What can Ovid teach us about personal growth?

By Claire Lamont

A confession: in a previous life, I was a Classicist. I studied Latin at university and with the zeal of the convert, I adored it (and still do, though sadly my translation skills are a bit rusty now.) Like many, the poet who most tickled my heart was Ovid, whose playfulness often feels very postmodern. His epic poem, the Metamorphoses, weaves together many mythical stories of nymphs, gods and mortals, all playing with the idea of change and transformation (often against their protagonists’ will.)

After ten years away, I’ve been drawn back to the Metamorphoses recently, and certain stories have been playing on my mind. I’ve been going through a lot of change in my own life - training in psychotherapy and a year of weekly therapy will do that - and sometimes trying to make sense of how that feels can be quite mystifying. Ovid’s enigmatic tales seem to have leaked back into my life in the middle of this confusion.

Ovid’s tales of frail mortals like Daedalus and Icarus, or Narcissus’ original narcissism - so hypnotised by his own reflection in a pond that he failed to even notice poor Echo, and eventually turned into a flower - speak beautifully to me right now. They tell of how we humans fail again and again to understand ourselves, to act in ways that will benefit us, or hurt the ones we love. For me, there is something comforting - or at least interesting - in knowing that the Romans struggled with many of these same dilemmas and confusions 2000 years ago.

The story I can’t get away from right now is Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a famed lyre-player, the best in the world, and he fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice. When she died young Orpheus could not bear the pain, and he managed to get down to the Underworld and its king, Hades to try to free her from death. Hades granted her release back to the living, on one condition: that Orpheus lead her back up to the mortal realm, and that he not turn around to look at her until they were both back in the sunlight.

Back they both went, through the caves of the Underworld. They got as far as the mouth of the caves before Orpheus, fearing Eurydice was no longer behind him, relented and turned. True to Hades’ word, Eurydice was whisked away, back to the Underworld, never to be released again. Orpheus eventually died in abject pain for his mistake.

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1806, in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

What part of me is so drawn to this particularly awful metamorphosis? Not only is this the story of star-crossed lovers, but a tale of a very understandable human failing. Who of us could say for sure that, in Orpheus’ position, we wouldn’t turn around and look? Having lost the love of your life once, can you imagine the endless journey through the caves with just your own trust in yourself and another, frail human to see you through? How many of us trust those we love that much? And do we trust ourselves?

For me, this is a story not only about trust, but about so many of the existential facts we all face every day, but rarely think about head-on. Are we able to put our faith in ourselves, and in others? Can we think about death, abandonment, and the ways that we are all alone? Big stuff, and it’s not like Ovid gives us any easy answers; that’s something I like about him, and many of the myths he’s playing with. None of this is wrapped up with a bow: we continue to self-sabotage, hurt ourselves and each other, to this day, and often with the best intentions.

Orpheus’ journey through the caves of the Underworld also feels like an apt description of change to me. When we go through periods of transition - whether moving house, jobs, or the end of a relationship - our internal world is often thrown into confusion. It can feel like we’re in the dark of those caves, trying to work out how to get out again. We want to trust that things will be ok - to trust that Eurydice is behind us, that we will reach the light again - but that faith can be the hardest thing. Not-knowing is not a natural state for me, or for many of us; some certainty is rather more my cup of tea, thank you. And yet life throws us curveballs, and suddenly we are back in those caves, feeling our way.

So Orpheus’ story, sad as it is, speaks to me of the times in my life when all is not clear, and a great deal of things are confusing. At those times the comfort of looking back is appealing, but won’t necessarily help me get where I’m going. I understand fully why Orpheus couldn’t keep the faith. Sometimes you can’t. But to get to the light, at sometime we have to take a deep breath and have some faith in ourselves.