In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the theme of chaos and order is a prevalent and fundamental motif both to the philosophy of the text as well as the society that it aims to portray – a Greek culture. Through a careful close reading of two sections of the epic that deal with this theme: “Pentheus and Bacchus” and “Chaos and Creation”, I have come to a conclusion concerning the way humans interface with nature in this tradition: it is only divinity, and not Man, that has the right and ability to establish true order.
The preface to Pentheus’ address to his people in page 81 of Metamorphoses is quite an important frame unto which Pentheus’ words are set. The description of Liber’s coming is rather a somewhat welcome one, involving words like “celebration” and “feast”, all of which are happening in open “meadows.” This paints a scene of revelry and nature that occur in the “countryside” as per the text. Moreover, the people involved in this celebration are not specific – all manners of people from a range of gender, age, and social class are included. It seems an idyllic scene, but clearly Pentheus finds it objectionable.
Pentheus’ language, declaiming the revelry, is quite different. In fact, most of the language centers itself around the basis of war. On page 81, we find a constant use of the words “battle”, “war”, and weapon imagery by Ovid.
“Descendants of old Mars [A god of War], what brand of madness
Has unwound your brains? … Are these your conquerors, O men of war
For whom the naked sword, the roar of trumpets, And piercing lances held no thought of fear?
…Are these men fallen Without a sign of war?
How can I praise those of my generation
Who once wore battle dress, sword, helmet, shield, Who now wear vine leaves and dishevelled hair?”
This language is indicative of Pentheus’ belief in a connection between order and war, indeed, he frames the reveler’s state as being a battle lost against sanity. His main contestation, it seems, is that none of his people are fit for war in such a state. War, which he goes on to explain is a superior state.
“How can you go to war with thoughts of glory?
He killed brave men-but are you fit to conquer The Impotent to save your heritage?
It may be Thebes’ fate not to live too long;
For my part I would see War and its armies Destroy her walls, Encircle her with flames. We would be miserable, but honour would be held;
We’d cry aloud our bitterness, our fate.
But now Thebes is taken by a child, a boy
Who does not care to know the arts of war.”
Pentheus’ language here makes it clear that war and violence are purveyors of order, and that Bacchus’ force is a chaotic one.
A close reading of “Chaos and Creation” on page three of Metamorphoses, however, paints a different picture about the relationship between order and chaos, at least on a linguistic level. The initial chaos of the universe is described as violent, at least in imagery, throughout. In addition the chaotic universe is described as one in which everything is jumbled up and constantly clashing, melding, and falling apart. Indeed, a majority of the words used throughout the first stanza are negatives or otherwise relational. There is a repeated use of the word “No” in relation to familiar, beautiful things, as well as the presence of words like “heaved”, “darkness”, “fallen”, “yielding”, and “against.”
Meanwhile the remaining stanzas, beginning with the second, all concern themselves with the creation of order amidst the chaos. The language in the second stanza particularly paints this order as beginning with the separation of different cosmic elements and affirms it as a positive thing through its wording. “Floating” and “climbed” are used to describe this process of separation. And once these elements have been separated, the Earth is described with such words as “delicately” and “dancing”.
Here the connection is simple, in “Chaos and Creation” Original Chaos is warlike and violent while Original Order is largely harmonious and tranquil in its language. In “Pentheus and Bacchus”, however, Pentheus – a sort of force for “order” – is the one that uses violence and allusions to war the most, while Bacchus’ revelers celebrate as one in nature. This reversal in language is strange, incongruous, and startling, but it might have something to do with the cosmic status of the acting forces in the two sections.
In “Chaos and Creation” it is Divinity that is chiefly involved in making Order from Chaos. Meanwhile “Pentheus and Bacchus” features a Man as the central force working against chaos. And not just any chaos, but the chaos of Bacchus, who is a god and thus a purveyor of natural forces. We might even consider Bacchus’ own brand of chaos as being an organized part of the Order that happened after Creation, however, this is only a small support point to the larger argument, which is that Pentheus’ fate is due to his aim to establish order amidst chaos, a duty that cannot successfully done by mere Men.
All order involves the elimination of chaos which in the context of the text, is a state of unfit unity. Thus, sorting and segregation of elements is required. This definition of chaos in the text is implicitly supported by the fact that Bacchus’ “chaotic” celebrations involve the joining together of all manners of people for revelry. Pentheus, in hoping to reestablish order would be forced to re-segregate the revelers into their “place”, an act that would most likely require violence. This, then, is perhaps a task that is above his scope as a simple Man, as only Divinity can properly segregate different elements in a harmonious way, as was done in the Creation. A Man emulating such activity in order to eliminate a chaos that is brought about by a god is a violation of the cosmic hierarchy according to Greek tradition, and perhaps a primary reason why Pentheus was punished.
Ovid, et al. Ovid: the Metamorphoses. The Viking Press, 1958.