Arborisms in Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon from Metamorphoses 8.620-720
This woodsy passage is an arborist’s delight. Perhaps to intensify the transformation of the two old people whose theoxeny - hospitality to their anonymous divine guests (Jupiter and Mercury) - is unique, Ovid fashions and foreshadows their future nature as trees by filling his poetic text with at least 30 references to wood or forest plants. This is a brief catalog of Ovid's passage with possible arboreal interpretations and allusions.
First, Ovid has his narrator (Lelex) tell about what he has seen growing side by side in the Phrygian hills, long after the transformation in their anonymous almost endless life as the yet-unnamed Baucis and Philemon are an oak (quercus) and linden (tilia) tree intertwined (tiliae contermina quercus 8.620).
Second, Philemon welcomes the gods to enter the poor couple’s forest hovel – whose roof is reeds and stalks of straw (stipulis et canna 8.630) - by way of a [wooden] gabled doorpost (vertice postes 8.638) (1). Baucis pulls off dry twigs and stems (ramaliaque arida 8.644) from the thatched roof as tinder for the meal’s fire. Then, using a forked stick (furca…bicornis 8.646) Philemon unhooks dried meat from a blackened wooden beam (nigro…tigno 8.648) and also unfastens a beech wood tub (alveus…fagineus 8.652-3) tub for bathing limbs.(2) Baucis sets up a couch of willow (salignus 8.656) and a wooden table for the fare. The mattress for the gods’ couch is also of soft sedge plants (molli…ulva 8.655). On the one hand, Ovid is accentuating their poverty, as Due mentioned - "praise of the poor but honest simplicity"(3) - so that all their furniture, old and battered, and all household accoutrements mentioned are of wood, hardly surprising given their meager resources, but the wood references are unnecessarily ubiquitous unless Ovid is creating an extended metaphor.
Third, after wiping the table with freshening mint (mentae 8.663), the meal itself also consists mostly of plants, including olive berries (baca 8.664), cornel cherries (corna autumnalia 8.665), radishes (radix 8.666) and dried fruit harvested in nuts (nux 8.674), figs (carica 8.674), dates (palmas 8.674), plums (pruna 8.675), apples (mala 8.675 ) grapes from vines (vitibus 8.676), all products from trees or woody plants. Even the cups are made of beech wood (fago 8.669).
Fourth, the old couple obey the revealed gods and climb the hill together leaning on old walking sticks (baculis 8.693) – an apt metaphor for themselves – and watch from the summit as the wooden forked gable poles (furcas 8.700) and twiggy roof straw (stramina 8.701) of their house are transformed to marble and gold. Their own delayed transformation concludes as branches and leaves (frondere 8.714-5) spring from over their faces, bushy bark (frutex 8.719) covers their mouths, and they become a double tree trunk (gemino…truncos 8.720).
Fifth, to make part of his extended metaphor of arborisms depend on the duality of the old couple, Ovid deliberately mentions several dyads: “the two of them were the whole household” (tota domus dua sunt 8.636) and continues the dyad in such subtleties as two-pronged forked branches and house gable (furca…bicornis and furcas 8.646 & 8.700), bi-colored pure olive berries (bicolor sincerae baca 8.664), among others, all of which are likely figures for the old couple themselves,
Finally, how did Ovid choose oak and linden for Philemon and Baucis? I can only offer tenuous but interesting associations. Theophrastus might be a textual source for Ovid, since he divides trees into ‘male’ and ‘female’ types with oak apparently being 'male' and linden both 'male' and 'female' (4). Theophrastus also describes oak as having a black core – recalling the blackened wooden beam (nigro…tigno 6.648) (5). Furthermore, he distinguishes oak (drus in Greek) as “heavy” and linden (philura in Greek) as “light”,(6) a dichotomy possibly reflected in the old couple. Theophrastus also mentions that both oak and linden can have winter budding,(7) perhaps like Philemon and Baucis in old age. He also quotes Hesiod (Works and Days, 233) saying that the oak produces honey and that the leaves of the linden are sweet (8), a gracious sweetness in common with the old couple who so hospitably receive the gods. Later in Book 10, Ovid describes the oak and linden in direct sequence with the thickly-foliaged oak and soft linden (arbor... frondibus aesculus altibus nec tilia mollis 10.90-92). In a passage where mention of linden follows directly after oak, Meiggs annotates the common use of these two woods for furniture (another transformation?) in the Roman world.(9) Although after Ovid, Columella also praises both oak and linden as among the most suitable woodland trees for bees (with beehives in the oak trunks) in producing honey (ac silvestrium commodissime faciunt [mellis] robora...ac tiliae) (10), perhaps common Roman knowledge, as Virgil before Ovid praises the rich linden (pinguem tiliam) for bees in the Georgics 4.183, just the sort of image for Ovid to subtext a possible transformation of oak and linden leaves into golden honey like their house (which also embodies them) into a gold-roofed temple. This may be a subtle connection with bees and honey that Ovid intends as he also mentions the inside of the beechwood cups lined with wax (fago...flaventibus inlita ceris 8.670) and clear white honey placed in the center of the table (candidus in medio favus est 8.677). Last but not least, it is also likely an important detail that Jupiter’s tree is the oak (=Philemon); could Mercury’s tree here be the light and graceful linden (=Baucis?). (11)
In conclusion, Ovid uses at least 30 references to trees, plants, their products or their various parts, many of them dried, wrinkled or shriveled (arida…rugosis 8.644 & 8.674 ), rustic, bent or old and well-used like Philemon and Baucis.(12) One of the few Ovid commentaries that mentions trees at all as focal to the story, Hollis suggests "Sacred Trees" as an Asia Minor and Phrygian tradition, (13) but that is about the only connection raised with this wood-rich passage. With such a "density of correspondences" (W. S. Anderson),(14) this multiplicity of wood and plant references can hardly be coincidental, and Ovid’s subtle humor and poetic intertextual consistency throughout in his extended metaphor are anything but wooden.
This study on Ovid's use of arborisms in the myth of Philemon and Baucis derives solely from lectures in Dr. Patrick Hunt's MYTHOLOGY course (CLASSGEN 18) at Stanford University, first in December 2004 from his own myth analysis, repeated in early fall of 2005 and in tutorials thereafter. Subsequent to writing this above text, the author has been made aware of a somewhat similar but more substantial prior paper published by Dr. Emily Gowers on "Talking Trees: Philemon and Baucis Revisited" in Arethusa 38 (Fall, 2005) 331-65. Dr. Gowers, an emiment Ovid scholar at Cambridge University, has also been kind enough to correspond with this author, who most highly recommends Gowers' magisterial paper for its thorough literary and myth analysis and extended commentary of the tree imagery in Ovid's text.
(1) Their gable is a “forked branch” according to W. S. Anderson’s commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books 6-10. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1972, 398-99, esp. line 8.700.
(2) Ehwald omits this line and the following two lines as well as the preceding line (8.652-654); others hold them to be original, but the cups are also of beechwood in 8.669.
(3) Otto Steen Due, Changing Forms: Studies in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1974, 80.
(4) Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants 1.8.2; 1.14.5; 3.8.1; 3.10.4; 5.4.1; 5.5.1, with oak being hard and hard to work, whereas linden is soft and easy to work.
(5) ibid., 1.6.2
(6) ibid., 1.5.5
(7) ibid., 3.5.5
(8) ibid., 1.12.4 & 3.7.6 respectively
(9) Russell Meiggs. Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 295.
(10) Columella De Re Rustica 9.4.3, where he only mentions four trees in total for this category.
(11) In yet another "transformation", Meiggs also notes the common use of wood - including easily-carved linden - for small sculpture, particularly for such works as portable Herms and Mars figures, 320; Hellmut Baumann. The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art and Literature. Portland: Timber Press, 1993 (Die griechische Pflanzenwelt in Mythos, Kunst und Literatur, Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1993), 48, 64.
(12) Perhaps it is only coincidental that Theophrastus says prune and apple are “dry”
trees. De Causis Plantarum 3.7.12.
(13) A. S. Hollis. Ovid: Metamorphoses Book VIII. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970, 109; also connecting this idea "of a sacred tree with a wall around it" (sort of a poemerium or sacred threshold perimeter?) with Martin Nilsson's pre-Greek models (proto-temenos?), 108.
(14) W. S. Anderson. "Lecture on Roman Poetry", The Latin Workshop, University of California, Berkeley, Summer 1983, Keynote Lecture "Poetic Craft of Virgil and Ovid", California Classical Association (Fall Conference, November 1985); published under similar title in Laetaberis: Journal of the California Classical Association (1987).
Oak tree image from New York Public Library, Digital Gallery #113423 (http://digitalgallery.nypl.org)
Patrick Hunt © 2005