upper regions of space beyond the clouds; the medium filling the upper regions of space, as the air fills the lower regions". This is evident in Ovid's ensuing description of the distribution of elements, as "Air was suspended over all of this, / proportionately heavier than AETHER, as earth is heavier than water is" (17, 72-74, emphasis mine). This term serves as what we would now call scientific reasoning. Modernly, ether is known to be highly flammable, lending reason to Ovid's description as "fiery". In contrast, interestingly enough, the second definition the OED offers for "ether" is "As the element breathed by the gods; ‘diviner air’." Reading into both the ancient and modern definitions, the text suggests an aspect of fire to the gaseous element. Being that this element, in Ovid's text, exists only in the highest of the skies to be breathed by the gods, he suggests that humanity must succumb to beings of flame as higher... reminding us only that Iblis, from the Qur'an, was born himself of fire, complicating Ovid's reasoning.

Phrase: "May he himself love as I have loved him...without obtaining his beloved..."

"May he himself love as I have loved him...without obtaining his beloved..." (Ovid. Metamorphoses: Narcissus. Book III. Pg 106. Line 521-522.).

This curse, placed upon our dear main character of Narcissus, is, of course, a foreshadowing of the calamity soon to hit the vain young man. With the gods involved, he really has no chance of escaping such an interesting and (what they would have considered) entertaining fate, thought up by a mere mortal admirer. The phrase obviously is a cry to the gods from one of Narcissus' spurned, want-to-be lovers for Narcissus to suffer the pain of unrequited love, as he has made all of his admirers, both male and female, suffer. To "love as I have loved him" suggests that there will be an insatiable passion and depth to this love that Narcissus' admirer wants him to have to feel.

The importance of this passage lies not only in its foreshadowing, but also in its abstract quality. Although, at first glance, the phrase seems to perfectly explain what will happen - especially to one who is familiar with the story - the details are actually unclear. The phrase does not call for a curse of Narcissus loving himself. In fact, the phrase could actually call for Narcissus falling in love with some fair maiden with no reciprocal feelings for him. The curse even leaves Narcissus' love-sickness open to creatures or objects. Picture Narcissus in love with the hind end of a donkey...perhaps fitting for him. The point is that the phrase does not clarify what Narcissus is supposed to fall in love with - only that his affections won't be returned. A question to ask, therefore, is whether the decision to have him fall in love with his own reflection is wittily made by the gods, the fates, or a clearer statement that was perhaps made by the angry speaker of the curse.

If one studies the end of the phrase: "obtaining his beloved," the key word "obtaining" might stand out. To obtain something typically is used in reference to a non-living object of some sort, which could be one explanation for why Narcissus falls for his non-living reflection, rather than another person, deity, flora, or fauna. "Obtaining" something means to be in possession of it, so this word choice could also be seen as very odd. Since Narcissus is basically in love with himself, does this mean that he is never truly in possession of himself? If he cannot give of himself to someone who would love him, then it is possible that his true punishment is not simply to not be able to obtain his reflection, but to never obtain his identity. If identity could, in Narcissus' case, only be found by seeing how he could love and be loved by others, then his identity - the very meaning of himself - would never lie within his possession.

Phrase: What Comes Around Goes Around

"Nature displayed a single aspect only throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name, a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk and nothing more, with the discordant seeds of disconnected elements all heaped together in anarchic disarray" (The Creation 21).

In the beginning there was chaos, only to be described as a tangled web of disorder. Slowly the Gods detangled the mess that is chaos by division and responsibility allowing the settling of the beginning of Earth. However, once man took his first steps, the new world begun to steadily turn back unto itself. Slowly but surely through the four ages man went from innocence to corruption and Chaos makes a full circle and the Gods deserted man to a bloodstained Earth.


The Britannica Online Encyclopedia aptly identifies the modern meaning of "chaos" as having been "derived from Ovid, who saw Chaos as the original disordered and formless mass, from which the maker of the Cosmos produced the ordered universe."  

Beyond that definition nearly lifted directly from the text, the usage of the word chaos in the context of the reading reminded me a lot of the interpretations of stories of genesis/creation, relevant to chaos, that I was exposed to in CEUS-320 (Mongolian Buddhist Mathematics/Astrology) last spring.  In that perspective, chaos is thought to be the essential state of things, of reality.  Myths or stories of creation then act as metaphorical representations of man's ascent to cognizance and self-awareness, to the point where the phenomena that surrounds him is ordered and classified based on apparently universal perceptions.

The creation that Ovid writes of is but one of many examples of this idea.  Others include God's slaying of Leviathan in the Bible, the Babylonian god of order Marduk's dispatching of the dragon of Chaos, Tiamat, or even the modern theory of evolution by natural selection, where humanity gradually evolved from a primordial animal state into one of observation, manipulation, and rationality.

Reading the text in this context casts many lines in a light different from their literal meaning.  Lines 6-10 read: "Before the seas and lands had been created, / before the sky that covers everything, / Nature displayed a single aspect only / throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name / a shapeless unwrought mass of inert bulk."  Assuming that Ovid is speaking along the lines of the metaphor described above, he does not mean that the seas and lands literally did not exist, but rather, were all part of the formless and meaningless void that is the essential state of reality.  Chaos is then the representation of the unbreakable union of all that is.  

It was only after man's ascent into self-awareness, a journey spurred by any number of possible sources i.e. god, natural selection etc., that the concepts which are commonly used to identify phenomena regarded as "sea" and "land" began to exist.  It was the advent of these sorts of concepts, or reference points, that allowed mankind to navigate its way through a chaotic and formless reality, designating meaning and form, and inventing the previously non-existent notions of individual objects and ideas.  It was from this starting point, the beginning of man's ordering of chaos, the advent of organization and individuality, that the four ages Ovid describes could follow, leading to the state of the world and reality as we know it today.


Chaos is used in Ovid's Book I (pg. 15) to describe what the universe entailed before Creation. The OED defines chaos as (1) "a gaping void, yawning gulf, chasm, or abyss" out of which the universe was evolved (2), but the definition that comes to mind first nowadays is the OED's third definition, "a state resembling that of primitive chaos; utter confusion and disorder." Not only is this matter the "single aspect" that existed at the time, but it is personified with the name Chaos. This thing, Ovid suggests, was bumbling around with a complete lack of direction and very dangerous ingredients. Although the world--including humans--- had not yet been created, Chaos suggests that humans would sin (and therefore sin is inherent). Like the previous Creation stories, humans were set up to sin, even if there is no one direct punishment. Ovid writes that the "mass" of Chaos had "discordant seeds" and "disconnected elements" in "anarchic disarray." The mention of discordance and anarchy correlates directly to disobedience, so the elements that humans were created from (the dust and dirt that the Creation stories make us a part of) intrinsically persuade humans to later sin in the Four Ages. One would like to think that humans do have these elements, but choose to ignore them as much as possible.

Drowning in the aether? Not quite.

In The Creation, Ovid provides the reader with his views concerning the creation of the world. Principle to this view is that Chaos is comprised of conflicting elements. One of these elements is “weightless aether, a liquid free of every earthly toxin” (Book I, 93 – 94). As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, aether, or ether, is “The clear sky; the upper regions of space beyond the clouds.” As it is presented in The Creation, aether is directly opposed to the “denser air” (Book I, 29). That denser air is the air that those on earth breath, thus making aether what those in the heavens breath. Aether is also defined by the OED as “the element breathed by the gods; ‘diviner air’.” This definition further illuminates the contrast between air and aether, and it demonstrates clearly how aether is not for the mortal, but the immortal. It is no coincidence then that Ovid would be sure to state that the “fiery and weightless aether leapt to heavens vault,” (Book I, 34 – 35) or that it was free of “every earthly toxin” (Book I, 94) as it is in the most elemental form the air of the God’s (whichever ones they might be).

PRECIS: To err is only human

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, from "Narcissus and Echo" to "Pygmalion", there is a strong tendency to highlight human faults. However, though in each section a fault is pinpointed, a return answer of what could result, or what a person should be like, is written into the story. Echo used her tongue for the negative, to distract Juno, and is punished because of her deception and trickery. The moral, or lesson, to Echo's story is that one will be punished for deceiving and lying. Echo is not only punished through her restricted voice, but is further tortured by her unrequited love. Pygmalion's story describes the downfall of women and their "numerous defects" (350); a perfect woman is then given to Pygmalion by a goddess, as he will not give himself to someone unworthy and distasteful. Each of Ovid's myths tell a story about a fault which lies in humans and the ultimate solution for each. So while the stories appear to have a mostly negative tone to them, a moral is constructed subtly into each of the texts, whether through punishment, as with Echo, or through reward, as with Pygmalion. Ovid appears to believe the human soul is slowly degenerating, but he does seem to think that we can be pulled out of our downward spiral and brought back into a clearer and purer light.

The Dynamics of Metamorphosis

Book one of Ovid's Metamorphosis sets a precedence for the rest of the stories in that it illustrates a significant change that either affected human history or one that elaborates on their nature. The difference between the first story and the other stories, however, is that the creation of the Earth was not a changed instigated by punishment or retribution. The story of the four ages begins to describe change, or metamorphosis, less pleasant than the first. The Titans were punished by mother earth for their destruction; Echo is punished by Juno for her using her speech for negative means; Narcissus doomed because he scored admirers.  
So in Metamorphosis, change itself is dynamic, first resulting in the act of creation and later in the attempt to reconcile wrongs committed afterward.

Phrase: "A Face That is Uplifted"

"And even though all other animals
lean forward and look down to the ground,
he gave to man a face that is uplifted,
and ordered him to stand erect and look
directly up into the vaulted heavens
and turn his countenance to meet the stars;"
(The Ovid, 118-123, p18)

The phrase "a face that is uplifted" could be taken one of two ways, one positive, one negative. The positive spin on the idea of an uplifted face is one that deals with aspiration. Man is meant to rise above the other creatures of the earth, who "look down to the ground." This superiority is enforced by the idea of man's unique order to look to the stars. Man is meant to aspire to great things that will put him on level with the stars, and perhaps the gods themselves.

The more negative side of this phrase could be construed as a bit more subservient. In many Greek/Roman myths that deal with the early life of man, humans were looked down upon, denied even the boon of fire. Man's only use to the gods was worship and tribute. Because of this, the phrase "a face that is uplifted" could mean that man, being more intelligent than the other creatures of the earth, is meant to look primarily to the heavens and think primarily of the gods. In a manner of speaking, man is meant not to think what the gods can do for them, but what they can do for the gods.

PRECIS: Creation from chaos vs. Creation from language

In book one of the Metamorphoses Ovid tells a creation story. In that story a god creates the earth from out of a mass of chaos. To do this, he separates the elements from one another. Earth is separated from heaven, the sea from the earth, and fluid aether from denser air. These "disentangled" elements are then bound in their places and harmony is achieved.

This creation story differs from the one found in Genesis in several ways. One interesting difference is that the God in Genesis calls the elements into existence, by saying, for instance, "Let there be light" (1:3). In the Metamorphoses the elements are already in existence and only need to be separated and properly ordered. This calling into existence, along with Adam's naming of the animals, puts an emphasis on language which is not present in the Metamorphoses. Language is given divine power in Genesis, as it is the means of calling things into existence. In Ovid's creation story separation seems to have divine power, as it is how harmony is achieved among the elements.

Which is more impressive, creating the universe by calling things into existence or putting a mass of chaos into order and harmony?

Precis: You reap what you sew

With all the issues that man faces today, one can only wonder where these predicaments started, and was it our doing? People today are consumed with the need for power and money. We are faced with Global Warming and a failing economy. Most people are only concered with themselves and what they can do to get more of what they want. Ovid writes, "No rake had been familiar with the earth, no plowshare had yet wronger her; untaxed, she gave of herself freely; providing all essentials. Content with food acquired without effor, men gathered fruit from the arbutus tree, wild strawberries on mountainsides, small cherries, and acrons fallen from Jove's spreaking oak" (19). Everything we needed to survive was given to us in the beginning. Sure, there would be no ammenities or life's finer things, but there would be the tools needed to survive. That leaves the question: Have we brought all of this onto ourselves? Are all of the troubles and turmoils that face us, something that could have been avoided? I feel we have all reap what we have sewn.

"art concealed artfulness"

Unattracted to the 'sordid indecency' of women, Pygmalion creates an replica of a woman in the image he believes she should be. He removes her physical flaws and the "defects of character Nature had given the feminine spirit" until she is the mirror of perfection. Representing the woman Pygmalion yearns for so completely, his imagination begins to take over, and leads him to question whether she is in fact real. His art is so much more beautiful than the truth he knows that he wishes for his art to be true, and this image evolves into his truth. If art is in opposition of truth, as we discussed in class last week, and truth is that which is beautiful, the tension between what is true and what is false comes into play. When art conceals artfulness and the artificial become more perfect, our shadows of the cave form our reality.

Phrase: "No rake has been familiar with the earth,"

“No rake had been familiar with the earth,
no plowshare had yet wronged her; untaxed she gave
of herself freely, providing all essentials.” (Ovid Book I 141-43)

In the beginning, all was simple and peaceful. The earth provided what was needed, and man exerted very little effort in attaining what they needed. However, as the seasons changed and man was forced to apply itself to finding and building shelter, it also began to understand the value in using the earth for production. As time progressed, man shed its earlier traits of “modesty, fidelity, and truth” for “fraud, guile, deceit, ...violence, and shameful lusting.” (175-77) Ovid illustrates for the reader the humble, but serene beginnings of the world and how mankind has destroyed that simplicity in its quest for more. The reader is left to ponder what existence may be missing as mankind is left to fend for itself on the earth, abandoned for its disregard of the earth’s love and dedication.

Ovid (30 CE). Metamorphoses. Tr. Charles Martin. New York: Norton, 2004.

Word: Sordid

In Book X of Metamorphosis, Ovid tells the tale of Pygmalion who is disgusted by the “sordid indecency” of the feminine spirit. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Sordid as, “Of a coarse, gross, or inferior character or nature; befitting or appertaining to a mean person or thing; menial.” What seems inconsistent to Pygmalion’s moral stand is his acceptance of a piece of marble as the replacement for a real woman. Pygmalion worships the idea of woman but as a result ends up worshiping the superficial. The OED also defines Sordid as, “Of persons, their character, etc.: Inclined to what is low, mean, or ignoble; esp. moved by selfish or mercenary motives; influenced only by material considerations.”