Ovid in the Time of Covid: Conflict

Hello readers and welcome to my blog in July 2021. Half of 2021 is already gone by and there seems to be little respite from the Covid pandemic. While the vaccinations are on in full swing, the pace seems to be wanting. Besides, many countries haven’t even received enough doses of the vaccine to start their vaccination drives in earnest. And the world – not merely India – has to also deal with the Delta variant.

In the middle of all this, there seems to be vaccine nationalism as well as vaccine hesitancy. Not to mention political rivalry between leaders. And there is definitely tension between going back to offices and newer ways of working. Enough then, to create conflict where there ought to be consensus and cooperation.

I have therefore chosen to base this month’s Ovid in the Time of Covid post on the story of Pentheus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It deals with the subject of rivalry between Pentheus from Thebes and Dionysus (Bacchus) and how their conflict leads to Pentheus’s death by accident at the hands of his own mother.


The middle kingdom from where the pandemic began

Celebrates a hundred glorious years of its party

While the rest of the world reels as the virus fans

In successive waves, as it proves to be too crafty.

The country is back on its feet again, and trade

Too is healthy with demand soaring

The growth is real and unlikely to fade

While debt too is growing.

Elsewhere too, countries are once again opening

Their doors and stepping out

While they also welcome those travelling

Vaccinated and unlikely to catch a new bout

This has caused many a conflict between

The vaccinated and those in line

The leaders and the largely unseen

The unwell and those fine.

“For thee well were it, that thine eyes as mine were dark,

So never might’st thou Bacchus’ mystic rite

Behold! The day will come—nor distant long—

When a new guest shall visit thee, the son

Of Semele, great Liber whom with fame

And honour due receive, or, piecemeal torn

I see thy scattered limbs; these woodland shades,

Thy mother’s self, and all her sisters, red

And reeking with thy gore! Thou hear’st thy fate!

For well I know thy madness will deny

The Deity his right. But, in that hour,

Remember how a Seer, though blind, could see!”

The Story of Pentheus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book III, Lines 622-633

In India, the numbers of cases are on the rise

With our large population, it is to be expected

With new daily cases at 50,000 is it any surprise

That the virus is nowhere near defeated.

In fact, more vaccines are needed than

Manufacturers can supply

It is not a question of if, but when

The vaccination rate will fly.

Like it has in several other countries

From Israel and US to UK and Europe

Helping them relax the travel freeze

Bringing millions new hope.

However, conflict continues to rumble

Between political leaders of various stripe

Those who don’t want covid mandates grumble

While others shrug off those not their type.

“Time proved his truth, and what he spake fulfilled.

For Liber comes, foretold. With festal mirth

Of thronging crowds the fields resounds, the press

Still thickens : wife and maiden, man and boy,

Noble and churl, in those new rites to share,

All emulous and eager. “Hold!” the voice

Of Pentheus shouts, “what madness thus, what rage “

Misleads you, you from that old Snake who sprang

Warriors from birth?”

The Story of Pentheus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 636-644

There are serious matters to do with work

About returning to the office or not

Companies keen to retain their work culture

And those who don’t give a jot.

Women who have lost their jobs or else

Had to stay home for their children’s sake

With schools and colleges shut

There is simply too much at stake.

The numbers of unemployed are rising

While employers can’t find people

They need, and if that’s not surprising

There is the digital technology pull

Meanwhile the virus lingers

Long enough to keep people worried

It attacks when one least expects it

Vaccination, it has to be hurried.

Pentheus torn apart by Maenads in a Roman fresco at Pompeii; Image: Wolfgang Rieger on Wikimedia Commons, public domain

“There Pentheus stood,

And with unholy eye upon the rite

Mysterious gazed. Agave’s glance was first

To mark him: first, with frenzy fired her hand

The thyrsus whirled, and, by a mother’s blow

First wounded bled the son! “Io!” she yelled,

“Io! help, sisters both! The Boar is here

That wastes our fields! Help me the boar to slay!”

With answering yell around him swarms the band

Shrieking and striking!

… Yet still he rears his trunk dismembered

“See,” Mother! “he shrieks, “’tis I, thy son!”

… Whirls scattered, so his body, limb from limb,

By that mad rout lay piecemeal rent and torn.

So, by that lesson taught, the maids of Thebes

The might of Bacchus learned, till now unknown,

And on his altars smoked their incense due.

The Story of Pentheus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 849-880

Last year saw one big election that

Changed the way the US saw the pandemic

This year others face similar tests

Nothing can be taken for granted

As leaders fight over political futures

And the legacy they leave behind

It is the people, tired, wounded and sutured

Who must elect the best they can find. 

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