Echoes of Ovid

The 20th March 2017 marks the birthday of Publius Ovidius Naso. Known simply as Ovid, the Roman poet and exile commands a gargantuan legacy that has left an indelible mark on the Western literary cannon. Ovid is perhaps best known today for his epic work Metamorphoses, a hefty compilation of myth that covers everything from the Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar.

Literary giants across the ages have constructed their masterpieces upon the foundations of Ovidian lore. For instance, the Florentine poet Petrarch,  who pioneered the art of the sonnet in Renaissance Europe, owes much to Ovid in his defining work Il Canzoniere. In the famous canzone 23, the poetic persona imagines himself subjected to a series of Ovidian metamorphoses, transforming from man to laurel, swan, stone, fountain, voice and stag:

What a state I was in when I first realized

the transfiguration of my person,

and saw my hair formed of those leaves

that I had hoped might yet crown me…


Daphne and Apollo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini

This particular episode of metamorphosis draws its roots from the tale of Daphne and Apollo. The god of poetry, infatuated with the chaste river nymph, pursues her through the woods until she ultimately transforms into a laurel tree to evade his clutches. It is by now a classic scene that has been re-imagined and retold on countless occasions, appearing in films as varied as Disney’s Hercules and Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In a particularly famous literary example, Shakespeare pays homage to the tale in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Helena, assuming the role of Apollo, chases Demetrius through the woods, crying out:

The wildest hath not such a heart as you.

Run when you will, the story shall be changed.

Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase.

Teeming with magical transformations, interactions between gods and humans and a mess of romantic entanglements, Shakespeare’s beloved comedy draws heavily from Ovid’s bawdy, unpredictable world. Revisiting the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, which provides the backdrop to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare gives the Ovidian tale of ill-fated lovers a comic twist by making it the subject of the mechanicals’ play.

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom, Henry Fuseli

Of more controversial fame, Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus takes inspiration from the dark side of Ovid’s world, adapting the tale of Philomela and Procne as a central plot point. The character of Lavinia, daughter of the eponymous Roman general,  is violently mutilated by her rapists in a mirror image of Philomela, whose hands and tongue are cut off by her brother-in-law in the Ovidian tale. Lavinia actually uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to show what had happened to her through pointing to the story of Philomela, perfectly illustrating how Ovid’s stories present a frame through which other stories can be told.  Written at a time when audiences were hungry for violent revenge plays, the tragic tale of Philomela gets a 16th century reworking that appeals to a particular people at a particular time, showing how Ovid’s timeless tales can be recalled and tailored to a specific period.

Besides offering a narrative blueprint from which new stories are born, Ovid’s influence extends to the words we use and the ways in which we understand ourselves. Take, for instance, the tale of Narcissus and Echo. The beautiful Narcissus is adored by the nymph Echo; he spurns her advances out of a complete disinterest in love, until he unknowingly happens across his own reflection in a pond. Believing himself to be another, he is enthralled by the beauty of his reflection, maddened to death by its unattainability. As Ted Hughes envisions it in Tales from Ovid:

He beat his bare chest with white fists.

The skin flushed under the blows.

When Narcissus saw this…

It was too much for him.

Like a wax near the flame…

He melted – consumed

By his love.

Echo faded away from a broken heart until only her voice remained, fated to repeat the last words of anyone nearby. Hence the modern definition of the word ‘echo’: sound repeated by reflection. The afterlives of Narcissus, on the other hand, have become entwined with Freudian psychoanalysis. ‘Narcissistic’ is a word now used to describe a person who takes an excessive interest in the self, resulting in problems maintaining healthy relationships with others. As such, Freud modelled his theory around the story of Narcissus as recorded in the Ovidian tale, demonstrating the power of stories to affect the ways in which we understand and articulate our experiences.

Ovid’s immense legacy represents the formidable power of story-telling and the ways in which they are central to the human experience. Such stories have no expiry date; they are continually recycled and retold in an endless echo through time. Perhaps the canny Roman recognised the power of his stories as the gateway to immortality when he ended the Metamorphoses with the words:

Throughout all ages, if poets have vision to prophesy truth,

I shall live in my fame.


Narcissus’ 21st century update


Austerity Measures

On the 5th July 2015, jubilant crowds poured into Syntagma Square in Athens to celebrate an end to the austere conditions which had stagnated Greek society since the 2008 economic fallout. The celebrations were short lived. Only seven days later, the same prime minister who had just pulled off a stunning victory against an autocratic European elite, officially conceded defeat. Yielding to Europe’s demands, Alexis Tsipras signed off a fresh batch of austerity measures, plunging the country into an indefinite period of economic hardship that it has been in ever since.

20 months on, Greece is struggling to stay afloat. Yet from a backdrop of austerity and hardship,  a cultural renaissance is blossoming. Karen Van Dyck, professor of modern Greek literature and editor of the poetry anthology Austerity Measures, remarks that despite a shortage of almost everything, there is a particular abundance of one thing: poetry. ‘In all of the misery and mess, new poetry is everywhere, too large and too various a body of writing to fit neatly on either side of any ideological rift,’ she writes in the anthology’s introduction. Poets are painting their words on the streets, posting online, joining forces with artists and musicians; literary magazines are flourishing, both old and new.

Austerity Measures gathers the various strands of contemporary Greek poetry, weaving them together to form an image of a nation plunged into an identity crisis. Through the medium of words, the poets chart the complexities of a modern Greek identity, drawing on themes of time, mythology and geography, all of which form a rich cultural landscape. The anthology explores what it means to be Greek post-2008, juggling past and present notions of a national ‘self’. As journalist Kate Kellaway points out, metamorphosis is a recurring theme, where the body itself becomes the suffering landscape:


Her White Utensils (extract)

By Dimitris Allos


‘… and I who feed on memory

like a Cycladic monument…

I no longer remember her name

Her face perhaps

A precipice, now refugees

Electricity cut off…

To dirty my hands

With the civilization of her body


Down to the innards

Of the clouds


While many poems draw on grand themes of history and mythology, others hone in on the smaller details of daily life, delineating a stark portrait of an austere domestic reality. A focus on desolate interiors underscores the fusion of the personal and the political, where the external seeps into the internal. For instance, Dimitris Athinakis paints a melancholy image of the domestic interior as the remaining vestige of order:


A Semblance of Order (extract)

A tidy house is what I have left.


I continue with the corners of the house. I forage in them.

I look under

the beds, under the plates piled

In a semblance of order.

First the deep plates, then the

shallow ones.

I don’t go anywhere – I’m just sad.


Whenever I remember to, I sew some pockets shut

– as if to lock up whatever I can.


Yet it is heartbreakingly clear that any semblance of order is just an illusion, as the poetic persona knows. Even the haven of the home is stagnant with a mood of desolation. As contributing poet Elena Penga remarks in an interview with the Guardian, ‘we are all shaken up and blinded by the shock. We have lost perspective and see no horizon’. Yet fellow poet Thomas Tsalapatis is more optimistic. When asked what gives him hope, he replies: ‘The work of small groups, the creativity of small artistic cells. The never-ending conversations between a group of friends about art, politics or whatever. And of course the help given to refugees from volunteers (Greeks or non-Greeks) and common people every day in Athens and the islands.’

Tsalapatis would like to be remembered as ‘a small handmade ark of a feeling and an era’. Few words could better describe Austerity Measures as an anthology. Bringing together the  sentiments of a society beset with difficulties, the collection is a testament to the lived experience of the Greek people.


Word Monday (extract)

By Thomas Tsalapatis


Boiling water, always boiling water

Learning that what is scarce is what takes charge

Learning how Π and T lose their flat roofs

How ζ and ξ dry up at the roots

How vowels get murdered

How language bubbles up


An offering of the silent

For those who grew silent.

Rumi’s Poetics of Joy and Love

Out beyond ideas

of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed begins with this epigraph: a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi. Hosseini is not unique in this respect; he is one of innumerable writers to pay homage to the poet at the commencement of their works, as if the act may bestow the story-telling wisdom of ages onto their narratives. Yet Rumi’s enduring presence extends beyond epigraphs. The Persian poet, scholar, theologian and Sufi mystic continues to dominate US bestseller lists in his own right, and his oft-quoted poetic gems can now be accessed via the Twitter account @RumiQuotes. So what is it about this poet’s simple, beautiful verses that not only speaks to modern readers, but moves them to create stories of their own?

Often described as ‘ecstatic’, the spirit of joy that emanates from Rumi’s verse almost zaps the reader with a loving energy. The poignancy and simplicity of the poet’s most quotable lines allow them to act like mantras, as if their messages might help us to unlock barriers within ourselves through repetition: ‘Respond to every call that excites your spirit.’ This may account for the popularity of Rumi’s quotations as epigraphs to books on spiritual healing, or why his words often adorn coffee mugs, fridge magnets and ‘inspirational’ wall hangings. We surround ourselves with sequences of words and sounds; infused with spiritual meaning, their poetic and melodic resonance takes on uplifting qualities.

This is where Rumi’s Sufism enters the picture. Sufism is an Islamic mystical practice, centred on the purification of the spiritual self through love, and a sense of oneness with the universe. Sufi spiritualism is the life force of Rumi’s lyrical poetry. The ecstasy that emanates from verses such as, ‘dance until you shatter yourself’, lives on in the Dance of the Whirling Dervishes, established in 1273 following Rumi’s death. Sufis channel their devotion to Allah through ecstatic dance and music ritual, in which the whirling dancer experiences a spiritual ascent through an immersion in love.  

 Rumi’s poetry is deeply entwined with Islamic thought. His most celebrated work, the Masnavi, is a collection of Sufi stories and parables embedded with Qur’anic teachings. Rumi himself reportedly described the Masnavi as ‘the roots of the roots of the [Islamic] Religion’. The Sufi sense of cosmic oneness permeates the collection: ‘We were one substance, like the Sun; we were knotless and pure, like Water.’ Yet despite being a profoundly Muslim poet, reference to Islam is strikingly lacking in many modern adaptations of Rumi’s poetry. This is culturally problematic. To retain Rumi’s spirituality while erasing the religious context it derives from is, to quote Professor Omid Safi, an act of ‘spiritual colonialism’: ‘the erasure and occupation of a spiritual landscape which has been lived and breathed and internalised by Muslims worldwide’.

The passage of poetry which begins this article offers a prime example of the erasure of Islamic references from modern translations. Indeed, the original Persian does not actually refer to ideas of ‘wrongdoing’ and ‘rightdoing’, but rather iman (‘religion’) and kufr (‘infidelity’). As journalist Rozina Ali remarks in The New Yorker, Rumi is putting forward a radically liberal and heterodox vision of Islam in which ‘the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love’. It is, nonetheless, an Islamic vision, and should be respected as such in modern translations.

Rumi (1207-1273) is currently one of the bestselling poets in the USA. His unwavering appeal lies in the compassion of his words, which transcend faith and culture, continuing to chime profoundly with contemporary readers, even after seven hundred years. Acknowledging Rumi’s vision of love within its Islamic context, and recognising its unifying potential, is a small but meaningful step towards tackling the division which pervades today’s global religious landscape.

East meets West in the culinary history of Ayutthaya

Thailand is one of the classic holiday destinations for many Britons. Lured by the country’s ‘exotic’ appeal, hedonistic reputation and tropical beaches, many flock to the ‘land of smiles’ every year. Yet off the beaten track, there’s an endless abundance of cultural treasures to be explored, offering a more illuminating experience of Thai culture. Just one of Thailand’s countless cultural treasures is located 80 kilometres upriver from Bangkok, in the historical city of Ayutthaya.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the old capital of Siam is a city of ruins made up of rows of headless Buddhas, the remnants of once-grand monasteries and beautiful reliquary towers whose intricate stonework has withstood the passage of time. Even from its ruins, you get an inkling of the grandeur that once characterised this fallen city. A few hundred years ago, these crumbling edifices were the heart of a civilisation on par with the greatest foreign powers of its time. After all, Thailand is the only country in South-East Asia to never have been colonised by a European power, which is no small feat.

In its heyday, Ayutthaya was renowned worldwide as a cosmopolitan city – and the influx of foreigners had a profound impact on the national cuisine. It was in the royal kitchens of this city that Thai desserts took a new turn. Under the direction of Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent, the desserts of the court became infused with Portuguese influences, turning into the staples of Thai cuisine that they are regarded as today. In the West, she is overshadowed by the more famous figure of her husband. But in Thailand, she has become an admired figure in culinary history due to her services for the nation’s sweet-tooths.

Her desserts were yolk-based in contrast to the traditional coconut base previously used in Thai sweets. Borrowing from the Portuguese tradition, the main ingredients used by Maria Guyomar de Pinha in her desserts were eggs, sugar, soybean starch or cassava starch.

One of the most famous of her desserts is known in Thai as foi thong. The word thong means ‘golden’ and represents prosperity in Thai culture. As an auspicious dish, it is offered as a gift to bring luck, but also eaten casually. The dessert consists of egg-yolks squeezed out into thin strands and boiled in jasmine-scented sugar syrup. The end result resembles a nest of sugared golden threads heaped on banana leaves or simply served on a plate. The strands are rolled into little bundles to sell in the markets, and are sometimes shaped into stars or flowers. The golden threads can also be used on top of cakes as an icing alternative and served up with a cup of tea or coffee.

These days you can find foi thong practically anywhere in Thailand. It’s sold in almost every food market and café, a quintessentially Thai dish. And it was within the ruins of this city where its story began.

Serves 4:

6 egg yolks

200g sugar

200ml water (scented with 2 drops of jasmine for Thai style)

  • Add the sugar to the jasmine-scented water in a large saucepan and place over a medium heat. Allow to cook until the mixture turns to syrup, stirring from time to time.
  • Pour the egg yolks into a funnel and drizzle into the syrup. (You can stick a bit of tape over the end of the funnel to make a smaller hole – this allows the yolk to be drizzled into the syrup in a very thin trickle, creating a thread-like appearance.)
  • Allow the threads to cook for about a minute before fishing them out. Repeat until you run out of yolks.
  • Serve them drizzled with the remaining syrup to stop them drying out.

From here, you can be creative with how you serve them. Options include topping them with fruit or chocolate spread, eating them with ice cream or cake, using them as a filling for tarts, or simply eating them straight.

Enjoy fresh or give to a friend to bring luck!