The Reading Room
Loci Amoeni: Pleasant Places and the Golden Ages in Ancient Poetry: Part Two
In the second part of the study of loci amoeni, the pleasant places of the ancient world, we will continue to examine Homer’s Odyssey, now focusing on the location of one of its semi-divine antagonists. We will then conclude our study by returning to a golden age alongside Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
In Book IX of the Odyssey we encounter the Land of the Cyclopes, which shares several features with Kalypso's enchanted isle Ogygia, including land which produces its bounty without cultivation.
The Isle of the Cyclopes in Odyssey 9.105-115
"From there, still grieving at heart, we sailed on furtheralong, and reached the country of the lawless outrageous
Cyclopes who, putting all their trust in the immortal
gods, neither plow with their hands nor plant anything,
but all grows for them without seed planting, without cultivation,
wheat and barley and also the grapevines, which yield for hem
wine of strength, and it is Zeus' rain that waters it for them.
These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels;
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed
among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others."
(Ody. 9.105-115; my emphases)
Like in Genesis, the land of the Cyclopes requires no agricultural tools or knowledge. The land autogenously produces abundant grain and fruit itself. The water which helps the land to flourish and grow is provided by Zeus. The land itself requires no institutions nor buildings nor laws. This is remarkably similar to the Golden Age Ovid will treat us to in the next passage, though for differing reasons. The pre-industrial, pre-architectural, and pre-political/legal nature of the Cyclopes may show a proto or primitive attempt at civilization and its negative attributes, like a lack of hospitality and lack of camaraderie, as both are demonstrated on the isle. Polyphemos the cyclops, for example, consumes several of Odysseus’ friends rather than offering them food as a guest-gift. When Polyphemos is later blinded by Odysseus, his would-be comrades flee from helping him because as he yells that “nobody” has blinded him, they assume that the gods have finally done their worst to Polyphemos, and what use could they be against the Olympian gods? One might see this as a Hobbesian state of nature which is full of violence, death, and lacks the order which custom and law help to provide. Ovid’s Golden Age, however, shows what might be called a more “Rousseauian” vision of the state of nature in which the evils of human society have not yet developed alongside the necessary and eventual degeneration of the human race from its ideal first form.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1.89-112 The Golden Age
This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. There was no fear or punishment: there were no threatening words to be read, fixed in bronze, no crowd of suppliants fearing the judge’s face: they lived safely without protection. No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel to other lands: human beings only knew their own shores. There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coiled horns, no swords and helmets. Without the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security. The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself. Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from Jupiter’s spreading oak-tree. Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak. (Met. 1.89-112; my emphases)
Like the cyclopes, the race of Gold neither has laws nor knows the art of building ships (which would ostensibly itself lead to the art of bringing war to an alien people). Rather than this reflecting a deficiency in the civility of the people, however, Ovid’s point is that such people need no laws nor punishments because they house a deeper law within themselves. Additionally, the golden race requires no ships or war because they are self-sufficient and lack for nothing. Just like on the isle of the Cyclopes, nothing on this idyllic paradise is created by mortals, all is self-growing or autogenous. There are no human agricultural tools or methods, no laws, no institutions, nor wars or even tools of war. It is unclear to what extent this race even has language, and whether they pass on a cultural memory by word at all. They seem simply to exist without knowledge or craft or art. And "human beings only knew their own shores," which may just as well mean that man "knew himself" or rather, lived according to his shared nature with the divine and the world.
Regardless of tradition, therefore, ancient conceptions of paradise involve one living in a world without (1) work, (2) laws, and (3) human inventions. Does this suggest that the very notion of "rules" or "laws" and "work" are human notions, and that in human generating them or coming to know them, the world becomes worse for humans? Or could it be, as the Isle of the Cyclopes suggests, that agricultural labor, customs, laws, and institutions make the world into a more cultivated and humane place? Are we escaped from barbaric cyclopean nature, or have we lost our fundamental connection to a pre-lapsarian and golden world? The decision rests with the reader whether to view the genealogy of existence as one of progress or regress.