Monday, March 11, 2013

Circe and Pomona, Greece and Rome

Book 14 of the Metamorphoses offers the suggestive juxtaposition of Circe and Pomona, so different in their modes of work, and in their relationship to desire. Circe seems to find certain men sexually irresistible. If they reject her passion, her speedy exercise of dark powers compels their understanding that amor does not necessarily consort with iustitia.

Pomona, on the other hand, appears uninterested in the opposite sex, and is one of numerous figures in the later books (Galatea, Glaucus, the Cumaean Sybil, Picus, Anaxarete) to reject would-be suitors, who are characterized as agrestis -- coarse, rude, uncivil, not unlike the Apulian shepherd.

The two female figures are worth pondering with respect to desire, knowledge, and power.

Circe is queenly, full of knowledge of the powers of nature and the techniques to abstract them. Here's Macareus describing her coven of pharmacists:


pulchro sedet illa recessu
sollemni solio pallamque induta nitentem
insuper aurato circumvelatur amictu.
Nereides nymphaeque simul, quae vellera motis
nulla trahunt digitis nec fila sequentia ducunt:                 265
gramina disponunt sparsosque sine ordine flores
secernunt calathis variasque coloribus herbas;
ipsa, quod hae faciunt, opus exigit, ipsa, quis usus
quove sit in folio, quae sit concordia mixtis,
novit et advertens pensas examinat herbas.
‘She sat in a lovely inner room on her sacred throne, wearing a shining robe, covered over with a gold-embroidered veil. Nereids and nymphs were with her, who do not work wool with nimble fingers, nor, then, spin the thread: they arrange herbs, scattered without order, separating flowers and grasses of various colours, into baskets. She herself directs the work they do: she herself knows the use of each leaf, which kinds mix in harmony, examines them, and pays attention to the weighings of the herbs.'
Circe comes across here as a kind of Faustian queen bee capable of combining materials gathered by drone labor with arcane techniques to produce unnatural results. We might here see one aspect of Ovid's critique of the legacy of Greece.

Pomona on the other hand holds herself aloof, but is all activity. She does not speak, but this doesn't necessarily place her in the line of mute, victimized female figures in literature, as some have suggested. She prohibits access, she shuns men - this virgin in the orchard is no weak sister.

For that matter, it would be somewhat diminishing to regard her strictly as a human female (as it would to regard Perseus or Vertumnus as mere males). Her powers come from attention to living things, from amor and studium:

                                         nulla Latinas
inter hamadryadas coluit sollertius hortos
nec fuit arborei studiosior altera fetus;                       625
unde tenet nomen: non silvas illa nec amnes,
rus amat et ramos felicia poma ferentes;
nec iaculo gravis est, sed adunca dextera falce,
qua modo luxuriem premit et spatiantia passim
bracchia conpescit, fisso modo cortice virgam             630
inserit et sucos alieno praestat alumno;
nec sentire sitim patitur bibulaeque recurvas
radicis fibras labentibus inrigat undis.
hic amor, hoc studium, Veneris quoque nulla cupido est;
vim tamen agrestum metuens pomaria claudit               635
intus et accessus prohibet refugitque viriles.
No other hamadryad of the wood nymphs of Latium tended the gardens more skilfully or was more devoted to the orchards’ care, hence her name. She loved the fields and the branches loaded with ripe apples, not the woods and rivers. She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling. She would not allow them to suffer from being parched, watering, in trickling streams, the twining tendrils of thirsty root. This was her love, and her passion, and she had no longing for desire. Still fearing boorish aggression, she enclosed herself in an orchard (pomaria), and denied an entrance, and shunned men.
Neither a boss nor a hunter, Pomona is a nurturing semi-divine spirit that enhances growth and variety through natural means. Ignoring vim agrestum -- rude sexual force -- she embodies the "art that nature makes," as Perdita puts it in The Winter's Tale. This is Ovid's version of the warm, Italic integration of amor and studium, nature and art.

Pomona at Plaza Hotel


  1. Hi, thanks for this post. I'm an MFA student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Currently I'm working on a sculpture dealing with Ovid's exile, using fabrics and a small diorama constructed out of wood and plaster. I'm interested in the question of whether his exile was fictionalized. If so, you could see his texts as being "performative" in a way that I think relates to contemporary performance art. If he didn't fictionalize it, then that raises lots of interesting political questions about his work. Either way, I'm very interested in all this and really enjoyed your post. Do you have an opinion on his exile? Also, do you know anything about Helieutica?

  2. Hi Benjamin - Thanks for the interesting questions. I've not read the Helieutica, but am happy to find an old English translation here for free, so I will be reading it.

    I've not studied the question of Ovid's exile, but am perhaps less surprised that students of the poet would suggest that he only pretended to be exiled than I would with almost any other writer. After all, he's fascinated precisely with the question of fiction and with the power of language to act - your interest in him suggests you are responding to these elements in his work. The "Ibis" is a sustained "act" and one can only wonder what became of the object of the curse. Thanks for making me more aware of what Ovid was up to, whether in the real Tomis, or a literary version of it.