THE FLOOD STORY FROM OVIDíS "METAMORPHOSES"

TRANSLATED BY GARRETT W. THIESSEN *

I. THE FLOOD COMES

Ruthless Lycaon, turned into a wolf

Was but part of Joveís vengeance; he alone

Had been dealt justice by the mighty Lord

Of gods and men, who visited the earth

To see if men in truth were wholly bad,

Corrupt and hateful, as the rumor said.

The facts were even worse; it was as if

Men had sworn to do evil and not good.

Wherefore Jove doomed the human race to death.

Most of the gods approved the sentence passed;

Though some, uneasy, wondered if thereby

Their altars would be empty and unused;

But great Jove promised a new race would come,

Unlike the old, who would bring worship true.

He therefore poised his mighty thunderbolt,

But laid it down again, lest the vast flame

By which it would consume man and his earth

Might ignite heaven also. Then he called

The winds and clouds, and bade them storm the earth

With floods of water; and the thing was done.

All landmarks slid beneath the rising waves;

There was no shoreline; all below was sea.

Some few surviving humans were in boats,

Riding above the roofs where once they dwelt,

Or fishing from the tree tops where the birds

Were displaced by strange creatures of the deep.

All but sea-creatures perished presently;

Some drowned; the rest died for the want of food.

II. THE FLOOD SUBSIDES

The savage highland of the Grecian north

Was yet one level water; the quick flood

Had buried it , save that a cloven peak,

Parnassus, reached through waters into clouds.

The lone survivors of the human race,

Prometheusí son Deucalion and his wife,

Borne thither in skiff that saved them, fell

Adoring all the spirits of the place

The woodland nymphs, the oracle of Fate.

He was a just man, and he loved the gods;

So did his goodwife Pyrrha equally.

Olympian Jove looked down upon the world

And saw it all a stagnant sea of death,

Save that one man, one woman, did survive

From all the human thousands, and these two

Were kindly folk, and lovers of the gods.

Thus seeing, he dispersed the sullen clouds,

And stopped the rains, so the fair sky once more

Was seen from earth. Then Neptune and his son,

The reedy Triton, sounded on their shells,

To rule the rampant sea, and bade it turn

Back to its ordered bed; and it obeyed,

From east to west. Again, there was a shore

To ocean, and the rivers knew their bounds.

From the subsiding waters, hills emerged.

Then after many days, there was firm soil

And growing trees, with leaves still marked by mud.

Earth was restored, but on it nothing moved;

Deucalion looked about him and was sad,

And spake thus to his wife, with welling tears:

"My wife, my sister! thou survivor sole

Of womankind, to me now doubly wed

By this our common peril; we live alone,

Just you and I; all people else are dead,

Killed by the flood; and we are not secure.

Bethink you: what if also I were gone,

What could you do but perish in despair?

And so would I, if you had not survived.

I wish I, like Prometheus my sire,

Could mold humans of clay and bid them live!

But now the gods have set us here alone.

To them then let us turn and offer prayer;

It may be they will pity, and will aid."

They entered therefore the flood-ruined shrine,

And kissed the flameless altar, and bowed low,

And prayed: "Avert thine anger to the earth;

Say how again this drowned muddy land

May become peopled, and again alive."

To them in pity then the Spirit spake:

"Go ye in peace; with veil and flowing robe

Do ye but this, and earth shall be renewed:

The parent that conceived ye, take her bones,

And cast them straight behind ye. I have said."

On hearing this, the couple stood aghast;

To desecrate a grave could not be good;

So Pyrrha wept, and feared to heed the god.

But then man pondered, and at last he said;

"It cannot be the gods decree a wrong;

The earth is our great parent; her stone bones

Iím sure is what the god means we should cast.

Pyrrha was doubtful; but what harm to try?

So they went down; arrayed for sacrifice,

They each cast stones behind them, in their tracks.

And then the marvel happened, past belief

Save that most ancient words say it is so

The fallen rocks did soften and change shape,

Became as statues, and the statues lived.

His, men; and hers, as women; so the earth

Is people yet; and so it also is

That present humans have their hearts of stone.

*Garrett Thiessen, though a professor of chemistry, was a life-long lover of classical literature.