Metamorphoses I:1-75 – In the Beginning

In the Beginning

Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

It is said that there exists a spirit with the power to change existing shapes into new ones. Gods (for You too have been responsible for such changes), breathe life into my opening and lead my work from the origin of the world down to my own time. 

Before the appearance of the sea and lands and the heavens which covers all things, Nature had only a single aspect. This they call Chaos, a heap with neither shape nor structure. It was mass without energy, an ill-mixed, discordant pile containing the seeds of all existence.

No solar Titan yet lighted the universe, nor did lunar Phoebe restore herself by swelling her horns anew. The Earth didn’t hang, balanced by its own weight, in the center of the surrounding air, nor did Amphitrite spread her arms of seawater about the long margins of the continents.

Land and sea and air were mixed: the earth was too thin to stand on, the sea was too thick to swim in, and the air lacked light. Nothing had certain form, and each portion interfered with the others. In a single body cold elements fought with hot ones, dry elements with wet, soft elements with hard, and weight with weightlessness.

God, the true Nature, ended this struggle. Nature severed the earth from the heavens and the seas from the land, then squeezed the thicker air from the crystalline firmament. After It had spread out the blind pile and separated the elements, It bound them into their proper places in peace and harmony.

The weightless, fiery force hangs in the hollow firmament, shining down from the seat it has made for itself at the highest point. Next in place (because of its lightness) is the blanket of air. The earth, denser than these, holds the heavy elements which are pressed together by their own weight. Around all flows water, binding the land into a solid.

Then whatever God It was carved up the mass It had separated and rejoined the pieces. First It formed the land into a ball, so that it became equal in all directions. Then It ordered the roaring winds to drive straits through the rising land and made true shores arise around the encircled land. Next, It placed springs and great swamps and lakes.

It bound the downrushing rivers with sloping banks. The varied lands through which they pass drink part of their water, but part of it flows to the sea. There the rivers spend the burden they’ve swept from the plains in pounding more heavily on the shores than they could’ve done individually to their banks.

The power ordered the plains to spread, the valleys to sink, the forests to spread their leaves, the craggy mountains to rise.

It divided the right half of the firmament into two parts and the same number on the left half, with the fifth part in the center hotter than the others. Then, with this task completed, the careful Deity imposed similar regions on the lands beneath. The central region is uninhabitable because of heat; deep snow covers the two poles. Between these extremes It created temperate regions to which It gave a mixture of fire and ice.

Above land and sea hangs the air. Just as the weight of water is less than the weight of land, so air is heavier than fire. Here It placed the mists and clouds, here is the thunder that frightens men and the winds which grind out thunderbolts and sheets of lightning.

To the air the Builder of the World set a firm mandate. Scarcely anything is barred to the winds, but each rules a separate tract lest uncontrolled they scour the world bare: for so great is the discord of brothers.

Eurus went off to the Dawn Lands and the Nabatean kingdom, to Persia and the mountains  beneath the morning sun. Vesper went to the shores which the setting sun warms, adjacent to the regions of Zephyr. Bristling Boreas tears across Scythia and the lands of the Great Bear. The lands opposite to Boreas are soaked by Auster with constant clouds and rain.

Highest of all It placed the crystal Aether, which has neither weight nor any trace of earthly squalor.

Scarcely had It completed Its task of setting boundaries for all things than the constellations, long smothered in blind muck, began to glitter across the heavens. Nor was any region without animals suited for it: celestial Olympus and the shapes of gods formed among the stars; the habitation of the waves fell to the lot of glittering fish; and the lands brought forth beasts, as the trembling air did birds.

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