HIV/AIDS, Climate Change, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

As Activist in Residence at Susquehanna University, I will speak to the Presidential Scholars, a group of honors students who meet monthly with the president of the university and his wife. They share a common reading; President Green selected Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This ancient Roman text includes fantastical stories of transformations (and lots of sordid and awful actions by gods and humans.)

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

In re-reading Metamorphoses in preparation for my talk, I was struck by the story of Arachne. A mere mortal and an expert weaver, she challenges Athena to a weaving competition. It is almost always understood that the goddess wins these sort of contests. Arachne though uses the opportunity to speak out.

Arachne’s weavings tell the stories of the many injustices and cruelties perpetuated by the gods. She may be the world’s first “craftivist,” who uses her craft to bear witness to injustice. Today we have the Craftivist Collective doing something similar.

Another story struck me because of its strong language and how it reminds me of both the HIV/AIDS Crisis and our current crisis because of pollution. In Book 7 Cephalus coming from Athens sails to Aegina and meets up with his old friend Aeacus. It’s been years since Caphalus was there. He is pleased that he is greeted by “a procession of handsome youths, all equal in age.”

But he notices that there are some missing, particularly youths older and younger than this procession.

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“Aeacus heaved a sigh and sadly explained what had happened.” A terrible plague killed many of the inhabitants. This strange and powerful disease seemed to come out of nowhere and had no cure. People stopped caring for the sick because they feared contagion.

Many poor sufferers couldn’t endure their beds any longer and leapt to the floor or, if they haded the strength to stand, they’d roll out of doors on the ground; and thus each person would flee from hearth and home which seemed to them now to be haunted by death; not knowing the cause, they could only blame the house they had lived in. Some could be seen to be roaming the streets in a dazed condition, so long as their strength held up; if not, they’d be lying in tears flat out on the ground, quite still but for rolling their sleepless eyes; then, weakly extending their arms to the stars in the lowering heavens, here or there, wherever death took them, they gave up the ghost.

In addition to the physical suffering, Aegina also experienced ecological disasters. While it is an ancient story, it sounds strangely familiar to me.

In the beginning the sky weighed down on the earth in a thick, black fog which trapped the prostrating heat in a blanket of clouds; and through the time that it took four moons to wax and to wane, the south winds blew with their sweltering currents of toxic air. All are agreed that the springs and the lakes were also infected…

Both the plague and the environmental devastation echo for me today, first in my memory of the early HIV/AIDS crisis, when people still did not know how the disease was spread, and there was widespread panic and hostility. Many of the earliest victims suffered without the support of the medical community and family.

The descriptions of the environmental damage sound so much like explanations of how climate change works–with a heat trapping blanket of invisible gas that leads to unpredictable weather and poisoning of the oceans.

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

I do not suggest these stories predict either of these two crises. Rather they serve as a reminder that in times past people were concerned with some of the same things we face today. It is heavy stuff but then something thrilling and hopeful happens. We see the rise of the Myrmidons, a new race of people who emerge out of the death and destruction. The king has a dream which turns out to be reality.

Here we saw a long column of ants which were gathering grain, all bearing their heavy loads in their tiny mouths and steadily trudging along their familiar path on the wrinkled tree bark. “How many there are!” I reflected in wonder and cried, “O Father, of gods the most excellent, grant me as many subjects as these to replenish my empty walls! Then a noisy trembling came over the oak, though there wasn’t a breath of wind to disturb the branches…

The ants then suddenly grew, appearing larger and larger, until they rose from the ground and stood with bodies erect. Their thinness was gone, they had only two feet, they changed color, and their limbs were completely changed into human form.

This reminds me of what happened in the late 80s when young HIV/AIDS activists acted up! They took on government officials and public policy. They educated themselves about drug policy and manufacturing. They broke the collective silence by getting people to talk about AIDS through the films and art they created. They became a fierce, creative, compassionate force that changed the world.

Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

Today I see something similar happening with the young justice-minded climate activists who boldly speak out about the immorality of a society that relentlessly pollutes and seeks unlimited, reckless growth regardless the consequences. Looking at the work of Extinction Rebellion, we see people of all ages taking part, especially young people and young adults. I see a new type of human taking the center stage. In a way they are a product of our time and a response to the suffering in the world and on the planet. They have become a force that is putting pressure on government and society. They demand big changes.

Aeacus nearly lost all hope, but then a new citizen emerged, “I called them Myrmidons after the ants the had come from. You’ve seen the bodies they now inhabit; they also preserve their original nature–a thirty, industrious people, who cling to their gains and store them away for the future. All of them young and brave, they’ll follow you into the field.”

So I cry out to the gods, grant us as many citizens, young and brave, a powerful response to our troubling times.

(Featured Photo by Veit Hammer on Unsplash)

All Ovid quotes form the Penguin Classic edition translated by David Raeburn.


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