Uploaded by Hugo Tse

HUMA Essay 1

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Ovid Sees Little Difference Between Human and Divine Skill Level
Ovid may be considered as one of Rome’s greatest poets. ‘Metamorphoses’, often regarded
as Ovid’s Magnum Opus, is a single poem of fteen books written in dactylic hexameter. This style
which Ovid chooses to write in is of particular interest and it is worth noting that epic poetry is
usually written in dactylic hexameter. Whilst Ovid clearly writes about some of the many heroic
stories existent in Greco-Roman mythology, he presents them in a way which raises questions about
the supposed heroism he wishes to portray. Rather than glorifying the ‘heroes’, be they human or
divine, Ovid employs the effect of comedy to diminish the signi cance of endeavours which
characters in his story undertake. For instance, in Book Five, Perseus says to Phineas that, ‘no one
will ever harm you with a spear’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.154). However, in the next stanza, Perseus
promptly proceeds to petrify Phineas with Medusa’s face, an action going against what would
normally be considered noble, a trait often expected of heroes. In this vein, this essay aims to
demonstrate how Ovid challenges traditional conceptions of the divine, traditionally associated with
immense and unparalleled power. Speci cally, attention will be drawn to a passage in Book Six
where Ovid challenges divine skill, suggesting an interchangeability between human and divine
skill levels.
Logically, the skill level of the divine should greatly exceed that of humans. After all, there
must be big differences between humans and the divine for both to merit different names. Ovid
carefully demonstrates how this is clearly not the case. For instance, Arachne displays no fear when
Minerva casts aside her disguise as an old woman. The fact that ‘nymphs bowed down before the
deity’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.179) indicates that there was cause for Arachne to be at least somewhat
scared. Instead, Arachne ‘showed no fear; and stood unawed’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.179). This
prompts the reader to question the reasons behind Arachne’s display of con dence. It is evident that
Arachne’s con dence in her own skill seems to be the only explanation. If Arachne can display such
a high level of con dence in her own skill level, in comparison to that of Minerva’s, it suggests that
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human skill can exceed that of the divine. This still raises the question as to whether Arachne was
rightfully con dent in her own abilities. There are telling descriptions in the following stanzas of
Book Six which suggest that Arachne was indeed justi ed in her con dence. For example, it is
written that even Pallas, who embodies jealousy, could not ‘ nd a aw’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.182)
in Arachne’s tapestry. Since Arachne depicted the ‘crimes that the gods had wrought’ (Mandelbaum
1993, p.182) in her tapestry, it would be tting that Pallas had much reason to critique Arachne’s
work. Thus, Arachne’s tapestry, which is ‘rendered to perfection’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.182),
justi es Arachne’s supposed over con dence in her own abilities.
Ovid also shows how there have been many cases of humans challenging divine skill levels.
This much is made clear in Minerva’s tapestry. For example, in one of the corners, Minerva depicts
two humans, the ’Thracian Rhode and Haemus’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.180), as landforms. Having
shown presumptuousness by taking the names of the highest gods, both mortals had been turned
into ‘bleak mountains’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.180) as punishment. The reader is also told that
Cinyras loses all his daughters because they boast of their great beauty. Juno, the deity who
punishes Cinyras’ daughters, changes them into ‘her temple’s marble steps’. Though these
challenges do not speci cally pertain to skill levels, they at least suggest an interchangeability
between humans and the divine. Since divine ability greatly exceeds that of humans, such
challenges can only stem from an interchangeability between divine and human skill levels.
Probably, mortals took on the names of gods because they deemed their skill level to be
magni cent, comparable to that of the divine. Perhaps, Cinyras’ daughters saw in themselves a
beauty rivalling that of the divine. Indeed, Minerva chooses to weave such scenes into her tapestry
because she sees parallels between such challenges and Arachne’s own choice of actions. The
existence of such a large number of challenges gives legitimacy to the claim that divine and human
skill levels are interchangeable. Such challenges cannot simply be explained by an inherent
boastfulness that humans own. The reader is reminded that by and large humans still fear the divine.
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This is made clear not least where it is written that, ‘the Thebans - all the men and all the women fear the gods’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.189). Therefore there must exist justi cations behind such
displays of con dence, namely interchangeability of human and divine skill levels
Ovid also portrays other similarities between humans and the divine, further blurring any
distinctions between the two. Both humans and the divine show a tendency to be boastful. For
instance, Minerva does not hesitate to depict her victory over Neptune. We learn this where it is
written that Minerva’s tapestry depicts herself ‘crowned in victory’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.180).
Such a lack of humility is reminiscent of an attitude possessed by all the humans who chose to
challenge the divine. Likewise, Arachne’s speech suggests a similar air of pride and boastfulness.
Despite the warnings from Minerva disguised as an old woman, Arachne concludes by saying, ‘…
lest you think your warning changed anything…I am still sure of what I said before’ (Mandelbaum
1993, p.178). Arachne is con dent that her wool work could be compared to that of immortals. The
‘rage’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p. 178) that Arachne displays when Minerva beseeches her to seek
forgiveness is further evidence that Arachne harboured much con dence and pride. In addition, it is
also worth noting that both humans and the divine clearly have aws. This is made clear where it is
written that Arachne depicts ‘the crimes that the gods had wrought’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.182). The
virtue of divinity does not render the divine exempt from aws. Overall, Ovid clearly depicts a
signi cant departure from traditional conceptions of un awed divinity
Nevertheless, divine ability remains to far exceed human ability. Despite there being no
concrete determination of the victor in Arachne’s weaving competition, Minerva turns Arachne into
a spider. Even Niobe, who is born of ‘noble lineage’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p. 183), has all fourteen of
her children die as a result of Latona’s wrath. From this, it can be concluded that human social
status has no bearing on divine ability. Whilst Arachne is described to have hailed from a ‘humble
village’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p. 177), Niobe is described to be capable of boasting about the ‘regal
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wealth’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.183) she shared with her husband. Both are punished by deities
In conclusion, skill levels between humans and the divine is very plausibly interchangeable.
This idea helps explain Arachne’s con dence and is backed up by the many descriptions praising
Arachne’s skill in wool work. Moreover, it is this interchangeability of skill that has led many
humans to challenge the divine. A reminder that humans continue to fear the divine, as evident
where it is written that ‘all the men and all the women - fear the gods’ (Mandelbaum 1993, p.189),
suggest legitimacy behind cases where humans challenge the divine. Likely, all such humans came
to a justi ed realisation that their skills were comparable to those of deities. In addition, there exist
many other parallels between humans and the divine. In terms of character, both humans and divine
show a tendency to be boastful; Both are also subject to aws. Such a blurred distinction raises the
question as to what actually distinguishes between humans and the divine. At least on the outset, it
seems that ‘ability’ is the sole distinction. In all confrontations between humans and the divine, the
relevant deity emerges victorious. Therefore, Ovid only saw a difference between human and divine
‘ability’. The same cannot be said for for ‘skill’. Ovid considered the skill levels of humans and the
divine to be interchangeable
Works Cited
Mandelbaum, Allen. The Metamorphoses of Ovid a New Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum.
San Diego, New York, London: Houghton Mif in Harcourt Publishing Company, 1993. Print