Tag Archives: The Metamorphoses

Magic And Miracles (2)

I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.

Return of the Hellenes devotees (photo not credited)

Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.

Asatru Fellowship procession (photo by Eran Livni)

Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.

Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique- Ingres (1827)

I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.

Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
athena inspires odysseus for vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they  genuine, or  are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.

The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.

The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.

Mythology on Canvas: Mythological Model (3)

It is difficult to see Maria Zambaco as a victim of exploitation when one gets a hint of how headstrong she seems to have been. That combined with her wealth and her skill as an artist push me toward believing that her life may have been more about psychology and morals than it was about sociology and the treatment of women. That she fit in with the trends of the times, however, seems rather obvious to me.

Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones
Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones

The willful participation of women in a system that limits the roles and portrayals of women becomes more nuanced when it is done to increase their individual power. Or is it really power if it plays to male fantasies? And what about the rest of women who must deal with the fallout of disagreeable male attitudes that have been catered to and encouraged?

This week, I will present a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones with Maria as the featured model. This particular series is referred to as the Pygmalion cycle. Click on the image to enlarge the pictures of all four paintings.


This is yet another adaptation of a story from The Metamorphoses by Ovid. As is typically the case with Roman mythology, it is based on an earlier tale from Greek mythology. A sculptor falls in love with the statue he has created, and Venus, the goddess of love, brings the sculpture in question to life for him. Maria appears to be the model for each of the characters in these paintings: Pygmalion, Venus, and the statue/woman.

I have thought about how many of my gender may have a good bit of Pygmalion in them. A man may fall in love, not with a woman as she really is, but as he has imagined her. His imaginative fantasies use her as a blank canvas or un-carved block of marble on which he can create a person who doesn’t really exist. The obvious shame of this is that the poor woman must often deal with the fallout of such false expectations, but I see as the greatest shame the fact that a man fails to experience and appreciate the many dimensions or facets that a real woman can give to a relationship. I say this as a married man whose wife of 37 years never ceases to surprise and amaze him.

Next week: another series of paintings featuring Maria.

Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (2)

The early Pre-Raphaelites allegedly had a fancy for using working class women as models and taking them on as their mistresses. I find myself asking “why this socio-economic group?” Perhaps it had to do with economic vulnerability and the likelihood of compliance. Edward Burne-Jones came along a bit later and continued this dubious tradition with one notable exception. Maria Zambaco was wealthy as well as artistically trained. Although she is featured in numerous paintings, I have been unable to find an actual photograph of her which shows her with any clarity. I’m always interested in seeing the reality behind fanciful imagery when actual people are involved.


The above photograph was claimed by one source on the internet to be of Maria, but the name at the bottom doesn’t look right. I believe it is actually that of one of her cousins.

Burne-Jones is said to have been in a loveless (at least physically) marriage with his wife, Georgia Burne-Jones. She had experienced difficulty in the birth of their most recent child, and they had ceased having physical relations. When Edward was commissioned by Zambaco’s mother to paint her daughter, he very well could have been susceptible to having the affair which lasted at least until 1869. He has been described as both indecisive as well as oddly possessive of the women (including relatives) in his life.

He idealized his mistress (some of his descriptive quotes of their relationship in mythological terms struck me as inanely disturbing), and he made plans to leave his wife. The affair was discovered, causing a scandal, and he backed out. Maria attempted to get him to agree to a joint suicide pact by taking laudanum. When this was unsuccessful, she threatened to jump into Regents Canal, and his efforts to restrain her resulted in such an hysterical scene that the police were called.

There is speculation that the affair did not end there, that Zambaco futilely tried to start up a relationship with Auguste Rodin in Paris, and/or that Burne-Jones made some pointless attempts at resuming the affair. At any rate, he continued to use her as a model, but the nature of the characters she portrayed changed. In the following painting, she appears as the temptress, Nimue. On closer observation, what look like snakes can be seen in her hair.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

Now contrast that role with her character in the next painting from the Perseus series (done earlier). Here, she is gazing on a reflection of the head of Medusa which is held by Perseus. Oddly enough, the profiles of the two figures are similar, which makes me think that she might have been a model for both of them.

The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

So she seems to have morphed from rescued innocent in the above painting (which was completed before the affair ended) to the semblance of a treacherously attractive Gorgon in the previous painting, which is one of the last in which she modeled for this artist. Similarly psychological underpinnings have been attributed to the next painting, also one of the last in which Maria Zambaco sat for Edward Burne-Jones.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones
The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

In this visual re-telling of Phyllis and Demophoon from The Metamorphoses by Ovid, the man appears to be recoiling from the aggressively amorous woman as she emerges from a tree. That particular element of revulsion is not part of the account I read of this story, and significance has been attached to it by some observers.

All of this brings me to these photographs of the grave of Maria Zambaco in London’s West Norwood Cemetery, where she was buried under her original family name. For me, these pictures serve as a grim reminder of where all carnal passion ultimately ends.



In future posts, I will re-cap some of the paintings in which she is cast as various characters from mythology.

Mythological Beasts and Spirits: Dryad

Dignified, the ancient giants, from their homes of bark and wood, Hearkened to the forest maiden, in the fog before her stood. From: The Staff in the Tree by Robert Lambert Jones III
Dignified, the ancient giants, from their homes of bark and wood,
Hearkened to the forest maiden, in the fog before her stood.
From: The Staff in the Tree by Robert Lambert Jones III

Dryads are among my favorite characters from mythology and folklore. From Greek mythology to modern times, their interpretations in art and literature are varied. They are tree spirits, certain versions of which can emerge from their arboreal homes as human beings. Most of the representations I have found are female.

The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan
The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan
The Dryad by Henry John Stock.
The Dryad by Henry John Stock.

In other versions, they are so bound to their homes that they die if their trees are cut down. I wish I could credit the following painting, but I could find no information on the artist. If anyone knows and can tell me, I will gladly update this post (artist: Emile Jean-Baptiste Philippe Bin – many thanks to Colin Smith for the information). I was intrigued by the idea of a dryad emerging to prevent a woodsman from cutting down her tree. The painting implies a story.


In this painting by Edward Burne-Jones, the female figure is not a Dryad proper, but rather a woman temporarily transformed into a tree. She transforms back when the lover who neglected her repents of his actions. Though I haven not yet read the story, I think it comes from The Metamorphoses by Ovid. Still, the painting is reminiscent of the original concept of tree spirits.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones
The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

They are sometimes portrayed as males. For  The Staff in the Tree, I envisioned them as giant warriors, spirits that can emerge from their trees and take on solid form. This gave me good imagery around which to work some verses. In the story, the Dryads are forest guardians who are shrewd, severe, and entirely not to be messed with. I must cop to being influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien’s portrayal of the Ents in his Ring trilogy.

Juvenile though my drawing at the top of this entry may seem, it was a hard one for me to make with my limited technique. It certainly pales against the other images I have shown. I will end with a painting relevant to this post and last week’s as well.

Dryads and Naiads by Walter Crane.
Dryads and Naiads by Walter Crane.