From Ovid to Rushdie: Ovid’s Influence on Later Literature

Detail of a painting by Pedro Berruguete, ca. 1495.

Detail of a painting by Pedro Berruguete, ca. 1495.

As canonical as it is controversial, Ovid’s literature has incurred both praise and censorship for centuries. While Ovid’s polarizing  have prompted countless bans and book-burnings, they have also inspired many of the greatest literary minds of the last millennium, including, but by no means limited to, Dante Alighieri and Salman Rushdie. These esteemed authors have undoubtedly drawn from a variety of classical sources in composing their works. What separates Ovid from other writers of influence, however, is the example he set in the face of exile and censorship. Dante and Rushdie each endured censorship, establishing an added link with the Roman poet. Via Ovidian allusions in Dante’s and Rushdie’s respective works, we can see Ovid’s lasting impact across time. Each of the two later writers specifically names Ovid, too, thereby acknowledging a debt to him.

Ovid and Dante: Poets in Exile

Dante and the Divine Comedy, Domenico di Michelino, Fresco in the nave of the Duomo of Florence, Italy.

Dante and the Divine Comedy, Domenico di Michelino, Fresco in the nave of the Duomo of Florence, Italy.

Dante Alighieri, also known as was effectively the father of the modern Italian language and is best known for —arguably the most important work of Italian literature. Much like Ovid, Dante garnered both praise and criticism for his magnum opus. For Dante’s contemporaries, the Divine Comedy was, and was meant to be, a disconcerting and even shocking work…Latinate, lyrical, colloquial, and downright crude.

To understand fully the homage Dante pays to Ovid in his verses, we must first recognize the parallels between the two with respect to their exiles. As Ovid declares in Tristia 2.207, his exile by decree of Augustus in 8 CE was a result of . The carmen, the Ars Amatoria, was a sometimes bawdy and controversial manual which instructed men and women how to seduce one another. The error is still shrouded in mystery to this day, but scholars have conjectured that it was political in nature; Ovid may have witnessed an event capable of disrupting Augustus’ rule or his succession plan. Dante’s exile was politically motivated, too. In 1300, the had divided into Black Guelphs and White Guelphs, the former in support the Papacy, the latter opposed to Pope Boniface VIII’s increasing political influence. Dante was a key figure in favor of the White Guelphs, and as such was exiled to Rome when the Black Guelphs took control of Florence in 1302. During this exile, Dante conceived La Divina Commedia.

Dante and Virgil in Hell, Eugène Delacroix 1822. Ovid plays a less obvious but equally important part in inspiring Dante.

Dante and Virgil in Hell, Eugène Delacroix 1822, Louvre, Paris. In comparison with Virgil, Ovid plays a less obvious but equally important part in Dante’s Inferno.

Given Alighieri’s extensive education, and similar experience of exile, it comes as no surprise that Ovid exerts so much influence on the later Italian’s writing. Throughout La Divina Commedia, Ovid is second only to Virgil in the number of allusions Alighieri makes to his works. Among these scores of allusions, the most telling with regard to Alighieri’s respect for Ovid as a censored poet are the thieves in , the first portion of Alighieri’s La Commedia Divina, depicting Dante’s travels through hell.

Canto XXV tells of the five thieves who undergo gruesome transformations. Alighieri’s description of the metamorphoses is grotesque; for instance, he intricately details human and serpent heads melting together, limbs contorting, and tongues splitting to form a creature not quite human, but not quite a snake. This beast then divides itself—the snake now a man, the thief now a hissing snake.

Gustave Doré's Agnello  turning into a serpent, 1890

Gustave Doré’s Agnello turning into a serpent, 1890

This transformation in particular, though more grisly than most in the Metamorphoses, bears glaring Ovidian qualities. Most noticeably, the thief-turned-serpent is now incapable of speech beyond hissing. This concept of voicelessness following transformation is common in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and heightens the sense of horror at the loss of humanity. Often a sharp contrast is drawn between the retained human consciousness and the bestial inability to communicate. One may recall, for example, the metamorphosis of Actaeon, who, after seeing Diana naked, turns into a stag.

…gemit ille sonumque,

etsi non hominis, quem non tamen edere possit
 cervus, (Met. 3.237–239)

He groans a sound

Although not human, nevertheless not that which a stag could emit.

Cadmus and Harmonia, Evelyn de Morgan, 1877

Cadmus and Harmonia, Evelyn de Morgan, 1877

Given the transformation of the thief and its silencing effect, we may suspect the influence of Ovid is resonating in this portion of the Inferno. But the allusion here may be rather to Actaeon’s grandfather, Cadmus. One of Cadmus’ most famous exploits was to kill a giant snake, and found the city of Thebes where the monster fell. At the end of his life, Cadmus and his wife Harmonia were transformed into snakes. Indeed, Alighieri specifically mentions Ovid and Cadmus by name in the canto.

Taccia di Cadmo e d’Aretusa Ovidio,

ché se quello in serpente e quella in fonte

converte poetando, io non lo ‘nvidio; (Inf. XXV.97-99)

Be silent, Ovid, of Cadmus and Arethusa,

for if his poetry changed the one into a serpent,

and the other into a spring, I do not envy him.

Here, the use of Ovid’s name, as well as Cadmus and Arethusa, the subjects to Metamorphoses III, IV and V, offer an obvious homage to Ovid’s impact. The subtext to these lines, however, allows Ovid’s censored voice to resonate. Many scholars have taken these lines as an insult from Alighieri, who, they say, considers himself a superior poet to Ovid, and one more capable of describing metamorphosis. Given the efforts of Augustus and the Papacy to strip these two poets of their voices, however, it is entirely possible that Alighieri is lampooning these attempts at censorship by telling Ovid to keep quiet here, just as Augustus did by exiling him. In this sense, Alighieri alludes to Ovid’s Metamorphoses not only as a sign of respect, but also to mark his commiseration over political censorship.

Ovid and Rushdie: Strength in Literature

Iranian Protest following Rushdie's fatwā

Iranian Protest following the Ayatollah’s fatwā.

The esteemed British Indian novelist, Sir Salman Rushdie has won multiple literary awards and honors for his novels and essays. He has been the subject of immense scrutiny not just because of his talent as a writer, however, but also because of the explosion of acrimony and murderous hate that accompanied the publication of one of his books. Many Muslims have accused Rushdie, who grew up in a culturally Muslim but secular family, of slandering Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). The novel, part of which was inspired loosely by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, prompted burnings and bans in many parts of the world. The controversy over Rushdie’s beliefs and literature escalated to the point where  issued a to kill Rushdie in 1989. Despite his critics and would-be assailants, Rushdie refused to be intimidated, and continued to write even while having to live in hiding under constant armed guard/protection. His most recent book, Joseph Anton (2012), is a memoir of the terrible years of uncertainty, fear, and courage that followed  the fatwa, and offers a brutally honest window into his triumphs and failures dealing with a life turned upside down. It offers fascinating insights into how governments, publishers, writers and ordinary people respond to threats to ideas and individuals.

General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq

General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq

Rushdie has openly acknowledged that he he drew inspiration from other writers, including Ovid, who persevered in the face of oppression. Ovid’s influence can be see in many of his books: The Satanic Verses; The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999); and Shame (1983), a darkly satirical novel set in a country “not quite Pakistan.” In this essay, the focus is on Shame because its Ovidian borrowings draw on the Arachne story that offers such a powerful illustration of brutal censorship. Published in 1983, this novel examines shame and shamelessness through members of the Shakil, Hyder, and Harappa families. Iskander Harappa and General Raza Hyder are modeled on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the fourth and sixth presidents of Pakistan, respectively. From the outset of the book, Rushdie’s familiarity with Ovid is noticeable, as the text is riddled with allusions to the Metamorphoses, both oblique and explicit.

Detail of The Spinners (The Fable of Arachne) by Velazquez, 1657.

Detail of The Spinners (The Fable of Arachne) by Velazquez, 1657.

Rani Harappa, widow to dictator Iskander Harappa, and her daughter are exiled for six years. At the outset of her time in exile, Rani wishes to knit shawls but is denied by her overseer. Arguing for a needle and thread, Rani asks the man “Will I hang myself, perhaps, by a noose of embroidery wool?” This demand conjures images of the Arachne story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When Minerva flogs Arachne, the weaver suspends herself with a noose.

non tulit infelix laqueoque animosa ligauit,

guttura, (Met. 6.134–35)

The unfortunate girl could not bear it and bound her spirited throat with a noose.

It is clear here that Rushdie makes use of Ovidian themes, weaving and hanging, in his portrayal of his prominent female character.

Philomela and Procne, Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau

Philomela and Procne, Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau

Rushdie continues this trend of drawing on Ovid in his depiction of Rani by introducing another parallel to the Metamorphoses.Philomela, the victim of rape at the hands of her brother-in-law, Tereus, has her tongue sliced out and is kept hidden away in a secluded cabin, not unlike Rani’s house arrest in exile. Despite this attempt to silence her, the voiceless Philomela relates the account of her rape and maiming to her sister, Procne, using only a loom.

stamina barbarica suspendit callida tela

purpureasque notas filis intexuit albis,

indicium sceleris (Met. 6.576-578)

Clever, she hangs up her thread on the barbarous loom,

and weaves purple letters among the white threads,

an indictment of the crime.

This sequence of events in the Metamorphoses offers a striking model for Rani’s confinement under house arrest during her exile. In lieu of a tapestry, Rani knits a shawl representing the misdeeds of her late tyrannical husband, Iskander—a clear comparison to Tereus. Again we see unmistakable similarities between Ovid and Rushdie’s opera. Rani’s documenting of the crimes of the powerful with needle and thread recalls both Arachne’s tapestry of the gods’ transgressions, and Philomela’s woven condemnation of Tereus’ crimes. Rushdie evokes Philomela’s example of the censored voice finding a way to condemn her aggressor by giving the banished Rani a similar outlet for non-verbal communication. In both works, the voiceless find a voice—an overarching concept not just in these pieces of literature, but also in the lives of the authors responsible for them.

Salman Rushdie discussing his memoir on The Daily Show with Jonathan Stewart

Salman Rushdie discussing his memoir on The Daily Show with Jonathan Stewart

Finally, like Ovid and Dante before him, Rushdie continued to write despite the forces aligned against him. Even during the years in hiding, Rushdie was able to produce great books like, for example,  Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). As Rushdie has gradually emerged into public view, he has continued to publish critically acclaimed novels like Fury (2001), Shalimar the Clown (2005), and The Enchantress of Florence (2008). Unlike in Dante’s case, whose debt to Ovid can only be traced by seeking allusions and references in The Divine Comedy, we have access to Rushdie’s own words that explicitly acknowledge the influence of Ovid in his life and writings the allusions identifiable in Shame and other works.

It may seem ridiculously romantic, but I was actually strengthened by the history of literature. Ovid in exile, Dostoyevsky in front of the firing squad, Genet in jail—and look what they did: the Metamorphoses, Crime and Punishment, everything that Genet wrote is prison literature. I thought, Well, if they can do it, I can have a go at doing it.

While the fatwa is still in effect, and an enormous bounty for the murder of Rushdie has never been withdrawn, the focus of fundamentalist wrath has moved on to other targets. Rushdie has been able to resume something approaching a normal life. As a result, fans of his writings and of his courageous stand for freedom of thought and expression have been able to welcome him back into public life. Students and faculty at Colby College selected him as the keynote speaker for the Center for the Arts and Humanities‘ annual humanities theme, Censorship Uncovered, April 17th 2014. Ovid would be proud!


Works Cited

The Supreme Poet
The Divine Comedy
Sisson, Dante: The Divine Comedy
a song/poem and a error/wandering
Ingleheart, What the Poet Saw: Ovid, the error, and the theme of sight in Tristia 2. For a more thorough discussion of the reasons for Ovid’s exile, click here.
Guelphs were a political faction that initially supported the Pope in northern Italy before later fracturing into rival camps
Hugh Chisholm,  Encyclopedia Britannica
Jesper Hede, Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning
Rachel Jacoff, Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s Commedia
La Divina Commedia is comprised of 100 cantos, or poems. An introductory canto, followed by 33 cantos within each of the Comedy’s three portions: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
Ovid’s importance as a source for the Inferno has sometimes been overshadowed by Virgil’s because Dante cast Virgil as his guide through hell.
Warren Ginsberg, Dante, Ovid and the Transformation of Metamorphosis
D. Felton, On Reading “Latrare” at Ovid “Met.” 7.791, p.68.
Rachel Jacoff, Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s Commedia
The Washington Post, Why Salman Rushdie’s Book was Burned
Iranian Supreme Leader from 1979 to 1989
a legal judgment in the Islamic faith
NPR, How Rushdie Survived a Fatwa
Ankhi Mukherjee, “The Rushdie Cannon” in Robert Eaglestone and Martin McQuillan, eds., Salman Rushdie: Contemporary Critical Perspectives
Ioannis Ziogas, Ovid in Rushdie, Rushdie in Ovid: A Nexus of Artistic Webs
Ioannis Ziogas, Ovid in Rushdie, Rushdie in Ovid: A Nexus of Artistic Webs
Paris Review interview