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Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis

by Richard Buxton

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In this illustrated study, Richard Buxton analyzes Greek literary narratives and visual representations of the metamorphosis of humans and gods, as evidenced from Homer to Nonnos. Such tales have become familiar in their Ovidian dress, as in the best-selling translation by Ted Hughes; Buxton explores their Greek antecedents. He investigates such issues as: how do different contexts shape the way in which metamorphosis is narrated? How do the assumptions of commentators about "strangeness" affect how metamorphosis is interpreted? How far should an interpreter allow "contextual charity" to render more acceptable a belief such as that in metamorphosis? What are the implications of the notions of 'astonishment' (Greek: thambos) in a range of narratives about transformation? Throughout Forms of Astonishment Buxton draws comparisons between the Greek evidence and data from other religious traditions, ancient and modern; he also introduces comparative material from the sciences, from modern painting and literature, and from the cinema and computer graphics. In investigating metamorphoses of gods Buxton revisits the concept of anthropomorphism, arguing that the fact that Greek divinities were believed to change shape does not undermine the fundamentally humanlike form of Greek divinity. He also examines certain strands of Greek tradition, particularly among the philosophers, which called metamorphosis into question, whether in relation to the gods or to humans. Individual chapters deal with transformations into the landscape and into plants or trees--in the latter case transformation stories are set against a background of cultural beliefs about "seminal" substances such as blood and tears. Overall, Forms of Astonishment raises issues relevant to an understanding of broad aspects of Greek culture, and illuminates issues explored by anthropologists and students of religion.… (more)

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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.
 
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In this illustrated study, Richard Buxton analyzes Greek literary narratives and visual representations of the metamorphosis of humans and gods, as evidenced from Homer to Nonnos. Such tales have become familiar in their Ovidian dress, as in the best-selling translation by Ted Hughes; Buxton explores their Greek antecedents. He investigates such issues as: how do different contexts shape the way in which metamorphosis is narrated? How do the assumptions of commentators about "strangeness" affect how metamorphosis is interpreted? How far should an interpreter allow "contextual charity" to render more acceptable a belief such as that in metamorphosis? What are the implications of the notions of 'astonishment' (Greek: thambos) in a range of narratives about transformation? Throughout Forms of Astonishment Buxton draws comparisons between the Greek evidence and data from other religious traditions, ancient and modern; he also introduces comparative material from the sciences, from modern painting and literature, and from the cinema and computer graphics. In investigating metamorphoses of gods Buxton revisits the concept of anthropomorphism, arguing that the fact that Greek divinities were believed to change shape does not undermine the fundamentally humanlike form of Greek divinity. He also examines certain strands of Greek tradition, particularly among the philosophers, which called metamorphosis into question, whether in relation to the gods or to humans. Individual chapters deal with transformations into the landscape and into plants or trees--in the latter case transformation stories are set against a background of cultural beliefs about "seminal" substances such as blood and tears. Overall, Forms of Astonishment raises issues relevant to an understanding of broad aspects of Greek culture, and illuminates issues explored by anthropologists and students of religion.

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