Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Richard Buxton, Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 281. ISBN 9780199245499. $100.00.
Reviewed by Barry B. Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison


In story, things change shape, and in nature too, when a worm becomes a butterfly. This intriguing study of metamorphosis in ancient literature looks squarely at examples from the Greek tradition, beginning with Homer's Odyssey. (Ovid and Apuleius apparently are too Latin for inclusion, although features of each are recounted in the introduction.) Of course we cannot always be sure whether metamorphosis has taken place, or whether the poet is speaking figuratively--did Athene fly away from Pylos in the actual form of a bird or only "like a bird" Buxton wonders? Can we take literally descriptions of the gods as animals, harking back to an ancient theriomorphism, or is something else going on? In the Odyssey Proteus certainly changes his shape, and Circe makes pigs of men. Odysseus himself is now a decrepit old man, now a shining young man. In the Iliad fewer transformations take place, and neither poem allows a permanent change from man to beast, as so common in Ovid's poem.

From Homer, Buxton turns to Athenian drama, where he rounds up the usual suspects: Dionysus looks like a man but is a god. Io is a cow. Tereus may have become a bird. Hekabe will turn into a bitch, Kadmos and Harmonia into snakes. Still, as in epic, in general, only death can release the human from its form. In comedy, Aristophanes' Birds testifies to metamorphosis into birds, although Buxton may lose his focus in seeing disguise, so important in Aristophanic comedy, as a genre of metamorphosis (I wonder, does not the masked character pretend to be different, but never is?).

In the visual arts Buxton isolates three ways of representing metamorphosis: as a serial illustration; when the metamorphosis is complete; as a hybrid. To the first must belong the representation of Thetis accompanied by different animals into which she is imagined to be metamorphosing. Into the middle category must be placed Zeus as golden rain, as swan, as bull, as eagle. The third will explain representation of Circe's men, Minotaur, Io, Niobe, and Aktaion.

As usual, lack of evidence constricts knowledge of the Hellenistic period, where metamorphosis was often invoked. Antoninus Liberalis preserves some fragments of the lost Nicander and Boios, from which some conclusions can be drawn. Two poets, Apollonius of Rhodes and Moschos, offer more detailed opportunities. There are plenty of metamorphoses in Apollonius, as the clod that becomes the island of Kalliste; and Moschos alludes to earlier descriptions of Zeus's transformation into a bull.

Even later, the traveler Pausanias rejects some contemporary stories of metamorphosis, but accepts that earlier accounts are real. Plutarch's Gryllos presents one of Odysseus' men altogether content with his animal's perspective. Artemidorus shows how dreaming of a bear can mean dreaming of a woman. Nonnus in his fifth-century AD Dionysiaka has everybody exuberantly changing into everything else; it is one of the foci of his narrative.

Why do the gods change their shapes? For love: Buxton give many examples of first Zeus, then Poseidon. Also, in order to escape, in order to conceal themselves, and in order to exact vengeance. In most cases uncomprehending mortals are astonished at witnessing a transformation, hence the title Forms of Astonishment, although Peleus is not astonished by Thetis's appearance. What about such shape-shifters as Proteus, Nereus, Metis, Nemesis, Thetis, Periklymenos, Dionysus, and Mestra? Do they have a special mythology, as some scholars proposed? Buxton doubts it. All gods can change into any shape they want.

In an interesting discussion Buxton describes anthropomorphism in the Near East, India, and Egypt, and again in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Certainly Greek gods can appear in many forms, such as the mare-headed Demeter of Phigalia, and be transformed into almost any shape; but they always return to human form. Greek religion is in fact anthropomorphic, in spite of exceptions.

Most today would accept a dividing line between inanimate and animate, but such was not necessarily true of the Greeks for whom springs were nymphs and rivers old men and mountains were gods. Hence many stories told of how now this figure, now that, was transformed into a feature of the natural world. So Niobe was once a weeping maid, then a spring pouring from a mountain; Delos was a maid; Peirene, the spring at Corinth, was once a woman. Did the Greeks believe such stories? That depends on what you mean by believe, and to whom you are talking.

Certainly trees are nymphs; countless examples prove it. One view held that humans themselves came from trees. Or there is a generative power in human tears. Or from the blood of young men grows a plant--from Hyakinthos, Narkissos, Krokos, Adonis, and Agdistis. Blood is like semen, and is made of the same stuff. No wonder that these young boys, who die before marriage, end up giving birth to non-cereal plants. Can a god change its form? The Presocratics are hard to interpret on this point. Plato dismisses it out of hand. Aristotle does not tackle the topic. Stoics and Epicureans adopted contrasting positions. Clement of Alexandria very much disapproves.

Palaephatus, who may belong to the fourth century, is sure that such stories derive from simple misunderstandings. Pythagoras appears to approve of transformations through different life forms, but of course stories of transformation are always in lieu of death. Plato's myth of Er makes clear that he thought the soul had independent continuity and could chose higher or lower forms to indwell. Later Christian thinkers mocked the notion that a rational human soul could dwell in an animal or a plant.

This book has a narrow focus and sometimes seems preoccupied with disagreeing or agreeing with earlier commentators as much as coming to grips with the topic. Nonetheless the reader will draw much profit from the range of Buxton's knowledge and his generous willingness to share this knowledge.

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