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Ovid Historicized:
Magic and Metamorphosis in Alfonso X’s General estoria

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is both an important and difficult source for the compilers of the General estoria, the extensive universal history produced by Alfonso X in the 1270s. The many and varied stories of the origin of things and of ancient historical figures made the Metamorphoses impossible to ignore even though the presence of pagan gods and magical transformations put it at odds with Christian orthodoxy, which recognized only one transformation, the Eucharist. How could the transformations inflicted by Diana upon Actaeon or Egeria, by Bacchus on Ariadne or the daughters of Minyas, or by Venus on Adonis be considered anything but fables? And how could these characters be considered to be deities with supernatural powers when such belief was an affront to Christian doctrine? Moreover, Ovid was considered a poet, not a historian, by medieval readers and much of the Metamorphoses could not be considered to have actually happened as written. It could not be easily interpreted historically. To make sense of the Metamorphoses, Christian exegetes generally understood the text allegorically as a collection of exemplary tales. While this brought Ovid’s [End Page 23] text in line with Christianity, it did not contribute to a historical or literal reading of the Metamorphoses. To be included in a universal history, the stories of the pagan gods had to have happened in some form. They could not be mere exemplary fiction.

To overcome this problem and adapt the Metamorphoses to their history, the Alfonsine compilers turn to Latin commentary of the Metamorphoses and also theories of astral magic to explain the supernatural events that Ovid recounts, at times even conflating magic and exegesis. This is evident in both in their overlapping vocabulary for figurative language and magical transformations, semejança and figura, in their use of magic as an etiological device in Ovidian narratives, and as a technique for reconciling Ovid and the pagan past in general with contemporary Christian culture. The pagan gods are understood euhemeristically, as wise rulers who were considered deities because of their extraordinary knowledge, and the transformations performed by them in the Metamorphoses are understood as acts of magic. This study examines the discursive and logical intersection of theories of magic and textual exegesis in the narrative of the General estoria. The General estoria is to a large degree an “enarratio de los auctores,” (178) as Francisco Rico asserts. However, with the Metamorphoses the compilers do more than simply translate and imitate Latin commentators. Alfonsine exegesis of Ovid appropriates and reshapes Latin commentary tradition, which allegorizes Ovid, to incorporate knowledge of Arabic magical tradition, thereby giving the Metamorphoses historical relevance in harmony with both Christian doctrine and knowledge of the natural world of the time.

Christian commentators sought to neutralize the transformations of the Metamorphoses by casting them as fables, which are brought in line with doctrine as moral allegories, but are also stripped of historical signification. Although the Metamorphoses was a widely read and quoted text in Ovid’s lifetime and in the centuries that followed, the text suffered under Christianity, which was distrustful of the narratives of pagan gods.1 [End Page 24] No classical scholia of it exist and it was not part of the lectio divina of monasteries.2 In spite of theological problems, interest in it never waned and Christian readers attempted to adapt it to their religion. Early commentators, such as Fulgentius, sixth-century author of a commentary and paraphrase, as well as the Vatican mythographers, adapt Ovidian myth to Christianity by interpreting the myths as moral fables with allegorical meanings, which provide examples of conduct to be imitated or avoided, but not necessarily information about the past. This became the standard understanding of the Metamorphoses.3 Interest in Ovid and particularly the Metamorphoses increased in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries with numerous Latin commentaries and eventually vernacular adaptations, most notably the Integumenta of John of Garland and the Allegoriae super Ovidii Metamorphosis by Arnulfo of Orleans in Latin, both of which are sources for the General estoria.4 The most ambitious vernacular adaptation is the massive allegorizing Ovide Moralisé produced in France by a Franciscan friar in the mid fourteenth century.

The earliest attempts to give the Metamorphoses a limited historical interpretation involved the principle of euhemerism, which humanized the gods of the pagan pantheon by casting them as wise and just people, or wicked magicians, who really lived and were worshipped as gods upon their deaths (Barkan 100–01). As Fraker notes, the principle sources of euhemeristic interpretations of Ovidian myths in the General estoria are the Canones Chronici, written by Eurebius of Caesaria and extended by St. Jerome (56). Later authors, such as Paulus Orosius, Godfrey of Viterbo and Petrus Comestor, all sources of the General estoria, continued this practice. By placing the pagan gods on a time line with the other actors of ancient [End Page 25] history, the Canones Chronici gives them a historical context and subjugate them to human temporality. In the twelfth century Arnulfo of Orleans’ Allegoriae super Ovidii Metamorphosin carries this further by claiming that they were excellent people who were deified after their deaths. The compilers of the General estoria draw on both of these texts and techniques and also present the pagan gods as rulers or at least nobles, and thus worthy subjects of history.5 Rather than discounting the transformations performed by them as allegory, they attribute them to magic, which they understand as the manipulation of natural phenomena and especially optical illusion. Objects can be seen as one thing while being another. This is achieved through the power of the stars, information about which would have been readily accessible to the Alfonsine compilers.

Astrology and astral magic were perhaps Alfonso’s greatest interest within a program of organizing, translating, and appropriating knowledge in general. This is evident in the number of translations of Hebrew and Arabic magical and astrological texts carried out for nearly thirty years during his reign. Indeed, his interest in the stars seems to have at times attained a level of heterodoxy uncomfortable for many at the time (Martínez 451–53). Alfonso’s extant astrological works include the Lapidario, Judizios de las estrellas, Libro de las cruzes and Picatrix from early in his reign, the Libros del saber de astonomia and the Libro de las formas y de las imagenes from later, as well as fragments of the Libro de Raziel, parts of which are found in the Libros del saber de astonomia and the Libro de las formas y de las imagenes. The later works commissioned in the 1270s appear to be an expansion of the translations begun in the 1250s and were intended to be part of an encyclopedia work on magic.6 Magic is a recurring theme throughout the General estoria and is a common explanation for supernatural acts from [End Page 26] the Metamorphoses as well as for material from other sources, including the history of Troy and even the Bible. The compilers address magic directly when it occurs in the Bible. They explain the appearance of the dead prophet Samuel before King Saul (1 Samuel 28) with a twelve-chapter-long excursus on the nature of magic, much of which is drawn from an unidentified hermetic source attributed to Marçal and his disciple Mesealla.7 According to the compilers, magic can be performed by means of talismans (imágenes), magic potions or “suertes”, which include augury, magic phrases and even proverbs (2, 2: 634). Talismans are a particularly powerful instrument of astral magic and are useful in transforming things: “Departen aquí los sabios que a las obras de la mágica de las imágines que pertenecen los fechizos e los encantamientos, e todo esto á maneras de obrar para transformar e demudar unas cosas en semejança de otras” (2, 2 634).8 Diana, particularly, is noted for using talismans to change the appearance of things. She is described as an expert in visual illusions: “e diz que Diana ovo de todas estas cosas el saber e el poder para trasformar e mudar las unas cosas en semejança de otras, segunt las vistas de los que las viesen e segunt los cuidados de los eran trasformados” (2, 2: 629). She, Medea and Circe are three principal magas, but the compilers include many other famous magicians in their list. In addition to Jupiter and Diana, the list of practitioners includes Bacchus, Cadmus, Media, Circe and even Virgil and Ovid (2, 2: 635).9 By including Ovid as a magician, they presumably saw him as influencing or tricking his readers through the power of his texts.

Optical illusion created by magic explains many of the transformations in [End Page 27] the Metamorphoses, especially those of Jupiter, the first and most powerful among the pagan gods. Throughout the General estoria he is considered to be a magician and knowledgeable about the stars, which is why Saturn gave him dominion over the heavens (1, 1:303–304).10 As the compilers explain in a section drawn from the introduction to Estoria de troya, it is Jupiter’s magic that allows him to hold power over objects in the sub-lunar sphere by employing the power of the stars:

fue mago, e es mago el qui sabe ell arte mágica, e la ciencia mágica es aquel saber con que los quel saben obran por los movimientos de los cuerpos celestiales sobre las cosas terreñales e sobre todas aquellas que son dedentro del cerco de la luna, e encantan con este saber a los otros omnes e las vistas e fázenles cuedar e creer de las cosas que veen que seyendo unas que son otras, mudándoles ell encantados las figuras d’éllas en los ojos con sus encantamientos e confeciones e polvos e sofumerios [. . .].

(2, 1: 116)

Astral magic allows Jupiter to change the figuras of objects in the eyes of those who see them, thus obscuring their true nature. His magic is based on visual illusion and tricks the eyes of viewers into thinking they have seen a true transformation. This is achieved not by transforming the object itself, but rather its figura. Behind the transformed figura, which the enchanted viewers see, is the true object, not actually changed, but hidden by magic. A changed object takes on a new semejança when its appearance is not like its earlier form. Magic does not change the true nature of the world, but rather obscures the perception and interpretation of it. It affects signum, not res.

These techniques and vocabulary are used on many occasions in the General estoria for material from the Metamorphoses. Like Jupiter, Diana tricks people into thinking they see things that are not real, hiding the truth behind visual illusion, in the semejança of something else. According to the compilers, she does not actually turn Actaeon into a stag, but rather fools him and his hounds into believing she has. “E fizo que cuantas cosas le viessen que todos coidassen que era ciervo; e a él turvió otrossí el sentido de guisa que él mismo lo cuidava que era ciervo e se maravillava de sí en ello. E aquella semejança lo vieron los sos canes yl prisieron yl fizieron todo pieças” (2, 1: 210). Although [End Page 28] Actaeon is not truly a stag, he and everyone else, including his dogs, have been fooled into thinking he is through a semejança. Jupiter transforms his own figura when he kidnaps and rapes Europe while disguised as a bull: “E fízosse primero por sos encantamientos mágicos quel non pudiesse veer ningunos, e segund cuenta el autor trasfiguróse allí por so saber (e esto es que encantó los ojos de cuantos lo viessen que les semejasse que era aquello que él querié) e mostróse en figura de toro e volvióse a las vacas” (2, 1: 74–75). His transformation is not real, but rather a magical enchantment that tricks all those who see him into thinking he is a bull. The compilers describe this active deception with the verb semejar, from which semejança is derived.

Jupiter also transforms others, most notably Io, the daughter of Inachus who is transformed into a cow and later made human again in book 1 of the Metamorphoses and whose story occupies nine chapters in the first part of the General estoria. Jupiter maker her appear (semejar) to be a cow when he senses Juno’s approach: “E Júpiter sintió d’antes la venida de la reína Juno su muger, e ante quel ella huviasse veer mudó él por sos encantamientos e su saber a Ío en noviella, e que semejasse vaca, e fízola muy fermosa” (1, 1:307–308). This is followed by a chapter with semejança in the title: “De la guarda que la reína Juno dio a Ío en semejança de vaca” (1, 1:308). Guarded by Argus, she spends her days in the pasture and is frightened by her own appearance, which she sees in the river when she drinks: “E pues que vío en la onda la figura de cabeça de vaca e los cuernos que trayé en ella ovo grand miedo e fuxo ende espantada de sí misma” (1, 1:309). As these words imply, the magical transformation that Jupiter works on Io does not really turn her into a cow, but rather changes her external appearance, both for herself and others. When she is able to write her fortunately short and hoof-print-shaped name in the sand, her father recognizes her as his daughter: “E el rey Ínaco conoció d’esta guisa por las señales de los pies cómo aquélla era su fija Ío e cómo andava encantada e tornada en figura de vaca (1, 1: 310)”. In spite of her appearance, she is still in essence his daughter even though she has been given the figura of a cow through magic. These transformations are carried out by means of astral magic since both Jupiter and Juno are [End Page 29] described as knowledgeable of enchantments and the stars: “le guisó por sus encantamentos e por las estrellas dond era muy sabio” (1,1 306).

Of all the Ovidien narratives, Io’s story was especially compelling because of its double transformation from human to cow and back to human again, and was usually understood as a narrative of sin and redemption (Levenstein). The compilers include this understanding of the narrative and also focus on Io because she becomes Isis, an Egyptian queen and one of several inventors of writing. Visual terminology also applies to Ovidian exegesis, as when the compilers of the General estoria address the problem of interpretation, history, and doctrine with regards to Ovid at the end of the story. In spite of the theological problems with Jupiter’s divinity and Io’s double transformation and deification, which cannot be understood literally, Ovid is to be taken seriously:

E aquello que Io fue por el ruego de Júpiter mudada de vaca en mugier de todo en todo e dada d’allí adelant a todas buenas costumbres e en el cabo fecha deessa de Egipto, non lo tenga ninguna por fabliella, porque es de las razones de Ovidio. Ca el que las sus razones bien catare e las entendiere fallará que non á ý fabliella ninguna. Nin freires predigadores e los menores que se trabajan de tornarlo en la nuestra teología non lo farién si allí fuesse. Mas todo es dicho en figura e en semejança de al.

(1: 316)

In spite of the unbelievability of Io’s transformation, neither it nor the rest of the Metamorphoses are to be dismissed as fabliella, idle stories or fables with little or no historical value. The importance of Ovid’s text rests not only on the authority of the poet himself, but also upon the Christian commentators, “frailes y predigadores”, who bring it in line with Christianity, “nuestra teología”, which they would not have done if Ovid were not a worthy subject of study in the first place. The Metamorphoses is understood on multiple levels, and the words of the text do not necessarily mean what they appear to mean. They should not be understood literally. Like Scripture, Ovid’s text can be read allegorically and figuratively, through “figura” and “semejança de al”.

Both the magic performed by Jupiter and others, and the exegesis of the narrative are built around the words semejança and figura, which are complex [End Page 30] and polyvalent terms, and not just neologisms from Latin commentary. As such, they serve as a point of entry into the hermeneutic system of the General estoria since they reflect the compilers’ understanding of their practice as it relates to other discourses. Figura, a Latin neologism originally from Greek and semejança, from the Latin similitudo, are the terms most frequently used to refer to allegorical and other senses of texts, although the compilers do use the word allegoria on seven occasions in the General estoria.11 Figura and semejança correspond to several Latin exegetical terms and often appear together. Indeed, this is in keeping with the Latin tradition, which at times conflated allegoria and figura, using them to refer to “any deeper meaning”, as Auerbach notes (Auerbach 47–48). They derive from visual terminology and are also used as such in the General estoria and other works of the Alfonsine Scriptorium.12 This can include imagery which is passive, the unintended or natural appearance of something, and, more commonly, active, a contrived or faked appearance. At the extreme, they explain the magical transformations in the Metamorphoses that are understood as illusions, done through semejança and figura. Like language, objects themselves have figuras, shapes that obscure their true nature, which are manipulated by clever magicians drawing on the power of astral bodies in order to fool less skilled viewers by changing the appearance or semejança of people or things. Figura and semejança describe narrative and exegetical techniques, but also the magical deceptions performed within the Metamorphoses. In this sense, they come full circle from vocabulary used to explain the appearance of the natural world to the unpacking of complex texts.

As with its Latin root, similitudo, the primary meaning of semejança is ‘image, imitation or resemblance’.13 The word semeiança was in use in [End Page 31] Castilian well before the General estoria. It appears nine times before 1250 in the Corpus diacrónica del español and beginning in 1196 in the Fuero de soria (Real Academia Española). In Biblical material in the General estoria, as in the Bible itself, semejança or similitudo can refer both to things made in the image of God and to false images. Humans are made in the image of God, as the first part of the General estoria relates: “E esse día mesmo formó all omne a su imagen e a su semejança que fuesse adelantado e señor de todas las otras criaturas que so el cielo son” (1, 1: 6). This is a translation of Genesis 1:26 from the Vulgate Bible: “ad imaginem et similitudinem”. However false images can also apply to Idols, which are proscribed in the first of the Ten Commandments: “Non farás pora ti cosa entallada fascas ídola nin semejança ninguna d’aquello que es en el cielo suso nin d’aquello que es en la tierra yuso, nin d’aquellas cosas que son en las aguas so la tierra” (2, 2: 228).14

Semejança can also refer to the appearance or likeness of people that are deliberately faked. In the third part of the General estoria in a section on the history of Britain, Mencipius kills his brother and rival to the throne by convincing him that he wants to talk: “Y en semejança de querer fablar en avenencia llamó a su hermano Melín que querié fablar con él, y Melín vino a él. Y estando en esa fabla firióle y matóle, y ovo él en su cabo el señorío de toda la isla” (1, 1: 313). Similarly, Clytemnestra tricks her husband, Agamennon, into believing that she loves him, when, in fact, the opposite is true: “Y comoquier que la reína Clitomestra trayé contra su marido grant falsedad en su coraçón fízole semejança que le querié muy grant bien, y recibióle muy noblemente, así que semejava que no le andava con engaño ninguno” (3, 1: 213). This sort of deception occurs in the Estoria de Espanna as well. Attila’s children have to appear strong after their father’s death lest [End Page 32] they appear weak before their enemies: “E sus fijos pero que estauan muy tristes por la muerte de su padre; ouieron a fazer semeiança de alegria por ruego de sus uassallos que les rogaron que se mostrassen por alegres” (PCG 1: 236b).

The idea of a potentially deceiving appearance or artifice extends from the visual to textual commentary, albeit with visual roots. Semejança can also be a simile, its close etymological cousin. It is employed in this sense to explain Ovid’s descriptions of physical reactions of characters in the Metamorphoses by comparing them to natural phenomena. Diana’s reaction to being seen bathing by Actaeon is one such example:

Agora pone aquí la estoria de Ovidio en el tercero del su Libro mayor una semejança de cuál muestra se paró Diana a aquella ora e diz assí que de cual color se paran las nuves cuando les está el sol de contra e las fiere e las torna muy amariellas, o cual se para el alva en la mañana a las vezes vermeja como sangre tal se paró aquella ora Diana el color de la cara amariella e vermeja porque varón la avié vista desnuya sin todo vestido.

(2, 1: 209)

These similes, common in the Metamorphoses and consistently treated in this way in the General estoria, draw connections between people or gods affected by their situations and reacting in ways that are visually similar to natural phenomena. Emotional and physical reactions of people are explained through natural phenomena that are similar in physical appearance.

Semejança can also mean allegory, a more extended use of non-literal language, which the compilers define as “saying one thing and meaning another”. Indeed, this definition is used with the Latin technical term, allegoria:

departe el fraire que las razones d’essos mudamientos que las unas se esponen segunt allegoría, que es dezir uno e dar ál a entender; las otras segund las costumbres d’essas cosas de que son dichas las razones, las otras segunt la estoria. E por estas tres maneras, allegoría, costumbres, estoria, se esponen todos los mudamientos de que Ovidio fabla.

(2, 1: 368)

Allegory is defined as to say one thing and to mean another, and semejança is defined in the same way: “...que todos los sacrificios que en el Viejo Testamiento se fazién mostravan uno e davan ál a entender, e todos eran [End Page 33] fechos en semejança e en figura e encubiertamientre...” (1, 2: 440). The sacrifices of the Old Testament are allegories, which say one thing and mean another, done through semejança and figura. They are done secretly and covertly and are not elements of Jewish law to be followed meticulously according to the letter of the texts of the Old Testament. Rather, according to Christian doctrine, they are part of a divine symbolic system that inexorably points to Christ and the New Testament.

Figura, one of the most complex concepts in Latin Christianity, also has a wide range of meanings in the General estoria, beyond those outlined by Auerbach in his essay, “Figura”.15 The word is in common use in a variety of Castilian texts before Alfonso X, including the Fazienda de Ultramar, Santa María Egipciaca and numerous texts by Berceo (Real Academia Española). In the General estoria the Christian theological sense of the word is less common, in part because the text has fully assimilated a Christian historiographic system, and because the compilers avoid figurative exegesis and favor literal historical interpretations for biblical material.16 When used for exegesis, its meaning is more vague and indicates non-literal or hidden meanings, almost a synonym for allegory. It refers to exegesis and magic, as well as its primary sense of ‘form’ or ‘image’.17 In addition, figura is employed in a wide range of medical and scientific texts from the Hebrew, Latin and Arabic traditions in Iberia and beyond.18

In the General estoria and other texts of the Alfonsine Scriptorium, figura is [End Page 34] often taken in its primary sense, ‘image’, ‘drawing’ or ‘diagram’, as happens often in the Libro de ajedrez: “E la figura del tablero es que a de ser quadrado. & ha de auer ocho carreras; & en cada carrera ocho casas que son por todas sessaenta & quatro casas” (Escorial T.I.6 fol. 3r). Figura also occurs in this sense in chapter 274 of the Estoria de Espanna as in the image Emperor Claudius has made for himself: “E otrossi una ymagen doro fecha a su figura. et pusieron la en el capitolio entre las otras que y auie”(PCG 1: 169b). This sense also applies to the symbolic representations of the Evangels in chapter 190 of the Estoria de Espanna: “son figurados los euangelistas de departidas maneras. Assi cuemo sant Matheo en figura de omne por que fablo de la humanidat. Sant Marchos de Leon por que conto de la resurreccion. Sant luchas de buey por que fablo de la passion. Sant Johan de aguila por que fablo de la deydat” (PCG 1: 141b–142a). This iconographic or figurative representation of the Evangels is perhaps closest in meaning to the way in which the word is used in astrological contexts in the General estoria and Alfonsine scientific texts.

Figura refers to astrological signs and planets in the General estoria and other texts produced by the Alfonsine Scriptorium, such as the Lapidario, Picatrix and Libro de las formas y de las imagines. In this context figuras are the images engraved on talismans and in other magical ceremonies, as in the Libro de las cruzes, where the word appears thousands of times: “E posieron en esta cosa exemplo de forma que semeia cruç. & es forma de tres linhas. que se taian en medio unas a otras” (6).19 The planets, the seven moving stars of the night sky that became the days of the week and gods of various religious traditions, are also represented by figuras in El Libro de las cruzes and elsewhere: “Et ellos ponen alas planetas unas figuras que o quier que ponen aquella figura entienden qual planeta es; maguer non la nombran. Et estas son las figuras que ellos ponen” (11). The constellations of the Zodiac are figuras in the first part of the General estoria:

E los gentiles [. . .] ovieron la ciencia de la astrología, que es el saber de las estrellas [. . .] Empos esto partieron aquel partieron aquel VIIIo cielo en doze [End Page 35] partes, e fizieron figuras d’éllas, e aquellas doze partes que fizieron d’áquel cielo pusiéronles nombres segund las figuras de las estrellas que parecién en essas doze partes, e dixiéronles signos.

(1, 1: 119–20)

These figuras are pictorial representations in the Alfonsine manuscripts, such as Libro de astromagía and come from a complex and heterogeneous tradition that derives from Babylonian, Indian and Greek traditions, as García Avilés shows (“Imágines mágicas” 146–52). They are also figurative in the Christian sense in that they stand in the place of a higher power. This symbolism inspired by the stars applies to writing as well.

In the General estoria several important historical personages are said to be astrologers, notably Abraham, Moses, and Jupiter, and astrology is fundamental to the development of material culture. In particular, this discipline is linked to the development of writing, which also employs codified shapes, or figures; letters are figuras. Throughout the General estoria, several people are credited with the invention of writing, including Abraham, Moses, and Io. Granion invents writing by divining the figuras of letters: “Et ell primero que fallo figuras de letras: fue Granion fijo otrossi deste Vulcano” (2, 1: 52). The Estoria de Espanna uses the same terminology, as when Castile and Leon are forced to use Carolingian Miniscule along with other liturgical reforms: “La que don Guiffidas Obispo de los Godos fallo primera mientre. et fizo las figuras delas letras del su .a.b.c. Et que dexassen estas. et usassen delas letras dell .a.b.c. en las escripturas et dell officio de francia” (PCG vol. 2 547a). The prologue of the Estoria de Espanna also refers to “figuras de letras”, though they are derived from the sounds of language (PCG vol. 1 3a). In the General estoria, some writing at least imitates the stars. Gogligobon, the old Chaldean niece of Nimrod, who helps Asclepius understand the book of Hermetic writings, which he describes as “figuras departidas las unas de las otras”, (2, 1: 49) informs him that, along with many other discoveries in material culture, the writing of the Giants imitates the stars: “A estol respuso Goghgolon. Las nuestras letras fueron sacadas de los mas altos cielos en que están las munchas estrellas e de munchas figuras, e en que á grant departimiento delas unas alas otras” (2, 1: 54).20 [End Page 36]

Both of these senses extend the literal sense of shape or diagram, and are related to its exegetical sense in that they refer to codified symbolic systems, astrological signs and letters. Like semejança, figura, though originally a term from visual representation, extends metaphorically to a wide range of hermeneutic and scientific disciplines, and eventually to texts themselves. This link is more than symbolic since figuras that are found among the stars, particularly the planets, which were stars in movement and hence more powerful, could have direct influence over objects in the sub-lunar sphere, and could be manipulated by skilled astrologers through talismans, imagines in Castilian, from the Latin imago. The Picatrix describes the manufacture and use of talismans, which could achieve different effects, such as increased honor at court, peace or discord between two people, or relief from a variety of medical ailments.

Like language, magic derives its power from a symbolic system that allows its users to control objects in the physical world as well as to obscure or lay bare meaning, depending on the skill of the magician, reader or writer. This link between astral magic, language and exegesis is particularly evident in the first part of the General estoria when the pagan gods turn themselves into their own astrological figures in order to hide from the giants, who have risen up against them and chased them into Egypt. The episode, the song of the Pierides, is a minor framed narrative in book five of the Metamorphoses in which the Muses explain to Minerva how they bested in song the nine impious Pierides sisters, who were subsequently turned into magpies (V: 294–331). To begin the contest, one of the sisters tells the story of how the giant Typhoeus rose up and waged war on the gods, eventually chasing them into Egypt. Calliope, the best singer of the Muses, is chosen to respond to the Pierides’ challenge and wins the contest with a song about Prosperina. Ironically, the Pierides’ narrative of the battle between the gods and Typhoeus is cast as false and impious in the Metamorphoses. In the General estoria it establishes a relationship between the Christian present and both the pagan and Jewish past, and also represents the triumph of monotheism over idolatry. [End Page 37]

The narrative occurs in a section on Thare, Abraham’s father, a good man with one serious defect: He is an idolater and even goes so far as to make and sell idols. The material is extra-biblical deriving from one of the more popular Midrash narratives. In chapter ten of book four of the first part of the General estoria, young Abraham smashes his father’s idols and faces Chaldean justice for his transgression, one of his first acts as a pious monotheist. The compilers discuss the form of elemental idols, Earth, Air, Water, and Fire, which are worshipped by the Chaldeans, among whom Abraham’s family is living. From there they pass to a description of the idols of the Chaldean fire gods made by Thare, Abraham’s father. Semejança describes the physical appearance of these idols, which is given in detail. Figura indicates the fact that each idol represents an essential element: “E d’estas imágenes diremos agora aquí las semejanças de algunas. La imagen de la Tierra figurávanla en semejança de muger coronada [...] El elemento del agua figuravan por razón del mar en semejança de varón, otrossí de una grand imagen, e coronada, e non apuesta mas desavida, e como en semejança de quien espanta” (1, 1: 167). The narrative then passes to the animal figuras of the Greco-Roman pantheon. This discussion of the representation of the pagan gods leads to the narrative borrowed from the Metamorphoses about how the Greco-Roman gods fled from the giants, a narrative out of place in the context of the Metamorphoses, but appropriate according to the time line of the Chronici Canones since in the Metamorphoses it is a song of ancient history, before the time of humans. As Salvo García notes, the Alfonsine compilers draw on the chronology of the Pantheon of Godfrey of Viterbo in placing the narrative at this point in their text (“Mitos” 214).

The narrative of the conflict between the gods and giants begins with a citation of five Latin verses (327–31) from book five of the Metamorphoses, followed by a long exegesis of the episode.21 During the time before humans [End Page 38] the giants wished to be as wise as the gods, not unlike the Biblical Nimrod. To achieve this, they piled mountains upon each other to reach the sky. The gods, fearing the power of the giants, knocked down the tower and filled the countryside with the blood of the giants, who are crushed in the process. This blood gives rise to more giants, which the compilers claim is a semejança for the children of the giants that had been killed (1, 1:170). The new giants decide to take their revenge, chasing Jupiter and the rest into Egypt. Fearing defeat, the gods transform their appearance. According to the compilers, the gods deceive the giants with their altered forms because they know astrology and magic, which gives them the ability to enchant: “e ellos como eran muy sabios por el saber que avién de las estrellas e por el arte mágica, que es el saber de los encantamientos, yl sabién ellos muy bien todos, trasfiguraron en aquellas figuras que dixiemos por encobrirse de los gigantes que los non fallassen nin los pudiessen tomar” (1, 1: 171). In order to hide, they use magic to change their appearance or figura. The verb the compilers employ is trasfigurar, ‘to transfigure’. This allows the gods to cover themselves up, encubrirse. The giants, who are not able to understand the subterfuge, are unable to find or catch them. The same vocabulary describes the transformation of individual gods. Jupiter transforms himself into the figura of a ram, which is still part of his cult in the present, according to the compilers: “Júpiter se fizo cabdiello de grey, e grey se entiende aquí por ovejas, e cabdiello por el carnero, donde le oran aun agora en figura de carnero en el tiemplo de Júpiter en tierra de Libia..”. (1, 1: 171). Venus takes on the figura of a fish: “Venus, a quien llamavan ellos deessa de amor e de apostura e de fermosura, se encubrió en figura de pez” (1, 1: 171). And Mercury hides in the figura of a swan: “Mercurio se trasformó e se ascondió en figura de cigüeña” (1, 1: 171). The gods are able to elude their primitive and brutish pursuers, the giants, by taking on new forms (figuras, trasfigurar) through magic and illusion. The new forms are not actually their real shapes, but rather illusions to trick the uninitiated, effected by magic, which is informed and made more potent by knowledge of the stars.

The narrative has obvious parallels with several biblical narratives, the tower of Babel being among the most obvious, as well as the numerous trips to [End Page 39] Egypt made by various figures of the Old and New Testament, including Abraham, Joseph and Jesus. The compilers read Jupiter’s adoption of the figure of a ram as a figure of Christ, an allegorical interpretation not typical of the General estoria, the source of which, “un doctor de los fraires menores” (1, 1:170) has not been identified and appears to have been a common source of the Ovide Moralisé (“Mitos” 215):

Que el rey Júpiter que fuxo a Egipto ante los gentiles, que quiere significar a Nuestro Señor Jesucristo que fuxo a Egipto ante la maldad de los judíos, e los otros dioses que eran con Júpiter e fueron allí transformados que dan a entender a Santa María, madre de Jesucristo e Nuestra Señora, e a Josep e los otros omnes que ellos levaran consigo cuando fuxeron allá con Jesucristo

(1, 1: 172)

Jupiter is a figure of Christ, and the gods that accompany him are figures of Mary and Joseph and the others who fled to Egypt with Christ. Logically, Typhoeus is cast as King Herod and the rest of the Giants the Jewish army that does his bidding (1, 1:172). The compilers finish the exposition by pointing out that Jupiter’s adoption of the figure of a ram is fitting for Christ as well, because the ram was an animal of sacrifice in the Old Testament and because Christ sacrificed himself for the sake of mankind:

E que a Cristo, que seyendo Dios verdadero tomó carne e forma de su siervo, que tal semejança le pertenecié de tomar de figura de carnero o de cordero, animal cual gele ofrecién yl sacrificavan en la su figura en la ley vieja, fasta que vino él d’aquella vez en carne a toller las figuras e fincar los omnes en la verdad en que somos oy.

(1, 1: 172)

The exegetical maneuvers performed by the authors of this passage reconcile both the pagan and Hebrew past with a Christian present and appropriate its narratives for their own Christian master narrative. With only minor reinterpretation, the Ovidian narrative becomes not only acceptable, but also orthodox in the way it points to Christ in its new form. Jupiter’s ram is a figura of the sacrifices of various rams in the Old Testament, which are themselves figures of Christ. Christ is the fulfillment of these figures and also the end of them, since He is a true God and is literally incarnate. His presence takes away or removes the figures of the Old Testament and of pagan poetry. In stating that Christ takes away figures (“toller las figuras”), [End Page 40] the compilers situate their sources and the content of their sources in a universal Christian exegetical framework. The fulfillment of the figures of the Old Testament eliminates the need for them in the New and allows the New to speak plainly. The pagan gods are turned into figures of Christ, beacons of hidden truth in one of the masterworks of pre-Christian Latin letters, and at the same time their powers are made human and attributed to astral magic. They may have derived great power through magic, but it is power rooted in the physical world, which allows them to change or hide their appearances. Their power is deceptive and remains symbolic.

The passage also presents lessons on the interpretation of figuras. Fortunately for Jupiter and his flock, the giants are not good readers. They do not understand or uncover the true identities of their enemies in the semejança of different figuras. While the giants are failed exegetes, not clever enough for the likes of Jupiter, an astute reader can get to the real meaning. In the case of the pagan gods, that meaning is Christ, just as the texts of pagan antiquity can be adapted through the work of learned Christian exegetes who remove the figures and expose their true meaning. Like the Metamorphoses, the Old Testament and other allegorical texts, the gods, or Christ, appear to be one thing, but are actually another. Like difficult texts, they cover themselves (encobrirse) and hide (asconder), in much the same way as the meaning of texts is hidden behind allegory to be uncovered (integumentum) or unwrapped (enarratio, exegesis), but only by astute readers. The vocabulary of the gods’ transformation is the same as that of textual exegesis.

This polysemy of figura and semejança is the product of a deeper relationship between magic and exegesis in the Metamorphoses in the General estoria than their point of intersection in visual representation. Texts and magic can uncover or hide, make clear or obfuscate, and both deal with highly symbolic systems that function on several levels. Magic also serves as a rational explanation for the transformation in the Metamorphoses and thereby recovers the text’s historical value by eliminating the need for a purely allegorical interpretation of the narrative. In the General estoria, it is by the same process whereby the pagan gods are understood to obtain their powers, (through figura and semejança, which are magical powers obtained [End Page 41] and amplified through knowledge of the stars) that Ovid holds sway over his readers, deceiving those who are unable to see through him. The magic of the pagan gods as well as the poetry of the pagan poets, though clever and at times useful, are in fact methods to hide the truth. For both, this is accomplished through semejança and figura. Figura denotes the various forms an object or idea, expressed verbally, can take and both are hidden or covered by physical appearance or semejança. The fact that both words are used for either visual or linguistic trickery and deception partially explains the semantic overlap. However, just as allegorical interpretations of classical texts mediate them for a Christian audience, so the euhemeristic explanation of the transformations serves to mark greater transformations, both in the text itself and in the way in which the pagan past is understood in a Christian present. The role of the compilers, like that of any exegete, is to take away figures, like Christ, and to lay bare the truth. [End Page 42]

Erik Ekman
Oklahoma State University

I would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma State University for a Dean’s Incentive Grant, which allowed me time to write. I am grateful to Professor Charles Fraker Jr. for introducing me to Alfonso and to Professors Perry Gethner and Isabel Alvarez Sancho for their help and advice with later drafts of this study. I am especially grateful for the thorough and thoughtful comments of the anonymous readers of La corónica.

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1. See Alton and Wormell, Barkan (94–136), Battaglia and also Rand for an overview of the reception of Ovid from classical times through the Middle Ages. For the idea of transformation from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages, see Pairet (31–41).

2. The earliest fragment of a manuscript of the Metamorphoses is from the 9th century. See Munari’s manuscript catalogue (Munari) and Coulson’s addenda (1986, 1994, 1996, 1998) as well as Munk Olsen.

3. For studies on the late medieval commentary of Ovid, see Coulson (2007, 2011) and especially (1985, 1987, 1991) for information on the Vulgate commentary.

4. See Ghisalberti’s editions of the Integumenta and the Allegoriae (1932, 1933). For more information on the sources of Latin glosses, which may have included marginal and interlinear glosses in addition to those of Arnulfo and John of Garland, see Cuesta Torre and Salvo García (“Materia ovidiana”).

5. This is particularly true of Jupiter, whom the compilers cast as the only legitimate ruler of the sky and a King, who has inherited his realm from his father, Saturn. (Salvo García, “Júpiter”).

6. See Cárdenas’ study on the Libro de las formas & de las ymagenes for a reconstruction of the purpose and form of this largely lost codex (“ Facts and Probabilities”) and García Avilés’ study on the Libro de Raziel for an overview of the later period of production of texts of astral magic(García Avilés, “El Liber Razielis”).

7. The excursis occupies chapters 130 to 142 (2, 2: 621–638), of which, chapters 132 to 141 (2, 2: 629–636) are derived from “Marçal e Mesealla”. For a description of this section, see Rubio’s study.

8. All citations of the General estoria are from the recent and only complete edition by the team headed by Pedro Sanchez-Prieto Borja. I have also consulted the The Electronic Texts and Concordances of the Prose Works of Alfonso X, El Sabio published by the Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, especially the concordances included on this disk.

9. Ovid, like Virgil, is considered to be, among other things, a magician, as Schevill notes in Ovid in the Renascence in Spain, citing Hyppolyte Delehaye. Delehaye in turn cites De Nino’s 1886 study, Ovidio Nella Tradizione Popolare Di Sulmona, which calls Ovid “un gran mago, o un gran mercante, o un gran profeta, o un gran predicatore, o un gran santo o anche una specie di paladino” (1).

10. See Fraker (“La General estoria”) and Salvo García (“Júpiter”).

11. The term Allegoria is exclusive to the General estoria in the texts of the Prose Work of Alfonso X, El Sabio. It occurs three times in the first part (1, 2 168, 172, 649) (1, 2 649), three the second part in chapter 147 (2, 1 358) and once in the fourth part (4, 2 589).

12. Pairet notes the visual nature and etymology of the terms miracula and miribilia for the Metamorphoses and other texts in which they are “moins des catégories intellectuelles que le résultat d’une expérience des sens” (38).

13. The Oxford Latin Dictionary provides the following definition: “1. The fact or condition of being like something else, similarity, resemblance. B. the appearance of truth, probability. C. common nature, shared character after the manner (of), in the likeness (of) 2. That which resembles something, a similar thing or instance. B. (in painting, statuary a ‘likeness’). The Old Spanish semejança has a similar range of meanings, according the Tentative Dictionary of Medieval Spanish, including “de esta manera”, “en la apariencia de”, “conforme a, como”, “en la misma manera”, “aspecto exterior” and “imagen (Kasten and Cody 637–38)”.

14. . (“Non facies tibi sculptile neque omnem similitudinem quae est in caelo desuper et quae in terra deorsum nec eorum quae sunt in aquis sub terra”) (Exodus 20:4).

15. Auerbach traces the use of the term from classical literature and rhetoric to Christian exegesis where it plays a key role in the Christian appropriation of the Old Testament as a historical source. Christian exegetes read the Old Testament looking for figures of Christ, references in the ancient text of His future arrival.

16. Lida de Malkiel notes the preference for historical expositions of the Bible as sources as well as the tendency to allegorize material from the Metamorphoses in “La General Estoria: notas literarias y filológicas (1)” See Ekman for a study of literal biblical exegesis in the General estoria.

17. The vocabulary for visual representation in the General estoria is complex and warrants further study. Figura indicates a more allegorical or idealized representation while estoria refers to visual narrative on several occasions.

18. For an overview on the uses of magic in the Middle Ages, see Kieckhefer (120–25). For studies on the use of astral magic in medicine in the 13th century and beyond, see Shatzmiller and Saif.

19. According to the concordance of the text in the The Electronic Texts and Concordances of the Prose Works of Alfonso X, El Sabio, figura appears 3535 times and its plural, figuras, 704.

20. For more information on this passage, see Fraker’s chapters on hermeticism in the General estoria in The Scope of History (190–223) and “Hermes Trismegistus in the General estoria II”.

21. Duxque gregis, dixit sit Juppiter, inde recurvis, / Nunc quoque, formatur Libis est cum cornibus Amon, / Deluis in corvo, proles Semeleya capro / Fele soror Febi, nivea Saturnia vaca, / Pisce Venus latuit, Cillenius ibidis alis (V: 327–331). ‘So Jove became a ram, the lord of flocks; / that’s why the Libyan Ammon still is shown / with curving horns. The god of Delos hid / within a crow’s shape, Bacchus in a kid, / and Phoebus’ sister in a cat; the daughter / of Saturn took the form of a white heifer; / and just as Venus hid herself as fish, / Cyllene’s god became a winged ibis’ (Ovid, Mandelbaum trans. 159).