Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 81 – Pythagoras and vegetarianism

Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (detail) (c 1509-11), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Apostolico, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid opens the fifteenth and final book of his Metamorphoses by continuing his account of the early rulers of Rome. With the apotheosis of Romulus, the next is his successor Numa, whom he uses as narrator for an overview of the Metamorphoses in Pythagorean philosophical terms.

The Story

Fame nominates Numa as successor to Romulus as the ruler of Rome. Numa had left Cures, the town of his birth, to travel to Crotona (Crotone), in the far south of the Italian peninsula, where he visited Croton, its ruler.

This is Ovid’s cue for a story about Myscelus, who founded Crotona. Hercules appeared to him in a dream, and told him to travel to the river Aesar, despite his being forbidden from leaving his native land of Argos. Driven by dreams of Hercules, Myscelus tried to leave but was accused of treason, and appealed to Hercules to save him from the mandatory death penalty.

At that time, trial juries voted by casting black or white pebbles into an urn; being undoubtedly guilty, all those cast in Myscelus’ case were black when they were placed in the urn:
It was an ancient custom of that land
to vote with chosen pebbles, white and black.
The white absolved, the black condemned the man.
And so that day the fateful votes were given:
all cast into the cruel urn were black!
Soon as that urn inverted poured forth all
the pebbles to be counted, every one
was changed completely from its black to white,
and so the vote adjudged him innocent.
By that most fortunate aid of Hercules
he was exempted from the country’s law.

Myscelus was therefore able to sail to found Crotona on the River Aesar.

After he had fled Samos, Ovid tells us that Pythagoras lived in exile at Crotona, and this leads to a long discourse on his doctrines and philosophy. Having assured us of Pythagoras’ diligent observation of the world around him and careful analysis of what he saw, Ovid starts with an exhortation to vegetarianism.

Within this discourse, Ovid makes reference to preceding sections and themes of Metamorphoses. Pythagoras’ words hark back to the Golden Age, which was covered in Book 1. Pythagoras lays claim to reincarnation too, saying that in a previous life he had been Euphorbus, who had been killed by Menelaus in the Trojan War. This leads Pythagoras on to discussing change and transformation, the central theme of these fifteen books.

Pythagoras sees change in the waves of the sea, in the sequence of day and night, in the four seasons, in the ageing of humans, and in the transformation of the elements (earth, air, water, and fire):
Nothing retains the form that seems its own,
and Nature, the renewer of all things,
continually changes every form
into some other shape. Believe my word,
in all this universe of vast extent,
not one thing ever perished. All have changed
appearance. Men say a certain thing is born,
if it takes a different form from what it had;
and yet they say, that certain thing has died,
if it no longer keeps the self same shape.
Though distant things move near, and near things far,
always the sum of all things is unchanged.
For my part, I cannot believe a thing
remains long under the same form unchanged.
Look at the change of times from gold to iron,
look at the change in places. I have seen
what had been solid earth become salt waves,
and I have seen dry land made from the deep;
and, far away from ocean, sea-shells strewn,
and on the mountain-tops old anchors found.
Water has made that which was once a plain
into a valley, and the mountain has
been levelled by the floods down to a plain.
A former marshland is now parched dry sand,
and places which endured severest drought
are wet with standing pools. Here Nature has
opened fresh springs, but there has shut them up;
rivers aroused by ancient earthquakes have
rushed out or vanished, as they lost their depth.

Pythagoras then illustrates this constant change with a long list of places whose geography had changed in recorded history, and of locations which cause change in those who visit them. After those, he returns to the theme of change in animals, telling the legend of the Phoenix which is reborn from the ashes of its parent. This leads on to consideration of some great cities which have fallen, and the chance to point out that Troy never fell completely, as it reached its destiny of founding the city and empire of Rome.

Finally, Pythagoras returns to the subject of vegetarianism:
Away with cruel nets and springs and snares
and fraudulent contrivances: deceive
not birds with bird-limed twigs: do not deceive
the trusting deer with dreaded feather foils:
do not conceal barbed hooks with treacherous bait:
if any beast is harmful, take his life,
but, even so, let killing be enough.
Taste not his flesh, but look for harmless food!

The Paintings

Sadly, coverage of the opening of this book in visual art has been essentially absent, but Pythagoras has inspired some great paintings, and is my focus here.

A great many prints and other representations of Pythagoras recall the first image that I have been able to find, by Raphael.

Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (c 1509-11), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Apostolico, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In his magnificant fresco in the Palazzo Apostolico, The School of Athens painted in about 1509-11, Raphael includes Pythagoras at the lower left corner.

Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (detail) (c 1509-11), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Apostolico, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

This detail shows Pythagoras writing in a large book, with a chalk drawing on a small blackboard in front of his left foot. Others are looking over his shoulder and studying what he is doing.

Despite the popularity of Ovid’s Metamorphoses over the centuries, very little seems to have been written or painted about its lengthy advocacy of a vegetarian diet and lifestyle. It did, though, inspire one exceptional painting.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism (1618-20), oil on canvas, 262 x 378.9 cm, The Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens collaborated with Frans Snyders to paint Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism in about 1618-20. The mathematician and philosopher sits to the left of centre, with a group of followers further to the left. The painting is dominated by its extensive display of fruit and vegetables, which is being augmented by three nymphs and two satyrs. One of the latter seems less interested in the food than he is in one of the nymphs.

Fyodor Bronnikov (1827—1902), Pythagoreans Celebrate Sunrise (1869), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Today, Pythagoras is best known for his geometric discoveries, rather than the doctrines detailed by Ovid. Fyodor Bronnikov’s painting of Pythagoreans Celebrate Sunrise from 1869 is perhaps more in keeping with the Classical perception. These followers are decidedly musical, holding between them four lyres, a harp, and a flute, and worshipping the rising sun.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.