Ovid's Devaluation of Sympathy in Metamorphoses
Ovid reveals two similar tales of incest in the Metamorphoses. First, he describes the non-sisterly love Byblis acquires for her twin brother Caunus. Later, he revisits the incestuous love theme with the story of Myrrha who develops a non-filial love for her father, Cinyras. The two accounts hold many similarities and elicit varying reactions. Ovid constantly tugs at our emotions and draws forth alternating feelings of pity and disgust for the matters at hand. "Repetition with a difference" in these two narratives shows how fickle we can be in allotting and denying sympathy, making it seem less valuable.
Both tales begin drawing forth a sense of disgust for the situation in general yet arousing pity for each girl's predicament. Ovid clearly labels the love Byblis and Myrrha pursue illegitimate when he summarizes the moral of Byblis' tale stating, "when girls love they should love lawfully" (Mandelbaum 307) and reveals that "to hate a father is / a crime, but love like [Myrrha's] is worse than hate" (338) before describing Myrrha's tale. By presenting the girls as criminals, Ovid leads us to despise them. He then proceeds to draw out sympathy for Byblis and Myrrha as he describes their unsuccessful attempts to overcome these desires. Byblis dreams intimately about Caunus, but "when she's awake, she does not dare / to let her obscene hopes invade her soul" (308). "[Myrrha] strives; she tries; she would subdue / her obscene love," but she cannot (339). Right away, Ovid makes us question if these situations deserve our sympathy.
Byblis and Myrrha compel readers to sympathize with their plight as they orally confess their incestuous passions. They use selective language to arouse pity. Byblis draws attention to her suffering when she exclaims, "What misery is mine!" and later discusses her "grief" caused by the "evil fate" that makes Caunus her brother (308-309). Myrrha points out her "misfortune" and state of misery; since she was not been born to those "tribes in which / the mother mates with her own son, the daughter / with her own father" (339), she is "forlorn- denied the very man for whom [she longs]" (339). Overwhelming confusion in each girl's speech elicits further pity. Byblis begins her speech struggling to interpret her dream; it was a "beguiling scene" yet seemed so "true" (308). Myrrha begins asking, "Where has my mind led me?" (339), and wonders what makes this incestuous passion unlawful because "[she has] not heard that any god or written law condemns the union of a parent and his child" (Crane on-line). She decides that "human scruples" repress unions like these; envious law forbids what nature permits (Mandelbaum 339), but later, contrary to this conclusion, she states she does not want to "defile the code / of nature with a lawless flame" (340). Myrrha longs "to leave [her] native land" (339), but her passion compels her to stay so she can see, touch, speak to,...