Knowledge and Ritual Competence in Ovid’s Readers

The connected reader, then, is one interested in reasons, which are—in keeping with previous antiquarian discourse—usually given in the form of stories about origins, mythical or historical. Aetiological myths are woven into the exchange of questions and answers. Religion is subject to interrogation, and it is not priestly lore but historical research that provides an- swers.[1] The religious data to be explained are frequently names. These names, however, are visual data; they are suggested only by being seen in the calendar, which in itself represents visible cult. Other explananda also present themselves visually: temples are prominently seen or “looking out,”[2] and occasionally statues or ritual procedures force themselves into the narrator’s field of vision.

If narrator and connected reader share an interest in visual data, vision also marks a decisive difference between the two. Visual epiphanies are a privilege of the narrator. Surprisingly, this fact empowers the inscribed reader as much as it does the narrator. The narrator fully expects the reader to doubt the authenticity of his visions, as a few lines at the opening of book 6 make clear:

facta canam? sed erunt qui me finxisse loquantur nullaque mortali numina visa putent.

est deus in nobis? agitante calescimus illo; 5

impetus hic sacrae semina mentis habet.

fas mihi praecipue voltus vidisse deorum, vel quia sum vates, vel quia sacra cano.

I will sing facts, but some will call them fiction and think no gods appear to mortal men.

There is a god inside us; his movement makes us glow,

His power owns the seeds of sacred thought.

For me above all it’s lawful to see a god’s face,

Since I’m a poet or sing sacred themes. (6.3—8)

Such visions are a continuous source of knowledge. It is, however, a knowledge that is questionable and at times contested. The concept of “vision” is even adapted to accommodate direct contact with that goddess whose very characteristic it is to be not represented by a statue and to remain unseen by men: Vesta (6.291). This particular form of poetic knowledge supplements the type of information that is generically attributed to “old annals” in two prefatory remarks.[3] Occasionally (ten times throughout the poem) the narrator “remembers” (memini, commemini) what he has seen or even learned (didici) earlier, and in one passage of book 6 this knowledge is even stated to have been acquired in his “childhood years” (6.417). Knowledge in religious matters is learnable.

An interest in knowledge is attributed to the connected reader: e nostro carmine certus eris—“from my song you will gain certain knowledge” is the promise made by the narrator when he talks about obscure Carna (6.104). (I again take my example from book 6, which is representative in these respects.) Such gods as are known with certainty constitute a discrete category in Varro’s classification of gods (di certi). Religious data could, therefore, be subject to ignorance or error; the narrator both acknowledges that this is possible (6.255, 295) and aims to protect his readers from incorrect beliefs.[4]

In some instances, knowledge will suggest the course of future actions. For example, Ovid offers information about the character of days, whether they are better (melius) suited to marriage or warfare (6.221—22, 769), or whether they are characterized by meteorological conditions beneficial to sailing (6.715; similarly 2.453 and 4.625). With regard to religious activities, superior knowledge seems not to have had any consequences. About Semo Sancus Dius Fidius and the names to be used in his cult the narrator learns from Semo Pater that “whichever of them you choose, I’ll have the tribute” (6.215).[5] The long discourse on the reason why the statue in Fortuna’s temple—identified as Servius Tullius—is covered by togas remains without consequence, as the matrons are exhorted to not touch the heap of textiles (6.621).[6]

Such exhortations to perform cult are extremely rare. Religion as lived in Ovid is not characterized by the accurate reproduction of scripted rituals. The connected reader is not admonished to fulfill ritual duties, nor

Baking mold with scenes from the circus, used for bread distributed in context of such games. First half of the fourth century AD. Romermuseum Theurnia. Photo by J. Rupke, used by permission of Landesmuseum fur Karnten.

is regular participation in public cult a didactic aim of the text. The very few exceptions are, rather, admonitions to adopt the appropriate emotional tone during ritual participation. The first such instance appears with Ovid’s treatment of Feriae Sementivae (a movable feast, treated in January), where rural peoples of various vocations and their animals are addressed (1.663—96). The entire exhortation to enjoy leisure with a festive spirit is formulated as an emotionalized prayer. The Karistia or Cara Cognatio on February 22 offers the next example (2.617—38); here, Ovid encourages the boni to dedicate incense and simple meals in a harmonious domestic ritual. The language of this passage gradually shifts from description to exhortation. During the Vinalia of April 23, it is appropriate that prostitutes (volgares . . . puellae) venerate Venus, a deity useful for many professions (4.865—72). As befits prostitutes, they should demand the qualities necessary to their profession in an insistent manner; this is made clear by the repetition ofposcite. In contrast, the Quirites should celebrate Mars Ultor with solemn games in the circus, not by scenic games (5.597—98). Matrons should celebrate the Matralia, because it is their very special festival, with “golden cakes” (6.475—76). The Quirites should celebrate Fors Fortunajoyfully (laeti), and drunkenness is no cause for shame (6.775—78). The plurals used in these passages and the explicit indication of social groups is in sharp contrast with the usual address to a singular reader.

It is interesting to observe the differences between the description of the ritual of March 15, the festival of Anna Perenna, to that of the festival of Fors Fortuna. On the surface, the two seem to be similar occasions for excessive drinking on the banks of the Tiber. However, the first instance (3.523—42) is an activity of the plebs—the narrator, and others, are clearly distanced as observers.[7] Veneration of Fors Fortuna on June 24 is characterized as originating in the plebs, but it is the Quirites (all the people) that are instructed to take part in the merrymaking by a series of three imperatives and two jussive subjunctives.[8]

ite, deam laeti Fortem celebrate, Quirites; in Tiberis ripa munera regis habet.

pars pede, pars etiam celeri decurrite cumba, nec pudeat potos inde redire domum.

ferte coronatae iuvenum convivia lintres,

multaque per medias vina bibantur aquas 680

Go, celebrate with joy the goddess Fors, Quirites;

The Tiber’s bank has her gift from the king.

Rush on down, some on foot, some in a speedy skiff,

And don’t be ashamed to return home drunk.

Garland yourselves, boats, and carry parties of the young,

And let wine be drunk aplenty mid-stream. (6.775—80)

Here, the drunkard returning home is not an object of ridicule, dragged along by his old and drunken wife, as he was during the Anna Perenna festival in March (senem potum pota trahebat anus, 3.542). Instead, he is a fairly reliable witness:

ecce suburbana rediens male sobrius aede 785

ad stellas aliquis talia verba iacit;

“zona latet tua nunc, et eras fortasse latebit; dehinc erit, Orion, aspicienda mihi.”

Look, a man returns from the shrine near the city Unsober, and hurls these words to the stars:

“Your belt hides now, and perhaps will hide tomorrow.

After that, Orion, I shall see it.” (6.785—88)

Unlike the plebs, the Quirites include the connected reader.

There is an interesting movement on the part of the narrator here. At the end of book 6, the connected reader might be one who is not only intellectually interested in cult but is also reminded of his or her (women are addressed in some plural exhortations) social or, rather, political status and thereby be incited to participate actively in religious merrymaking. And yet, the evidence remains inconclusive. First and foremost, the audience constructed by Ovid is one that witnesses the narrator’s admonitions directed toward various large social groups composed of other individuals.

It is only at the very close of the poem, reworked in exile to end precisely where it ends, after six months (half a calendar), that the role of the observer meets that of the religious performer. Ovid’s reader is, most certainly, an embedded reader, who understands what he or she is reading within the historical context of the poem at large.[9] This reader can decipher the author’s clues and discern the incongruity that is implied as the second voice of the inscribed narrator emerges, a voice indulgent in merrymaking ritual. The implication must be spelled out: both the implied narrator and the connected reader are fully present at Rome. This is written by an author who was not present and made no secret of the grief his absence caused him.

  • [1] Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 240-42, 248.
  • [2] See, e.g., 5.669: templa spectantia. Similarly 5.567—68 and 6.205.
  • [3] 1.7 and 4.11: annalibus eruta priscis.
  • [4] See 2.47 ne erres; 2.151 ne fallare; 2.453 tu desine cedere (relating to meteorological phenomena); cf. 2. 531 stulta parspopuli.
  • [5] See Bomer 1958, 349—50 on the deities.
  • [6] See Littlewood 2006, 173 on the historical problem.
  • [7] 3.539: sunt spectacula volgi; 3.541 occurrit nuper (visa est mihi digna relatu) Ipompa .. .
  • [8] Other references to this festival do not permit an unambiguous identification of the participants. When Cicero contrasts the joy of the Tiberina descensio with that of a victor and triumpha-tor (Cic. Fin. 5.70) one would expect that he refers to an experience that was open to his audience.The problem, however, has never been discussed. Bomer (1958, 180—81) doubts that the rites ofthe Anna Perenna festival are "fester Bestandteil des offentlichen Kultus,” but does not notice thesocial demarcation suggested by Ovid.
  • [9] I have taken the concept of “embedded reader” from Boyd 2006, 172 (who adaptsJ. J. Winkler’s analysis of Apuleius’s mysteries novel to Ovid’s Metamorphoses).
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