Creation and Destruction
Ovid on Creation
Ovid (43 BCE – 17/18 CE) was a Roman poet, writing in Latin at the turn of the first millennium. He wrote in a variety of different poetic styles, though his longest work was an epic poem called The Metamorphoses, which traces the mythological history of the world from its creation through the deification of Julius Caesar and the rise of the emperor Augustus.
The first 150 lines of the poem offer another cosmogony that is quite different from the one given by Hesiod. This description of the origin of the world involves a singular divine creator or demiurge, who fashions the world out of chaos. It was influenced by stoicism and epicureanism, two philosophical schools that were prominent at Rome during this time. Ovid’s cosmogony also fits into the larger theme of the Metamorphoses, which deals with transformations (“metamorphoses”) of beings and forms into other beings and forms.
Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE
[1-20] I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
Before there was earth or sea or the sky that covers everything, Nature appeared the same throughout the whole world: what we call chaos: a raw confused mass, nothing but inert matter, badly combined discordant atoms of things, confused in one place. There was no Titan [ / ] yet, shining his light on the world, or waxing Phoebe [ / ] renewing her white horns, or the earth hovering in surrounding air balanced by her own weight, or watery stretching out her arms along the vast shores of the world. Though there was land and sea and air, it was unstable land, unswimmable water, air needing light. Nothing retained its shape, one thing obstructed another, because in the one body, cold fought with heat, moist with dry, soft with hard, and weight with weightless things.
[21-31] This conflict was ended by a god and a greater order of nature, since he split off the earth from the sky, and the sea from the land, and divided the transparent heavens from the dense air. When he had disentangled the elements, and freed them from the obscure mass, he fixed them in separate spaces in harmonious peace. The weightless fire, that forms the heavens, darted upwards to make its home in the furthest heights. Next came air in lightness and place. Earth, heavier than either of these, drew down the largest elements, and was compressed by its own weight. The surrounding water took up the last space and enclosed the solid world.
[32-51] When whichever god it was had ordered and divided the mass, and collected it into separate parts, he first gathered the earth into a great ball so that it was uniform on all sides. Then he ordered the seas to spread and rise in waves in the flowing winds and pour around the coasts of the encircled land. He added springs and standing pools and lakes, and contained in shelving banks the widely separated rivers, some of which are swallowed by the earth itself, others of which reach the sea and entering the expanse of open waters beat against coastlines instead of riverbanks. He ordered the plains to extend, the valleys to subside, leaves to hide the trees, stony mountains to rise: and just as the heavens are divided into two zones to the north and two to the south, with a fifth and hotter between them, so the god carefully marked out the enclosed matter with the same number, and described as many regions on the earth. The equatorial zone is too hot to be habitable; the two poles are covered by deep snow; and he placed two regions between and gave them a temperate climate mixing heat and cold.
[52-68] Air overhangs them, heavier than fire by as much as water’s weight is lighter than earth. There he ordered the clouds and vapours to exist, and thunder to shake the minds of human beings, and winds that create lightning-bolts and flashes.
The world’s maker did not allow these, either, to possess the air indiscriminately; as it is they are scarcely prevented from tearing the world apart, each with its blasts steering a separate course: like the discord between brothers. Eurus, the east wind, drew back to the realms of , to Nabatea, Persia, and the heights under the morning light: Evening, and the coasts that cool in the setting sun, are close to , the west wind. Chill , the north wind, seized Scythia and the seven stars of the Plough[Ursa Major]: while the south wind, , drenches the lands opposite with incessant clouds and rain. Above these he placed the transparent, weightless heavens free of the dregs of earth.
[68-88] He had barely separated out everything within fixed limits when the constellations that had been hidden for a long time in dark fog began to blaze out throughout the whole sky. And so that no region might lack its own animate beings, the stars and the forms of gods occupied the floor of heaven, the sea gave a home to the shining fish, earth took the wild animals, and the light air flying things.
As yet there was no animal capable of higher thought that could be ruler of all the rest. Then Humankind was born. Either the creator god, source of a better world, seeded it from the divine, or the newborn earth just drawn from the highest heavens still contained fragments related to the skies, so that , blending them with streams of rain, moulded them into an image of the all-controlling gods. While other animals look downwards at the ground, he gave human beings an upturned aspect, commanding them to look towards the skies, and, upright, raise their face to the stars. So the earth, that had been, a moment ago, uncarved and imageless, changed and assumed the unknown shapes of human beings.
[89-112] This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. There was no fear or punishment: there were no threatening words to be read, fixed in bronze, no crowd of suppliants fearing the judge’s face: they lived safely without protection. No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel to other lands: human beings only knew their own shores. There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coiled horns, no swords and helmets. Without the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security. The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself. Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from ’s spreading oak-tree. Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak.
[113-124] When was banished to gloomy , and ruled the world, then came the people of the age of silver that is inferior to gold, more valuable than yellow bronze. shortened spring’s first duration and made the year consist of four seasons, winter, summer, changeable autumn, and brief spring. Then parched air first glowed white scorched with the heat, and ice hung down frozen by the wind. Then houses were first made for shelter: before that homes had been made in caves, and dense thickets, or under branches fastened with bark. Then seeds of corn were first buried in the long furrows, and bullocks groaned, burdened under the yoke.
[125-150] Third came the people of the bronze age, with fiercer natures, readier to indulge in savage warfare, but not yet vicious. The harsh iron age was last. Immediately every kind of wickedness erupted into this age of baser natures: truth, shame and honour vanished; in their place were fraud, deceit, and trickery, violence and pernicious desires. They set sails to the wind, though as yet the seamen had poor knowledge of their use, and the ships’ keels that once were trees standing amongst high mountains, now leaped through uncharted waves. The land that was once common to all, as the light of the sun is, and the air, was marked out, to its furthest boundaries, by wary surveyors. Not only did they demand the crops and the food the rich soil owed them, but they entered the bowels of the earth, and excavating brought up the wealth it had concealed in Stygian [ adjectival form of ] shade, wealth that incites men to crime. And now harmful iron appeared, and gold which was more harmful than iron. War came, whose struggles employ both, waving clashing arms with bloodstained hands. They lived on plunder: friend was not safe with friend, relative with relative, kindness was rare between brothers. Husbands longed for the death of their wives, wives for the death of their husbands. Murderous stepmothers mixed deadly aconite, and sons inquired into their father’s years before their time. Piety was dead, and virgin , last of all the immortals to depart, herself abandoned the blood-drenched earth.
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved
- Calyx-Krater 1867,0508.1133 © the British Museum is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
God of medicine, archery, oracles, and the sun.
See chapter 12.
Personification of the moon.
Maiden goddess of wilderness and the hunt, and twin sister of Apollo.
See chapter 13.
Personification of the dawn.
Appears in chapter 4.
God of the west wind and gentle spring and summer breezes.
God of the north or northeast wind.
God of the south wind and hot, dry winds.
A Titan. Known for creating humankind, for tricking the gods on various occasions, and for being punished (by Zeus) to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle.
See chapter 13.
Roman: Jupiter or Jove
God of the sky, ruler of the Olympian gods.
See chapter 5.
Roman: Saturn or Saturnus
Titan father of many of the gods, including Zeus and Hera. Son of Gaia and Uranus.
Featured in chapter 1.
The deep abyss of the Underworld where the Titans were imprisoned, or the primordial deity personifying the abyss.
Goddess of purity, innocence, and justice. Known for becoming the constellation Virgo after she fled the wickedness that was on earth.
Appears in chapter 2.