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Genesis and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Genesis and Ovid’s Metamorphoses January 28, 2021

I did in fact end up thinking about how much the view of creation that we get early in Ovid’s Metamorphoses parallels what we expect that ancient Israelites thought before and perhaps while shifting in the direction of what eventually becomes monotheism. The initial chaos. The bringing of order. The creation of human beings with some likeness to the divine. The eventual breakdown of things as humans move from dwelling in caves and living as hunter-gatherers to farming, as war and conflict increasingly emerge and come to characterize human society.

Ovid attributes the beginning to some unknown or at least unspecified God, and then the more familiar cast of characters arrive. The “let us make” of Genesis would be more natural in the Metamorphoses than it is in Genesis.

For those who may be interested, there is a lesson plan on the NEH website that explores this. Be warned, the internet also turns out to be full of essays for purchase or simply to copy on this particular topic.

But what got me thinking about Ovid was in fact the other Genesis. Perhaps because I didn’t study classics, it only clicked for me just recently that several of the references to Greco-Roman mythology in Genesis songs across several albums all converge in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And they do so in some of their best songs, and certainly some of my absolute favorites. Hermaphroditus and Salmacis are the subject of the wonderful song “The Fountain of Salmacis.” Let me encourage you to listen to it:

Narcissus features in the song or rather suite “Supper’s Ready”:

The story of Narcissus and Echo is introduced by Tiresias who himself experienced transgression of gender boundaries, and Tiresias gets a mention in the chorus of the song Cinema Show.

That keyboard solo is of course one of the things that I particularly love about the song, and have tried my hand at learning to play. Tony Banks, as I mention often, was the inspiration for me beginning to learn the instrument.

I am surprised that little has been written about the place of Ovid in Peter Gabriel’s life and work as well as that of Genesis, although in each of these cases I have the impression that Gabriel was the sole or primary lyricist. Ovid was undoubtedly in the curriculum where the founding members met. But most people are not writing songs that draw on their school curriculum for years afterwards. As I write about the theology of the song “Supper’s Ready” and of the band’s output more generally, this work that is profoundly theological and intersects with the Bible in a variety of ways has become a focus of my attention. If you read Ovid in school, did you find it inspirational in comparable ways?

An article from 2 years ago about photographer Clive Arrowsmith’s photos of Peter Gabriel from the 1970s touches on the interplay of music, art, and literature in his life and work. See also David Hewitt’s abstract and bibliography for his paper “Forever To Be Joined As One: Genesis’ “The Fountain of Salmacis” and Ovid” given at the 2015 meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South.

See also some of my previous blog posts related to this topic and the writing project currently focused on it:

Supper’s Ready Live

Genesis and Theology

Tony Banks’ Theology

 

 

 


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