The Treachery of Art in the Story of Byblis
“Byblis is a warning,” Ovid asserts in the opening lines of his tale of Byblis “in order that young girls might love lawfully.” Or, as Horace Gregory translates (losing a great deal of the meaning), “That is a story of how girls should not fall in love at all” (Gregory, Myers, 244).
However we translate it, the opening lines lead readers to anticipate a cautionary tale about forbidden love. But Byblis is in Book Nine of Metamorphoses, so by now we’re well acquainted with Ovid’s sly humor, and we know he doesn’t suffer laws or taboos gladly. We trust that he’ll ultimately undermine that Byblis is in exemplo, at least about unlawful love. Indeed, he does make Byblis—desperately in love with her twin brother—a cautionary tale. But the warning concerns art, not the sin of incest. Like the author, Byblis is an artist. Words are her currency. Through his brilliant narration, Ovid works a considerable amount of dramatic irony into the framework of the story, distancing us from his subject. But some of the most powerful scenes are the scenes when we feel closest to Byblis, when Ovid throws his ventriloquist’s voice into her mouth. She becomes a sort of doppelganger for Ovid, and she, like Ovid later in his life, takes the hit for being too artful, too rhetorically slick. Ovid’s Byblis, when she speaks, is a rich, relatable heroine whose very self-doubt wins reader’s hearts and minds, even though her argument is unsupportable. Like Macbeth (who can credit Byblis as an antecedent), she is a master equivocator, talking herself—and sometimes her readers—into some pretty shady seduction plans. The story is not without meta-irony: Ovid himself was banished on account of his own excessive rhetorical artistry some time after the publication of his Metamorphoses, when his writing was considered subversive enough to be treasonous.
Byblis knows that her desires are transgressive. But she is such a skilled wordsmith that she talks herself into a disastrous course of action. She builds and keeps the sympathy of her readers with a surfeit of skill, even as we understand that her venture is doomed. We can’t condone the incest, but by the end of the myth, by the time the repeatedly spurned Byblis is metamorphosed into a fountain, we feel almost wholesale sympathy for her. Her most indignant detractors must confess that by the end that they admire and pity her. Indeed, such is the power of her rhetoric and the beauty of her words, that her brother Caunus is the only character unmoved by her suffering. Byblis is indeed in exemplo. Her tale cautions against self-delusion: beware, young girl, of your creative artistry! Morality, for the artist, is a semi-permeable boundary, across which she can venture, but at her own peril.
When we meet Byblis, she is an innocent. She doesn’t at first identify her feelings for Caunus as love. She doesn’t question the kisses and embraces that she gives her brother, a little too frequently and lingeringly:
Illa quidem primo nullos intellegit ignes,
Nec peccare putat, quod saepius oscula iungat,
Quod sua fraterno circumdet brachia collo:
Mendacique diu pietatis fallitur umbra. (9.457-60)
At first she did not think such heat was love.
Although her greatest pleasure was to play
A game at kissing him, her arms around his neck.
She thought these gestures sisterly affection (Gregory, Myers, 244).
Soon she comes to understand her blossoming sexuality. Ovid makes use of a familiar puberty trope to do this. But while such desire for Apollonian young men befits girls Byblis’ age, her lust transgresses: neither contemporary readers nor Roman ones could condone sex between twins. And her sexual fantasies are all the more forbidden because they lurk under the guise of familial piety. But little by little, “declinat Amor” (9.461), “love goes astray,” and Byblis has troubling and prurient dreams: “…visa est quoque iungere fratri / corpus et erubuit, quamvis sopita iacebat” (9.470-1): “Often she saw her body joined to her brother.” Even in innocent sleep she blushes because she understands the fundamental taboo. No translation I’ve encountered makes proper use of the past participle “sopita,” which connotes being knocked out by a blow, indicating the strength of Byblis’ passion. When she wakes, she charms her readers by examining her feelings carefully, and balancing them against the social reality. In “Ovid Through Shakespeare: The Divided Self,” Edward Milowicki and Rawdon Wilson discuss the social construct surrounding transgression myths, and assert that “…characters reflect, or otherwise mirror, a public reality accessible on its own terms outside of the text and… the most valid analysis [of it] would follow an empirical-descriptive method…” (Milowicki, Rawdon, 218). Byblis has too much integrity to ignore a personal truth, and sets about weighing her desires against the empiricism of her social reality. But she has too little integrity to hide her feelings when they are balanced and found lacking. Such is the conundrum of the poet! She indulges an impulse that will destroy her: her skill at manipulating truth to justify her actions. She draws upon her treasury of words to explore the limits of her desire and the ramifications of crossing them. Then, through a series of recursive arguments, she slowly inoculates herself against doubt.
Her argument follows a cyclical, rather than linear, trajectory. Concentric circles of logic ripple from the center. The outermost line of reasoning concerns the appropriateness of the match. She dismisses the matter of blood:
O ego, si liceat mutato nomine iungi,
Quam bene, Caune, tuo poteram nurus esse parenti
Quam bene, Caune, meo poteras gener esse parenti (9.487-9).
If, by changing my name, I were permitted to marry you
What a perfect daughter-in-law I might make for your parent, Caunus
Caunus, what a perfect son-in-law you might make for mine.
The subjunctive mood captures her agony: on balance, their shared blood is the only obstacle standing in the way of their union. Instead of making one another’s fathers happy by the match, they must share a father.
Next, Byblis finds a precedent for incest. The Gods frequently marry their sisters, including Saturnus and Jupiter. She acknowledges that humans are bound to different laws than gods, but leaves the question open-ended as to why: “…Quid ad caelestia ritus / exigere humanos diversaque foedera tempto?” (9.500-1): “The gods / Have other laws than ours: how can I balance / Human mores against them?” (Gregory, Myers, 245). In asking “quid”, she highlights their hypocrisy. Why, she asks, may the gods do as they like? Is there any compelling reason for humans not to follow their example?
After such equivocation, she worries that Caunus might share her feelings, but perhaps they’re both too ashamed to admit to them. She reasons that were the roles reversed, and he came wooing her, she wouldn’t dream of turning him away, incest notwithstanding. Thus, she cannot imagine the worst—his utter rejection of her. To fail to speak, she thinks, would injure her more than the consequences of a confession:
Sit tamen ipse mei captus prior esset amore,
Forsitan illius possem indulgere furori
Ergo ego, Quae fueram non reiectura petentem,
Ipsa petam…! (9.511-12)
If he were already captured by love of me,
Maybe I would be able to indulge this madness
Therefore, since I would never reject him if he came wooing
I myself must woo…!
Here we realize her error in judgment. She’ll never win with these arguments. But we can’t help but admire her passion and skill as a rhetorician, even if she is motivated by self-deception.
Finally, she decides that while shame might hold her tongue, she can still rely on the persuasive powers of her writing. She commits her feelings, in all their circularity, to a letter for her brother. The letter, we sense, is the agent of her ruin.
Here Ovid showcases his own writing chops with a verbal portrait that could be called “Woman in Doubt.” In the word-picture he paints, we warm to Byblis, albeit with extreme ambivalence. Ovid portrays an artist’s exquisite agony over crafting the perfect prose. Almost every word is a verb of doubting and hesitating, proviso, negotiation, translation. She pours in concentration over her artful letter. Byblis starts, stops, condemns and approves of her words:
Incipit et dubitat, scribit damnatque tabellas,
Et notat et delet, mutat culpatque probatque
Inque vicem sumptas ponit positasque resumit (9.523-5).
She began, and then doubted what she’d written
She wrote, and then cursed the words.
She inscribed and erased, and changed, condemned, approved.
As soon as she picked the tablets up, she put them back down.
Putting them down, she picked them back up.
By switching to the point of view of omniscient narrator, Ovid allows for dramatic irony. We see Byblis is in pain. Her hesitation makes her human. She is clever and well-spoken. Nevertheless, we see what she can’t: that her gamble will fail. Not because it is immoral (for love in this story is amoral), but because she has credited the world—and her brother—with greater sensitivity than they deserve. We watch her agonize over the letter, knowing it will be poorly received. We know this not even having met Caunus. The reader watches her scribble in the wax in horror, praying for her to change her mind.
The logic of the letter follows a circular course, mirroring her private thoughts. In the letter she touches upon a new key point: She assumes that Caunus will care more about saving her from suffering than about rules. He could have read her feelings, she says, had he been attentive to her pallor and her thinness and her perpetually-wet eyes, and all those un-sisterly kisses. Moreover, she assures him that,
…Non hoc inimica precatur
Sed quae, cum tibi sit iunctissima, iunctior esse
Expetit et venclo tecum prepriore ligari” (9.548-50)
…It’s not an enemy imploring you
But the girl who is now the most joined to you,
Seeking to be joined by an even tighter chain.
She concludes the letter with a plea that he not reject her and be the cause of the inscription on her tomb. A manipulative move, and one that further complicates our feelings about her. She hands the tablets over to a trembling slave, saying, “…Fer has, fidissime, nostro” / Dixit , et adiecit longo post tempore “fratri.” (“’Most faithful servant, carry these to my—‘ and she waited a long time before adding, ‘—brother.’”) As she hands the tablets over, they clatter to the ground. This is a sure omen. Her endeavor will fail. Byblis’ failure in logic is that she, an artist, anticipates an artist’s response: she can’t imagine Caunus’ hardheartedness. She typifies the trope of the artist, misunderstood in an artless world.
For all the text’s circularity, the letter stands in as the central element. It’s the story’s concretization of the character’s desire and struggle. The tale is organized around the letter as an object. It is, in fact, the only real cause of harm for her. Her fantasies (as all fantasies) are morally neutral, and the text goes so far as to suggest that unspoken desire is natural: to “put it in writing” is where it gets sticky. In “The Writing in (and of) Ovid’s Byblis Episode”, Thomas E. Jenkins creates the below schema to illustrate the organizing power of the letter in a text otherwise circular and cyclical:
455-473: Introduction: Byblis’ dream and desire for her brother
474-516: Internal monologue of Byblis and the conception of the letter
517-563: The composition of the letter
530-584: The secret letter of Byblis
564-584: The delivery and rejection of the letter
585-629: Internal monologue of Byblis and regret over the letter
630-665: Conclusion: rejection of Byblis’ desire and metamorphosis (Jenkins, 440).
We have seen the verse take a circular form that mimics the inner workings of the human mind, recursively (somewhat monomaniacally) hashing and rehashing the same evidence to construct an airtight argument that is impervious to reality. But, as noted above, the structure of the story as a whole is highly organized. The moment Byblis releases the letter into the world, she truly dooms herself and her endeavor. It is like her desires have tremendous potential energy. As long as they remain in her fevered brain, they can do no harm. But the moment she releases the tablets into the hands of her trembling slave, they fall, giving a sure omen that they have become harmful kinetic energy. Next, we leave Byblis for the first (and last) time and follow the slave. We finally meet Caunus. We aren’t impressed. We realize the scope of Byblis’ mistake. Caunus is not a poet, and shows himself to be pitiless and obsessed with decorum:
Vixque manus retinens trepidantis ab ore ministri,
'Dum licet, o vetitae scelerate libidinis auctor,
Effuge!' ait 'qui, si nostrum tua fata pudorem
Non traherent secum, poenas mihi morte dedisses.' (9.574-9)
Scarcely restraining his hand from the trembling slave’s face
He says “Flee while you can, Pimp: I would kill you now
If your death wouldn’t drag my good name down with it.”
Caunus is an ambassador from a world without art. His icy—even violent—response to Byblis, although he has the moral high ground, causes readers to side even more dramatically and compassionately with infelix Byblis. Her brother loses our sympathy most when mere etiquette keeps him from killing the messenger. He stays his hand only because it would drag his shame down with him (note his use of the word “shame” in line 9.579 as compared with Byblis’ gentle concern that shame was holding her mouth. The two verbs, “tenabit” and “traherent” illustrate the differences in the roles of shame in their twin lives, and the use and purpose of words for them both).
The last portion of the poem involves Byblis’ struggle with her passion in the face of violent rejection. Caunus is in a rage. Byblis pales and briefly regrets the letter and the feelings, but slowly they creep back into her mind. She allows them to enter, and soon indulges them again:
…neque enim est de tigride natus
Nec rigidas silices solidumve in pectore ferrum
Aut adamanta gerit, nec lac bibit ille leaenae.
Is not a tiger’s cub, nor is his heart steel-bound
Or cut from rock, nor did a lioness
Give him her breast to suck. He will be won! (Gregory, Myers, 249).
Once again, she makes the argument that Caunus cannot possibly be as cruel as the evidence has proven he is. Perhaps, she suggests, it was the fault of the slave, who approached him at an inopportune time, or perhaps she chose the wrong day (these poor, poor slaves!) “Byblis,” says Jenkins, “blames not the unpalatable message, but the medium of writing itself” (Jenkins, 447).
Perhaps, she laments, were she to have seen him in person, he would have been won over by her. If she used more ambiguous words, equivocated better, he would have been convinced. If her stratagem were sounder, he would be her lover. We know her cause is hopeless, but we watch her commit herself to further humiliations. She is so good with words that she can still talk herself into actions that work against her own self-interest. Ovid is not telling a cautionary tale about loving appropriately, but about the misappropriation of art. One suspects that Byblis might have left herself less vulnerable if she spoke less well, and didn’t have the skill to convince herself of anything.
Ovid’s Byblis transgresses. The reader must agree with the odious Caunus on this. Byblis has an irrepressible desire for something society can’t allow her to have. Ovid, in his fashion, sets us up to expect a cautionary tale about loving unlawfully. But while “Byblis in exemplo est,” his thesis doesn’t concern lawful loving. Ovid is neutral about incest and doesn’t explore the ethics of incest taboos. He merely exploits them to create tension in the story. He endows his doppelganger-poet with so sympathetic a voice that we root for her. After being spurned, Byblis wanders the wilderness, tearing the clothes from her breast and wailing. We feel her tragedy acutely. The story does not focus on the sin. It focuses on the triumphs—and the pitfalls—of rhetorical dexterity. Byblis uses her talent to inoculate herself against the doubt she should feel. Her creativity parallels—unwittingly perhaps—her creator’s talent. Ovid uses the tools of omniscient narrator, combined with his signature ventriloquism, to persuade title character and reader alike into thinking that what she desires is above morality. Our desires, Ovid warns, if artfully enough expressed, can override ethics. He warns the artist, therefore, about what happens if they fail to anticipate a world hostile to art. Given his imminent banishment, he might have learned better from his own cautionary tale!
Jenkins, Thomas E., “The Writing in (and of) Ovid’s Byblis episode”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100, (2000), 440
Milowicki, Edward J., Wilson, R. Rawdon, “Ovid Through Shakespeare: The Divided Self”. Poetics Today, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1995). 218
Ovid. Metamorphoses: Book 6-10. Anderson, William Scovil, ed. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman. 1972. 119
Ovid, The Metamorphoses. Horace Gregory, and Sara Myers, trans. Signet Classics. New York: New American Library. 2009. 244
 Unattributed translations are the author’s own