Ovid and Alchemy
O Felix Culpa: Falling in love with Form in Ovid's Metamorphoses
“And so it is that the time light bodies took to fall
is the time falling bodies take to light.”
William Irwin Thompson
To be alive is to be transformed. There is no life without change and in fact, transformation does not end with the soul's departure from the flesh. Our world is in a constant state of transmutation and there is nothing that is free from the eternal metamorphosis of being. The horizon shifts with the tilt and whirl of the Earth, the sure Sun grows and expands however subtly, and the planets in their well worn paths stray and wander along their starry highway. Certainly if there is any beauty in our world it is but a blossom, a moment of change, in a changing cosmos. Ovid's epic poem The Metamorphoses lyrically depicts these blooming eternities: an exploration of 'bodies changed to other forms' The Metamorphoses is, perhaps ambitiously, a still shot of a moving history wherein myth and fact collide and become tangled, forever transformed by their bond.
Bonding and transforming are just the stuff that Ovid's tales are made of. Gods lust for and manipulate and transform Earthly beings who are then bound to stars or riverbeds or each other; the stories describing in poetic detail the basic laws of attraction, repulsion, entanglement, and reaction that govern the physical universe and make all life possible. These 'chemical romances' that dominate the tales of The Metamorphoses have given substantial evidence (for those who seek it out) to support an interesting Renaissance idea: that Ovid is the father of Alchemy. As it turns out I am not especially inclined to analyze Ovid's tales, searching for allegorical instructions to the Magnum Opus; I am not, after all, searching for the Philosopher's Stone. I am however inclined to read into Ovid's tales in order to understand how they depict a larger framework of philosophy, religion, and cosmology, one that perhaps could be linked to the long standing tradition of alchemy. I seek to find if, rather than a father of alchemy, Ovid was a son of Hermes.
Alchemy, as it is known popularly in the world today, is a western esoteric tradition- the primary goal of which is the discovery or creation of the Philosopher's Stone. It is scholastically held to have flourished in the European Renaissance though it has roots in Medieval Islam and the ancient Hellenistic world, and there is even evidence suggesting its origins lie in the metallurgic cultures of prehistory (see Eliade's The Forge and The Crucible). Ovid could not have been an alchemist in any sense that the modern mind could accurately conceive: there are too many variables and too many subtleties to make heads or tails of the daily activities of well documented and self proclaimed Renaissance alchemists, much less a poet from two thousand years ago. And yet, the link exists.
It is my belief that a reading of Ovid which seeks alchemical imagery will certainly find it, but not because it was intended to be an alchemical manual in code. It is more likely that, as is the case for so much of the early Roman world, Ovid was simply a product of a culture in which religion and philosophy, magic and mathematics, Egypt and Greece, were still unmistakably woven into one another; the same culture which produced the figure of Hermes Thrice Great, the true father of Alchemy. It is this Hermetic philosophy which permeates the Metamorphoses, beguiling the shrewd magician into the labyrinth of blank spaces between words and lines, seductively suggesting that everything boils down to a simple formula for immortality. And while my focus in this essay may be elsewhere, this is not to say that Ovid was not an alchemist, or that he did not find the Philosopher's Stone, since after all, his claim that his poem would live forever has certainly proven true thus far.
Although the Metamorphoses is a dramatically vast collection of stories, there are a few themes that stand out as important due to their recurrence. The theme of a god falling in love with an Earthly creature is prominent throughout the book though particularly so in Book 1 where Ovid speaks of Daphne and Apollo as well as of Io and Jove. In both tales a nymph- a female nature creature- is loved and pursued by a god and a metamorphoses of the nature-bound being takes place. In the Divine Poimander, a tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum, a similar tale is told:
And he looked down through the structure of the heavens, having broke through the sphere, and showed to downward-tending Nature the beautiful form of God...And Nature, when she had got him with whom she was in love, wrapped him in her clasp, and they were mingled in one; for they were in love with one another. And that is why man, unlike all other creatures, is twofold. He is mortal by reason of his body; he is immortal by reason of the Man of eternal substance. (Scott 121)
Just as Jove and Apollo 'fall' to the mortal world in order to consummate their love of natures creatures, so does the primordial man of Hermeticism break through the spheres of heaven to join his lover Nature, and from their union humanity is created. These early metamorphoses in Ovid, Daphne who is turned into a tree and Io into a cow, reflect the Hermetic birth of man but also expand the story to include the idea of cosmic sympathy. It is not just humanity that is established in the love affair between god and nature: it is all living creatures and their shared bond of divine and mortal origins reveals the sympathetic connections that hold the natural world together and make magic possible.
William Irwin Thompson discusses 'the fall' in his most lovely book The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:
The Fall exists prior to the world of events, both logically and temporally... the Fall of the One into the many, the emergence of the physical universe out of a transcendent god, the Fall of the soul into time, the entrapment of an angelic soul into the body of an Australopithecus afarensis, or the fall of an unconditioned consciousness beyond subject and object into the syntax of thought pounded into form by each heartbeat. The Fall is not only once and long ago; it is recapitulated in each instant of consciousness.p.9
In Thompson's sense, 'the fall' is not only a moment of divine interruption from which things are borne, it is also a moment of transformation, a metamorphoses of sorts. Daphne's restless spirit falls from grace when it is rooted to the ground in the form of a tree as Io's carefree young body is expanded into the heavy hooved body of a cow. Each 'operation' yielding an opposing result to the original pattern and reiterating the depth of transformation that can and must occur when one comes too close to a god.
In Book III Ovid tells the tale of the unfortunate Semele, another female figure who is ravished by Zeus and incurs a severe punishment. After Zeus' seed takes root, and Semele becomes pregnant with Dionysos, Juno determines to exact revenge by suggesting to Semele that she is being cheated because Zeus is not making love to her with all his might. Unknowing of the threat, Semele requests of Zeus, “Give me yourself in the same grace as when your Juno holds you to her breast in loves embrace” (Ovid 59). Having made a promise, Zeus is forced to oblige but Semele, being mortal, is unable to withstand the full power of the god: “Her mortal frame could not endure the tumult of the heavens; that gift of love consumed her”(Ovid 60). Revealed in this story are the underpinnings of what is perhaps the most central and important tenet of Hermetic philosophy, namely that “Mans crippling disability is his ignorance; and the Hermetists highest aspiration is to overcome that ignorance, and by helping man to understand his true nature, bring him at last to know god and assert his own divinity” (Fowden 105). Granted, Semele's tale is a poetic and comical rendering of the souls limitless desire to 'know god' but that does not devalue the message; in fact, the frail naivety of young Semele is a wonderfully apt metaphor for the state of humanity in pursuit of divine reconciliation.
And though there is a propensity to project onto the morphed female characters a sense of deep sorrow and betrayal, we must remember that Ovid is not a tragedian; his work is not meant to evoke our sympathies. As his introductory words suggest, it is a tale of changes, inspired by the gods. Returning to the dialogue in the Poimander, the disciple asks of the primordial man how mortals go about reuniting with the divine,
“Poimandres answered 'At the dissolution of your material body, you first yield up the body itself to be changed, and the visible form you bore is no longer seen... and the bodily senses go back to their own sources, becoming parts of the universe, and entering into fresh combinations to do other work” (Scott 129).
In the Hermetic tradition change and transformation are not only commonplace, but are often signs for gnosis. Ovid does not describe Semele's metamorphosis as a painful, dramatic occurrence- she was simply consumed by love. And Callisto, another lucky lover of Zeus, is immortalized in the stars as a result of their affair being discovered. On the one hand, Zeus' exploits and repeated rapes of various females is abhorrent and immature; but seen as a mythopoetic expression of the divine's insatiable appetite for the love of humanity, (and humanity's subsequent powerlessness to deny its own desire for liberation) it can be intimated as possibly the most beautiful poetic device ever used.
Another theme in Ovid which particularly piques the interest of alchemical seekers is that of the 'middle path'. The stories of Phaethon and Icarus are worthy of examination, to see if hidden within the golden ornamentation of solar chariots and high flying wings there lies Hermetic wisdom concerning divine gnosis. In the story of Phaethon, Phoebus warns his daring son to steer the chariot “on a wide slanting curve...Press not too low nor strain your course too high; Too high you'll burn heavens palaces; too low, the earth” (Ovid 28). Phaethon, the son of the Sun, takes on the burden of driving the golden gleaming chariot of the Sun across the sky. His father knows the perils of the journey and despite his earnest attempts to dissuade his son, must witness the imminent and ultimate 'fall' from heaven. Similarly in the tale of Icarus and his father Daedulus, the son is warned, “Take care, he said, to fly a middle course, lest if you sink too low the waves may weight your feathers; if too high, the heat may burn them” (Ovid 177). Without a doubt these passages could be interpreted as literal instructions for an alchemical procedure: temperature, patience, refusal to give into overzealousness, and above all, listening to instruction are all qualities necessary for successful completion of the magnum opus, in particular at the final stages when gold seems so close and attainable. Though there may be a cautionary warning to the reader or adept in the words of both Phoebus and Daedulus, there is another yet subtler way to understand these tales.
Fowden sheds much needed light on a sensitive subject in Hermetic philosophy:
The author of the Perfect discourse could reject as the sin of curiosity the high estimation in which traditional philosophers held the natural sciences, mathematics, astronomy, music, and so forth and emphasize their merely auxiliary role in the pursiut of the 'pura sanctaque philosophia'. In fact, for the Hermetist no product of human intellectual investigation, not even knowledge of God, was an end in itself; for underlying all human thought and action is the desire for release from this world of flux and materiality, for the salvation of the soul. (Fowden 112)
So it may be that the cautionary warnings in Ovid are suggestions not for the correct cooking temperature of sticks or stones, but for the tempering of the soul. The magical papyrii and astrological documents that comprise the technical Hermetica of the early Roman period might easily have become so intriguing as to have overshadowed the less exotic, stoic philosophy that was at the root of the system. Phoebus warns his son that he will not find cities of gods in the stars and he insists that “wild beasts lie in wait and shapes of fear” (Ovid 27); Daedulus likewise tells Icarus, “And do not watch the stars... set your course where I shall lead” (Ovid177).
Ovid asks the reader to question whether or not they reach too high for gnosis, because it is only in knowing oneself that liberation can be found. According to the Corpus Hermeticum, “If then, being made of Life and Light, you learn to know that you are made of them, then you will go back into Life and Light” (Scott 127). Life and Light are to be understood as Nature and God, respectively. The middle path is where humans live, between the divine immortality of their Father the primordial man, and the terrestrial world of their mother Nature. Seeking to attain only the realm of the Divine will burn the soul and result in a spirit crashing back down to the Earth, just as did Phaethon and Icarus.
There is yet one more fine example of the fallen spirit in the Metamorphoses that will support any inquiry into the Hermetic underpinnings of the poem: the tale of Prosperine. An infamous tale it needs no introduction or summary and the connections between Ovid and Alchemy have been supported through examples by the Renaissance magician Francis Bacon. In his book The Wisdom of the Ancients, Bacon devotes a chapter to the tale of Prosperine as told by Ovid and determines that “the goddess who cannot be kept underground [is] the spirit who cannot be confined in matter” (Willard 8). The concession at the end of Ovid's tale of Proseprine is that she is allotted to spend half of the year in the Underworld with Hades and the other half in the world of the living with her mother. Reminiscent of the idea that humans are half divine because of their origins, Prosperine's role is essentially that of a mediator between the realm of the divine and the underworld; she is the divine spirit that runs deeply through all things, whatever the manifestation happens to be.
Another aspect of the Prosperine tale which must never be overlooked is the role of Ceres, the mother who has lost her daughter. Ceres is said to tirelessly wander the Earth in search of her abducted daughter and her sorrow causes a great waste to be laid upon the land. According to Thompson, “Here we encounter the earliest version of what will become an important motif of the Gnostics -both classical and modern- that as the soul is trapped into a body and falls down into matter, the female half, or double, is left above in the spiritual realms, lamenting and searching for its mate” (Thompson 218). Though Thompson is speaking specifically about the Egyptian goddess Isis, the understanding is the same: Ceres is that divine portion of the soul who has lost her mate and her search for Prosperine shows the true sense of longing that the divine has for its fallen love. That Proseprine is unable to reunite wholly with her mother- for she may only spend half of the year in that communion- is representative of the Hermetic sense that humans cannot truly attain gnosis whilst holding fast to a sense of identity. We must shed all layers of our humanity in order to find ourselves as divine.
The gnostic sentiments that grace the pages of Ovid are intermingled with the idea of a Hermetic basis for the poem. Fowden allows that “it is possible, then, to find parallels in Christian gnosticism for much of what we read in the Hermetica. There are indeed passages in the philosophical Hermetica that suggest a real intellectual kinship...” (Fowden 113). It would be not only incorrect but also pointless to state that 'Ovid was a Hermetist', or 'Ovid was a Gnostic'; each of these systems of thought are so fluid in their demarcations that it is near impossible to define them or confine them to a time or a place. There are similarities within the two that can be traced back to Pythagoras and even could be considered to have influences of Persian Zoroastrianism. The case is not whether or not Ovid's Metamorphoses is a canonical text of this religion or that, but rather that Ovid was offering a tale that wove together certain philosophical, mythical, and spiritual beliefs of his time. We may never know how Ovid understood the magical transformations of which he wrote; we are not permitted to know how his Metamorphoses transformed him. But we do know that within each metamorphosis is a pearl of wisdom, to be found and understood by each reader rather than determined and asserted by few authorities.
The Metamorphoses are, to me, first and foremost, a reminder of the eternality of the soul. The stories assure me that despite the many incarnations we will experience during even just one incarnation on Earth all of them are aspects of the divine lust for human love. Ovid can in fact serve as a manual for the alchemical philosopher who seeks nothing more than to reunite with the perennial other, God. In Thompson's words,
For the Resurrection of the Body means that one is able to carry to the heavenly realm the wisdom of the Fall into time. In the return the prodigal son to the father, the son is taken back and honored almost above the loyal son who never fell...And so it is that the time light bodies took to fall, is the time that falling bodies take to light. (Thompson 243)
In this sense the Metamorphoses might be a way for us to remember our Fall into time. Knowing that the magnificent Laurel tree was once a flighty nymph reminds us to honor all things in Nature, for they once may have been princes or princesses, altered forever by some profound exposure to God. Ovid tells of his ideal world in Book I of the Metamorphoses when he describes the Ages of Man. The Golden Age is described as a perennial Springtime with Nature in her most beautiful pastoral bounty. Spring time is Natures best metamorphosis; a transformation of the barren Winter to a divine-like manifestation of abundance and harmony. Ovid's Golden Age seems a lot like a world in which the Philosopher's Stone abounds- no one is for want, all is eternal and righteous. An everlasting spring may very well be what the alchemists seek unwittingly, a final transformation of Nature so that she might provide all we could need. Ovid saw a beauty and divinity in Nature that he shared with the world through the Metamorphoses and, if read in the right light, this poem could make an alchemist out of anyone.
Reiterating my initial thesis, the sense I hope to create is not one of Ovid reading and recapitulating the Corpus Hermeticum (for, as far as we know, Ovid predates the corpus by at least a century) but rather to highlight the threads of wisdom that run through the poem in order to substantiate further research into Ovid's more direct ties with alchemy. The world of Ovid was a melting pot of cultures: Rome had very recently gained control of the Hellenistic world and its thriving philosophical center of Alexandria. Any gems of thought that the Egyptians were believed to have held would have been of interest to the 'invading' rulers, though it is more likely that at least the technical Hermetica would have been well known to Augustus and other elite Romans of Ovid's time1. There is certainly enough convergence between Ovid's tales and the basic philosophy of Hermes Thrice-Great to suggest that Ovid's work was both a comedic effort as well as a deeply spiritual corpus in and of itself, paying homage to the Greek playwrights of prior centuries.
Though the evidence regarding Ovid's banishment from Rome and subsequent passing is scanty and open to interpretations and argument, there is a magnificent poetic justice in the autobiographical story that the wordsmith has left for us. How effective a metaphor that Ovid's body of flesh should be exiled to the Black Sea where it withers away while his body of spirit- his poetry- should live on immortally through the Golden Age of Rome. It seems that Ovid was indeed, a son of Hermes.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1986
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. trans. A.D.Melville. Oxford: Oxford UP. 1986
Scott, Walter. Hermetica. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. 1924
Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light. New York, NY: St. Martins Press. 1981
Willard, Thomas. 'The Metamorphoses of Metals: Ovid and the Alchemists' from
The Changing Face of Ovid. ed. Alison Keith, Toronto 2007
See Cumont, Franz and Fowden, Garth for in depth relations of the technical Hermetic influence on early Rome