Ovid in the Time of Covid: Listening

In times of terrible crises, it helps to listen to those who know better. The Covid-19 pandemic has pitted the science skeptics against the believers and we must be thankful that for the greater part, the view of science has prevailed. Not least, for the marvelous efforts of the vaccine developers who have come to the rescue of all humanity.

For this edition of Ovid in the Time of Covid, I have chosen the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha as inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Deucalion, son of Prometheus, and his wife Pyrrha, are stranded in the middle of nowhere after the great deluge sent by Zeus and they seek the help of goddess Themis who tells them to “throw the bones of their mighty mother” over their shoulders. While at first the message is cryptic to the couple, they soon learn that the oracle means mother earth and that they are to throw stones of the earth over their shoulders. As they do so, the stones transform into human beings and the land is once again peopled with humanity.

Listen

When first the ill winds from Wuhan blew

Carrying with them, the strains of the coronavirus

Few thought it was anything more than a flu

And that with warmer weather, it would soon be behind us.

The WHO warned that people should take heed

Of new rules like mask wearing and social distancing

But there were some who thought there was no need

To sacrifice their freedoms for a phase that was only passing.

“For I, believe me, if the wave

Had whelmed thee, wife beloved, in that same wave

Following had whelmed myself ! Oh, that I now

That art paternal knew, to people fresh

The Earth, and give to plastic clay a soul!

Now in us twain alone remains the race

Of mortals—so the Gods have willed. We two

Survive, the sole example of Mankind.”

Deucalion to Pyrrha in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I, Lines 422-429

Listen, to those who understand the science

Listen, to those gasping for breath

Can we not see the millions falling to the virus,

Simply by being in company, by stealth?

Pray listen to the voice of reason as it speaks

From time-tested knowledge of what we know not

Else all become easy prey, to disease

Listen to the words of experience, it’s all we have got.

The skies roiled with clouds of despair

The winds carried the virus to newer lands

The seas roared as if the virus was calling from its lair

While the scientists toiled with their heads and their hands.

There were some studying the cause of the virus

And how it jumped from animals to man

And others were creating vaccines to save us

If only the world would stay home until then.

And “Oh,” they say, ” if ever prayer sincere

Had power to bend or win the Gods, or soothe

The wrath of Heaven, tell, Goddess dread, what art

May mend this ruin of our race, and, kind

As powerful, aid us in our sore distress!”

Deucalion and Pyrrha in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I, Lines 440-445

Listen, to the wise folks conducting their clinical trials

See hope rise like the morning sun

Stages 1, 2 and 3, in tiny doses and vials

Too bad, it still wouldn’t save everyone.

Every now and then, the grumbling voices in the dark

Would rise to celebrate their freedom and right to roam free

Make no mistake, these were no cries of the lark

These were those who simply refused to see.

Try as they did to drown the voices of reason and hope

They could not stop the steady march of science

It was more than the unbelievers could cope with

But this is not how the story ends

For with entire families, kith and kin

Cities, states and countries were affected

The virus seemed to be more vicious on the darker of skin

As they lived in neighbourhoods most congested.

“Then, not unmoved, the Goddess spake “Depart

“My shrine, and, with veiled head and vest ungirt,

Behind you fling your mighty Mother’s bones!

But, pondering long

The hidden meaning of the oracular voice,

Dark with mysterious phrase, Prometheus’ son

Some comfort spies, and, cheerful, to the child

Of Epimetheus— “Or my judgment fails,

Or this mysterious bidding of the Gods

May well be done—for Heaven commands no crime.

Our mighty Mother is the Earth : —these stones

Upon her surface strewn the Goddess calls,

Methinks, her bones—’tis these she bids us fling.”

Deucalion and Pyrrha in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I, Lines 440-461

Like the search for a vaccine, orders too were a race

Countries placed orders like there was no tomorrow

Vaccine makers simply couldn’t keep pace

They regretted it would cause more sorrow.

The science skeptics were joined by the anti-vaxxers

Who would wax eloquent on its imagined threats

Prevention or poison, which you preferred

Depended on who you listened to, only hastening the deaths.

O listen, do listen to the voices of reason immense

They can alleviate suffering and cure us all

O listen to the advice that makes good sense

And before the virus, we need not fall.

Listen, for hope that spreads even faster

Now that help is at hand

Listen, for we can prevent disaster

In each and every land.

The featured image at the start of this post is a sketch by Peter Paul Rubens, Deucalion and Pyrrha, for a painting – now lost – by Jan Cossiers for the Torre de la Parada from Wikimedia Commons

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