To the Unknown God

“When the sea and lands began to be, before the sky had mantled everything, then all of nature’s face was featureless – what men call chaos: undigested mass of crude, confused, and scumbled elements, a heap of seeds that clashed, of things mismatched.”

This is how Ovid begins Metamorphoses.  He continues by relating how ‘a god’ came into this chaos and ended the strife.

“He separated sky and earth, and earth and waves…   Unraveling these things from their blind heap, assigning each its place – distinct – he linked them all in peace.”

Ovid attributes the creation of the world to ‘a god’ who is otherwise unnamed.    The unnamed god commanded the valleys to sink down and the mountains to rise up, and ordered the fog and the clouds to gather in the upper regions of the air.   Noticeably lacking is any reference to a theogony – gods giving birth to gods, who become aspects of nature.  Ovid seems to consciously reject Hessiod’s theogony – at least in this first section of his poem.   You would almost think he had been reading the Bible.  And that could be. [1]

There are, however, some noticeable differences between Genesis 1 and Ovid.   Ovid’s unnamed god does not create everything, but only organizes environments suitable for life.  Nor does this god create ‘ex nihilo’ but rather uses pre-existing matter that contains within it already the ‘seeds’ of every living thing.  For Ovid, matter is eternal, and contains within it powerful forces that the god uses to create with.   Furthermore, in recounting how the earth was repopulated after the Flood, he says that man sprung up from stones tossed behind the backs of the two survivors of the flood as they walked down the beach.  Likewise, animals sprung from the earth spontaneously due the magical powers of the primordial soil when heated by the sun.

Beneath that blazing heat, soft marshes swelled; the fertile seeds were nourished by the soil that gave them life as in a mother’s womb; and so, in time, as each seed grew, it took on its own form.

…the farmer, turning over clods, discover some who are newly born, who’ve just begun to take their forms, and others who are still unfinished, incomplete  – they’ve not not achieved proportion and indeed, in one same body, one part may be alive

For, tempering each other, heat and moisture engender life: the union of these two produces everything.  Though it is true that fire is the enemy of water, moist heat is the creator of all things:  discordant concord is the path of life.

Ovid is back in familiar territory now.  Any lofty thoughts of ‘the Architect’ are completely gone.  And Caesar Augustus is amused…  Something that I think was foremost in Ovid’s mind.

But I wonder who this unnamed god is to whom Ovid fails to attribute any mythology or magic?   Was this the god that the Greek philosophers had in mind when they erected an altar with a plaque to ‘the unknown god’?


[1]  The Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire in Ovid’s day and Ovid had traveled through Asia Minor where a significant Jewish population lived.  It is quite likely that Ovid was familiar with the first chapters of Genesis.  One would be surprised if he was not.

Tcherikover notes that Jewish diaspora communities thrived throughout the Hellenistic world long before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD :

“Thus, in the course of the Hellenistic period, the Jews became dispersed over the whole Greek world.  As early as 140 B.C.E. approximately, the author of the Sibylline Oracles testifies “that the whole land and sea are full of Jews.”  strabo’s assertion that the Jew “had reached every town, and it is hard to find a place in the world whither this race has not penetrated and where it has not obtained a hold,” refers to the period of Sulla, about the year 85 BCE.  Josephus speaks in the same language of the Diaspora communities: “There is no people in the world among whom part of our brethren is not to be found”  (War II, 398), and elsewhere he writes: “The Jewish race is scattered over the entire world among the local inhabitants” (ib. VII, 43).  Philo speaks of the wide expansion of the Jews throughout the world and of Jerusalem as the center of that scattered and sundered nation (Flacc. 46; Leg. 281ff.)”

In regards to Asia Minor (where Ovid lived for a time), Josephus states that Antiochus III stationed 2000 Jewish families in Lydia and Phrygia as a means of securing the borders of his kingdom.  It was not unusual for Jews to serve as mercenaries.  Jews fought on behalf of the Egyptian King Psamtik (594-589 BC) and afterwards fought for the Persian army.  A Jewish garrison was established at Elephantine in Upper Egypt and another was stationed at Leontopolis in Lower Egypt.

The presence of established Jewish communities in Asia Minor is confirmed by the letters to the 7 churches of Asia Minor recorded in the first chapters of the book of Revelations.

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