Whoever wants to know more about classical origin myths and their reception in early modern Europe, sooner or later ends up with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Written around 8 AD, the poem in fifteen books was an all time hit: read throughout the period of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, it enjoyed a new wave of popularity from the Renaissance onwards. It might therefore be fair to say that any eighteenth century ideas related to a pre-civilized era, such as that of Rousseau, were in some way inspired by this remarkable work.
A collection of tales around the theme of transformation, its first book kicks off with the mythical story of how the world as we know it came into being. The first two tales are about chaos and the creation of the world; in the third the first humans are conjured into being by Prometheus, and go on to live an idyllic, uncorrupted life in the Golden Age, the topic of the fourth tale. This primordial time of utter innocence went on to inspire generations of artists from the Renaissance onwards, in paintings, murals and in plates for Ovid editions alike:
Unfortunately, the god under whose reign all this idyll was made possible, Saturn (also known as Cronos), was banished by his son Zeus at some point. With Zeus calling the shots, the eternal spring was replaced by four different seasons, and for the first time humans had to seek shelter indoors:
Then Air with sultry heats began to glow;
The wings of Winds were clogg’d with Ice and Snow;
And shivering Mortals, into Houses driv’n,
Sought shelter from th’inclemency of Heav’n.
Those Houses, then, were Caves, or homely Sheds;
With twining Oziers fenc’d; and Moss their beds.
Along with housing, agriculture and the domestication of animals set in. Soon the Silver Age was replaced by the Brazen or Copper Age, however, characterized by constant warfare. All is lost when in the end the Iron Age arrives: deceit and injustice make their entrance, as do steel weapons, ships, the idea of property, and mining.
Meanwhile, two generations of Giants threaten to reach the realm of the gods, and a Divine Council is called together. Zeus decides to destroy humankind via the deluge, which only Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survive. They ask the goddess Themis how to restore mankind, and she tells them to pick up ‘your mighty Mother’s bones’, meaning the stones lying at their feet, and throw them over their shoulders: thus, a new generation of humans is brought to life.
Ovid’s first few tales drew their inspiration partly from Hesiod’s ancient account of origins in his Works and Days, written in the sixth century BC. Unlike Ovid Hesiod started with the familiar legend of Prometheus (line 74 and further), who stole fire from the gods. They retaliate by sending Pandora and her box full of disaster to Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus.
Only in line 152 Hesiod suddenly changes the subject to the story of the Ages. The Golden Age appears just as we know it from Ovid, but the Silver Age is populated with a generation of boys who take a hundred years to grow up. Zeus destroys them and replaces them with the savage, bellicose giants of the Copper Age. They in turn are replaced by an age of godlike heroes, probably inserted by Hesiod to accommodate for the warriors of Homer’s Iliad.  Instead of destroying them, Zeus decides to sent them to the so-called Blessed Islands, ‘where Saturn reigns’: an eternal Golden Age, out of reach for Hesiod’s own generation, that of Iron. In true primitivist fashion, Hesiod closes off the episode with a gloomy characterization of his own era:
The times are such, the gods ordain,
That every moment shall be wing’d with pain;
And yet, amid the cares our lives anoy,
The gods will grant some intervals of joy.
We’ll leave Hesiod and his lamentation of the evils of civilization (which starts immediately after that last sentence), and finish this post on a positive note, with some Dutch mastery in painting and drawing. Happy ‘intervals of joy’, everyone!