Behind The Looking Glass: Self-Reflection, Self-Expression and Identity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Behind the Looking Glass
Self-Reflection, Self-Expression and Identity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Thu Truong, Yale-NUS College, Class of 2018

(Initially published in YNUJ Volume 2, 2018)


This essay discusses how the mirror in Ovid’s Metamorphoses navigates between the ancient theory of reflection and the Platonic conception of the soul, and how it illustrates Ovid’s own, unique position on self-reflection and identity. Tales of transformation in the Metamorphoses constantly define and redefine the relationship between body and soul, and the mirror, as a vehicle for self-knowledge, becomes crucial in such definition. In accordance with the ancient theory of reflection, the physical appearance revealed by the Ovidian mirror is inseparable from one’s inner self; at the same time, the Platonic dissonance between body and soul suggests that the self is distinct from what is visible. This tension manifests in the story of Actaeon, in which the character learns of his bodily changes and gains a sense of identity by looking at his mirror image, but still meets his tragic fate when that consciousness goes unrecognized. The Ovidian mirror, it follows, both affirms and challenges the significance of appearance in shaping the human identity. This essay concludes by exploring how the tragedy of Actaeon situates Ovid in a completely different position from his predecessors regarding the philosophy of self.


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