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No Elder Light, no new-grown crescent horns, but air, soil and sea and aether there together

Here's a post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 4 years ago, in 2020, on the World Wide Web.

After the epic invocation and the opening description of primordial Chaos (1, 2), Ovid continues the epic narrative by introducing more of the cosmic picture — not only is this before the elements of sea, earth and sky, it is also before the elemental beings or the eldest gods that give shape to the world and shape it by their presence and activity. Like Chaos in line 7, we begin to see more mythological allusions here — if only to say that the tale of forms trans-formed begins before any of all that. Here’s Book I, lines 10-15 in the original Latin:[1]

Mundi origo.

. . . nullus adhuc mundo praebebat lumina Titan,
nec nova crescendo reparabat cornua Phoebe,
nec circumfuso pendebat in aere tellus
ponderibus librata suis, nec bracchia longo
margine terrarum porrexerat Amphitrite;
utque aer, tellus illic et pontus et aether.

Here is a word-for-word breakdown of the Latin grammar and vocabulary:

adj., masc. nom. sg.adv.n., masc. dat. sg.v., 3d sg., impf. act. ind.n., neut. acc. pl.prop. n., m. nom. sg.
[no][until now, yet][to the world][proferred][lights][Titan]
conj.adj., neut. acc. plv. gerund, masc. abl. sg.v. 3d sg., impf. act. ind.n., nom. acc. pl.prop. n., f. nom. sg.
[nor][now][growing, revealing][was renewing][horns][Phoebe]
conj.pf. pass. part., masc. abl. sg.v. 3d sg., impf. act. ind.prep.n., masc. abl. sg.n., f. nom. sg.
[nor][enveloped][was hanging][in][the air][soil, earth]
n., neut. abl. pl.pf. pass. part. f. nom. sg.pron., neut. abl. pl.conj.n., neut. acc. pl.adj., m. abl. sg.
[by weights][balanced][its own][nor][forearms][the long]
n., m. abl. sg.n., f. gen. pl.v. 3d sg. plupf. act. ind.prop. n., f. nom. sg.
[edge, margin][of lands][had stretched out][Amphitrite]
adv. + conj.n., masc. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.adv.conj.n., masc. nom. sg.conj.n. masc. nom. sg.
[and where][the air][the soil, earth][that yonder][and][sea][and][aether][2]

Here’s my attempt at a prosy sort of a translation:

Mundi origo.

. . . nullus adhuc mundo praebebat lumina Titan,
nec nova crescendo reparabat cornua Phoebe,
nec circumfuso pendebat in aere tellus
ponderibus librata suis, nec bracchia longo
margine terrarum porrexerat Amphitrite;
utque aer, tellus illic et pontus et aether.

World’s Beginning

. . . No Titan was yet offering lights to the world, nor was Phoebe renewing new-grown (crescent) horns, nor was Earth hanging in air poured out around it, balanced by its own weights, nor had Amphitrite stretched out forearms along the the long margin of the lands, and where the soil (was), right there (was) air, and sea and aether.

This passage is full of mythological allusions, which are intended to be significant but which are only lightly explained by context. The allusions here are all to elder gods and to elemental divinities outside of the Olympian pantheon. The Titans are the elder gods, led by Saturn, who first took control over the primal elements, until they in turn were overthrown by the present generation of Olympian gods, led by Jupiter.[3] Earlier Roman and Greek epics and hymns either associate the Light-Titan Hyperion or his son Helios with the Sun. Phoebe is a Latinization of Greek Φοίβη (Phoibe), one of the Titan sisters of Saturn associated with the Moon. Amphitrite is a sea goddess and daughter of the elder ocean gods, a cousin to the latter-day Olympians.[4] She is associated with calm seas, the sea-coast and coastal surf.

Besides the mythological allusions, the other major element here are words for the elements of nature. Three of these are familiar to modern world-views. Tellus is an old Latin word meaning soil, ground, land or earth; aer and pontus are common loan-words from Greek for air and sea. Aether refers to another, celestial element — it’s a more learned Greek loan-word, with mythic-religious or with philosophical-scientific associations. In mythological texts, aether is the clear or shining air that the gods breathe in the heavens; in philosophical texts, it is a changeless celestial element above the terrestrial air, through which the heavenly bodies move or in which they are set. If it’s muddled all together with the elements of soil, sea and (ordinary) air, then that means cosmologically that there is no separation yet between the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, or the mortal and the undying realms.

The allusions pose a translation problem — not a problem of language but a problem of cross-cultural communication. How do you handle allusions to the literature, the lore, the religion or the culture of a bygone time, or a faraway culture? How familiar are the references going to be to your audience or audiences? How familiar would they have been to the audiences reading them or hearing them at the time? Besides familiarity, what kind of effect do they have given the audiences’ background beliefs and practices?[5] Ovid makes the problem even more complicated because his allusions are often allusions to Greek or Hellenistic literature, in a foreign language and from bygone ages and faraway places for him and his own audience. You could just leave the allusions as they are, and carry the same names and epithets over into modern language — the upside is transparency for the ancient poet’s diction, but the downside is the risk or cost of opacity about their meaning. You could leave the references as they are and just hope the modern reader gets it; or hope that they will look it up, now or later, possibly with the aid of annotations in the book. But the former may be a risky bet, and the latter may have a cost for the tone or the immediacy of the impact that you want the reader to get from the poem. Some translators favor sneaking in subtle or overt explanatory material where they can fit it into the text — for example, Lombardo (2010) keeps the mythological references in lines 10-11 but adds explicit notes to make clear that they refer to the Sun and the Moon: No Titan Sun as yet gave light to the world, / No Phoebe touched up her crescent horns by night…. Others favor dropping out potentially opaque mythological allusions, and replacing them with their references — More (1922) has them as As yet the sun afforded earth no light, / nor did the moon renew her crescent horns….[6] Of course, it’s hardly likely that a single approach is going to work best in all circumstances, or for all readers in any given circumstance. But in any case, it leaves the translator with a decision to make.

The Latin word-order here is often deeply nested or bracketed: lines or clauses begin with a negation at the head, and then at the end they name the god or element that had not yet done their thing; in the middle, they bracket an image or an aspect of the orderly procession of the world which they did not yet govern. Amphitrite and her fore-arms similarly bracket around the long edges of the dry lands, which many translators have taken as an image of the sea-coasts embracing the lands encircled by them. In the last line, the nouns are interspersed and rapidly chopped together, like the disordered, undifferentiated muddle that the line describes.

No ( yet ( to the world ) was offering ( lights ) ) Titan
Nor ( new ( ( ( by growing ) was repairing ) ) horns ) Phoebe
Nor ( enveloped ( was hanging ) in the air ) the soil
( by weights ( balanced ) its own ), nor ( fore-arms ( on the long
edge ( of the lands ) ) had stretched out ) Amphitrite;
and where ( air, ( soil ) [was] there ), and ( sea ) and ( aether ).

You could try to preserve some of this in English with awkward syntactical breaks or contorted poetical word order; or you might try it by adding in little words. For example, here’s one way to render lines 10-11 that keeps just a little of what it can in the syntax, by adding English qualifiers or shifts in case or voice that aren’t justified by the Latin text:

No-one yet offered the world light, not even an Elder God
Nor the new growth revived in the crescent horns of Phoebe,
Nor enveloped, hanging, . . .

Or you could give up and submit to a different sort of parallelism that fits better with the least-resistance English word order:

No Titan yet offered light to the world,
No Phoebe renewing new-grown crescent horns,
No Earth hanging . . .

Anyway, let’s try a pass at a verse translation. Since these are part of the same stanza as the last set and continue the theme started there, I’ve included all of lines 5-15. Here’s a version that makes really minimal alterations to the allusive references. (There are good reasons to try to do something about them, but if you’re reading this we’ve already talked all about them, and in the age of hypertext and Wikipedia I suspect that the best balance to strike is different from what it used to be.) This one doesn’t make much effort to keep the original word-order of the lines, but it touches up syntax and redistributes some clauses over the lines where they occur, for the sake of fluency and some parallelism of its own.

Mundi origo.

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.
nullus adhuc mundo praebebat lumina Titan,
nec nova crescendo reparabat cornua Phoebe,
nec circumfuso pendebat in aere tellus
ponderibus librata suis, nec bracchia longo
margine terrarum porrexerat Amphitrite;
utque aer, tellus illic et pontus et aether.

World’s Beginning

Before sea, and dry lands, and the cover of sky,
Nature had but one face in all the circle of the world—
Which folks have named Chaos: a shapeless heaped mess,
Not a thing but dumb weight, and all together in piles,
The seeds of things, ill-joined due to discord.
No Titan yet bearing light to the world,
No Phoebe revealing new-grown crescent horns,
No earth surrounded, suspended in air,
Balanced on its own weight, no Amphitrite to spread
Her fore-arms along dry lands’ long shores;
And air where the ground was — air, sea and aether.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got in my notebook. What do you think? How would you handle these lines?

All the original translations that I post to this blog are freely available in the public domain.

  1. [1]I got the text from P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses at the Perseus Digital Library; they transcribed the text from Hugo Magnus's edition of 1892 (Gotha: Friedr. Andr. Perthes).
  2. [2]Roughly, heavenly air or the clear or shining sky; an element that fills the divine or celestial world, which gods breathe or which heavenly bodies move through or are set in. See below.
  3. [3]The most familiar form of this story comes from Hesiod’s Theogony: Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) conceive children, later called Titans but Ouranos imprisons them within Gaia’s body. At Gaia’s instigation, Kronos, the younger son, attacks their father by ambush, castrates him with a sickle and then drives him away forever from Earth.He and his elder siblings take control of the world, but they are cursed by Ouranos as usurpers (Hesiod supplies a really dubious etymology for Titanes based on a verb for over-stretching) and receive a prophecy that Kronos will be overthrown in his turn by his own son. Kronos conceives six children of his own with Rheia, but devours each of the children as soon as they are born. Rheia conspires with her parents, Ouranos and Gaia, to deceive Kronos at the birth of their youngest son Zeus — Rheia conceals a stone in swaddling clothes for Kronos to swallow, while Zeus is safely hidden away until he grows to adulthood, and then returns to free his brothers and sisters and depose his father. Kronos is tricked into vomiting up Zeus’s older brothers and sisters and discovers the deception of the stone; meanwhile Zeus and his siblings make alliances with other divine beings who had been subjugated or punished by Kronos and the Titans, leading up to a catastrophically violent ten-year cosmic war between the younger gods and the elder titans. The younger gods and their allies finally overpower the Titans, Zeus usurps his father’s rule, and the triumphant younger gods cast the elder gods who fought against them down into a sealed chamber in Tartaros, beyond the Abyss (Chaos) in the deepest depths of the universe. Some of the Titans and their children are left free because they aided the Olympian gods or took no side in the war. This is all detailed at length in Hesiod, and there are allusions to this series of events scattered through the cosmogonic sections of Ovid in the Metamorphoses — for example, some lines further down Ovid will refer to Saturn ruling and then being confined to misty Tartarus by his son Jupiter. But in general, Roman myths tended to have a significantly different attitude towards the elder gods and a more complicated picture about their geneaological and political relationships with the younger generations than Hesiod did; and in Ovid specifically, most of this tale is only alluded to, not told in detail. Despite these background allusions to the Titanomachy, Ovid’s foreground story for the earliest prehistory of the universe is far more agnostic and far less agonistic or violent than the familiar story from Hesiod. Ovid’s read his Hesiod, but I think it would be a mistake to interpolate Hesiod’s tale into Ovid’s version of cosmic prehistory.
  4. [4]Hesiod describes her as a Nereid, the daughter of the Old Man of the Sea, the granddaughter of Pontos on her father’s side and of Okeanos on her mother’s side. Other sources describe her as an Oceanid, the daughter of the Titans Okeanos and Tethys. That makes her a second cousin and/or a first cousin of the elder Olympians, and of Poseidon or Neptune in particular, depending on which genealogy you accept and which line of descent you trace. In late Greek sources she becomes the wife of Poseidon.
  5. [5]When Ovid alludes to to Jupiter deposing Saturn and confining him to Tartarus, that might actually be just about as familiar to a somewhat literate 21st century American audience as it would be to a pagan Roman audience. (Hard to say; it may have depended on how much the pagan Romans in question liked reading Greek literature.) But even if it is familiar, does it have the same impact for a twice-a-year Presbyterian who thinks of Saturn and Jupiter as fantasy-fictions like Sauron or Q, as it does for someone who attended yearly religious festivals in Saturn’s honor, or who may have worshiped them as gods in the Capitoline temples?
  6. [6]Similarly, ancient poets often have a lot of names for pagan gods and goddesses — Venus may be called Aphrodite, Cytherea, Cypris, Philommeides, Mater Acidalia, etc. depending on what inspires the poet or on the place in the narrative or on what sounds good in the right place in the line. Many modernizing translations rightly reckon that most most readers will only know one or two canonical names for a Greek or Roman divinity, the one that appears in Graeco-Roman Mythology books, and — rightly or wrongly — replace the more recondite references to, say, Cytherea with the canonical name Aphrodite or Venus.

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