Departmental Papers (Classical Studies)

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Book Chapter

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Writing Myth: Mythography in the Ancient World

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It stands to reason that mythographic sources should have played a role in the composition of Ovid's works, and recent work suggests more and more that this must be the case. But the complex motives behind Ovid's engagement with this tradition have proven difficult to comprehend and to integrate with Ovidian criticism as a whole. There are some fairly clear reasons why this is so. One is the under­standable tendency of critics to emphasize Ovid's use of poetic sources organized along mythographic lines, such as Nicander's Het­eroeumena and, more recently, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, rather than of conventional prose mythographies. But a greater ap­preciation of what Ovid may owe to his fellow poets, while obviously a good thing in itself, should not be allowed to obscure his debt to mythographic treatises and encyclopedias. Another factor is that many of Ovid's works flaunt their relationships to various prose gen­res other than mythography. This the Ars amatoria does by imitating earlier didactic poetry of the metaphrastic tradition, while the Heroides and the exile poetry, in their different ways, thematize their relationship to prose letters. In the case of the Fasti, the obvious importance of the calendar itself as the primary structural model for the poem and the specific verbal parallels that can be found in a few specific calendars, especially the Fasti Praenestini, have tended to dis­tract attention away from the potential influence of other prose genres. As for the Metamorphoses, it now seems clear that the genre of universal history contributed in significant ways to the architec­ture of that poem. But it is still obviously worth investigating the extent to which the concerns of prose mythographers in particular influenced Ovid's treatment not only of individual myths but espe­cially of the relationships among them.

Some important preliminary work has been done, and as an ex­ample of how any number of more focused studies might fit into a larger picture, I adduce a selection of examples from the Heroides, the Metamorphoses, and the Fasti to suggest how the characteristic concerns of prose mythographers inform all three poems and of how Ovid transforms what he borrows. In the process, I identify two as­pects of Ovidian poetics, complementarity and contradiction, that greatly enrich his treatment of mythographic material. Finally I of­fer some tentative conclusions and raise a few questions to indicate what I think are some productive avenues of further investigation.

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Posted with permission from Peeters Publishers.

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Date Posted: 10 January 2017