"Change of form or shape," especially by witchcraft, from Latin metamorphosis, from Greek metamorphosis, "a transforming, a transformation," from metamorphoun "to transform, to be transfigured," from meta- "change" (see meta-) + morphe "form" (see Morpheus). Biological sense is from 1660s. As the title of Ovid's work, late 14c.,Metamorphoseos, from Latin Metamorphoses (plural).
Metamorphosis offers us a way to figure the slippage (or assertion) of ontological categories. So Ovid tells us in the opening sentence of Metamorphosis. He will write "Of shapes transformed to bodies strange."
In a world where all things seemed less solid, Ovid, the Roman poet is ready for this trickery. He flips Greek myths, importing them into the Roman pantheon. So we learn how the river nymph Daphne transforms into a bay laurel tree or Arachne becomes a spider and Cygnus, the swan constellation.
As he mourned, his voice became thin and shrill, and white feathers hid his hair. His neck grew long, stretching out from his breast, his fingers reddened and a membrane joined them together. Wings clothed his sides, and a blunt beak fastened on his mouth. Cygnus became a new kind of bird: but he put no trust in the skies, or in Jupiter, for he remembered how that god had unjustly hurled his flaming bolt. Instead, Cygnus made for marshes and broad lakes, and in his hatred of flames chose to inhabit the rivers, which are the very antithesis of fire (Metamorphoses II 374-382).
Don't we already know about morphing? We feast on these "fairy tales" that now Disney has sapped of their early terrors: beasts become princes, mermaids grow legs, a girl's hair is magic, a witch fattens up two lost children. The Grimm brothers canvassed the German old folk for these old tales, and child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim showed us in Uses of Enchantment, how these tales were dreamlike codes for psychological development (Try Ann Sexton's Transformations for her wry perverse take on these tales. Much better than Wicked.)
But what can we learn about these shifting ontologies centuries apart?
Kelly and Keil take Metamorphosis and Brother's Grimm fairy tales to track the trajetories of the changes. In both sets of stories, they found that more than half of the gods and humans were transformed into animals, ten percent to plants, and a little more than ten percent became inanimate objects, another five percent became liquids. In Ovid, three conscious beings become events. Birds are the most popular metamorphosis (Kelly and Keil, 1985, cf in Czachesz, p 219ff). They show that in Ovid, the animate (gods, humans) do not often become inanimate (trees, mountains, caves). Czachesz notes, "Metamorphoses do not normally change people into chairs, or hammers into gods." (219) Kelly and Keil argue that this indicates the stability of ontological categories: sentient, object.
Imagine all the talking animals we love who now speak English - pigs who learn to herd sheep, dogs on TV who convince us to buy their brand, cats in costume dancing on stage, lion kings, woolly mamoths, sloths, donkeys in love with dragons. The world is bursting with overlapping "kingdoms." And I have not yet considered a world saturated with cyborgs as action figures, wolf men, and zombies. The horror of those enlisted in these transformations is detailed in Kafka's Metamorphosis. We will turn to this much later.
For now, I return to these studies to underscore that Ovid, Grimm and most transformations of the western world are only "skin deep." The bodies in their new shapes take on human traits. We anthropomorphize.
This allows me to consider Bruno Latour's comment in We Have Never been Modern that humans “analogy machines.”
The expression ‘anthropomorphic’ considerably underestimates our humanity. We should be talking about morphism. Morphism is the place where technomorphisms, zoomorphisms, phusimorphisms, ideomorphisms, theomorphisms, sociomorphisms, psychomorphisms, all come together. Their alliances and their exchanges, taken together, are what define the anthropos. A weaver of morphisms—isn’t that enough of a definition?
Following these analogies, consider these incredible illuminated manuscripts as a feast of ecclesiastical bestiaries.
So how does the theme of metamorphosis affect Christian renderings of bodily transformations? How does the mortal body transmogrify into the divine? Or return to something else (note this version!)
I have been reading Metamorphoses : resurrection, body and transformative practices in early Christianity See review here
Which revives a tired New Testament studies for me.
Jorunn Økland takes on resurrection and its transformations in his interpretation of 1 Cor 15 and 2 Cor 12:1–7 and materialist theories of the self. All these scholars examine the ancient conception that a human body or self in light of Christian and Jewish cosmologies. Denise Kimber Buell's study of interspecies transformation moves from human to divine where human selves are sites of contest between human and nonhuman forces.
A number of the articles focus on I Corinthians 15 chapter on transformation at conversion and the resurrection. Troels Engberg-Pedersen is known for his work on the Stoic's influence on Paul, and so his piece here is less interesting than others on the Stoic notion of "soma" and how this differed from contemporary readings of "flesh" as body. One might ask what metamorphosis occurs at conversion? How is this 'consummated' at the resurrection? Feminist Vigdis Songe-Møller considers Paul's narrative on the resurrection in light of Plato’s theory of change. For Plato, who relied on the permanent world of Forms, change was a problem. He ultimately argues that change must happen instantly, outside of time, outside of the ideal world of reason. I love how Vigdis Songe-Møller refers to this:
As a non-place it is an abyss, lacking a form, and as not belonging to any time, the instant has neither a before nor an after. It is not what we call ‘now’, or the present. In a way the instant does not exist, it just happens. Or rather: change happens, as an inexplicable event.
While Plato and Paul understand bodily transformation quite differently, they are not so far apart when it comes to this particular change of resurrection. It has both a continuity and a discontinuity, it occurs in a "moment" and atoma which in Greek, Songe-Møller tells us is the smallest possible unit. It is, then a mystery and so it is one of Paul's moments of ecstatic poetics:
Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed
– in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed. Form this corruptible must put on incorruption,
and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15, 51–53; 21st Century King James Version)
This edited collection also includes analysis of the letters of Ammonas from fourth-century Egypt and the letters of Antony that emphasize restoration through mystical heavenly ascents and visions. John J. Collins focuses the Qumran community’s joining with angels in heavenly worship as an expression of heavenly, angelic realities in Jewish writings.
Metamorphosis opens up more malleable sense of our modern selves. As we say in the PCUSA, I am seeking more light. (Note: the Norwegians gathered some intriguing musings on the resurrection. See here.)
Czachesz, Istvan., The Grotesque Body in Early Christian Literature: Hell, Scatology, and Metamorphosis (Habilitationsschrift; Heidelberg, 2007) 127–210.Gilhus, I...Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman, and Early Christian Ideas (London: Routledge, 2006)
Kelly, M.H. and F.C. Keil, The More Things Change...: Metamorphosis and Conceptual Structure," Cognitive Science 9 (1985), 403-16.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter,Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, 137.
Nguyen, Henry T. Review of Metamorphoses : resurrection, body and transformative practices in early Christianity
Songe-Møller,Vigdis. "With what kind of body will they come ?" : metamorphosis and the concept of change : from platonic thinking to Paul's notion of the resurrection of the dead, In Metamorphoses : resurrection, body and transformative practices in early Christianity / edited by Turid Karlsen Seim and Jorunn Økland. - Berlin ; New York : Walter de Gruyter, cop. 2009. - p. 109-122