Complementarity and Contradiction in Ovidian Mythography

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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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