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Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”

Introduction

The Metamorphoses is Ovid’s epic poem about change.

My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed

into new bodies: O gods above, inspire

this undertaking (which you’ve changed as well)

and guide my poem in its epic sweep

from the world’s beginning to the present day. (1.1–5)

The poem is about 12,000 lines of hexameter verse in Latin, and is split into 15 books. It was first published in 8 AD.

Ovid focuses on telling the many stories using beautiful and light-hearted language. His audience was familiar with the stories he tells, so it is his approach to telling the stories that makes them as entertaining as they are.

Outline

Book I

In Ovid’s creation account, like Hesiod’s, the world begins in Chaos:

Before the seas and lands had been created,

before the sky that covers everything,

Nature displayed a single aspect only

throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name,

a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk

and nothing more, with the discordant seeds

of disconnected elements all heaped

together in anarchic disarray. (1.6–11)

However, unlike Hesiod’s account—which focuses on the sexual creative acts of the gods and their genealogies—Ovid’s ignores the gods almost entirely.

And unlike in the Genesis account, where God creates and separates, in Ovid matter existed in the beginning and only had to be separated:

Although the land and sea and air were present,

land was unstable, the sea unfit for swimming,

and air lacked light; shapes shifted constantly,

and all things were at odds with one another,

for in a single mass cold strove with warm,

wet was opposed to dry and soft to hard,

and weightlessness to matter having weight.

Some god (or kinder nature) settled this

dispute by separating earth from heaven,

and then by separating sea from earth

and fluid aether from the denser air;

and after these were separated out

and liberated from the primal heap,

he bound the disentangled elements

each in its place and all in harmony. (1.19–33)

He describes how the four winds are separated:

Nor did that world-creating god permit

the winds to roam ungoverned through the air;

for even now, with each of them in charge

of his own kingdom, and their blasts controlled,

they scarcely can be kept from shattering

the world, such is the discord between brothers.

Eurus went eastward, to the lands of Dawn,

the kingdoms of Arabia and Persia,

and to the mountain peaks that lie below

the morning’s rays; and Zephyr took his place

on the western shores warmed by the setting sun.

The frozen north and Scythia were seized

by bristling Boreas; the lands opposite,

continually drenched by fog and rain,

are where the south wind, known as Auster, dwells. (1.78–92)

After creation, Ovid describes the four ages of man. It is similar to Hesiod’s ages of man in Works and Days. Here are the vices of the Iron Age:

Now men demand that the rich earth provide

more than the crops and sustenance it owes,

and piercing to the bowels of the earth,

the wealth long hidden in Stygian gloom

is excavated and induces evil;

for iron, which is harmful, and the more

pernicious gold (now first produced) create

grim warfare, which has need of both; now arms

are grasped in bloodstained hands; men live off plunder,

and guest has no protection from his host,

nor father-in-law from his daughter’s husband,

and kindness between brothers is infrequent;

husband and wife both wish each other dead,

and wicked stepmothers concoct the bilious

poisons that turn their youthful victims pale;

a son goes to a soothsayer to learn

the date when he will change from heir to owner,

and piety lies vanquished here below.

Virgin Astraea, the last immortal left

on the bloodstained earth, withdraws from it in horror. (1.185–204)

Here is part of Hesiod’s description of the Iron Age:

Then fathers won’t get along with their kids anymore,

Nor guests with their hosts, nor partner with partner,

And brothers won’t be friends, the way they used to be.

Nobody’ll honor their parents when they get old

But they’ll curse them and give them a hard time,

Godless rascals, and never think about paying them back

For all the trouble it was to raise them.

And then up to Olympos from the wide-pathed Earth,

lovely apportions wrapped in white veils,

off to join the Immortals, abandoning humans

There go Shame and Nemesis. And horrible suffering

Will be left for mortal men, and no defense against evil.

— Works and Days, 212–35

Both accounts imply new technologies, such as bronze, iron, and perhaps gold coinage, cause new evils. Both accounts look to an earlier, purer time. A time when the gods still lived on Earth.

Unlike Hesiod, Ovid does does not include the aberrant Age of Heroes in between the bronze and iron ages. The Age of Heroes, unlike the other four, is not named after a metal (it is better than the previous age). I think Hesiod inserted it to meld an older tradition of the metal ages with the Greek’s own tradition of the heroes of Thebes and the Trojan ware.

In response to the wickedness of the Iron Age, Jove calls for a great flood. Unlike the Babylonian Atrahasis flood myth—wherein the gods regret destroying their source of sacrifices—in Ovid, the gods have more foresight:

Some of the gods give voice to their approval

of Jove’s words and aggravate his grumbling,

while others play their roles with mute assent.

Nevertheless, all of them were saddened

by the proposed destruction of the human race

and wondered what the future form of earth

could possibly be like, without men on it:

why, who would bring the incense to their altars? (1.336–43)

Ovid’s description of the flood is powerful:

One takes to the hills, another to his skiff,

rowing where once he plowed the earth in rows,

while yet another sails above his grainfields,

or glimpses, far below, his sunken villa;

and here in the topmost branches of an elm

is someone casting out a fishing line;

an anchor grazes in a meadow’s grasses,

or a curved keel sweeps above a vineyard,

and the seal’s misshapen figure lies at rest

where the slender goats were lately fond of browsing.

The Nereids marvel at the sight of groves,

cities, and dwelling places all submerged,

while dolphins take possession of the woods

and shake the lofty branches of the oak

as they brush by. The wolf swims among sheep,

the tawny lion and the tiger both

are carried helplessly upon the waves;

the boar’s great power, like a lightning bolt,

does not avail nor do the stag’s swift limbs.

After his long search for a landing place,

the bird with weary wings collapses seaward.

Now unrestrained, the sea conceals the hills,

and strange new waves beat at the mountaintops;

the greater part are drowned beneath the waves,

while those spared drowning perish of starvation. (1.407–31)

Jove stops the flood when he realizes the two human survivors are devout. After describing how the floods recede, Ovid recounts what Deucalian, the last man alive, says to his wife Pyrrha:

“O sister, wife, and only woman left,

you whom the bonds of race and family

and our marriage bed have joined to me,

we are now joined by our common perils—

for we two are the crowd that fills the lands

seen by the rising and the setting sun—

we two are all: the sea now has the others.

And our claim upon our lives is still

doubtful, for those storm clouds frighten me!

And how would you be feeling, my poor wretch,

if fate had snatched you from the flood without me?

How would you bear this terror all alone?

Who would console you in your unshared grief?

For trust me, if the sea had taken you,

I would have followed then, my wife; the sea

would not have taken one of us, but two.” (1.484–99)

While few stories in the Metamorphoses are original, Ovid gives the old characters a new psychological depth; Deucalion’s terror at being the only human alive is vivid example of this.

Ovid explains how life was biogenerated from the muck (an accepted theory at the time):

It is when heat and moisture join as one

that life is generated; all living forms

originate from these opposing sources (1.595–8)

The Python is among the forms that are generated, and Ovid tells the tale of Apollo killing the Python (and establishing the Pythian games to ensure memory of his great dead). Next, Ovid weaves in the first rape story of the Metamorphoses:

Daphne, the daughter of the river god

Peneus, was the first love of Apollo;

this happened not by chance, but by the cruel

outrage of Cupid; Phoebus, in the triumph

of his great victory against the Python,

observed him bending back his bow and said,

“What are you doing with such manly arms,

lascivious boy? That bow befits our brawn,

wherewith we deal out wounds to savage beasts

and other mortal foes, unerringly:

just now with our innumerable arrows

we managed to lay low the mighty Python,

whose pestilential belly covered acres!

Content yourself with kindling love affairs

with your wee torch—and don’t claim our glory!”

The son of Venus answered him with this:

“Your arrow, Phoebus, may strike everything;

mine will strike you: as animals to gods,

your glory is so much less than mine!” (1.628–46)

Ovid’s ability to weave one story into the next makes the Metamorphoses a joy to read. Here, Apollo’s pride at defeating the Python causes him to foolishly boast, propelling us into the next story while also presenting a compelling example of overconfidence.

Daphne escapes, but Io is less fortunate. Jove rapes her, and then he turns her into a cow to hide her from Juno, who, knowing as much, convinces him to hand over the cow. Juno places Argus to watch over her:

… Argus, the watchman with a hundred eyes:

in strict rotation, his eyes slept in pairs,

while those that were not sleeping stayed on guard.

No matter where he stood, he looked at Io,

even when he had turned his back on her. (1.869–73)

While a cow, Io’s father makes an interesting comment:

“Nor can I end this suffering by death;

it is a hurtful thing to be a god,

for the gates of death are firmly closed against me,

and our sorrows must go on forever.” (1.916–9)

Jove can’t bear to watch her pain, so he sends Mercury to kill Argus. Mercury lulls Argus to sleep with a tale:

Now Mercury was ready to continue [his story]

until he saw that Argus had succumbed,

for all his eyes had been closed down by sleep.

He silences himself and waves his wand

above those languid orbs to fix the spell.

Without delay he grasps the nodding head

and where it joins the neck, he severs it

with his curved blade and flings it bleeding down

the steep rock face, staining it with gore.

O Argus, you are fallen, and the light

in all your lamps is utterly put out:

one hundred eyes, one darkness all the same!

But Saturn’s daughter rescued them and set

those eyes upon the feathers of her bird,

filling his tail with constellated gems. (1.986–1.1000)

Many of Ovid’s stories explain the origin of species (especially of birds), rivers, springs, and constellations.

Note that the tale that Mercury tells Argus is about the rape of Syrinx; rape is so common that the story puts Argus to sleep (although his wand may have helped too).

Book II

The tale of Phaëthon’s doomed journey is one of my favourite in Ovid. Here is the description of Apollo’s throne room:

Phoebus sat

In robes of purple high upon a throne

that glittered brilliantly with emeralds;

and in attendance on his left and right

stood Day and Month and Year and Century,

and all the Hours, evenly divided;

fresh Spring was there, adorned with floral crown,

and Summer, naked, bearing ripened grain,

and Autumn, stained from treading out her grapes,

and Winter with his grey and frosty locks. (2.29–38)

When describing the burning Earth, Ovid’s description alludes back to the Iliad (20.60–67):

The soil cracks everywhere, and now the light

seeps to the underworld and terrifies

its ruler and his wife (2.345–7)

After Zeus kills Phaëthon with lightening, Apollo mourns:

His miserable father, sick with grief,

drew his cloak up around his head in mourning;

for one whole day then, if the tale is true,

the sun was quite put out. The conflagration

(for the world was still ablaze) provided light;

that was a time some good came out of evil. (2.439–45)

The stories in the Metamorphoses frequently refer to earlier incidents. For example:

When Apollo heard

the accusation brought against his lover,

the laurel resting on his brow slipped down;

in not as much time as it takes to tell,

his face, his lyre, his high color fell! (2.832–6)

Also, when Juno is departing from Tethys and Oceanus in Book II, she rides up on “peacocks fitted out with Argus’ eyes”—another reference to book I.

The reference to the laurel tree refers back to the Daphne story in Book I—perhaps hinting that Apollo has already moved on to another lover.

Almost all of the stories end with physical transformations. I like how Ovid describes Ocyrhoë’s transformation into a horse:

It seems my human form is being taken:

the thought of grass for dinner pleases me,

and open fields, where I can freely ride

as I become my relative—a mare!

Whole horse? But why? My father is but a centaur!”

Her whining, waning, becomes whinnying,

as mind and speech both grow confused together,

and for a moment seemed a sound between

the noise a horse makes and a human word,

more like someone who imitates a horse,

before the sound turned clearly into neighing,

as she went on all fours through the tall grass.

Her fingers fused together and a single

band of light horn surrounded them, a hoof.

Her neck and mouth were both increased in size

and her long robe was turned into a tail

while the hair that used to stray across her neck

became a mane that fell on her right side;

made over now in voice and form completely,

this transformation gave her a new name. (2.917–936)

The story of Mercury stealing Apollo’s cattle is also told in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus. Ovid’s version is shorter, and there are differences, but in both there is an old man who betrays the location of the cattle. (In Ovid’s version the man is less devout and gives away the location confidentially and with little hesitation). It is intriguing to see the development of the story over several centuries.

Minerva visits the goddess Envy to have her enact revenge on irreverent follower. The description of Envy is, even for Ovid, exceptionally vivid:

She headed straight to Envy’s squalid quarters,

black with corruption, hidden deep within

a sunless valley where no breezes blow,

a sad and sluggish place, richly frigid,

where cheerful fires die upon the hearth

and fog that never lifts embraces all.

Arriving here, the warlike maiden stood

before the house (for heaven’s law denied

her entrance) and with her spear tip rapped

upon the doors, which instantly flew open,

revealing Envy at her feast of snakes,

a fitting meal for her corrupted nature:

from such a sight, the goddess turned away.

The object of her visit sluggishly

arises from the ground where she’d been sitting,

leaving behind her interrupted dinner

of half-eaten reptiles. Stiffly she advances,

and when she sees the beauty of the goddess

and of her armor, she cannot help but groan,

and makes a face, and sighs a wretched sigh.

Then she grows pale, and her body shrivels up.

Her glance is sidewise and her teeth are black;

her nipples drip with poisonous green bile,

and venom from her dinner coats her tongue;

she only smiles at sight of another’s grief,

nor does she know, disturbed by wakeful cares,

the benefits of slumber; when she beholds

another’s joy, she falls into decay,

and rips down only to be ripped apart,

herself the punishment for being her. (2.1049–78)

After Io and Callisto, Jove pursues Europa:

Majestic power and erotic love

do not get on together very well,

nor do they linger long in the same place:

the father and the ruler of all gods,

who holds the lightning bolt in his right hand

and shakes the world when he but nods his head,

now relinquishes authority and power,

assuming the appearance of a bull

to mingle with the other cattle, lowing

as gorgeously he strolls in the new grass. (2.1161–1170)

Book III

After Europa is stolen, her father “in an action bother paternal and perverse” demands that Cadmus, her brother, find her. Unable to, he decides to flee Tyre and found the new city of Boeotian Thebes. Incidentally, Herodotus believed that Cadmus brought the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks (The Histories 5.58).

While founding Thebes, a great serpent kills many of Cadmus’ men, and so he pursues and kills the serpent. Afterwards, Athena instructs him to sow the serpent’s seeds into the ground.

And then, incredibly, the dull clods stir:

at first only the little tips of spears

are visible, emerging from the furrows,

but these, almost at once are followed by

the brightly painted waving crests of helmets

then shoulders, breasts, and arms heavy with weapons,

and finally a dense-packed mass of shields:

no different from what you will have seen

on feats days, in the theater, when the curtain

lifts from the pit, and the images of men

painted upon it seem to rise: heads first,

and then the rest of them, little by little,

drawn up in one unbroken wave until

the tiny figures stand erect onstage,

complete in all respects, from head to feet. (3.129–43)

And then these men fight each other until Athena stops them. These so-called sown men (Spartoi) founded Thebes with Cadmus. I think this is the oddest story in the Metamorphoses, and I wonder what significance it had to the ancient Greeks.

Thebes has been founded now, and even though

an exile still, you might seem fortunate

in having Mars and Venus as your in-laws,

Cadmus; nor is this all, for in addition

are offspring worthy of your noble wife,

your sons and daughters, the pledges of your love,

and grandsons too, already grown to manhood.

But “fortunate”? A judgment best reserved

for a man’s last day: call no one blest, until

he dies and the last rites are said for him. (3.163–72)

This reasoning is pervasive in Herodotus.

Actaeon stumbles across the virgin goddess Diana, who spitefully turns him into a stag. He is subsequently torn to pieces by his own pack of hunting dogs. (In the Epic of Gilgamesh, when Gilgamesh is rejecting Ishtar’s love entreaties, he mentions how she turned a prior lover into a wolf who was then chased by his own hunting dogs.)

Actaeon is caught, and his dogs tear him to pieces.

And it is said

he did not die until his countless wounds

had satisfied Diana’s awful wrath.

Folks were divided: there were those who found

the goddess’s actions cruel and unjust,

while others considered them appropriate

to the defense of her austere virginity.

As usual, both parties had their reasons. (3.315–22)

Throughout the Metamorphoses Ovid playfully questions the god’s morals, as in this quote.

After the Actaeon story, Jove falls for Semele—Cadmus’ daughter. Semele becomes pregnant and Juno, to protect her honor, tricks Semele into requesting Jove make love to her the way he does to Juno. Unbeknownst to Semele, this will kill her. Juno takes the form of Semele’s nurse.

A long, inveigling chat of this and that,

until Jove’s name came up. Nurse sighted and said,

“I hope he’s Jupiter—although I doubt it:

the divinity plea? An all-to-common ploy

among seducers. Suppose he is, though:

make him provide assurance of his love;

if he’s the real thing, ask him to put on

all of the trappings of his high office

and embrace you, showing such almighty splendor

as when he is received by Lady Juno.” (3.358–67)

(It is difficult to imagine a woman being seduced by a man claiming to be a god.)

After Juno gets her revenge on Semele, her next victim is Tiresias. Tiresias is blinded for agreeing with Jove that women enjoy sex more than men. Tiresias is then blinded by Juno, but Jove (since “one god can’t undo another’s doing”) gives him the gift of prophecy. Jove seems to enjoy thwarting Juno’s punishments—consider also the Callisto story.

Tiresias is a recurring character in the Greek tragedies.

Tiresias’ first prediction is that Narcissus, if he knows himself, will not live to old age. The meaning of this was unclear, until Narcissus falls in love with himself. Then Tiresias becomes famous.

“But now I get it! I am that other one!

I’ve finally seen through my own image!

I burn with love for—me! The spark I kindle

is the torch I carry: whatever can I do?

Am I the favor-seeker, or the favor sought?

“Why seek at all, when all that I desire

is mine already? Riches in such abundance

that I’ve been left completely without means!” (3.599-606)

Ovid paints a compelling, yet humorous, picture of obsession with his description of Narcissus’ death:

His last words were directed to the pool:

“Alas, dear boy, whom I have vainly cherished!”

Those words returned to him again, and when

he cried “Farewell!” “Farewell!” cried Echo back.

His weary head sank to the grass; death closed

those eyes transfixed once by their master’s beauty,

but on the ferry ride across the Styx,

his gaze into its current did not waver. (3.643–50)

Acoetes’ story is similar to the seventh Homeric Hymn to Dionysus.

Book IV

Most of Book IV is a sequence of stories told by the Minyas daughters, who refuse to join Bacchus’ festival.

The first of their stories, of the suicide of Pyramus and Thisbe, is the original inspiration that lead Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (with a few other versions in between). Pyramus’ suicide is described with an epic simile:

“He carries Thisbe’s cloak to the tree of their pact,

and presses tears and kisses on the fabric.

‘Drink my blood now,’ he says, drawing his sword,

and thrusting it at once in his own guts:

a fatal blow; dying, he draws the blade

out of his burning wound, and his lifeblood

follows it, jetting high into the air,

as he lies on his back upon the ground.

It was as when a water pipe is ruptured

where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:

a column of water goes hissing through the hole

and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;

splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grow dark;

blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye

the hanging berries purple with its color.” (4.164–78)

The two lovers planned to meet at the tomb of Ninus, who was the king of Assyria and husband of Semiramis. Semiramis was a legendary queen of Assyria. She is often associated with the historical queen Sammurāmat who ruled from 811 - 808 BC.

The story of Hermaphroditus is a rare example of a woman (sort of) raping a man. The description includes a progression of similes:

“‘I’ve won, the boy is mine!’

the nymph cries out, and tearing off her clothing,

she dives into the middle of the pool,

and though he fights her, holds him in her clutches,

seizing the kisses he is loath to yield;

her hands surprise him, coming from below,

caressing that reluctant breast of his—

although he strives to tear himself away,

the nymph—now here, now there—surrounds her prey,

just as the serpent wraps herself around

the eagle when he grasps her in his talons

and takes her up: dangling from his claws,

she twines herself between his head and feet

and with her tail, immobilizes him;

or just as ivy winds around a tree,

and as the octopus beneath the sea

securely binds the prey that it has captured

with tentacles sent out in all directions;

yet still the boy denies the nymph her bliss’” (4.490–507)

A description of the underworld:

There are a thousand ways into this city,

and open gates on all sides; as the ocean

receives the rivers from around the world,

so this place gathers in all mortal souls,

and never fills, however many come.

Here bloodless, boneless, bodiless shades stray:

some make their way to the forum; others seek

the palace of the ruler of the dead,

or take up once again the crafts they lived by. (4.603–11)

Juno’s frustrated jealous rage fills much of the first four books of Ovid. She eventually drives Cadmus and Harmonia into ruin. Although Juno caused much of their suffering, the story of their transformation (which has may favourite imagery in the book) implies that it was Cadmus’ killing of the serpent that lead to his woes:

“Was it a sacred serpent that I speared,”

asked Cadmus, “when, newly come from Sidon,

I sprinkled the viper’s teeth upon the ground,

and seeded a new crop of human beings?

If that is what the gods have been avenging

by their unwavering wrath for all these years,

why then, I pray that I might be extended

into a serpent with a gut-like shape—”

And as he said it he became a serpent

with a gut-like shape. At once he felt the scales

begin to grow out on his thickened skin,

and his dark body lighten up with patches

of iridescent blue; he fell upon his breast,

and his two legs were blended into one,

which, gradually lengthening, became

an elegant and sharply pointed tail.

His arms remained unchanged; he held them out,

and as the tears coursed down his cheeks (which were

still—for the moment—human), he exclaimed,

“Come closer to me, O most wretched wife,

and while there is still something left of me,

before I am entirely transformed

to serpent, touch me, take these hands in yours!”

He would have said much more, but suddenly

the tip of his tongue divided into two,

and words no longer would obey his wishes,

so that whenever he tried to complain

or grieve, he hissed, and could not manage more,

for he had been left with no other voice.

Now striking her bare breast, his wife cries out,

“Cadmus! Stay as you are! Put off these strange

shapes now possessing you, unfortunate man!

Cadmus, what’s happening? Where are your feet?

Your face? Complexion? Even as I speak,

where is the rest of you! Heavenly beings,

will you not also turn me to a snake?”

The creature’s tongue flicked lightly over her lips,

and he slipped in between her cherished breasts

as though he were familiar with the place,

embraced her, and slid right around her neck.

Those of his companions who were present

were horrified, but she just calmly stroked

the smooth, sleek neck of the crested dragon,

and at once there were two serpents intertwined,

who presently went crawling off and found

a hiding place within a nearby grove. (4.779–824)

Perseus turns Atlas into a mountain:

Atlas became a mountain just as large

as the man had been. His hair and beard became

a forest, and his arms and shoulders turned

into adjacent ridges; his head was now

the mountain’s summit and his bones were rock.

Each part grew to extraordinary size

(as you immortals had ordained), until

the weight of heaven rested on his shoulders. (4.899–907)

Book V

Perseus slays many men at his wedding to Andromeda, when her prior betrothed casts a spear at him. The scene seems to contrast and slyly tease Homer’s epic death scenes. One of my favourite is:

Pedasus, grinning,

saw how he kept himself and his instrument

out of harm’s way, and shouted to him, “Sing

the remainder of your song to the shades below,”

lodging his shaft above the bard’s left eye;

and as he fell, his dying fingers struck

the lyre’s strings, and on that plaintive note

the poet and his song came to an end. (5.165–71)

After describing dying men, one after another, Ovid says:

It really would take far too long to name

the ordinary soldiers (5.296–7)

Minerva visits the nine muses, who tell of the nine sisters who challenged their supremacy and of the contest between them, and retell the story by which they won the contest. As part of this story, Venus makes the following comment:

“‘“My son [Cupid], my sword, my strong right arm and source of my power,

take up that weapon by which all your victims are vanquished

and send your swift arrows into the breast of the deity

to whom the last part of the threefold realm was allotted.

You govern the gods and their ruler; you rule the defeated

gods of the ocean and govern the one who rules them, too;

why give up on the dead, when we can extend our empire

into their realm? A third part of the world is involved here!

And yet the celestial gods spurn our forbearance,

and the prestige of Love is diminished, even as mine is.

Do you not see how Athena and huntress Diana

have both taken leave of me? The virgin daughter of Ceres

desires to do likewise—and will, if we let her!

But if you take pride in our alliance, advance it

by joining her to her uncle!”‘“ (5.531–46)

Venus’ impulse leads to the rape of Persephone and (so they say) the rotation of the seasons.

Book VI

This book continues the theme of divine revenge:

“To praise is insufficient,” she [Minerva] reflected;

“we will be praised—and we will not permit

those who belittle our divinity

to go unpunished!” (6.4–7)

Minerva contests the Arachne—an expert weaver. Although she loses, she turns her competitor into a spider.

This simile from their contest is superb:

Into their fabrics they weave purple threads

of Tyrian dye, and place beside them shades

that lighten imperceptibly from these;

as when a storm ends and the sun comes out,

a rainbow’s arch illuminates the sky;

although a thousand colors shine in it,

they eye cannot say where one color ends

and another starts, so gradual the verging;

there in the middle, the colors look the same,

while, at the edges, they seem different. (6.87–96)

The brief stories of Marsyas the Satyr and Pelops (Tantalus’ son) feel undeveloped and seem to be included because merely due the transformations involved.

The story of Tereus, the marauder from Thrace, and the Athenian sister-princesses, Procne and Philomela, is disturbing. Procne is given in marriage to Tereus, to prevent the defeat of Athens. After a few years, she asks her wicked husband to retrieve her sister—but he lusts after her:

And now delay was unendurable:

he eagerly repeated Procne’s speech,

and raised his own desires under hers.

Love lent him eloquence, and when he seemed

to go beyond the mandate he’d been given,

he said that this was merely Procne’s wish,

and added tears, as though they too were part

of his commission. By the gods above,

what utter blindness dwells in human hearts!

Here Tereus achieves a reputation

for piety while plotting wickedness,

and criminal behavior wins him praise! (6.669–80)

After trapping Philomela in a house in the woods and raping her, she cries:

“Nevertheless, if the gods are watching this,

if heavenly power means anything at all,

if, with my honor, all has not been lost,

somehow or other I will punish you;

I’ll cast aside my modesty and speak

of what you’ve done; if I escape this place,

I’ll go among the people with my tale;

imprisoned here, my voice will fill the trees

and wring great sobs of grief from senseless rocks!

Heaven will hear me, and what gods there are,

if there are any gods in all of heaven!”

Such words provoke the savage tyrant’s wrath

and fear in equal measure (6.781–792)

He proceeds to cut out her tongue.

Book VII

Book VII begins with the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Medea’s monologues are brilliant.

“All your resistance is in vain, Medea;

what god opposes you, I do not know—

I wonder if this isn’t love, so called,

or something rather like it—for why else

would these ordeals imposed upon the strangers

by my own father seem too harsh to me?

Because they are! Why do I fear that one

whom I have only just now seen will die?

What is the power that can cause such fear?

There is a fire in your untried heart,

poor wretched girl! Dislodge it if you can!

I’d act more sanely, if I only could,

but this new power overwhelms my will;

reason advises this, and passion, that;

I see the better way, and I approve it,

while I pursue the worse.” (7.20–35)

These lines remind me of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he says:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7.15–20)

In Medea’s speech, we hear her grasp onto a small reason to wish Jason well, and slowly expand and rationalize her thoughts. She continues going back and forth. At some point, she weighs whether she can trust Jason, even if she betrays her father:

“Will I betray the kingdom of my father,

only to have the stranger whom I save

set sail without me for another’s bed,

leaving Medea to her punishment?

If he could do that, leave me for another,

let the ingrate die! But no: that isn’t in him,

not in his face, not in his noble spirit,

not in a man as beautiful as he,

that I should fear duplicity from him,

or his neglecting what I am deserved.” (7.63–72)

These lines may ironically refer to Euripides’ play, Medea. Note that beauty and goodness are thought to be correlated.

The virgin princess weaves back and forth, but, upon seeing Jason again, decides to betray her family and flee with him.

Here she was resolute, and her impulsive

ardor would appear to be extinguished—

but broke out once again at sight of Jason:

her cheeks reddened, and a suffusing glow

spread across her countenance completely,

as when a spark that has been hidden under

a crust of ash is nourished by a breeze

and comes to life again as it’s stirred up,

regaining all the vigor it once had;

just so her smoldering love, which you’d have thought

was almost out, came blazing up anew,

to see the young man standing in her presence,

and—as it happened—looking even better

than usual. You would have understood

and pardoned her for her infatuation. (7.117–31)

After returning to Greece, Jason begs Medea to give his father a potion to lengthen his life. She complies:

After nine days and nights had seen Medea

in her dragon-drive chariot, traversing

the skies above those regions, she returned

to her own home; her reptiles had been touched

only by the odors of those herbs,

and yet they shed the skins of their old age! (7.335–10)

Ovid pokes fun at readers by not including the full list of ingredients:

When, with these,

and with a thousand other such ingredients

(whose names we needn’t bother mentioning),

the miracle to come had been arranged,

the foreign woman took a long-dead branch

from a fruitful olive tree and stirred her pot,

mixing it thoroughly from top to bottom.

But look! Almost at once, that stick turned green,

and just a short time later put out leaves,

and suddenly was loaded down with fruit! (7.387–99)

As Medea flies from this gruesome scene, Ovid lists transformation stories. Then, in a few succinct lines, he tells the story of Jason’s betrayal and Medea’s revenge:

But after the new bride that Jason took

was poisoned by the old wife he forsook,

and fisherfolk off Corinth glimpsed through haze

the ruined palace of the king ablaze,

the blade that dripped with her own children’s gore

enraged their father, whom she fled before,

her fatal vengeance leaving all undone! (7.555–61)

After Aegeus discovers his unknown son, Theseus, there is a big celebration. Then Ovid gives us this pithy line:

And yet, no joy is ever unalloyed,

and worry worms its way into delight (7.648–9)

Aegeus is worried about King Minos, who wants to revenge his dead son. Fortuneatly, Athens has a loyal ally ruling over Aegina. Cephalus seeks aid, and king Aeacus of Aegina recounts the story of the plague:

“At first the animals

alone succumbed: the plague confined itself

to dogs, birds, sheep, cattle, and wild beasts:

the luckless plowman is quite stunned to see

his healthy bulls collapsing at their work,

falling in midfurrow; woolly flocks

give a few feeble bleats, then, without help,

shed their thick coats, grow wasted and soon die;

the stall-bound horse, once famous for his speed,

but now unworthy of his victories,

ignores his former honors, whinnying

as death prepares to scratch him from the race.

The plague, grown stronger, now advances on

the wretched country folk, then rules within

the walls of the great city. Its first symptom

is a fierce burning in the viscera,

the hidden fire indicated by

a flushed complexion, pain in drawing breath;

the patient’s roughened tongue swells up with fever,

and lips that have been parched by the hot winds

gape widely, snatching at the torpid air—

no bed nor covering is bearable;

they fling themselves facedown upon the ground

to cool their bodies off; but no: the heat

of their poor bodies warms the earth instead!

Ungovernable plague! The doctors die,

their arts a harm to their practitioners,

and those who are the closest to the sick,

who serve most faithfully, are first to fall!

Can you imagine what my feelings were?

Like those of anyone in such a case:

I hated life and longed to share the fate

of my own kind, for everywhere I looked

the dead were strewn in heaps, without distinction,

like rotten apples shaken from the bough

or acorns that the wind strips from an oak.

Some freed themselves from the fear they had of death

by taking their own lives—summoning Fate

even as Fate prepared to summon them.

No longer were the bodies of the dead

carried in processions from the city

for burial with the customary rites:

no gates were wide enough for such a throng.

Either they lay unburied on the ground

or, without services, were stacked and burned;

and now there are no honors for the dead;

dying, men struggle over scraps of wood,

and are cremated with a stranger’s flame.

With none to mourn them, unlamented souls

of parents and their children, the young, the old,

wander about, their journey uncompleted:

no wood is left to burn their bodies now,

no bit of land where they may be interred.” (7.764–873)

Epistemology

Ovid does not appear to take the myths he is telling seriously. Throughout the poem, he inserts comic asides. Here I present a few illustrative examples.

Ovid avoids stating which god created the universe:

Some god (or kinder nature) settled this

dispute by separating earth from heaven

Now when that god (whichever one it was)

had given Chaos form (1.26–41)

He slyly implies that we do not know the source of some stories firsthand:

So that the skies above might be no more

secure than earth, the race of Giants plotted

(we hear) to rule in heaven by themselves (1.205–8)

Here he ironically says we have a story on good faith:

(you needn’t take this part of it on faith,

for it’s supported by an old tradition)—

these stones at once begin to lose their hardness

and their rigidity; slowly they soften;

once softened, they begin to take on shapes. (1.556–60)

In other places, he speculates about the gods motives:

He spoke and threw his arms around her neck,

imploring her upon his very life,

and on that of his stepfather, Merops,

and by the wedding torches of his sisters,

to give him proof of who his father was.

Clymene, moved by Phaêthon’s petition

(or by the insult to her own good name), (1.1055–64)

He openly questions the plausibility of the stories:

Her [Semele’s] child was torn out of her womb unfinished

and—this part is scarcely credible—was sewn

into his father’s thigh, where he was brought to term. (3.400-2)

Structure

The Metamorphoses’ Stories flow together roughly following time, but not completely. For example, Atlas is said to be carrying the world on his shoulders in book II but does not receive his burden until book IV, and Hercules’ apotheosis occurs in book IX but he is present during the sack of Troy in book XI.

Stories are often grouped together by family (the Cadmus stories in books III and IV) or by region (the Anatolian stories in book VI).

Nested stories at two or three levels are common (on occasion, as with the Arethusa and Alpheus in book V, four levels are present).

Similes

Apollo’s sudden love for Daphne:

Now just as in a field the harvest stubble

is all burned off, or as hedges are set ablaze

when, if by chance, some careless traveler

should brush one with his torch or toss away

the still-smoldering brand at break of day—

just so the smitten god went up in flames

until his heart was utterly afire,

and hope sustained his unrequited passion. (1.678–85)

Apollo chasing Daphne, after being unable to woo her:

But the young god had no further interest

in wasting his fine words on her; admonished

by his own passion, he accelerates,

and runs as swiftly as a Gallic hound

chasing a rabbit through an open field;

the one seeks shelter and the other, prey—

he clings to her, is just about to spring,

with his long muzzle straining at her heels,

while she, not knowing whether she’s been caught,

in one swift burst, eludes those snapping jaws,

no longer the anticipated feast;

so he in hope and she in terror race. (1.732–44)

Other Interesting Quotes

Ovid’s description of the heavens is humorous, as the gods themselves have household gods:

When the nighttime sky is clear, there can be seen

a highway visible in heaven, named

the Milky Way, distinguished for its whiteness.

Gods take this path to the royal apartments

of Jove the Thunderer; on either side

are palaces with folding doors flung wide,

and filled with guests of their distinguished owners;

plebeian gods reside in other sections,

but here in this exclusive neighborhood,

the most renowned of heaven’s occupants

have their own household deities enshrined;

and if I were permitted to speak freely,

I would not hesitate to call this enclave

the Palatine of heaven’s ruling class. (1.229–42)

Towards the end of Book I, Clymenes tells her son that:

“It will not be a great task to discover

the place where your father [Apollo] keeps his household gods.” (1.1074–5)

Procne carries of her son Itys, to murder him and feed him to her evil husband:

Now resolute, she carries Itys off,

just as a tiger on the Ganges’ banks

will drag a nursing fawn through the dense woods (6.922-4)

Rape

Aeacus’s casual comment about his wife being worthy:

“Her name was Procris: it’s likelier you’ve heard

about her ravished sister, Orithyia,

but were you to compare the two of them

in looks and manner, Procris was more worthy

of being ravished!” (6.990–5)

All quotations are taken from Charles Martin’s 2004 translation. Line numbers refer to the translation and not the original Latin.