Thursday, August 13, 2009


There is an old Irish story called The Madness of Sweeney. Sweeney was an Ulster king who was cursed by a saint whom he had insulted. In his consequent insanity he fled to the treetops where he sang like a bird, endlessly praising the trees of the forest. It is not the only time in Irish lore that Christian saints or pagan gods effect magical transformations.

The master storyteller of transformations is the Roman writer Ovid, who set down dozens of metamorphoses for our delectation. I have mentioned here before how Daphne was turned into a laurel tree at the moment (stunningly rendered by Bernini) she is caught by her pursuer Apollo -- flowered rather than deflowered, I suppose you'd say. The lovely Hero, when she finds her lover Leander's drowned body, expires in sympathy; Neptune takes pity on the couple and turns them into birds that sing, Sweeney-like, in thistle tops. Remember too how jealous Hera turned the mortal huntress Callisto into a bear to frustrate her husband Zeus' desire for the young woman. Then along came Callisto's son Arcas, and believing himself endangered by the bear, raised his bow to shoot. Zeus, looking down, saw the impending tragedy, and instantly turned the boy into a little bear. He placed mother and son safely in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

And so it goes, in Ireland, in ancient Greece, and in countless other cultures, these magical transformations in which human and non-human nature flows back and forth, outer appearances changing, something essential remaining the same. The myths anticipated a scientific truth: We are a flux of atoms in endless embodiments -- star dust to planet, caterpillar to moth, soil and water to tomato, tomato to human. For all I know there were a few of Ovid's atoms in the Italian olives I had for lunch. They are part of me now.

When I die, dump my ashes in a hole here on this Irish hillside along with a willow twig, that I might become, Daphne-like, the little tree of which Mad Sweeney sang, "Bright cheerful salley."