Voices within Ovid’s House of Fama

In: Mnemosyne


Ovid’s depiction of the House of Fama, the goddess of Rumour, in Book XII of the Metamorphoses illustrates a complex relationship between voice, identity and text. This paper will argue that Ovid, through the House of Fama, reveals how the impossibility of maintaining the integrity of corporeality is related to the implausibility of claiming authority over any literary text. Ovid uses the concept of the rumour to inscribe the breakdown of the boundaries of the body and identity, in the context of the breakdown of the unity of the literary text, revealing how the voice we call our own, that is central to our sense of the singularity of the self, is made up of the voices of other people, and how the literary text is understood to be an unstable amalgamation of the voices of other authors.

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  • 2

    Gladhill (2013) compares the House of Fama with a black hole as it “stands outside the physical constraints of space” and functions as a type of portal with the ability to manipulate both time and location in its function as “hinge” or “scene shifter”. The House of Fama does not just mark the apparent shift from myth to epic pseudo-history but the physical change in location from Aulis to Troy. Tissol (2002, 305) describes the House of Fama as “simultaneously a fresh start and a seamless continuation”.

  • 4

    Gladhill (2013) interprets the House of Fama in relation to the political functioning of speech and rumour in the Republican forum. Gladhill envisions the “domus of Fama as a cosmological forum, modelled on the forum Romanum”. Philip Hardie’s 2012 book Rumour and Renown: Representations of Fama in Western Literature is a paramount work in this field, tackling depictions of Fama across a wide spectrum. Hardie’s fifth chapter ‘Fama in Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ in which he asks “Why is Rumour here?”, considers whether Fama can be interpreted as an absent muse for a disenchanted age or a representative figure of the poet himself. Both these works (which have kindly been made available to me through the anonymous reviewer and the editor) will have a critical bearing on this paper. The present discussion will differ, however, in attempting to read the House of Fama episode in the Metamorphoses by localising the infringement of the boundaries of the cosmos and text in terms of a vocal (be it authorial or other) transgression of the body. Tissol (1997, 88) aptly remarks in relation to the House of Fama that Ovid’s “ ‘version’ of the House of Fama may cause the reader’s judgement to undergo many revisions”. Gladhill (2013) remarks “she [Fama] is also the chaos of narrative whereby the puzzle of poetic space is left with missing pieces to be filled in later, resulting in narrative reorientation, reinterpretation, and even misinterpretation”. Fama in this sense is a Protean figure, constantly transforming when subjected to critical analysis.

  • 6

    Gladhill (2013) notes that “the turbulent tumult heard within the domus is not produced from within, but it is the polyphonic noise of the omnis vox entering into her space. Once every voice enters the house, they become doubled, expanded, narrated and published”.

  • 11

    Hardie (2012) states that “the connection between fama and storm and winds is a common one, as is also the image of rumour as wild-fire”; “In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon literal fire, in the form of the relay of beacons, brings the news of the capture of Troy to Argos: the messenger-fire is the source of rumour in the city (475-7) . . . λαµπτήρ, the word used by the Aeschylean Watchman to hail the beacon (Ag. 22), is used by Euripides in an image of the wildfire spread of rumour, fr. 411”. Hardie also compares this with the tongues of fire at Pentecost (Acts 2: 3), which could, by implication, align the confusion of the House of Fama with the Tower of Babel.

  • 14

    Hardie (2012) asserts “that is only as it should be, since the spoken word is invisible. But perhaps the difficulty that the reader experiences in forming a distinct image of the shape of the Virgilian Fama’s body is already an acknowledgement of the non-visual nature of what she personifies”.

  • 19

    Hardie (2012) explains that “it is very difficult to form a distinct mental image of her physical shape, subject to rapid and extreme change in size (176-7), walking and flying, apparently at the same time (180), and given more specific form through an indefinite multiplication of body-parts”; see also Hardie 2009, 95. Dyer (1989, 28) adds that “Vergil has an accurate eye for visual detail, and describes much as an artist might each cameo of his narrative. It is for this reason that we are shocked by images that cannot be easily translated visually. Perhaps the most arresting of such passages is the description of the monstrum Fama at A. 4. 173ff., which defies any reasonable attempt to convert a visual or narrative image”.

  • 22

    Hardie (2012) says that the nullis portis (12.45), the lack of doors in the House of Fama “translates ἄθυρος, ἀθύρωτος used of the mouth or tongue, Simon. 541.2 PMG, Ar. Ran. 838; cf. Theogn. 421. ἀθυρόγλωσσος: E. Or. 903”. Aristophanes’ use in particular in the Frogs as ‘the gateway of the mouth’ resonates nicely here.

  • 33

    Hardie (2012) interprets the brass construct of the House as a contrast with the brass tabularia (records) of the Fates (15.810 ex aere): “the sounding brass of Fama stands for the oral fluidity of language in dwelling, while the brass of the Parcae, like the iron and adamant, represents the fixed and immovable inscription of Fate”.

  • 40

    Hardie (2012) says of Virgil’s Fama that “her expansionism and sky-reaching match the hyperbolic epic narrative that imperialistically sets out to spread to the ends of the earth and to heaven itself the fame of Aeneas and his Roman descendants. As a monstrous bird she parodies a conventional image of the poet’s flight of fame”.

  • 41

    Gladhill (2013) observes that “it is ambiguous whether the fama at line 878 is ablative or nominative. If we interpret the noun as nominative, then one might suggest that Ovid undergoes his own metamorphosis; he becomes Fama herself. Ovid’s ego has been replaced completely by fama. He inserts himself into her domus, becoming the omniscient narrator of all stories that exist or will exist”.

  • 44

    Hardie (2012) notes that “in entrusting his fame to the mouths of the populus Ovid gives himself up to the leue uulgus who come and go in the House of Fama”.

  • 50

    See also Hardie 2012.

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