The Art of Invective: Ovid’s “Ibis”

Nikita Khrushchev: “We will bury you!”

Dirty Harry Callahan: “Go ahead. Make my day.”

Mike Tyson: “I’m gonna gut you like a fish.”

Oh, boo hoo. You want to threaten somebody? Do it properly:

While Thracians fight with bows, Iazyges with spears,
while the Ganges runs warm, and Danube cold:
while mountains produce oaks, and plains soft grass,
while the Tuscan Tiber flows with its clear waters,
I’ll wage war on you: death will not end my anger, rather
among the shades it will set a cruel weapon in my hands.

Then, too, when I shall be dissolved in empty air,
my bloodless ghost will still revile all your ways,
then, too, my remembering shadow will pursue
remedy for your deeds, and my bony form your face.

. . .

Wherever I may be, I’ll strive to break from Styx’s shores,
and, in vengeance, stretch an icy hand to where you are.
You’ll see me watching, in the shades of silent nights,
appearing as a vision, I’ll drive away your sleep.

Whatever you do, I’ll flit before your lips and eyes,
and moan so there can be no peace in your house.
Cruel whips, and twining snakes, will hiss, and funeral
torches, forever smoke before your guilty face.

. . .

Let the flames that snatch at all men, flee from you:
let the honest earth reject your hated corpse. May
the cruel vulture tear your entrails, beak and claw,
and the greedy dogs rip out your treacherous heart,
and let there be (though you may be proud to be so
loved) a quarrel for your body, among the wolves.

. . .

Let one of the Furies rake your flanks with her whip,
till the measure of your sins has been confessed:
another give your scored body to her hellish snakes:
the third one scorch your smoking cheeks with fire.

Promising to pursue from beyond the grave, denying the sacred repose of burial, calling forth the Furies to rake and score and scorch an opponent—that is how you threaten somebody.

These spirited lines are from “Ibis,” an obscure and often inscrutable monument to malediction by Ovid, the Roman poet much better known for his Arts of Love (with its cheeky/shocking advice on seduction) and Metamorphoses (from which we get much of our knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology).

One of Ovid’s last works and written while he was in exile from his beloved Rome, “Ibis” is a puzzling piece because no one has yet figured out who the target of Ovid’s vengeful hatred was or what this person did to boil up his ire. In the closing lines, Ovid threatens to call his enemy out by name soon, but apparently that never happened.

Whoever it was clearly did something egregious to get on Ovid’s bad side. After threatening revenge from beyond the grave, he goes on to claim to have known the prophesized fate and childhood history of his target, including the sweet detail of how the Fates made this enemy cry as a child and then promised that he would cry forever—and always have good reason to.

Following that comes a mind-numbing, eye-glazing litany (running for 345 lines) of curses, whereby Ovid promises that his enemy will be struck by the same torments that befell dozens and dozens (and dozens!) of historical and mythological characters. Here are just a few:

May someone sever your genitals, as Saturn,
when he was born, severed those of Uranus.

Or like Cychreus, who snatched Eurylochus’ crown,
let your body be food for ravenous serpents.

Or die suspended like the captive Acheus who hung
a wretched witness to the gold-bearing waters.

Or like the Atarnean may you be brought, basely,
to your lord as a prize, sewn inside a bull’s-hide.

May your sister burn with fire as Byblis and Canace
did, and not prove true except in their sinning.

Or like Prometheus may you hang in Tartarus
from a high rock, or, as books tell, die Socrates’ death

May you be worthy of truncation, like that son of Astacus,
Melanippus, a maimed corpse, your head eaten by your fellow men

And may that artisan, the bee, bury his venomous
sting in your eye, as he did to the Achaean poet.

Somehow, that bee sting in the eye curdled my sensibilities more than all the other threats of mayhem and murder. Ovid spins out his curses until the very end of the poem, when he proclaims that (after more than 600 lines), he is just getting warmed up:

Meanwhile lest you complain that I’ve forgotten you,
these words are sent to you in a hasty work.
It’s brief indeed, I confess: but, by their favour, may the gods
grant more than I ask, and multiply the power of my prayers.
You’ll read more in time, containing your true name,
in that metre in which bitter wars should be waged.

“Ibis” is a difficult poem because it contains so many references and allusions to other texts and tales and characters. Ovid was, after all, an all-world expert in mythology, perhaps the original classicist. However, it is still an enjoyable work, if only for the artful intensity of the invective.

The poem is not available in the typical Ovid collection, but a wonderfully readable version (as readable as “Ibis” is ever likely to get, that is) is available at Poetry in Translation, thanks to the British poet and translator Anthony Kline. Kline also researched all of Ovid’s references and provides helpful research links for most of them. All the passages reproduced here are his work, and I am immensely grateful to him for his generosity in allowing others to use his translations for noncommercial purposes and for giving us Latin-illiterates access to this strange and magnificent work of art.


p.s. To his “credit,” Mike Tyson did deliver some pretty epic threats over the years, although perhaps not quite with the same lyrical charm as Ovid. I chose one of his milder maledictions to use here.