“Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” “Perhaps someday it will even be useful to remember these things.” This is one of the most memorable lines in Virgil’s Aeneid. It was with these words that Aeneas tried to sow hope in the hearts of his men after the devastation of the Trojan War. Latin teachers on occasion sign senior yearbooks with this quote. It is a reminder that Latin has prepared them to meet and grapple with life’s challenges. These words become especially poignant as we are confronted with a global pandemic and modifications to our way of life.
One of the lasting rewards of studying Latin and Greek is the wisdom one acquires from reading ancient sources. If every generation since the fall of Rome has returned to these authors, it is because their writings have a perennial value. Why does mythology enthrall people of all ages? What compels artists to reproduce the stories of the classical world so prolifically? Why do directors still stage performances of Greek tragedy? It is because these stories communicate so persuasively the human experience. They give us perspective when life challenges us. They give us a voice when we cannot find the words to articulate what we feel.
During this pandemic, educators face the challenge of teaching remotely. We need to provide a meaningful curriculum to help students learn. We need to help them cope with a period of isolation and anxiety. During this unprecedented time, Latin students are finding a worthy companion in Ovid and his Metamorphoses. A Roman author from the age of Augustus, Ovid was passionate about life, but he also understood the pain and loneliness of exile.
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid offers us a fresh perspective at a time when we have limited movement. He opens the imagination of our eyes to the wonders of nature. With his vivid narrative, Ovid raises us from the confines of our quarantine to a heightened world. The mythologization of flowers, trees and constellations make ordinary objects appear extraordinary. Think of Narcissus, Hyacinthus, and Adonis, whose transformations explain the miraculous origins of daffodils, hyacinths and anemones. In one story, the youth, Narcissus, scorns a young woman’s passion and is cursed to love only his reflection, hence the word narcissism. Unable to avert his gaze from his own image reflected in a pool of water, Narcissus is transformed into a flower.
The genius of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, like all great works of literature, is that one can read it on different levels. On one level, the story of Narcissus is a cautionary tale about the destructive forces of rejection and obsessive love. It illustrates the importance of Aristotle’s golden mean, which urges people to always seek the middle course between two extremes - surely good advice for all of us! On another level, the myth of Narcissus is a fantastic story that heightens our mundane world. It reminds us in a time of distress to see and appreciate the little miracles all around us, even in our own backyard.
By reading and reflecting on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Latin students learn to appreciate the wonders of nature and the night sky, things many of us took for granted before this period of quarantine. On a higher level, students are learning to appreciate the power of myth as a timeless expression of what it means to be human. With a new perspective, they, too, like Ovid, are expressing their unique observations of the world through art, creative writing, poetry and philosophy. The longevity of ancient authors reminds us that, years from now, future generations will look back at our experiences. They will benefit from the wisdom we acquired while living through this challenging time. And someday perhaps, as Virgil said, it may even be helpful for us to remember these things.
A sophomore Latin student's painting of Narcissus. She took inspiration from Caravaggio's famous painting of the myth. However, this student took it to a different level. Instead of Narcissus looking at his own reflection, the daffodils on the shore see Narcissus reflected in the water. It's a wonderful interpretation of the transformation.