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This is a phrase from the opening lines of the Metamorphoses. (1.1–4) I am curious about a couple of things when it comes to this phrase. First, mutastis is an alternative form of the second-person perfect plural. How did this alternative come about? Also, which grammar references should I look at to find these alternatives?

The literal translation of the phrase is "For you have changed them also". But what exactly does Ovid mean by this? I have reproduced the context, below, along with my English translation.

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

My mind inclines me to speak of bodies changed into new forms; gods, breathe on my undertakings (for you have changed them also) and from the first origin of the world to my age lead my perpetual song.

I appreciate any help in understanding what Ovid means by this phrase and the peculiarity of its verb mutastis. Thanks!

  • I'm not sure I understand the dictionary question. Dictionaries don't usually list conjugated forms, so I would expect to find neither mutavistis nor mutastis. But there can be other kinds of sources (including grammars) which do list such things. Otherwise the question is good. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 18 '16 at 11:26
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I tend to use online dictionaries, like Wiktionary or Perseus, which often give the conjugations. I suppose that online dictionaries sometimes go above and beyond the expectations of a normal dictionary. They might be doubling as grammar references. In which case, I'll edit my post to be more specific. – ktm5124 Sep 18 '16 at 16:49
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    This is actually a much-debated line, and it's worth mentioning that there is an alternate reading illa (n. pl.), which could refer to the coepta, "for you have changed my undertakings too" -- though to be sure, it's not totally clear what that would mean, either... As for mutastis, it is a syncopated form of mutavistis. – TKR Sep 18 '16 at 18:12
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The form of mutastis is called a "syncopated perfect." From Gildersleeve, section 131:

The perfects in āvī, ēvī, īvī, often drop the v before s or r, and contract the vowels throughout, except those in īvī, which admit the contraction only before s.

The syncopated forms are found in all periods, and in the poets are used to suit the metre.

As far as the meaning, there's a good reason you're having trouble: in the last few decades, if I understand correctly, the scholarly consensus has more and more been that illas, which can only refer to formas—a reference that people have tied themselves in knots over for centuries, because it doesn't make any sense—is a textual corruption and that what Ovid probably wrote was illa, referring to cœptīs (from cœpta). (E.J. Kenney published the first suggestion of this in 1976; David Kovacs produced an alternative explanation of the same correction in 1987.)

With the new reading—nam vos mutastis et illa—Ovid is juxtaposing the change the gods have made to the shapes (formas) in transforming them into new bodies (nova corpora) with the change the gods have made to his undertakings (cœptis). I won't presume to speak on what Ovid means, but several possible interpretations occur to me:

I, Ovid, intended to talk about something else, but you, gods, have changed my undertakings so that I'm going to talk about metamorphoses.

I, Ovid, have undertaken many things in the past, and you, gods, have often changed them to suit your will; I beg you, therefore, to look favorably on this one.

And so on. Note that the change also occurs at the point in the line where his audience would be expecting elegiac meter—but he gives them hexameter. So he's playing around with form and reflecting it in the content.

Smart cookie, that Ovid.

  • Thanks, Joel. Wonderful response. I'll have to spend some time thinking about these ideas. I'm glad you introduced me to syncopated perfects, as it will be easy to learn about now. – ktm5124 Sep 18 '16 at 18:14

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