My friends, excess of love can be just as cruel and volatile as excess of hate. It knows neither limits nor boundaries. It can find no resting place, no stopping point, but presses ever on until it exhausts itself in a fit of rage. Beware of such heightened passions; do not let love be a justification for dark deeds and sinister betrayals.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Ovid: On Passion

Of all the joys given to us by the gods, love is the finest. It increases and perfects our pleasure while drawing us out of ourselves toward the other. It opens us up, remakes us, changes us from within.

But there is a dark side.

Passion, once it is released, can easily grow twisted and perverse, turning against the very people it claims to love. In my Metamorphoses, I explored the nature of passion in all its manifestations, from the most joyous to the most destructive. I know your age sees itself as more enlightened and tolerant than my own, but that does not mean that you are any more immune than we to the dangers of passion unleashed.

The temptation toward self-destruction lurks in every human breast, and it takes so little for it to rise up and lay waste to all that comes in its path. Like the Minotaur locked in its labyrinthine cell, it seeks ever to escape and take revenge on its captor.

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Consider my Medea. When the Greek Jason appears on her shore, she is filled with passion for him and considers betraying her father to help the stranger gain the prize he seeks. I learned the story from Euripides’s tragedy and from Apollonius of Rhodes’s mini-epic, the Argonautica, but I used it for my own purposes.

What drew me to the tale, and the lesson I would pass on to you, is the invisible battle that goes on in Medea’s head and heart. Medea wrestles mightily with a passion that threatens to consume her. Each time she is able to stem her desire, each time she convinces herself that she must remain loyal to her family, she catches sight of Jason’s handsome face and reason abandons her. She dreams for a moment of being the happy bride of the heroic Jason; then, in the next moment, she imagines herself being jilted by him and levels a curse against the same man to whom she has just pledged eternal love.

In her passionate, uncontrollable love for Jason, she calls up all her powers of witchcraft to assist him in his quest. Her magic spells are successful, and Jason wins the Golden Fleece, but spells, like passions, are hard to put back in the cauldron once they have been let out.

Arrived in Greece with Jason, Medea calls again on her dark arts to rejuvenate Jason’s elderly father. The act brings joy to all, but it breeds further spells, further violations of the order of things. Hoping to win Jason’s love by punishing his evil uncle, Medea does a terrible thing. She befriends the uncle’s daughters and tells them that she would like to rejuvenate their father in the same way she did Jason’s father.

The daughters are so eager to help that they willingly do the dark, unholy deed Medea asks of them: namely, to stab their father and drain out his blood so that Medea can fill his veins with the fresh blood of youth. Indeed, Medea riles them up to such a pitch of fury, that the more each loves her father the deeper she stabs him with her knife. The slaughter ended, Medea puts the pieces of their father in a burning pot . . . and then disappears into the night, leaving the daughters alone to mourn what they have done.

So twisted has Medea’s passion grown that she takes perverse pleasure in egging on these poor girls to betray their father in the same way that she, Medea, had betrayed her own family to help Jason. My friends, excess of love can be just as cruel and volatile as excess of hate. It knows neither limits nor boundaries. It can find no resting place, no stopping point, but presses ever on until it exhausts itself in a fit of rage.

Beware of such heightened passions; do not let love be a justification for dark deeds and sinister betrayals.

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Consider the most lamentable tale of Tereus and Procne. The former married the latter and, at first, all seemed well. But when Tereus returned several years later to the court of Procne’s father for a diplomatic mission, his eyes fell upon Procne’s sister, Philomela, who, in the intervening years, had grown into a great beauty. At once, he was filled with lust and vowed that he would have Philomela no matter the cost.

Pretending that Procne was lonely and desired the company of her sister, Tereus pressed his father-in-law again and again to let Philomela return with him. The harder Tereus worked to fulfill his perverse passion, the more convinced his father-in-law grew of his love for Procne. In the end, the whole court celebrated as Philomela and Tereus departed arm-in-arm for the home of Procne.

But the pair did not go to Procne’s home. Rather, Tereus took Philomela to a secret cabin where he repeatedly raped her in an attempt to satiate his insatiable passion. When Philomela threatened to tell her sister of Tereus’s vile deeds, her merciless brother-in-law cut out her tongue.

Unable to speak her woes, Philomela took to her loom and weaved in lurid colors of red and purple the story of her bondage. No sooner did Procne receive the tapestry than she flew to the cabin to rescue her sister. Disguising herself and Philomela as wild followers of Bacchus, Procne managed to smuggle her sister into her home.

Once there, they plotted together a terrible deed that broke all bounds of decency and morality. Blinding their eyes and deafening their ears, the two sisters stabbed the young son of Procne and Tereus and cooked him into a stew. When Tereus returned, Procne fed him the butchered remains of his son.

The meal consumed, Philomela stepped out from the shadows, and the brutal Procne revealed to her brutal husband what he had just eaten. Vomiting up his food, Tereus chased the two women with intent to slay them both, but the gods intervened and transformed them all: Tereus into a hoopoe, Procne into an owl, and Philomela into a nightingale whose sad song still reverberates its notes of melancholy in your day.

Flee from such mad desires, my friends. Learn to love with moderation lest you be swept into a whirlpool of passions from which you cannot escape.

The heat from the fireplace warms us on a cold evening, but none of us was made to live in the fire.

—Ovid

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Philomena and Procne” by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1837-1922), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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