Metamorphoses – Ovid | Epic Poem Summary | Ancient Rome – Classical Literature
(Epic Poem, Latin/Roman, 8 CE, 11,996 lines)
Introduction – When was Metamorphoses written
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“Metamorophoses” (“Transformations”) is a narrative poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid, completed in 8 CE. It is an epic (or “mock-epic”) poem describing the creation and history of the world, incorporating many of the best known and loved stories from Greek mythology, although centring more on mortal characters than on heroes or the gods.
Each story contains some sort of transformation (or metamorphosis) as the link that ties them all together. It has remained one of the most popular works of mythology, and was perhaps the classical work best known to medieval writers and strongly influenced medieval and Renaissance poetry.
Synopsis – Metamorphoses Summary
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Ovid begins by addressing the gods and asking them to bless his undertaking. He then begins his tale of transformations by describing how the earth, the heavens and everything else is created out of chaos, and how mankind progresses (or rather degenerates) from the Gold Age to the Silver Age to the Age of Iron (the “Ages of Man”). This is followed by an attempt by the giants to seize the heavens, at which the wrathful Jove (Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus) sends a great flood which destroys all living things except one pious couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha. This couple repopulates the earth by obeying the commands of the gods and throwing rocks behind them, which are transformed into a new, hearty breed of man.
The story is told of how Apollo’s unrequited love for Daphne results in her transformation into a laurel tree. Io, a daughter of the river god Inachus, is raped by Jove, who then transforms Io into a cow to protect her from the jealous Juno. Jove sends Mercury to kill Argus, Io’s guard, and Io is forced to flee Juno’s wrath until Jove forces Juno to pardon her.
Io and Jove’s son, Epaphus, becomes friends with a boy named Phaeton, the son of Apollo, but when Epaphus does not believe that Phaeton is really the son of Apollo, he tries to prove it by borrowing his father’s chariot of the sun, but he cannot control it and is killed. Phaeton’s sisters are so distraught, they are transformed into trees, and his friend Cycnus, who repeatedly dived into the river in an attempt to retrieve Phaeton’s body, is transformed into a swan in his grief.
Jove spots the beautiful nymph Callisto, one of Diana’s handmaids, and rapes her. When Diana discovers her handmaid’s impurity, Callisto is banished, and when she gives birth she is transformed by Juno into a bear. Finally, when her son is fifteen, he almost kills her, and Jove transforms them both into constellations, much to Juno’s annoyance.
A few shorter tales follow, about how the Raven became black due to the evils of gossip, how Ocyrhoe the prophetess is transformed into stone, and how Mercury turns a shepherd into stone for betraying a secret. Mercury then falls in love with the beautiful Herse, which results in Herse’s sister, Aglauros, being turned to stone for her envy.
Jove falls in love with the princess Europa and carries her off, disguised as a beautiful white bull. Europa’s brothers go in search of her, but cannot discover her whereabouts. One of the brothers, Cadmus, founds a new city (later to be known as Thebes), and miraculously creates a new people by sewing the ground with the teeth of a serpent or dragon he had killed.
Many years later, Cadmus’ grandson, Actaeon, inadvertently stumbles on Diana bathing, for which she turns him into a stag, and he is hunted down by his own men and torn apart by his own dogs. Jove’s wife Juno is jealous that Cadmus’s daughter Semele is to give birth to Jove’s child, and she tricks Semele into forcing Jove to let her see him in all his glory, the sight of which destroys Semele. The child, Bacchus (Dionysus), however, is saved, and goes on to become a god.
Jove and Juno argue about whether men or women take more pleasure from love, and call on Tiresias (who has been both a man and a woman) to settle the argument. When he agrees with Jove, saying that he believes that women get more pleasure out of acts of love, Juno blinds him, but, as recompense, Jove gives him the gift of prophecy. Tiresias predicts that the youth Narcissus is to die early, which duly comes to pass when Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and wastes away into a flower.
Tiresias also predicts the death of Pentheus, whose refusal to properly worship Bacchus is punished by his being torn apart by his sisters and mother when they are in the throes of the Bacchic rites. The tale is then told of others who have perished for refusing to worship the gods, such as the daughters of Minyas, who rejected the divinity of Bacchus and refused to participate in his rites (preferring instead to exchange stories such as the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the discovery of Venus and Mercury’s adultery and the creation of the Hermaphrodite) and were turned into bats for their impiety. Juno, however, is furious that Bacchus is being worshipped as a divinity at all, and punishes the house of his forefathers, driving some mad and pursuing others. Cadmus himself, the founder of Thebes and Pentheus’ grandfather, is only saved by his transformation into a snake, along with his wife.
Acrisius of Argos also objects to the divinity of Bacchus, as well as denying the divinity of Perseus, and in revenge Perseus uses the head of the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa to fill Acrisius’ land with serpents born from drops of her blood. He then turns the Titan Atlas into stone, and saves Andromeda from a monstrous sacrifice before marrying her (despite her previous engagement).
Several tenuously connected short stories follow, including the stories of how Medusa’s progeny, the winged horse Pegasus, created a fountain with a stomp of his foot, how King Pyreneus tried to capture the Muses, how nine sisters who challenged the Muses to a singing contest were turned to birds when they lost, and how Arachne was transformed into a spider after beating Minerva in a contest of spinning.
When Niobe of Thebes openly declares she is more fit to be worshipped as a goddess than Latona (mother of Apollo and Diana) on the grounds that she has borne fourteen children to Latona’s two, she is punished by having all her children killed and is herself turned to stone. Stories are then told of how Latona punished men who were rude to her by turning them into frogs, and how Apollo flayed a satyr for daring to challenge his superiority as a musician.
Five years after marrying Procne, Tereus of Thrace meets Procne’s sister, Philomela, and immediately lusts after her to such an extent that he kidnaps her and tells Procne that she has died. Philomela resists the rape, but Tereus prevails and cuts out her tongue to keep her from accusing him. Philomela, however, still manages to inform her sister and, in revenge for the rape, Procne kills her own son with Tereus, cooks his body, and feeds it to Tereus. When Tereus finds out, he tries to kill the women, but they turn into birds as he pursues them.
Jason arrives at the land of King Aeetes on his quest to obtain the Golden Fleece for King Pelias of Iolcus, and Aeetes’ daughter Medea falls in love with Jason and aids him in his task. They depart together as husband and wife, but when they arrive home to Iolcus they find that Jason‘s father, Aeson, is mortally ill. Medea magically cures him, only to later trick his daughters into killing him so that Jason can then claim his throne. Medea flees to escape punishment but, when she returns to Jason, she discovers that he has a new wife, Glauce. In revenge, Medea kills Glauce, as well as her own two sons by Jason, and flees again with a new husband, Aegeus of Athens, only to leave in disgrace once more after she almost kills Aegeus‘ unknown son, Theseus.
Aegeus sends his son Cephalus to seek the help of the people of Aegina in Athens’ war against Crete but, when Cephalus arrives, he learns that the Aegina has been decimated. However, Jove has blessed their ruler, King Aeacus, with the creation of a new race of people, and he promises that these men will serve Aegeus bravely and well. Cephalus, before returning to Athens with the promised army, tells the story of how his own jealousy of his wife led him to test her unfairly and almost destroyed his marriage, and then explains how a foolish misunderstanding by his wife led him to accidentally kill her while hunting in the forest.
Meanwhile, King Nisos’ daughter (and Aegeus’ neice), Scylla, betrays Athens to the attacking King Minos of Crete, whom she loves, by cutting off a lock of Nisos’ hair which magically protects him from any harm. Minos, however, is disgusted with her act and rejects her. Nisos is turned into an osprey, and his daughter is transformed into a bird.
Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, however, is in love with a bull and she gives birth to a creature, half-man half-bull, known as the Minotaur, which Minos hides away in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus. Minos requires Athens to send an Athenian youth every nine years as a sacrifice for the Minotaur, but, when Theseus is chosen as the third such tribute, he is saved by the love of princess Ariadne, who aids him through the labyrinth. He kills the Minotaur and sails away with Ariadne, although he then abandons her in Dia (Naxos) and Bacchus transforms her into a constellation.
Meanwhile, Daedalus plots to escape Crete with his son Icarus by flying on wings made of feathers and wax. Despite his father’s warning, however, Icarus flies too close to the sun and falls to his death when the wax in his wings melts.
After his adventures in Crete, Theseus and some other brave Greeks go to fight the Calydonian boar which was sent by Diana to punish the king of Calydon for neglecting her tribute. Although the king’s son Meleager slays the boar, he gives the spoils to the huntress Atalanta, who was the one to draw the first blood, killing his uncles when they object to this. Althaea, his mother, then kills Meleager and then herself, and Meleager’s sisters are so distraught that Diana turns them into birds.
On his way back to Athens, Theseus takes shelter during a storm at the home of the river god Achelous, where he hears many stories, including the tale of how Achelous lost one of his horns, torn from his head in a battle with Hercules for the hand of Deianeira, which limited his power to change shape. The centaur Nessus then attacked them, only to be killed by Hercules, although before he died Nessus gave Deianeira his shirt which he convinced her has the power to restore love, when in fact it was cursed. Years later, when Deianeira fears Hercules is in love with someone else, she gives him the shirt, and Hercules, consumed by pain, sets himself on fire and is deified.
The story is then told of how Byblis confesses an incestuous passion for her twin brother Caunus, who flees upon hearing of it. Heart-broken, Byblis attempts to follow, but is eventually turned into a fountain in her grief. The wife of another man, named Ligdus, is forced to disguise her daughter as a son rather than put her to death, calling “him” Iphis. Iphis, however, falls in love with a girl, and the gods intercede, changing “him” into an actual boy.
When Hymen, the goddess of marriage, fails to bless the marriage of Eurydice and Orpheus, Eurydice dies. Orpheus is given a chance to visit the underworld and restore her to life, and although he manages to soften the hearts of Pluto and Proserpina with his music, he cannot resist looking back for his beloved and she is lost to him forever.
The lonely Orpheus then sings some sad tales, including the story of Jove’s theft of Ganymede (who had originally been a beautiful statue sculpted by Pygmalion, transformed into a real woman by Jove’s wife, Juno, to be her cup-bearer); the tale of the death of Apollo’s lover, Hyacinthus, who was accidentally killed by a discus thrown by Apollo (Apollo created a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood); and the story of of Myrrha, who slept with her own father until he discovered her identity after which she was forced to flee, pregnant (out of pity, the gods turned her into a myrrh tree, and her baby, which tumbled from a split in the tree, grew up to be the beautiful Adonis, with whom Venus falls in love).
Orpheus then tells the story of how Hippomenes won the hand of the swift althlete Atalanta by using golden apples to beat her in a race, and how he forgot to thank Venus for her help in this affair, resulting in both he and Atalanta being turned into lions. Adonis must therefore ever after avoid lions and beasts like them, but he was finally killed while hunting a boar, and Venus turned his body in an anemone. The familiar story of King Midas, whose touch turned his daughter to gold, is then related. In a Bacchic frenzy, women tear Orpheus to pieces as he sings his sad songs, for which Bacchus turns them to oak trees.
Ovid next turns to the story of the founding of the city of Troy by King Laomedon (with the help of Apollo and Neptune), the tale of Peleus who kills his brother Phocus and is thereafter haunted by a wolf for his murder, and the story of Ceyx and his wife, Alcyone, who are turned into birds when Ceyx is killed in a storm.
The tale of the famous Trojan War is then told, beginning when Paris of Troy steals away Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and Helen‘s husband Menaleus raises an army of Greeks to take her back. Details of the war are recounted, includings Achilles‘ death, the dispute over his armour and the final fall of Troy. After the war, the spirit of Achilles forces Agamemnon to sacrifice Polyxena, the daughter of Queen Hecuba and King Priam of Troy. Later, Hecuba kills King Polymestor of Thrace, in a rage over the death of her other son, Polydorus, and when Polymestor’s followers try to punish her, she is transformed by the gods into a dog.
After the war, the Trojan prince Aeneas escapes and travels through the Mediterranean to Carthage, where Queen Dido falls in love with him, and then kills herself when he abandons her. After further adventures, Aeneas and his men finally arrive at the kingdom of Latinus (Italy), where Aeneas wins a new bride, Lavinia, and a new kingdom. Venus convinces Jove to make Aeneas a divinity and his son, Julus, becomes king.
Generations later, Amulius unjustly seizes Latinus, but Numitor and his grandson Romulus recapture it and found the city of Rome. The Romans fight against the invading Sabines, and eventually agree to share the city, which will be jointly ruled by the Sabine leader Tatius and Romulus. After Tatius’s death, Romulus is made a god, his wife Hersilia a goddess. The Pythagorean philosopher Numa becomes king of Rome, and Rome prospers in the peace of his rule. When he dies, his wife Egeria is so mournful that Diana transforms her into a fountain.
Even closer to the present day of Ovid, Cipus refuses to become ruler of Rome after he sprouts horns from his head, and he convinces the Roman Senators to banish him from the city so he does not become a tyrant. Aesculapius, the god of healing, cures Rome of a plague, after which the god Caesar becomes ruler of Rome, followed by his son, Augustus, the current emperor of Rome. As he closes his work, Ovid asks that time pass slowly until Augustus’ death, and glories in the fact that, as long as the city of Rome survives, his own work will surely survive.
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“Metamorphoses” is often called a mock-epic, as it is written in dactylic hexameter (the form of the great epic poems of the ancient tradition, such as “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid”), unlike Ovid‘s other works. But, rather than following and extolling the deeds of a great hero like the traditional epics, Ovid’s work leaps from story to story, often with little or no connection other than that they all involve transformations of one sort or another. Sometimes, a character from one story is used as a (more or less tenuous) connection to the next story, and sometimes the mythical characters themselves are used as the story-tellers of “stories within stories”.
Ovid uses sources like Vergil‘s “The Aeneid”, as well as the works of Lucretius, Homer and other early Greek works to gather his material, although he also adds his own twist to many of them, and is not afraid to change details where it better suits his purposes. Sometimes the poem retells some of the central events in the world of Greek and Roman myth, but sometimes it seems to stray in odd and apparently arbitrary directions.
The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid‘s work, is that of love (and especially the transformative power of love), whether it be personal love or love personified in the figure of Cupid, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to a hero. Unlike the predominantly romantic notions of love that were “invented” in the Middle Ages, however, Ovid viewed love more as a dangerous, destabilizing force than a positive one, and demonstrates how love has power over everyone, mortals and gods alike.
During the reign of Augustus, the Roman emperor during Ovid’s time, major attempts were made to regulate morality by creating legal and illegal forms of love, by encouraging marriage and legitimate heirs, and by punishing adultery with exile from Rome. Ovid‘s representations of love and its power to damage lives and societies may be seen as support for Augustus’ reforms, although the constant suggestion of the futility of controlling erotic impulses may also be seen as a criticism of Augustus’ attempt to regulate love.
Betrayal was also one of the most harshly punished of Roman crimes under Augustus, and it is no coincidence there are many instances of betrayal in the stories in the poem. Ovid, like most Romans of his time, embraced the idea that people cannot escape their destiny, but he is also quick to point out that fate is a concept which both supports and undermines the power of the gods. Thus, although the gods may have a longer term view of Fate, it still exerts a force on them as well.
It is notable that the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated and made ridiculous by fate and by Cupid in the stories, particularly Apollo, the god of pure reason, who is often confounded by irrational love. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order to a large extent, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods (and their own somewhat petty desires and conquests) the objects of low humour, often portraying the gods as self-absorbed and vengeful. Having said that, though, the power of the gods remains a distinct recurrent theme throughout the poem.
Revenge is also a common theme, and it is often the motivation for whatever transformation the stories are explaining, as the gods avenge themselves and change mortals into birds or beasts to prove their own superiority. Violence, and often rape, occurs in almost every story in the collection, and women are generally portrayed negatively, either as virginal girls running from the gods who want to rape them, or alternatively as malicious and vengeful.
As do all the major Greek and Roman epics, “Metamorphoses” emphasizes that hubris (overly prideful behaviour) is a fatal flaw which inevitably leads to a character’s downfall. Hubris always attracts the notice and punishment of the gods, who disdain all human beings who attempt to compare themselves to divinity. Some, especially women like Arachne and Niobe, actively challenge the gods and goddesses to defend their prowess, while others display hubris in ignoring their own mortality. Like love, hubris is seen by Ovid as a universal equalizer.
Ovid‘s “Metamorphoses” was an immediate success in its day, its popularity threatening even that of Vergil‘s “Aeneid”. One can even imagine it being used as a teaching tool for Roman children, from which they could learn important stories that explain their world, as well as learn about their glorious emperor and his ancestors. Particularly towards the end, the poem can be seen to deliberately emphasize the greatness of Rome and its rulers.
However, during the Christianization of late antiquity, St. Augustine and St. Jerome among others apparently considered it “a dangerously pagan work”, and it was fortunate to survive into the medieval period. Indeed, a concise, “inoffensive” prose summary of the poem (which played down the metamorphosis elements of the stories) was manufactured for Christian readers in late antiquity, and became very popular in itself, almost threatening to eclipse the original poem.
The earliest extant manuscript of “Metamorphoses” is dated quite late (during the 11th Century), but it then became very influential among medieval scholars and poets, becoming the classical work best known to medieval writers. Perhaps more than any other ancient poet, Ovid was a model for the European Renaissance and the English Elizabethan and Jacobean ages, and William Shakespeare in particular used and adapted stories from the “Metamorphoses” in several of his plays.
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- English translation (Perseus Project): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.02.0028
- Latin version with word-by-word translation (Perseus Project): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.02.0029