Icarus: entering the world of myth
Icarus: entering the world of myth

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1 Ovid as mythographer and myth-maker

Publius Ovidius Naso, to give Ovid his three full names as a Roman citizen, was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona), Italy, in 43 BCE and died in exile at Tomis on the Black Sea coast (modern Constanţa, Romania) in 17 or 18 CE. Ovid was a poet who wrote in a variety of genres, but for present purposes you might start by regarding him as a mythographer or myth collector. The reason for this is his epic poem Metamorphoses, written in Latin in Rome around the end of the first century BCE, which has proved to be a treasure house of Greek and Roman myths throughout the centuries.

Metamorphoses continues to function as a ‘myth-kitty’ – a notion coined and dismissed by the poet Philip Larkin (1982, p. 69) – but Ovid was not producing this magnum opus to be a mere catalogue for future cultures. There are some parallels between Ovid and the nineteenth­-century scholar Sir James Frazer as both authors made connections between themes and characters across different myths. The kind of thematic superstructures Ovid and Frazer created – in their very different ways – have proved enormously influential on ideas about the meaning of myth and its function in society.

As indicated above, Ovid was a receiver and also a refashioner (in his own day) of mythical material. He adapted and combined well-known narratives in ingenious ways but also brought to the fore less familiar, small-scale stories from Greek and Roman legend and put these on the mythic map for future generations. His use of an epic frame for such disparate and narratively fluid material was in itself challenging and innovative. In his prologue to Metamorphoses (1.1–4) Ovid claims to weave together stories of transformation in a ‘continuous’ song.

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