On metamorphoses and butterflies

Γίνονται δ’ αἱ μὲν καλούμεναι ψυχαὶ ἐκ τῶν καμπῶν …
καὶ μεταβάλλουσι τὴν μορφήν, καὶ καλοῦνται χρυσαλλίδες …
χρόνου δ’ οὐ πολλοῦ διελθόντος περιρρήγνυται τὸ κέλυφος
καὶ ἐκπέτεται ἐξ αὐτῶν πτερωτὰ ζῷα, ἃς καλοῦμεν ψυχάς.

So-called butterflies come into being from caterpillars … and they
change their shape and are called chrysalises …  After some time
has passed they break their envelopes and out of them fly the
winged life-forms we call butterflies.

Aristotle Historia Animalium 551a14 … 24
Change is the only immutability.

I’ve certainly made this observation in the past;  I’m making it here today;  I’ll probably make it again in the future.

This notion, with its overtones of randomness and unpredictability, fascinates me.  It fascinated the ancient Greeks.  And it is only slight hyperbole to assert that central to the epistemology of the entire culture was the diverse and unceasing effort by writers and thinkers to reconcile the fact of observable and often arbitrary change with a human yearning that at some level there be fixity in things.

We associate with the philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.) the development of the idea of an underlying, a reality that is somehow more valid than what we experience around us.  Not to detract from the ingenious (if — in my own personal anti-idealist opinion — not entirely compelling) and not unbeautiful formalization that Plato brought to bear ontologically on the matter, the fact is that this concept as such long antedates him in Greek literature.  The groundwork as it were was laid, in my view, long ago in the supra-human machinery of that eternal reality over-arching the Homeric universe, the gods.   But Plato pushes to empyrean extremes of abstraction the essentially materialistic exegesis of all that is which the earlier pre-Socratic thinkers had undertaken;  and, beside them, the epic (not just Homer but so too Hesiod) and lyric poets (e.g., Pindar, Bacchylides) had offered a largely mythological representation of human experience and its interactions with the material and numinous world.

Those gods in Homer (eighth century B.C.) are a case in point.  In their loves and hates they are much like the human beings whom they thwart or promote – except that they are un-aging and un-dying.  It is not so much that one should conceive of them as “models” for humans and human action or, in Platonics terms, “forms” thereof, but as creatures hierarchically superior and importantly different from mortal counterparts.  There is, in other words, a relationship of sorts, however feebly articulated, between the gods and humans that is not necessarily familial in scope – Homeric humans are unthinkable without the gods, who represent a transcendent kind of reality to which virtually no mortal is allowed access.  Gods are immutable and live forever;  people change and soon die.  It does not greatly tax the imagination to discern in this affiliation the vulgar lattice on which the Platonic polarity of ontology and phenomenology will crystallize.

In Odyssey 10, some of the hero’s men are turned into swine by the witch Circe (233-243).  This is one of the earliest (Niobe at Iliad 24.602-617 also comes to mind) metamorphoses in Greek literature of human into non-human.  While ancient allegorizing understood this transformation as commentary on man’s lustful and bestial nature (I doubt that this was Homer’s point, but I admit I never asked him), my own thought is that Homer was playing with the idea of metamorphosis and the nature of underlying realities in a thematic idiom thoroughly developed in his poetry:  appearances are deceiving.

The ghastliest part about the metamorphosis of Odysseus’ men is that beneath the porcine appearance lies a human mind and sensibility (“And the men had the heads and voice and bristle of pigs, / and the body;  the mind, however, was solidly the same (ἔμπεδος empedos) as it had been before.” [329-240]).  Again, we seem to be dealing with the typology of an ultimately more valid reality (human mentation) not readily perceivable through the masking appearances of animalness (pig-shape).  Which is the reality:  humanness or pigness?  What are the these creatures really, underlyingly, ontologically —  men or pigs?

Finally, to butterlies.

The long history of the Greek obsession with change – mythical, material and metaphysical – enjoys a stepped-up interest during the Hellenistic era (323-31 B.C.), itself wistfully in love with the powerful new goddess of chanciness (Τύχη Tychē, called Fortuna by the Romans), emblematic of the sense of shift and alteration in old paradigms of political, military and personal arrangements.

In the general literature of this age metamorphosis as such comes into its own as a dominant theme, eventuating most impressively for us in Ovid’s hellenized Latin epic, the Metamorphoses (c. 2 A.D. and on), an awful wonderful kaleidoscope of tales of physical and psychological transformation based largely on Hellenistic and earlier material.

The invasion, so to speak, of metamorphosis into the biological and botanical discourse of such influential “scientist-naturalists” as Aristotle (who died in 322 B.C.) and his pupil Theophrastus (died c. 287 B.C.) suggests that this already ancient theme had joined the larger intellectual climate of the day.  Not surprisingly, and interestingly, it made a lateral shift to center stage in the literature (including Aristotle’s Poetics [e.g., 1452a-23 on περιπέτεια peripeteia ‘reversal (in fortune)’]) of this and subsequent periods, just as, perhaps, in our own century many literary types toyingly or pretentiously cherry-pick at concepts from modern science like chaos theory, entropy and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  And that’s a categorically terrific place for me to grow silent about random and unpredictable metamorphoses …

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One Response to On metamorphoses and butterflies

  1. heather says:

    Are there other cultures as fascinated by the butterfly/moth/metamorphosis? American? Extreme home makeover, extreme cosmetic makeover, etc, etc???

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