What would Ovid make of coronavirus?

The idea that human creativity and innovation is in conflict with the natural order of things is a common trope in Greek and Roman literature
June 7, 2020

Is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19? The contention among some specialists in the field is that humanity’s spoliation of the environment creates the conditions for new diseases to thrive, and viruses to leap from animals to people. A column in the New York Times put it this way: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts.”

There has been anxiety about humans’ intervention in nature for thousands of years, and it’s notable, if depressing, how little effect it has had on the way our species behaves. The idea that human creativity and innovation is in conflict with the natural order of things is a common trope in Greek and Roman literature.

The seeds of this thinking find beautiful expression in a famous choral ode in Sophocles’ 5th-century BC play Antigone, which contains the famous line (in Frank Nisetich’s translation): “none is more wonderful, more terrible than man.” (In Greek, it must be said, this is niftier, because the ideas of “wonderful” and “terrible” are contained in a single word, deinos.) The ode goes on to describe how people have brilliantly learned how to fish and hunt, to domesticate animals, to build ships, and to establish cities. The whole thing might be a triumphant hymn of praise to human progress, but it isn’t: it leaves a disquieting aftertaste. People, concludes the ode, are as likely to use this ingenuity for evil as for good.

I’ve been struck in recent years by how easy it is to read parts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—the Roman writer’s 1st-century AD poem about mythical transformations—through an environmental lens. Take the story of Phaethon. The young boy is brought up by his mother on a remote island; his father is the sun god Helios, who passes high overhead every day in his chariot but never pauses. Phaethon bugs his mother to give him proof that this distant deity really is his father, until, exasperated, she tells her son to visit him in his palace. Phaethon extracts a promise from his father that he be allowed to drive the chariot through the skies, just for one day. But it goes terribly wrong. Phaethon cannot control the horses. The chariot veers wildly off course and plunges towards the Earth. The heat of the sun parches the fields and dries up the crops and the trees. Forest fires rage; snow melts on the mountain peaks. The Earth herself, scorched, cries out in distress to Jupiter, who takes a thunderbolt and hurls it at Phaethon, killing him. Reading this story through the climate crisis, it speaks eloquently of human arrogance, and our delusions of control.

Helen Morales, in her new book Antigone Rising: the Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths, also reads Ovid’s telling of the story of King Erysichthon through an environmental lens. His name literally translates from Greek as “earth-ripper,” so you get the idea. In order to build a banqueting hall, he has a grove of trees sacred to the goddess Ceres felled—and cuts down the first tree himself, killing the nymph inside, though not before she curses him. Ceres makes the king ravenously hungry. The more he eats, the more he wants. He eats through all the food in the land, all the crops; he burns through his wealth and he even sells his daughter. Then he eats himself, gnawing at his own limbs. It doesn’t need much decoding to be read as a perfect myth for now.