April 23, 2010

Ovid's Fasti

For my lit project, I read Ovid's Fasti.

"Fasti" is Latin for (something like) "chronicle," a marking of time. A fasti is frequently a (Roman) calendar. Ovid's Fasti is an elegiac poem describing various important dates, mostly Roman religious holidays/festivals. Ovid provides mythological explanations for these festivals.

If that sounds boring, it is not. This is Ovid.

It is, however, difficult. In these first few months of my lit project, I have become comfortable with Classical myth; the numerous religious references in these Ancient works pause me no more. But Fasti is an exception. Much of the myth it covers is peculiarly Roman and terribly obscure. And Fasti is written with the assumption that the reader knows the importance of the days it mentions and what the festivals are. I am not an Ancient Roman citizen and do not know anything about these traditions. All to my dismay.

But the obscurity of the myths and festivals did set me thinking. It is too easy to look at Roman culture as a borrowed culture. What would they be without the Greeks? But no, they seem to have had a well established set of myths beyond the Greeks. How far back does this culture date? How independent are these Roman myths? How did they survive? How did Greek and Roman myth so successfully mix? Such questions are impossible to answer this far removed from the Romans.

Another question which fascinates me: how did all these poets know all these stories? I have always wondered this, especially with Ovid (a fountain of references). In most cases, it is easy to imagine the very basic oral tradition that the poets are filling in when they are writing their myths, but this is more difficult with the Romans who borrowed Greek myth and could not have had the same oral tradition. Did Ovid find all his myths in Greek books? How much myth was recorded by Ovid's age? (Too few Ancient texts survive to say.)

Perhaps Ovid made all of his myth up. He frequently offers several explanations and leaves it to the reader to decide which explanation is correct. Ovid does not actually know the reasons for the many traditions he is explaining -- even when he appeals to a god or goddess who answers his questions for him (he uses this amusing device in (almost) every book of the Fasti). But it is hard to doubt Ovid's authority on mythology. He is our standard for Ancient mythology, two thousand years on.

Scholars like to point out that Ovid's Fasti does not fit neatly into any "genre." There is no precedence for this work. No generic tradition. By choosing elegiac meter, Ovid defies the Ancient obsession with the relationship between meter and content; the elegy is usually reserved for small and unambitious subjects (a prayer, or the erotic), but the Fasti is an incredibly ambitious work, as Ovid likes to note (comparing his work to an epic voyage). Other poets would have composed the Fasti in dactylic hexameter (favored meter of the epic). Ovid, choosing the elegy, is self-consciously provocative.

Ovid's ambitious scope allows him to cover many different aspects of mythology and Roman society, further confounding any attempt to categorize his Fasti. But he does have two important influences I am proud to have recognized. The first is Propertius, who wrote etiological poems in Book 4 of his Elegies. Ovid seems to have picked up on this new possibility and turned it into the Fasti (this also explains his choice of elegiac meter). Ovid's second important influence is Aratus, who wrote a poem on the constellations and weather and who I discovered through Ovid's praise (in Amores). Indeed, Ovid makes a special point of the stars and writes about them, their rising and their setting, as often as he can. Some of my favorite sections of the Fasti are mythological explanations of the constellations. I did not expect Aratus to reappear in any form in my reading. I am glad he did.

Scholars also like to point out the political implications of Ovid's work. This is undoubtedly because of Ovid's exile, which must have some political reason. But I do not think that subtle political implications are important to Ovid's work. I wish more scholars would skip this tedious political interpretation.

Only six books of the Fasti survive, corresponding to the months January through June. There is a fierce debate about whether the other six books were written and lost or never written (and so never lost). I shall not throw my divine opinion into this fray. I do wish we did have those six books. It would be a nice feather in my lit project's cap.


DG said...

you know lots of stuff

Ian said...

Have you started reading the poets I recommended?