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Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Introduction

The Metamorphoses is Ovid’s epic poem about change, which opens with these lines:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.”

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

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!”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

(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!”

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.

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.”

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’”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

It really would take far too long to name

the ordinary soldiers

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!”‘“

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!”

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.

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!

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

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.”

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.”

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.

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!

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!

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!

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

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 boar does not remember how to rage,

nor the deer to trust in swiftness, nor the bear

to cull the great herds with his fierce attacks;

a languor seizes all; in woods, in fields,

along the roads, the fetid corpses lie

until the air is blighted with the stench.

I’ll tell you something quite astonishing:

the greedy dogs and vultures—even wolves!—

left them untouched; those bodies fell apart,

sickening us with their apalling odor

and spreading foul contagion everywhere.

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.”

Book VIII

The book opens with the story of Scylla, who like Medea, betrays her family and country after falling in love with a man:

“Love has led me

into this betrayal; I am Scylla,

the daughter of King Nisus; I surrender

myself, my nation, and my gods as well,

and seek no other recompense but you;

receive this pledge that guarantees my love,

this purple lock—which is no lock at all,

but my father’s head!” She stretched out her foul hand

with the proffered gift as Minos shrank away,

shocked by the sight of this unholy act:

“Shame of the age,” he said, “may the gods forbid you

their kingdom, and may land and sea deny you!

Be sure that I will never let so vile

a monster into Crete”

It is hard to imagine a woman falling in love with a man she hasn’t met and cutting her head off. Ovid’s portrayal of women’s sexual passion feels like pornographic male fantasy.

Ironically, when Minos returns to Crete, he realizes his wife had slept with a bull, letting a vile monster onto Crete.

The scandal of his family had grown

past all concealment; now the mother’s foul

adultery was proven by the strange

form of the Minotaur, half man, half bull.

Minos determined to remove the cause

of this opprobrium from his abode,

enclosing it within a labyrinth

devised and built by Daedalus, the most

distinguished of all living architects,

who framed confusion and seduced the eye

into a maze of wandering passages.

Not otherwise than when Maeander pays

his liquid games in the Phrygian fields

and flowing back and forth uncertainly,

observes its own waves bearing down on it,

and sends its doubtful waters on their ways

back to their source of down to the open sea:

so Daedalus provided numberless

confusing corridors and was himself

just barely able to find his way out,

so utterly deceitful was that place.

Daedalus builds wings and flees Crete with his son Icarus, who famously dies because he flies too close to the sun. I love these lines, describing bystanders watching:

Some fisherman whose line jerks with his catch,

some idle shepherd leaning on his crook,

some plowman at his plow, looks up and sees

something astonishing, and thinks them gods,

who have the power to pass through the air.

Daedalus is brilliant, but he also demonstrates terrible academic jealousy:

For, as it happened, the inventor’s sister,

quite unaware of what the Fates intended,

entrusted her own son to his instruction,

a likely lad of twelve, who had a mind

with the capacity for principles and precepts;

and from his observation of the spines

of fishes, which he’d taken as his model,

incised a row of teeth in an iron strip

and thereby managed to invent the saw.

Likewise, he was the first to bind two arms

of iron at a joint, so one is fixed

and the other, as it moves, inscribes a circle.

Daedalus envied him, and headlong hurled

this lad of precepts from a precipice,

the steep acropolis Minerva loves,

and lying, said the lad had slipped and fallen.

When the apostle Paul visits Athens, he stood in front of the Areopagus, and said “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” I wonder if pagans worshiped the unknown god to ensure they aren’t forgetting to sacrifice to a god they are not aware of. The jealous anger of the pagan gods is common, here is a nice example:

Commencing with the rural deities,

the gods all got the honors they desired;

only Diana’s altar was ignored,

and left, they say, without a gift of incense.

Even the gods may be provoked to anger!

“We will not let them get away with this,”

Diana said, “Dishonored we may be;

but none will say that we were unavenged!”

And the spurned goddess sent her vengeful boar

straightway onto the fields of Calydon:

a beat as great as the bulls of Epirus,

and mightier than those of Sicily,

with blood and fire shining from his eyes

and a neck stiff with bristles just like spear shafts;

and as his chest heaved with his grating breast,

his heavy shoulders dripped with seething spume;

in length his tusks were like an elephant’s,

and bolts of lightning issued from his mouth,

and when he exhaled, trees turned black and died.

A band of heroes, including Nestor from the Iliad and Jason of the Golden Fleece, sets out the kill the boar. A few heroes die, and after a fortunate spear ends its life, the heroes bicker over the honors of the dead. One tragedy leads to another, and before long Diana has completed her revenge. Ovid says:

Not even if some god had given me

a hundred mouths, each fitted with a tongue,

and genius suitable to the occasion,

and all of Helicon for inspiration,

not even then would I be able to

describe the sad fate of his wretched sisters,

who, careless of decorum, beat their breasts,

and while his corpse was still displayed among them,

caressed him constantly and gave him kisses,

and even kissed the bier he was laid out on

Some of the heroes, upon their journey home from the hunt, are stopped at the overflowing river Acheloüs. They tell stories with the river to pass the time, including the story of some naiads turned into islands and my favourite story of Baucis and Philemon. Two gods in disguise look for a home to stay in. Many turn them down, but the old couple lets them in and, though pour, try to make them comfortable. The scene seems archetypal—disguised gods testing the devout (consider Abraham being visited by divine messengers).

“The gods reclined. And with her skirts hitched up,

the trembling old lady set the table,

correcting its imbalance with a potsherd

slipped underneath the shortest of its legs;

and when the table had been stabilized,

she scrubbed its surface clean with fragrant mint.”

The visitors magically refill the winebowl, and the couple realize they are gods.

“They had a single goose, the guardian

of their small villa, whom they now prepared

to sacrifice to their immortal guests;

his swiftness, though, left the old pair exhausted.

Time after time, he slipped out of their grasp,

and then, it seemed, sought refuge with the gods,

who would not let the couple do him in”

The small expressions Ovid uses, like “the guardian of their small villa,” let one imagine the scene with so few words.

The gods destroy the town (similar to Sodom and Gomorrah), and ask the old couple what reward they want.

“‘We ask to be allowed to guard your temple

as its priests, and, since we have lived together

so many years in harmony, we ask

that the same hour take us both together,

and that I should not live to see her tomb

nor she survive to bury me in min.’”

Acheloüs tells the story of Erysichton, who chopped down a sacred tree of Ceres, who soon sent famine to enact her revenge. Erysichton was so hungry he sold his daughter into slavery and eventually ate himself to death:

“But when at last his illness had consumed

all that she brought him, and he still craved more,

the wretched man began to tear his limbs

asunder, mangling them in his maw,

and fed his body as he shrank away.”

Book IX

Hercules’ contempt of death, and the Greek ideal:

And as the eager flames began to spread,

you draped the pelt of the Nemean lion

over the top, and pillowing your head

upon your club, you lay there at your ease,

not otherwise than as you would have been

reclining at a banquet, flower-wreathed,

with wine to drink from cups always refilled.

Now spreading out in every direction,

the crackling flames came after Hercules,

whose carefree limbs received them with contempt.

Since its lines contain little advice or philosophical insight, I read the Metamorphoses primarily for their beauty and to know the myths referenced so often in paintings and later literature. Ovid’s psychological portrayals of tempted individuals, while maybe not realistic, have made me more empathetic. Media, Scylla, Byblis, and Myrrah—all lusting women, perhaps a weird obsession of Ovid—in particular are interesting. Here are a few quotes from the story of Byblis, who fell in love with her brother, demonstrating how her passion developed:

Her feelings for him gradually changed,

and not for the better; when she visited

her brother, she was elegantly dressed,

and anxious that he find her beautiful,

and envious of those who seemed more lovely.

She was, as yet, unconscious of her feelings,

and offered up no prayers for satisfaction,

but burned with inner fire, nonetheless.

She calls him “Master” now, and now detests

the thought that they are siblings, and prefers

that he should call her “Byblis” and not “Sister.”

“But even if I keep them out of mind,

there is no wrong in dreaming of such things

as often as I want to, in my sleep!

There are no witnesses to our dreams,

and they provide a pleasure almost real!

“O Cupid and sweet Venus, what great joys

were given me! And how real they seemed!

My marrow melted as I lay asleep!

How pleasing to remember! But how brief

those pleasures were–the night, with breakneck speed,

snatched them away, when they had just begun!”

“The sons of Aeolus were not afraid

to sleep with their sisters! How do I know this,

and why have I come up with this example?

Where is this leading me? Depart, indecent thoughts,

and let me love my brother not at all,

unless my move is sisterly and lawful!”

When her brother avoids her advances by fleeing to found a colony, Byblis goes insane and, crying in despair, is morphed into a spring.

The last story in this chapter is relevant for me, since my wife is pregant with a baby girl:

For, once upon a time, there lived in Phaestus

a freeborn plebeian named Ligdus, who

was otherwise unknown and undistinguished,

with no more property than fame or status,

and yet devout, and blameless in his life.

His wife was pregnant. When her time had come,

he gave her his instructions with these words:

“There are two things I pray to heaven for

on your account: an easy birth and a son.

The other fate is much too burdensome,

for daughters need what Fortune has denied us:

a dowry. Therefore—and may God prevent

this happening, but if, by chance, it does

and you should be delivered of a girl,

unwillingly I order this, and beg

pardon for my impiety—But let it die!

He spoke, and tears profusely bathed the cheeks

of the instructor and instructed both.

Telethusa continued to implore

her husband, praying him not to confine

their hopes so narrowly—to no avail,

for he would not be moved from his decision.

Now scarcely able to endure the weight

of her womb’s burden, as she lay in bed

at midnight, a dream-vision came to her:

the goddess Io stood (or seemed to sand)

before her troubled bed, accompanied

with solemn pomp by her mysteries.

The relationship between man and woman is, as is usual, unequal.

Infanticide has apparently been practiced by many, if not most, cultures. In Roman society, the man of the household would inspect the baby. Sometimes it would be killed if thought to be illegitimate or, as in this story, they couldn’t afford a girl. (How far has our ethics progressed—probably due mostly to technological advances!)

As Ovid usually does, he portrays Ligdus in a good light and gives the reader some understanding of how he came to his decision.

Io informs Telthusa to keep the baby, even if it is a girl. It is, and they keep this fact a secret. She grows up, and is arranged to be married! She falls in love with the girl, a family friend. The story is amazing:

And scarcely holding back her tears, she cries,

“Oh, what will be the end reserved for Iphis,

gripped by a strange and monstrous passion known

to no one else? If the gods had wished to spare me,

they should have; if they wanted to destroy me,

they should have given me a natural affliction.

Cows do not burn for cows, nor mares for mares;

the ram will have his sheep, the stag his does,

and birds will do the same when they assemble;

there are no animals whose females lust

for other females! I wish that I were dead!

That Crete might bring forth monsters of all kinds,

Queen Pasiphaë was taken by a bull,

yet even that was male-and-female passion!

My love is much less rational than hers,

to tell the truth. At least she had the hope

of satisfaction, taking in the bull

through guile, and in the image of a cow,

thereby deceiving the adulterer!

If every form of ingenuity

were gathered here from all around the world,

if Daedalus flew back on waxen wings,

what could he do? Could all his learnèd arts

transform me from a girl into a boy?

Or could you change into a boy, Ianthe?

Apparently, while male-male homosexuality was common in ancient Rome, female-female homosexuality was not.

Io turned Iphis into a boy at the last minute.

Book X

Ovid economically relays the death of Orpheus’ wife, and how he descends to the underworld to ask for her back. After playing a song:

These words, accompanied on the plucked strings,

so moved the bloodless spirits that they wept;

Tantalus did not seek the receding water,

and on his wheel lay Ixion, astounded;

the birds let go the liver, and the daughters

of Danaüs were resting by their urns,

while you, O Sisyphus, sat on your stone.

When an author relies on their audience being well-read, they can paint with great depth and speed by borrowing the images of others.

Hades allows Eurydice a second life, but tragically, Orpheus breaks the one condition and looks back at her before leaving the underworld. Ovid’s description is haunting and beautiful, but he quickly dispels the epic aura around the tale with:

Three times the Sun had finished out the year

in Pisces of the waters. Orpheus

had fled completely from the love of women,

either because it hadn’t worked for him

or else because the pledge that he had given

to his Eurydice was permanent;

no matter: women burned to have the bard,

and many suffered greatly from rejection.

Among the Thracians, he originated

the practice of transferring the affections

to youthful males, plucking the first flower

in the brief spring time of their early manhood.

The antecedent of “it” must be Orpheus’ penis, and Ovid casts doubt on motive for staying away from women, conjecturing that it wasn’t of his own choice, and for this reason he turned to young boys. Ovid’s lack of reverence is distasteful to me, even being so far separated from the cultural stories he denigrates—still, he is fun to read.

Orpheus proceeds to tell a number of stories, about gods loving boys and girls with unnatural lusts.

A quote from the story of Hyacinthus, makes light of a similar simile in the Iliad:

“As when a poppy or violet grown in a garden

among the lilies (whose tongues are thick yellow and bristly)

breaks, and the flower’s head shrivels, droops, and collapses,

unable to hold itself up, with downcast demeanor,

just so the dying boy’s head, now lacking all vigor,

unable to bear its own weight, lies flat on his shoulder.”

Here is the original:

As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,

drooping its head to one side, weighed down

by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,

so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,

weighed down by his helmet.

— Iliad 8.306-9

In Homer, a great hero has died; in Ovid, a boy-lover dies in a discus accident. Furthermore, Apollo says he will speak about Hyacinthus in his poetry!

“‘You will be present both in my songs and mu music,

and a flower will come into being, inscribed with my mourning;

later, a legend involving the boldest of heroes

will be conjoined to this flower and read in its markings.’”

Orpheus then tells the story of Pygmallion, and how, after being repulsed by the “numerous defects of character Nature had given the feminine spirit,” he falls in love with his statue. Is Ovid demeaning women, or men when he tells of the ridiculous gifts Pygmallion brought:

he seeks to win its affections with words and with presents

pleasing to girls, such as seashells and pebbles, tame birds,

armloads of flowers in thousands of different colors,

lilies, bright painted balls, curious insects in amber

Perhaps Ovid is using the classic story to make fun of men, for helplessly chasing women, and women for being shallowly bought by gifts.

Next Orpheus tells the story of Myrrha, who fell in love with her father and tricked him into sleeping with her. Ovid has the poet warn readers:

I sing of dire events: depart from me, daughters,

depart from me, fathers; or, if you find my poems charming,

believe that I lie, believe these events never happened;

or, if you believe they did, then believe they were punished.

Book XI

After telling stories for most of Book X, Orpheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads. This scene is one of my favorite:

Meanwhile, as Orpheus compelled the tress

and beasts to follow him with suchlike songs,

and made the very stones skip in his wake,

behold: a raving mob of Thracian women

with the pelts of wild beasts draped across their breasts

observed him from the summit of a hill

setting the words to music on his lyre.

One of them tossed her hair in the light breeze:

“Look over there!” she cried. “The one who scorns us!”

And with no more ado, she cast her lance

at the vocalizing mouth of Apollo’s seer;

it struck without wounding, being wreathed in leaves.

Another’s weapon was the stone she cast,

that even in midflight was overwhelmed

by words and music joined in harmony,

and, as though begging pardon for its mad daring,

fell at the poet’s feet.

Ovid’s commentary on Oracles:

His brother’s transformation and some weird

portents that followed it left Ceyx perturbed

and eager to consult the oracles

that comfort men in their perplexity,

but on account of Phorbas and his brigands,

the road to Delphi was too dangerous,

so he prepared to undertake a journey

to Phoebus’ shrine at Clarium instead

Knowledge of the source of lightening:

for once they break loose and reach open seas,

the winds are wholly uncontrollable,

and earth and sea alike are unprotected;

indeed, they even vex the clouds in heaven,

and shake the lightnings from them by collision!

I adore the story of Ceyx and Alcyone—a loving couple separated by death but both turned to birds. The description of Ceyx’s death at sea is some of Ovid’s most vivid. It includes a great simile:

Sails were rain-sodden, waters from above

were mixed in thoroughly with those below;

the stars were all put out, and blackest night

bore down with its own darkness and the storm’s.

That darkness, nonetheless, was shattered by

the flickering thunderbolts that lit the sky

and made the raindrops glitter as they fell.

Boldly the flood now sprang onto the ship,

and like a solider, who, surpassing all

his many comrades, in the last assault

upon the walls of a beleaguered city,

after so many tries, achieves his aim,

and, fired by the love of praise, leaps over,

and one man holds the wall against a thousand;

just so, when nine successive waves have battered

the hull of that tall ship without success,

the tenth wave rushes in with greater force,

and does not end its struggle with the weary

vessel before it penetrates the wall

of the captured ship.

Book XII

The characteristic abodes of Envy, Sleep, and Rumor are described in the Metamorphoses. Rumor’s house is fun:

Crowds fill the entryway, a fickle mob

that comes and goes; and rumors everywhere,

thousands of fabrications mixed with fact,

wander the premises, while false reports

flit all about. Some fill their idle ears

with others’ words, and some go bearing tales

elsewhere, while everywhere the fictions grow,

as everyone adds on to what he’s heard.

Ovid enjoys making fun of Homer’s heroes. He begins withe Achilles’

The officers all took their ease, reclining

on couches where they stuffed themselves with meat

and drove away their cares and thirst with wine.

No lyres for this lot, no poetry,

no flutes of boxwood, pierced with many holes:

what pleases them is to extend the night

by telling stories of heroic deeds;

they reenact old wars, their own and others,

and are delighted to remember all

the dangers they’ve endured and gotten through:

what else has great Achilles to discuss?

What else is there to speak of in his presence?

Next in line is Nestor, who even Homer seemed to poke fun at a bit:

Nestor replied: “Though my extreme old age

is something of an obstacle to me,

and much of what I witnessed in my youth

I have forgotten, still I remember much,

and nothing stands out more in memory,

among so many acts of war and peace,

than this does. But if great expanse of years

makes one a living witness of so much

that happened, I have lived two centuries

already, and am living in my third!”

And then there is the ridiculous death descriptions:

“They eyes leapt forth

from the disfigured pudding of his face,

and his nose was driven back into his palate.”

“He plunged the horns into Gryneus’ eyes

and gouged them out; one to an antler clung,

the other dribbled down his beard and hung

suspended in a mass of clotting gore.”

“and Dictys, as he fled Pirithoüs

in fearful haste, toppled over the edge

of a mountain with two peaks, plunging headlong

until a giant ash tree broke his fall,

and left its fractured branches decorated

with loops of his intestines.

“and used his sword to open up his belly;

that fierce, unbridled beast bounded forward

and spilled his entrails out upon the ground,

and what spilled out of him, he trod upon,

and what was trodden on was burst asunder

and tangled in his legs until he fell,

his belly emptied of its viscera.”

“shattered the broad dome of his skull, and pressed

his fluid brains till they exuded through

his mouth, his sinuses, his eyes and ears,

as when the whey pours through the oaken basket

leaving the curds behind, or as when grapes

beneath the press drip through the slender sieve,

and juice is squeezed out through the narrow openings.”

Ovid includes the sequences of deaths, like Homer:

“And with that club, he flattened Nedymnus

and Lycopes, skilled with the javelin,

and Hippasos, whose breast was covered by

his uncut beard, and Ripheus, who loomed

above the tallest tress, and Thereus,

who caught bears on the peaks of Thessaly

and fetched them back still living and indignant.”

“Caeneus had already slaughtered five:

Styphelus first, then Bromus, Antimachus,

Elymus, and axe-wielding Pyracmos;

I don’t recall the manner of their deaths,

for I took note just of the names and numbers.”

He pokes fun at the Greek’s armor obsession:

Achilles very shield—that you should be aware

whose it once was—now instigates a battle,

and for his arms, arms are now taken up.

He even makes fun of the role the gods played in Homer, perhaps questioning their existence:

“and when he saw the [thrown tree] coming, Theseus

moved out of range, upon advice of Pallas—

or so he would prefer us to believe.”

Many stories’ central metamorphosis is physical, in the story of Achilles death, the change is of a living man into a legacy:

now he is ashes: and the little left

of great Achilles scarcely fills an urn,

although his living glory fills the world.

That glory is the measure of the man,

and it is this that is Achilles’ essence,

nor does he feel the emptiness of death.

Book XIII

Ajax and Ulysses proclaim to the Greek assembly why they should receive Achilles’ shield.

Ajax’ has a few funny arguments:

“I realize I seek a great reward,

but having such a rival is demeaning

and cheats me of the honor I am due:

Ajax cannot be proud to win a prize,

no matter how substantial, that Ulysses

can have the expectation of receiving;

he has already gotten his reward,

for when his claim has been rejected, he

can boast that he and I were fairly matched!”

“In truth, if I may say so, it’s the prize

that seeks association with my glory,

and would be honored much more than would I—

for it’s the armor would be given Ajax,

not Ajax the armor.”

Ulysses wins; his central argument is that his intellect is more important than fighting prowess. He also pulls the jury to his side by emotionally aligning them against Ajax:

“Nor should it shock us that his [Ajax’] stupid mouth

should so abuse me, for you also are

the targets of his indecent reproaches.

Can it be baseness for me to accuse

Palamedes unjustly, but correct

for you to find him guilty of the charges?”

The story of the Cyclops, Polyphemus from the Odyssey, wooing Galatea is hilarious. Ovid, as he always does, masterfully ridicules without indulging too much. Thus, Polyphemus’ advances are funny yet not crude. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“‘O Galatea, whiter than the snowy white

flowers that decorate the privet hedge,

richer in blossoms than the meadow is,

taller, more slender than an alder tree,

brighter than crystal, more skittish than a kid,

smoother than a seashell on the shore

worn by the ceaseless motion of the waves,

more pleasing than the shade in summertime

or sun in winter, swifter than the deer,

and even more remarkable to see,

far more conspicuous than the tall plane tree;

clearer than ice, sweeter than ripe grapes,

software than swans’ down or the curdled milk,

and, of you would not always flee from me,

more beautiful than an irrigated garden.

Yet you, the very selfsame Galatea,

are fiercer than an untamed heifer is,

harder than oak, more feigning than the sea,

tougher than willow wands or bryony,

less movable than the rock I’m sitting on,

rougher than rapids, prouder than a peacock,

fiercer than fire, bitterer than thistles,

grumpier than a nursing mother-bear,

more unresponsive even than the ocean,

less apt to pity than a stepped-on snake’”

“‘Just look how big I am! Not even Jove—

this Jupiter that you go on about,

who you say governs heaven—is as big!

Abundant hair hangs over my fierce face

and shoulders, shading me, just like a grove;

but don’t think me unsightly just because

I am completely covered in dense bristles:

unsightly is the tree that has no leaves,

the horse without a mane; birds have their plumage

and sheep are most attractive in their wool,

so facial hair and a full body beard

are really most becoming in a man.

In the middle of my forehead is one eye,

as large in its appearance as a shield:

what of it, then? Does not the mighty Sun

see everything that happens here on earth?

And as for eyes, he too has only one!”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an original Roman painting, one of the rare survivors, from around the time of Ovid (if I recall). The painting depicts a few scenes of the Polymphemus and Galatea story.

The story about Glaucas eating magical grass which turns him into a fish is a bizarre (beside the teeth turning into men, in the Jason and Cadmus stories, who then fight one another, this may be the oddest story in the Metamorphoses, although I am not sure I could point out why. Perhaps many of the other stories in Ovid would sound odd too, if our culture had not appropriated them. When I read Chinese (or even some Egyptian) stories, they all sound as odd as this one. But the opposite is likely true too.

Here is the especially odd part:

“Now comes what sounds like fiction, I admit,

but what advantage would I gain by feigning?

Lying on the grass, my plunder from the surf

began to stir, and flipped from side to side,

as all at once, they strove to leave the earth

and get back to the water. While I watched,

dumbfounded and incapable of moving,

they fled, the lot of them, abandoning

the shore and their new master for the sea.

I stood stock-still in wonder a long time,

asking myself how such a thing could be;

was it some god—or something in the grass?

‘How could mere grass,’ I asked, ‘be strong as that?’

I plucked some and ground it in my teeth,

and scarcely had I gulped that unknown liquid,

when suddenly my heart began to pound,

and my whole sensibility was taken

with the desire for another element,

which I could not resist for long: ‘Farewell,

O earth, which I will nevermore return to,’

I said, and plunged beneath the ocean’s waves.”

Book XIV

Glaucus, in love with Scylla, asks Circe to help. Instead, she falls in love with him:

“I pray you will have me! Only spurn

the one who spurns your passion, and return

the love of one who loves you: let one deed serve

two women as they each of them deserve.”

Glaucus responded to her proposition:

“The leaves of trees will spring out of the ocean,

and seaweed will be found on mountain ranges,

before my love for Scylla ever changes.”

And so, Circe transforms Syclla into a monster:

“her private parts deformed into the shapes

of barking dogs …

Her lover Glaucus wept at this and fled

from having any more to do with Circe,

whose use of potent herbs was too aggressive.”

Diomedes recounting the woes of the returning Greeks:

“I will not long delay you, setting out

our woes in the order they occurred:

just say that even Priam would have wept

to see how Greece was fairing at that time!”

Anaxarete, after spurning Iphis’ advances, sees his body and is turned to stone:

“scarcely had she glimpsed

the corpse of Iphis laid out on his bier,

when her eyes hardened and he cold blood ran

in terror from her body: she attempted

to step back from the sight, but her feet froze;

when she attempted to avert her face,

she was unable to; and very soon

the stoniness that for so long a time

had been within her heart spread through her body.”

Book XV

Pythagoras’ pagan skepticism:

lightning is produced by Jove

or by the winds that tear apart the clouds;

what causes earthquakes and what keeps the stars

from flying off, and other hidden things

Pythagoras on being vegetarian:

“Mortals, refrain from defiling your bodies with sinful

feasting, for you have the fruits of the earth and of arbors,

whose branches bow with their burden; for you the grapes ripen,

for you the delicious greens are made tender by cooking;

milk is permitted you too, and thyme-scented honey:

Earth is abundantly wealthy and freely provides you

her gentle sustenance, offered without any bloodshed.

Some of the beasts do eat flesh to allay their own hunger,

although not all of them, for horses, sheep, and cattle

feed upon grasses; but those of untameable nature—

Armenian tigers, furious lions, wolves and bears, too—

these creatures take pleasure in feasting on what they have slaughtered.

What an indecency, mingling entrails with entrails,

fattening one on the flesh from another one’s body,

saving the life of one by another’s destruction!”

Pythagoras on the afterlife and fear thereof:

“O people stunned with the icy terror of dying,

why do you fear the Styx? Why are you frightened of phantoms

and names that mean nothing, the empty blather of poets,

foolish hobgoblins of a world that never existed?

Here is what happens after you die: your body,

whether consumed on the pyre of slowly decaying,

suffers no evil; souls cannot perish, and always,

on leaving their prior abodes, they come to new ones,

living on, dwelling again in receptive bodies”

Pythagoras on unending change:

“And since I am already embarked upon this great sea,

have given full sails to the wind, hear me out: nothing

endures in this world! The whole of it flows, and all is

formed with a changing appearance; even time passes,

constant in motion no different from a great river,

for neither a river nor a transitory hour

is able to stand still; but just as each wave is driven

ahead by another, urged on from behind, and urging

the next wave before it in an unbroken sequence,

so the times flee and at the same time they follow,

and always are new; for what has just been is no longer,

and what has not been will presently come into being,

and every moment’s occasion is a renewal.”

Pythagoras on geology, and the changing planet:

“I truly believe that nothing may keep the same image

for a long time; the age of gold yields to iron,

and often places will know a reversal of fortune.

For with my own eyes, I have seen land that once was quite solid

change into water, and I have seen land made from ocean;

seashells have been discovered far from the seashore,

and rusty anchors right on the summits of mountains;

a former plain was converted into a valley

by rushing waters, whose force has leveled great mountains;

and a onetime marshland has been turned into a desert,

while thirsty sands have been transformed into marshland.”

Pythagoras on biological change:

“Mud contains seeds which generate frogs, at first legless,

though soon they develop limbs that equip them for swimming,

and so that these same limbs can be used for long-distance leaping,

their hind legs are always much greater in length than their forelegs.

Nor is the bear cub, when newly brought forth by the she-bear,

other than bear-pulp: by her own purposeful licking,

the mother bear shapes it and forms it in her own image.

Do you not see how the larva of bees, makers of honey,

so well protected within their hexagonal chambers

of wax, are born without any limbs on their bodies,

and only later develop legs and the wings used for flying?”

Pythagoras on the shifts of power:

“as one nation gains in strength while another collapses:

once Troy was great, rich in its wealth and its heroes,

and able to go on bleeding both for ten years;

now brought to earth, she has nothing to show but her ruins,

no wealth besides that which lies in her burial chambers.

Sparta was famous, mighty Mycenae once flourished,

even as Athens, even as Thebes of the Towers;

Sparta is worthless now, lofty Mycenae has toppled,

what but the name remains of the Thebes of Oedipus?

What but the name remains of Pandion’s Athens?”

Ovid pandering to Augustus:

That one approached our altars as a stranger,

but Caesar is a god in his own city,

raised up to heaven, changed into a star

blazing so brilliantly, not by his own

remarkable success in war and peace,

not by the battles that were crowned in triumph,

nor by his service to the commonwealth,

nor yet by glory that hastened to his side;

but rather by his offspring, for no deed

has Caesar done that stands out more than this:

he is thew father of our own Augustus!

Ovid predicts his enduring fame:

My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove

nor sword nor fire nor futurity

is capable of laying waste to it.

Let that day come then, when it wishes to,

which only has my body in its power,

and put an end to my uncertain years;

no matter, for in spirit I will be

borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,

immortal in the name I leave behind;

wherever Roman governance extends

over the subject nations of the world,

my words will be upon the people’s lips,

and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,

then in my fame forever I will live.

Metaphysics

The Metamorphoses were meant to be entertaining, thus it is dangerous to make any theological conclusions from them. Still, some metaphysical comments may represent widely held beliefs from Ovid’s time. For example, the role of fate, present in Homer, is laid out:

Each of the gods there had a favorite,

and argued from a partisan position

against the others, until Jove spoke up:

“O gods! If you have any reverence

for us at all, why leap to such confusions?

Does anyone here imagine himself able

to overcome the limits set by Fate?

Iolaüs was given back the years

he was in need of by the will of Fate;

not by ambition, not by skill in combat

will Callirhoë’s sons turn into men

from infancy, but by the will of Fate,

which governs even us; I tell you this

that you might put a better face on it—

yes, you are ruled by Fate, and I am too.” (9.619–35)

Her [Venus’] father said, “My dear, are you preparing

to alter his [Ceasars’] inevitable fate

all by yourself? It is permitted you

to enter the Hall of Records kept by the Fates;

there you will find the labor of the ages,

the universal script, in bronze and iron,

which does not fear that clashes in the sky

or lightning’s rage will bring it down to ruin,

for it will be eternally secure.

Here you will find, inscribed on adamant

that will not perish ever, your son’s fate:

and I myself have read and noted it,

and I will now expound on it to you,

so you may understand what is to come.” (15.1004–17)

Mortals had “deficits” that needed to be purged before becoming immortal:

“The sea god welcomed me, pronounced me fit

to join their honorable company,

and asked the Ocean and his consort, Tethys,

to take away whatever still remained

of my mortality; and this they did

first, by the recital of a hymn, nine times,

to purge me of my evil; then they bade

me to immerse myself a hundred times

in just as many rivers” (13.1378–86)

She [Venus] bade the river god to take Aeneas

under the surface of his silent stream

and cleanse him of all mortal deficits;

he did as she commanded, bathing him,

and having purged him of this mortal dross,

restored his best, immortal part to him.

His mother purified Aeneas’ body,

anointing it with heavenly perfumes,

and touched his lips with sweet ambrosia

and nectar both, so he became a god, (14.861–72)

The gods are limited in a number of ways. Interestingly, Ovid mentions that gods can’t undue actions of other gods:

Venus alone knew that the bolt had fallen

and would have put it back and locked the gates,

but one god is unable to rescind

the actions of another.

This sort of question is unique to polytheism.

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 and the gods:

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)

She has a virgin’s face, and, if our poets

are not to be completely disbelieved (13.1063–4)

“but war continued,

since both sides each had gods supporting them,

and courage, which is just as good as gods” (14.811–3)

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).

The connections between stories are often weak, for example:

Rumor might very well have spread the news

of this unprecedented transformation [of Byblis into a spring]

throughout the hundred towns of Crete, if they

had not just had a wonder of their own

to talk about—the change that came to Iphis. (9.960–4)

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)

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)

Sometimes the raped women seem to be proud that they attracted the gods and have semi-divine offspring, but, if their flights are not evidence enough of their unwillingness, then Ovid makes it clear other times:

“And after Neptune had taken his delight

by ravishing the maiden, he announced,

‘Whatever you desire will be granted!

Fear no refusal; ask and it is given.’

Caenis replied: ‘The injury you’ve done me

requires a great wish to be set right,

that I might never suffer this again,

allow that I may be no more a woman,

and you will have fulfilled me utterly.’” (12.292–301)

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)

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