The Reason for the Introductory Myth from Ovid

Between the frontispiece quote and Chapter One is a myth from the Roman poet, Ovid. Ovid would have died during the centurion’s youth, and so it is certain Lucius would have read him, especially given his upbringing in Alexandria and the fact that his father was a librarian there.

The myth I quote is from Ovid’s magnum opus, titled, Metamorphoses, a 15-volume work containing 250 myths that chronicled the world’s creation through the life of Julius Caesar. The reoccurring theme in the Metamorphoses is love, personified by the lessor god known as Cupid, who was to the other gods an enigma, at best, and a humiliation at worst.

The word metamorphoses means “transformations,” and one of those transformations occurs in the myth of Ceyx.

When Halcyon, daughter of Aeolus, who was guardian of the winds, came of age, she married Ceyx, king of Trachis. Their love and devotion for each other was so great, it was known throughout the kingdom. 

One day when Ceyx sailed from the land of Trachis to consult the oracle at Delphi, he was shipwrecked. Wakened from a frightful dream about the wreck, Halcyon ran to the seashore, looking for her beloved. As she searched for the wreckage, the tide washed her husband to her feet. He had drowned. Distraught, she threw herself into the sea to join him.

         When the gods looked down, they could not bear the death of two people who were so much in love, and so they transformed the couple into sea birds. During the winter, the gods ordained a week of calm so they could brood their young in a nest that floated undisturbed in the safety of a windless sea.

         Ever after, that week in winter has been known as Halcyon Days.

                   

A Tale from Metamorphoses

By Ovid

(43 BC–AD 18)

There are two reasons I used a Roman myth at the threshold my story. One is general; the other, specific.

My general reason for using this myth is that I want to establish early on that that is a story told from a Roman point of view. So, when I quote a story, it is not from the Jewish canon of scriptures or from the Christian canon but rather from the Roman canon—from the literary pantheon of myths about their gods and goddesses and how they interact with mortals here on earth. Later in the book, when I want to find some insight that might shed light on the story, I don’t do quote from a patriarch, such as Abraham, or from a prophet, such as John the Baptist, but from a philosopher—a Roman philosopher named Seneca, who was a contemporary of Lucius.

My specific reason for using this myth is say something about the story I am going to tell. It is, at its heart, a love story—Jesus’ love for the world that was evidenced in the sacrifice he made for it, which was reciprocated by his followers’ love for him and the sacrifices they made. On one level, we see the transforming effect of Jesus’ love first on Mary and later on Lucius. One another level, we see how their love for each other had a transforming effect on them, especially on Lucius in ways that first soften his heart and then harden it.

The author, Coleen McCollough, does something like this in her book, The Thorn Birds. Here is her frontispiece quote that uses to introduce the story she is going to tell.

“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain. . . . Or so says the legend.”

 At the end of her book, she returns to that legend and closes her saga like this:

“The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”

This is a beautiful example of bookending a story. The author not only creates an architectural symmetry in her work by returning to the original legend, but by shifting the subject of the sentence from “it” to “we,” she leads the reader across the threshold of this particular story to a more universal one that is piercing in its poignancy. Painfully so.

Hopefully, by the end of Centurion, readers will feel that it isn’t just a particular story about particular people about times long past, but that in some way or another it is a story about our times and our lives that they have read. Your story as well as mine. For truly, as each page is turned on every today we have been given, it is our hearts that are at stake, our lives, our destinies.

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