Ovid’s title

Ovid is to credit for the title; he is not to blame for the content, a place for which was the purpose of this site.

The two lines in his Metamorphoses that precede the title words read:

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe

“Before the sea, the earth, and the sky that touches all
there was one countenance upon all of the world” …

quem dixere chaos: “which they call chaos”

Ovid wonderfully does not tell us who ‘they’ are; he leaves aside any claim of identity for the mysterious witness to the universe before time began, when all of matter was a jumble of conflict until some god (or better yet, nature; Ovid says: deus et melior … natura) sorts things into their proper place, and the world takes a shape recognizable to us. Ovid, cleverly, is vague right where he needs to be, because he is interested in laying the narrative foundations of change, not canon. Besides, a story is always richer when it invites speculation.

Ovid’s initial oxymoron of an internally-conflicted uniform universe conveys impossibility from the start, a shape to reality that cannot be captured consistently or logically. It always makes me laugh with delight. When the tension of bound, struggling matter is broken by a burst of light (ignea…vis…emicuit) into ordered and aligned elements, it does feel like a relief conceptually, but also verbally, since Ovid’s language moves from garbled and tangled clauses into fluid and parallel constructions that show off how elegant he can be. Yet despite the poet’s impressive polish in laying out familiar hierarchies of gods and humans, the incorrigible individualism of chaos lurks just beneath the skin of those shiny atoms, and it whispers at us softly to rebel.

Here is the Latin for Book I; Charles Martin’s English translation is probably the truest in spirit, whimsy, and risk, though sadly it doesn’t always succeed.

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