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Writings on the Chain of Being:

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I

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Several medieval and Renaissance poets wrote extensively about the Chain of Being. The idea of the elements being ranked and ordered harmoniously owes something to classical thinking. Take for instance, Ovid's poetry. In the Metamorphoses, Book I, Ovid writes the following account of how the divine ordered the elements. (I quote below the Latin text of Miller's revised edition of Ovid III, Metamorphoses, Books I-VIII, volume 42 in Harvard's Loeb Classical Library series. Reprint 1999):

Hanc deus et melior litem natura diremit.
nam caelo terras et terris abscidit undas
et liquidum spisso secrevit ab aere caelum.
Quae postquam evolvit caecoque exemit acervo,
dissociata locis concordi pace ligavit:
ignea convexi vis et sine pondere caeli
emicuit summaque locum sibi fecit in arce;
proximus est aer illi levitate locoque;
densior his tellus elementaque grandia traxit
et pressa est gravitate sua; circumfluus umor
ultima possedit solidumque coercuit orbem. (21-31)

[God--and kindlier nature--composed this strife;
for He ripped land from sky, and sea from land,
and separated the ethereal heavens from the dense atmosphere.
When he thus had released these elements and freed them
from the blind heap of things, he set them each in its
own place and bound them fast in harmony. The fiery
weightless element that forms heaven's vault leaped up and
made for itself upon the topmost height. Next came the air
in lightness and in place. The earth was heavier than these
and, drawing with it the grosser elements, sank to the bottom by
its own weight. The streaming water took the remaining place,
and held the solid land confined in its embrace.]

We can see even as early as Roman times this idea that, with divine order, the various elements have a natural place to which they are drawn. Ovid uses the same model the Renaissance cosmologists would use, with fire highest, followed by heavier air, with water congealed below that, and earth being heaviest and lowest of all.

 

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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2017. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated January 5, 2017. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.