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Ovid, Amores 2.13

Translation copyright © 2000 Diane Arnson Svarlien; all rights reserved.

        For trying to unseat the burden crouched in her swelling womb,
     for her audacity, Corinna lies near death.
I should be furious: to take such a risk! And without telling me!
     But anger fails me -- I'm so afraid.
5You see, I'm the one who got her that way, or so I believe;
     I might as well be, since I could have been.
Isis! Great queen of Paraetonium, of Canopus' joyful plains,
     of Memphis, and of Pharos, rich in palm-trees,
of the broad delta where the swift Nile spreads, and pours
10     his waters to the sea through seven mouths,
I pray, by your sacred rattles, by the venerated face of Anubis --
     may faithful Osiris forever love your rites!
may the unhurried snake glide always amid your offerings,
     and horned Apis travel at your side! --
15come here, look kindly upon her, and save two lives in one:
     for you'll give life to her, and she to me.
She's been devout: performed each service on your festival days,
     observed the Gallic laurel ritual.
And you, who comfort laboring women in their time of distress, when
20     the lurking burden strains their bodies hard,
come gently now, and smile upon my prayers, Ilithyia --
     she's worthy of your intervention -- please!
I myself, in white robes, will bring incense to your smoking altar;
     I myself will offer votive gifts
25and lay them at your feet with the inscription, "For Corinna's Life."
     Goddess, give occasion for those words!
Corinna, listen, if you're out of danger:
     please don't ever go through this again!

Notes by William W. Batstone

This poem and the following curse on abortion form a typical Ovidian two-scene sequence; compare poems 7 and 8 on Cypassis. In the background are the Augustan social reforms which were designed to encourage marriage and discourage childlessness. Augustus imposed penalties on those who failed to marry or who married but remained childless. From this fact and from references to abortion in the literature (usually denouncing it), the frequent occurrence of abortion in imperial Rome can be inferred. Legislative opposition to abortion (which came later) was based on the father's right to heirs and complemented by philosophical arguments based on "nature." It is this assumption of the male prerogative which motivates these poems and which characterizes their speaker. In another body of legislation, Augustus attempted to revive old Roman religious practices. These efforts entailed the suppression of eastern religions, specifically including the Egyptian worship of Isis and Sarapis. In this regard too, when the speaker prays to Isis and Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, that Corinna survive the ordeal of her recent abortion, he appears relatively indifferent to Augustus's moral project. Formally, the body of the poem (7-26) is a prayer: invocation of Isis (7-16), worthiness as function of past services (17-18), invocation of Ilithyia (19-21), statement of worthiness (22), promise of future worship (23-26).

7-8. Isis: An Egyptian goddess whose cult spread throughout the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period and whose importance could be felt in many, if not all, aspects of life. Her cult included mystery rites, an Egyptian professional priesthood, temples, and festival days. She was called upon especially by women in childbirth. Paraetonium was a seaport in northern Africa; Canopus was an island at the most westerly mouth of the Nile noted for its luxury; Memphis was the great center of Lower Egypt where the cult of Sarapis originated in the worship of Osiris; and Pharos was an island near Alexandria where King Ptolemy had built a famous lighthouse. Pharos was particularly associated with the ritual lament of Egyptian women for the death of Osiris, Isis's husband.

11. Anubis: A local Egyptian god of death and rebirth usually represented as a jackal.

12. Osiris: The brother and husband of Isis, a god of fertility and the ruler of the underworld; his worship was connected with that of Isis, Sarapis, and Anubis. From October 28 to November 1, the rites of Isis, the Isia, were celebrated at Rome. These rites reenacted Isis's search for Osiris after his murder by his brother, her discovery of his dismembered body, and her revival of his remains.

13. snake: The snake was sacred to Isis and variously used in her worship.

14. Apis: A sacred bull worshiped in Memphis. This bull, when it died, was mummified and it was believed that the bull then began a second life by the blessing of Osiris, god of the underworld. This ritual is thought to have been the origin of the cult of Sarapis.

18. Gallic laurel ritual: The poet seems to refer to the orgiastic mystery cult of the goddess Cybele. Her priests, the Galli, would wound themselves and sprinkle the laurel bushes with their blood. If this is the correct reference, then the poet has confused this ritual with the feminine rites of Isis.

22. Ilithyia: A Greek goddess of childbirth sometimes identified with Juno, sometimes with Diana.

This translation first appeared in Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone (edd.), Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations. New York: Garland, 1995. It has been republished in Diotima with permission.

Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both Diane Arnson Svarlien and Diotima are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.

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