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CJ-ONLINE  June 2010

CJ-ONLINE June 2010

Subject:

CJ Online 2010.06.05 BUXTON, Greek Myths of Metamorphosis

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Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. By RICHARD BUXTON. 
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi + 281. Cloth, 
$100.00. ISBN 978–0–19–924549–9.

Order this text for $100.00 from Amazon.com 
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
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CJ Online 2010.06.05

Although numerous scholars have written on metamorphosis, it seems fair to 
say that no previous author has come to the subject with such expertise in 
Greek myth, religion and thought as Richard Buxton. This is a learned book, 
but Buxton covers difficult subjects easily; he is up-to-date on the major 
bibliography, but he does not often let scholarly arguments get in the way 
of his discussion. This approach is appropriate, because metamorphosis is a 
topic that does not appeal only to classicists, and Buxton’s book will be 
readily accessible to non-specialists: little Greek is quoted, and most 
Greek words appear in transliterated form. All non-English quotations are 
translated.

Forms of Astonishment shows how much is at stake in any discussion of 
metamorphosis myths, because they are inextricably bound up with weighty 
matters such as Greek religion, Greek cult, and Greek views of past and 
present and the world around them. As the first half of the book shows, 
these myths found their way into the work of a wide range of authors. But 
Buxton’s book differs from other approaches to the topic by being an 
attempt neither to uncover what metamorphosis “means” in any grand, 
cultural sense, nor to make sweeping statements about “the Greeks” 
generally; he also refuses to try to explain the “original meaning” of 
such myths. A strength of the book is its focus on the variety of views of 
such myths; we should assume neither that all Greeks believed these stories 
nor that none of them did. The initial focus on context is especially 
useful in making this point.

The first half of the book, five chapters on “Narratives and their 
Contexts,” offers a breathless tour of metamorphosis in Greek literature 
and art, providing a reminder of just how widespread such myths were, and 
in what a broad range of contexts they could appear. Buxton’s quick 
survey of all the metamorphoses in a work like Apollonius’ Argonautica, 
for example, shows that the work contains more metamorphoses than one might 
remember. This kind of reminder is especially necessary because of the 
overwhelming influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is all too easy to 
imagine that, in comparison with the Roman epic, Greek literature has 
little to say about metamorphosis. True to his subtitle, however, Buxton 
focuses almost exclusively on Greek literature and art, and his survey 
supports the assertion that it would be reductive to suppose that Homer, 
Aristophanes and Nonnus all use metamorphosis the “same” way.

The second half of the book is more ambitious and moves beyond individual 
contexts to treat larger questions raised by metamorphosis, including what 
such myths tell us about Greek conceptions of the divine, the landscape and 
the relationship between humans, animals and plants. Metamorphosis, as 
Buxton shows, was good for the Greeks to think with, and it is in turn good 
for us to think with about the Greeks.

Chief among the book’s many strengths is its formulation of metamorphosis 
as an “irruption of the divine” (passim). Such irruptions “are by 
definition uncharacteristic of everyday life and ... therefore generate 
astonishment” (p. 240). Buxton’s focus on this astonishment (almost 
always the reaction to metamorphosis) is especially useful to modern 
readers (perhaps especially classicists) who mostly associate metamorphosis 
with Ovid’s epic poem, where it can seem at best commonplace and at worst 
trite.

The emphasis on astonishment also calls attention to the fact that myths of 
metamorphosis, more than most types, are a way of exploring key questions 
about the place of humans in the world, and the astonishment they generate 
reminds us that Greek religion was sometimes edgy (p. 252). Particularly 
good is Buxton’s discussion of metamorphosis that affects the landscape, 
since such myths reflect a belief that there is something uncanny about the 
world around one, but that manifestations of the past also continue into 
the present. Aetiological myths all serve the latter function to some 
extent, but the idea of a divine presence behind such mundane objects as 
plants and animals is, indeed, uncanny—and it would be wrong to brush 
away such notions too quickly. The relation of such myths to these 
questions explains their long-lasting popularity and their appearance in so 
many genres. Succinctly put, the metamorphic tradition “stresses as a 
living reality the interaction between myth, religion, and everyday 
existence” (p. 230).

Buxton’s discussion of the role of the gods complements his formulation 
of metamorphosis as “divine irruption.” I can summarize his conclusions 
no better than he does in the last two sentences of the book: “The 
metamorphic tradition expressed in narrative form the astounding, 
destabilizing irruption of divinity, and the existence of remarkable 
continuities between human life and the natural environment. Stories told 
in this tradition were a way of articulating, and perhaps even partially 
coping with, the astonishing strangeness of life’s outcomes” (p. 252).

Buxton’s focus on context means that he does not take a reductive 
approach to metamorphosis, arguing that it serves as a kind of metaphor or 
that metamorphoses all do generally the same kind of thing—the impression 
given by some other approaches to the topic. At times, however, his 
approach seems too conservative, and he appears overly reluctant to draw 
conclusions. Though B. does argue against some commonly held positions, he 
rarely adduces a new formulation to take their place. Those with a 
long-standing interest in scholarship on metamorphosis will perhaps be most 
interested in points at which he does take a (convincing) stand, e.g. 
arguing that we should not attribute metamorphosis myths to the 
“childhood of society” (pp. 72, 75, etc.) or consider 
“shape-shifters” a meaningful category of them (pp. 175–7). One of 
the most original parts of the book is Buxton’s discussion of 
blood-related metamorphoses, which calls attention to the fact that those 
who undergo such metamorphoses are usually young men (e.g. Hyacinthus, 
Crocus, Narcissus) in their sexual prime who are somehow at odds with 
heterosexual marriage. Their premature deaths occur when their “blood is 
at is seminal height: even when shed, it remains powerful enough to 
generate new life” (pp. 227–8). B.’s discussion of what metamorphosis 
tells us about the anthropomorphic view of the Greek gods is similarly 
engaging.

All surveys invite quibbling over what has been included or excluded. The 
inclusion of Nonnus (pp. 143–53)—to whom B. devotes more space than any 
author save Homer and Aristophanes—seems problematic, both because of the 
likelihood that Nonnus was influenced by Ovid (although Buxton implies that 
he disagrees with those who see such influence [p. 147]) and because of his 
late date, which would seem to strain against Buxton’s assertion that he 
is focusing on “just one culture” (p. 18). Nonnus is included because 
B. sees metamorphosis as a focus of the Dionysiaca (p. 147), but in light 
of this choice, works of Greek literature devoted solely to collecting 
myths of metamorphosis are conspicuously absent. While Buxton does briefly 
mention Hellenistic poetic collectors like Nicander and Boeus (“The 
Collectors,” pp. 110–15), he does not address the numerous papyri that 
list such myths. Does the systematic collection of such material thwart the 
sense of astonishment or intensify it?

There are no absolutes in this book and no simple conclusions. This is 
surely a wise (and almost inevitable) approach with such complicated 
material, but one might have wished for more synthesis and finality. At 
times, the book feels rushed, and the approach is at times too open-ended. 
Buxton’s caution is understandable and even laudable. But his book will 
leave many readers feeling unfulfilled or unsettled—although perhaps that 
has much to do with the myths themselves, which offer no easy answers.

K.F.B. FLETCHER
Louisiana State University

	
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