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The soil you can’t stand on, the wave you can’t swim through; the hot and cold in one body, the war of each against all! (Ovid, Metamorphoses I, Invocation and First Narrative Stanza)

Let’s wrap up Ovid’s first narrative stanza on primordial Chaos. After the epic invocation, the call back to the very beginning of the world and the naming of Chaos as the first face of the universe (1, 2), and the mythological allusions to the elemental forces and the elder gods that hadn’t yet taken form, that could not take form except in a world brought out of the primal chaotic mass. The stanza concludes by adding the element of conflict and instability to primordial Chaos. Hesiod’s Χάος is empty and void, a dark and yawning pit; it plays a role after the Titanomachy because it establishes that the younger gods consign the conquered elder gods to a place so deep and far away that it beyond Χάος, effectively the bottom of the Bottomless Pit beneath the inhabited universe. Ovid’s Chaos is full of mass, of weight, of heaps of the seeds of things not well joined. They’re ill-joined due to discord, and at the close of the stanza Ovid explicitly introduces the idea not only due to confusion or mess, but because without the separation of elements, every part of everything is locked in conflict and violence, an unceasing all-pervading cosmic war of each against all. Here’s Book I, lines 16-20 in the original Latin:[1]

Mundi origo.

. . . Sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

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

16Siceratinstabilistellus,innabilisunda,
adv.v. 3d. sg., impf. act. ind.adj., fem. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.adj., fem. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.
[thus, so][was][unstable][soil][unswimmable][wave, water]
17lucisegensaer;nullisuaformamanebat,
n., fem. gen. sg.pres. act. part., masc. nom. sg.n., masc. nom. sg.adj./pron., neut. dat. sg.adj. poss. 3d, fem. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.v. 3d. sg., impf. act. ind.
[of light][lacking][the air];[to nought][its own][form][remained, kept]
18obstabatquealiis , wanting, impoverishedaliud,quiacorporeinuno
v. 3d sg., impf. act. ind. + conj.adj./pron., neut. dat. pl.adj./pron., neut. nom. sg.conj.n., neut. abl. sg.prep.adj./num., neut. abl. sg.
[held back] + [and](with) [other things][other thing][because][body][in][one]
19frigidapugnabantcalidis,umentiasiccis,
adj., neut. nom. pl.v. 3d. pl., impf. act. ind.n., neut. abl. pl.pres. act. part., neut. nom. pl.n. neut. abl. pl.
[cold things][were fighting](with) [hot things][wet things](with) [dry things]
20molliacumduris,sineponderehabentiapondus.
adj., neut. nom. pl.prep.adj., neut. abl. pl.adv.n., neut. abl. sg.pres. act. part., neut. nom. pl.n., neut. acc. sg.
[soft things][with][hard things][without][weight][things having][weight]

Most of the grammar here is pretty straightforward. The passage is describing a background condition rather than narrating sequential events, so the verbs are all in the imperfect past, or present active participles describing the scene. Word order is mostly familiar, once you allow for the use of elliptical constructions when the poet sets up parallelism within a list of elements. Depending on whether you take the adjectives in the first two lines as attributive adjectives or predicate adjectives, erat could be read either as a copula (So the ground was unstable, the water unswimmable…) or as an impersonal existential (So there was unstable ground, unswimmable water…). Pairs of alius… alius… forms (here: aliis… aliud…) are using a pronomial adjective that literally means the other… the other…; in Latin, they have the meaning of exhausting a set or contrasting a pair, like The one… the other…, or Some… others…., Some things… everything else… Nulli is in the dative because things can remain to their owners, e.g., After tea-time, one scone remained to me. sine-pondere is not used as a prepositional phrase here, but as a noun phrase, meaning those things without weight. In the vocabulary, innabilis is an unusual word, constructed to rhyme with instabilis, but with the relatively transparent meaning of where one can’t swim (NO, NARE). Obstat and pugnat (to stand against, to struggle, contend or fight) have both generalized meanings and also specific military meanings, indicating defense or obstructive force on the one hand, and offense or combative violence on the other.

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

Mundi origo.

. . . Sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

World’s Beginning

. . . So there was unstable[2] ground, unswimmable water,[3] air impoverished of light; its own form remained to nothing, and everything obstructed every other thing, because, within a single body, cold things were fighting (with) hot, wet things fought (with) dry, soft things with hard, those having weight with those without weight.

Let’s try a pass at a verse translation. Since these lines close out the stanza from the last sets (1, 2, 3) and continue the theme started there, I wanted to include the entirety of the stanza, and the opening epic invocation along with it. But stitching the two stanzas together raises another translational question. In line 1 and line 17, Ovid uses and then re-uses a critical word that appears throughout the Metamorphoses, forma. In the opening line, I translated the term as figures, but also took the poetic license of echoing it in the word Transformed! at the head of my first line. In line 17 so far, I’ve been inclined to translate it as form or shape. The word itself has a whole range of meanings: it can mean physical form, contour or shape; it can mean visible appearance or image; it can mean pattern, stamp or model; it can mean sort, essential form or nature. It is often used in connection with terms for the body and to mean bodily figure, and like the English shapely or figure it can also be used to refer to beauty (cf. formosus). Part of my reason for favoring figure in line 1 is that the gods, spirits and mortals described throughout most of the epic narrative have figures, and — not to put too fine of a point on it — a lot of the transformations are tied to violent, ugly or troubling stories about gods and men chasing after spirits or mortal women described in terms of their bodily beauty. The word might seem a bit more odd in this opening stanza, where the formae we are talking about belong to primal elements in the state of Chaos. On the other hand, these are also referred to as elements striving with each other within one body (corpore in uno), so maybe by a metaphorical stretch the translator can keep to the same word here in each case, rather than splitting the decision between the two lines. In any case, here goes:

Invocatio

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

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.
Sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

Invocation: Into Something New and Strange

Transformed! A mind takes me — to tell of figures changed into new
bodies. Gods, — as You transformed Yourselves, others too, — so breathe
upon the things I have begun: from the world’s first beginning,
without pause through to my own day, lead out an unbroken song.

1. 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 there where the ground was — air, sea and aether.
So there was unstandable ground, unswimmable water,
Lightless air, and nothing keeping its proper figure;
Each standing against all, because within one body
The cold was at war with the hot, the wet with the dry,
The soft with the hard, the lightness of things with the weight they carry.

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]instabilis: Unsteady, inconstant, not firm; lit. from IN- + STO, not where one can stand fast
  3. [3]Lit. from IN- + NO, not where one can swim, not where one can float.

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1 reply to The soil you can’t stand on, the wave you can’t swim through; the hot and cold in one body, the war of each against all! (Ovid, Metamorphoses I, Invocation and First Narrative Stanza) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Roderick T. Long

    I believe the correct translation of “Χάος” is “Ginnungagap.”

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