Sex, love and grotesquerie: Ovid revisited

Ovid Metamorphosed edited by Philip Terry (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

How did one long poem that had slumped fatly on everybody's dusty top shelf, forgotten by all but classicists, become the talismanic work of our recent fin de siÿcle? Ovid Metamorphosed is a bunch of short stories by a glittering modern cast including Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, AS Byatt, Gabriel Josipovici, Michÿle Roberts and Marina Warner. It's based on the tales retold by a brilliantly visual, witty, technically dazzling Italian poet who lived through another fin de siÿcle (another millennium, though he didn't know it) from 43BC to AD17.

Ovid wrote other major works besides the Metamorphoses: witty, sexy love poems, sad stories and turbulent loves of antique heroines, long poems of exile, and the famously cynical Ars Amatoria - a pastiche of "style police" advice about how to get sex with minimum risk. (Philip Terry, editor of Ovid Metamorphosed, contributes a version of this in men's-mag style.)

But mainly it has been the Metamorphoses that got everyone going. Ovid's poem is unbelievably long, with hundreds of stories linked by one idea: that human bodies change shape after a seismic crisis in relationships due occasionally to competitiveness and ambition, but mainly to sex with its attendant passions - love and hate.

For two millennia, painters, poets, and librettists have reworked these Greek stories in the colourful, sex-crazed spin put on them by the Metamorphoses. Then, in the Nineties, up they rose again. After Ovid (1994) contained modern poetic versions of several stories; then Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid won the 1997 Whitbread Book of the Year. Why the sudden sunburst of popularity?

It must be Ovid's winning mix of passion and compassion, sex and terror, love and grotesquerie - all recreated by the storytellers of Ovid Metamorphosed. MJ Fitzgerald re-does in lavish technicolour the revolting story of Tereus, who raped his sister-in-law and tore out her tongue so she couldn't talk. But the truth got out, and the two sisters served up Tereus to his own son as steak garni.

With her two illegitimate babies born from eggs, Marina Warner's Leto is pursued by enemies into the wilderness and survives by licking scurfy albumen scraped off their newborn scalps. Margaret Atwood's sparklingly cynical Sibyl is a fortune-teller who went back on her promise of sex with Apollo in return for immortality, but forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. Joyce Carol Oates reworks Actaeon - killed by his own hounds because he sees a goddess bathing - as a drunk who publicly humiliates his wife in Twenties Nova Scotia and is cut to pieces by his own sons. Patricia Duncker's mesmeric re-doing of Persephone in the underworld is in the deadpan voice of the river nymph who tries to save Persephone - now re-metamorphosed into a leather-swathed hooker in a corrupt futuristic city.

Some writers weigh the value of Ovidian myth in their own or others' lives. The Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has a sharp-edged adultery story revolving round the myth of Phaethon. AS Byatt weaves together multiple resonances of Arachne, who had a spinning match with Athena and was turned into a spider. Gabriel Josipovici has a moving piece about his dead mother's affection for the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, who turned into "halcyons", or kingfishers. "Having once known the calm of a deep and trusting love, they are transformed, after the anguish of separation, tempest, death, into birds of calm bringing peace even to the sea in winter storms."

So this interestingly tapestried companion to Ovid vividly demonstrates how alive the violence and strangeness of pagan myth is for writers from Holland, Canada, America, Britain, Ireland, India and France. But, as Atwood's smart-ass Sibyl remarks, "It's pearls before swine in the allusion department round here." The pieces that work best today are those that fly furthest from their source and don't try too hard to nail their stories to the blueprint of antiquity.

The reviewer's book 'I'm a Man: sex, gods and rock'n'roll' is published by Faber in June