Episode 61: Changes of Shape

Ovid’s <i>Metamorphoses</i> influenced thousands of years of later literature, and remains one of our best source texts on classical mythology.

To download the episode, click the three dot icon on the right of the player, and then click Download.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books 1-5

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 61: Changes of Shape. This is the first of three shows we’ll do on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fifteen-book long epic poem that Ovid finished around 8 CE. In this program, we’ll cover the first five books of Ovid’s poem. Ovid’s most famous work has been one of the most influential texts in world history. During the late medieval and early modern periods, the Metamorphoses seems to have been on the desk of every major writer at some point – allusions to Ovid’s masterpiece show up in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Book of the Duchess, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titus and Venus and Adonis, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, to name just a few. To many generations of readers, authors, and artists, the Metamorphoses served as a card catalog for classical literature, encompassing a thousand years of Ancient Mediterranean stories in a single volume, stories which moved loosely from the moment of creation up to Ovid’s world of contemporary Rome.

John William Waterhouse Ovid Echo And Narcissus

John William Waterhouse’s Narcissus (1903). One of the hundreds of canonical works of art inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The twelve thousand lines, and over 250 stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses focus on a single theme.1 This theme is not only in the epic’s Latin title – Metamorphoseon libri, or Books of Transformations, but also in its very first line. “Changes of shape,” writes Ovid, “new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me / now to recite” (I.1-2).2 Whether they transform to birds, trees, flowers, rocks, water, or dozens of other things, the humans, nymphs, satyrs, and gods of the Metamorphoses live in a world of perpetual flux, in which one’s identity and physical form are endlessly mutable.

The challenge of reading the Metamorphoses is formidable – one not only has hundreds of tales occurring in rapid succession – these tales also often contain or interpenetrate one another. At the end of Book 10, for instance, Ovid describes Orpheus telling the story of Venus and Adonis, in which Venus tells the story of the beautiful huntress Atalanta and her lover Hippomenes. Stories are told within stories being told within stories, and tales break off at unlikely moments. As one critic remarks, “[E]ven when we turn to the individual tales, beginning as they do in mid-sentence and mid-hexameter, straddling book divisions, and framing each other, they resist separation and reordering.”3 While tales are often sundered and woven together according to the formal whims of the poet, they are also filled with a galaxy of proper nouns – places, deities, both well-known and obscure, mythological creatures, mythical and semi-legendary historical figures, and a dizzying meshwork of legends and lineages that makes even the most experienced reader turn to the footnotes from time to time.

One of the advantages to doing a serial podcast on literary history is that we have covered much of the salient material that Ovid uses in the Metamorphoses. Ovid read and incorporated stories from Hesiod and Homer, Sophocles and Euripides, Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus, and nearer to his own time, Catullus and Virgil. Scholar Peter Levi writes that “Few generations of genius have devoted such prolonged and deep study to what poetry is and can be as Virgil’s did,” and in our many shows on Roman writers thus far we have learned that Latin literature’s golden age was characterized by an overall interest in erudition, and synthesis.4 Catullus wrote widely in a range of meters; Horace’s poems span many genres and tones; Virgil’s three works self-consciously display his encyclopedic learning; and Propertius, though he died relatively young, was even by his fourth book of poems enthusiastically moving beyond the constraints of love elegy. And Ovid, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, marked the apex of Augustan Age literature’s desire to consume and repurpose the entire history of poetry that had preceded it.

Ovid Metamorphoses Hayden White 11

The cover of Metamorphoses, Book 15, from a 1556 printing.

Because of the scope, the density, and the intermingled nature of the Metamorphoses, offering you a summary of Ovid’s 250 interlinked stories presents me with a challenge. On one hand, we could group the tales by theme, talking about the stories involving rape, or tales involving hubris, or narratives concerned with specific cities or mythological events. On the other, it’s quite important to remember that the Metamorphoses is a continuous narrative poem that begins with the faceless chaos that preceded creation, and ends with the ascendancy of Augustus, and that almost without exception Ovid moves us from story to story with notoriously brilliant little narrative inserts.5 In other words, while the stories that fill the Metamorphoses are deservedly their centerpiece, the structure of the Metamorphoses also ended up being quite influential, inspiring the linked short story collections of Chaucer and Boccaccio in the fourteenth century, not to mention many others. And because the form, as well as the content, of the Metamorphoses was widely prominent in later literary history, I’ve decided to summarize the epic in chronological order.

That means that these three episodes on Ovid will be uncharacteristically dense. Though I can do my best and try to use every trick in the book to differentiate the stories from one another, stitching over 200 narratives into three podcast episodes is going to confront you with a lot of material. The payoff, however, will be huge. One of the main things most of us get from the Metamorphoses when we read it is understanding just how much that survives from Greco-Roman mythology comes from a single book. Scholar Denis Feeney, in a recent translation of the Metamorphoses, tells a story about teaching the poem to undergraduates. One of his students, midway through learning the Metamorphoses, happened to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And when she returned, summarizing her impressions of broad sections of the museum, the student remarked, “It’s all Ovid.”

Before we dive into the kaleidoscope of Ovid’s stories – stories that have indeed been as influential in art history as they have in literary history, we should take a minute and talk about the overall structure of the Metamorphoses. While neither you nor I nor anyone else can remember the titanic catalog of characters and events that fill the long poem, I think that by talking about the book’s structure, its literary background and some of its central themes upfront, we’ll be much better equipped to enjoy its contents.

The Structure and Literary Background of Ovid Metamorphoses

For a long time, readers have agreed that a three-part superstructure governs the fifteen books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The first section, which lasts up until midway through Book 6 (I.452-VI.420) concerns itself mainly with gods and other divine beings. The next section, which spans the poem from Book 6 to Book 11 (VI.421-XI.193), most often tells stories about famous human heroes. And the final section of the poem, stretching from Book 11 to Book 15 (XI.194-XV.744), offers tales about historical figures – increasingly, figures from early Roman history.6 It is commonplace in Augustan poetry for writers to describe a series of ages that have culminated in the glorious rise of the Emperor Augustus. Virgil’s Aeneid concludes with Aeneas beating the leader of the Italian armies who have opposed him, and thus paving the way for the Julio-Claudians eleven hundred years later. And Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though more ambivalently, ends with the promise that once Augustus dies, he will be deified, and will listen to the prayers of future Romans forever after. We’ll talk about the Metamorphoses and its references to contemporary Roman history later – for now, just remember, as I said a minute ago, that the Metamorphoses unfolds as a loose chronological narrative, starting with the universe’s beginning, and finishing with the Age of Augustus.

While knowing the overall architecture of the Metamorphoses helps one dive into it, I think it’s also useful to know about the metrical architecture of the poem. Ovid had, up until the time he wrote the Metamorphoses, composed poetry using elegiac couplets. Let’s hear some elegiac couplets from Ovid’s Amores – I’m going to read two couplets.
You’re beautiful, so I expect you to give in,
     But please don’t tell poor me your every sin.
I’m not your censor. You’re unchaste, and I’ll abide it.
     I’m only asking you to try to hide it. (Am 3.14.1-4)7

Elegiac couplets, if you remember from a couple of episodes ago, are couplets in which the first line has six feet, and the second line has five feet, although they don’t rhyme in Latin, as they do in the above translation. In our first program on Ovid, we heard some real Latin elegiac couplets, learned about the hybrid and largely dactylic meter of Latin elegiac couplets, and I even performed a song in elegiac couplets. Because proper elegiac couplets are hard to replicate in English, we’ve been using a translation by Len Krisak that uses iambs rather than dactyls, but nonetheless replicates the 6-foot, 5-foot structure of Latin elegiac couplets. In other words, “You’re beautiful, so I expect you to give in, / But please don’t tell poor me your every sin,” and then again, six, five, “I’m not your censor. You’re unchaste, and I’ll abide it. / I’m only asking you to try to hide it.” That uneven meter, which goes six, five, six, five, again and again, is what characterizes the elegiac couplet the most. The opening of an elegiac couplet, with its six feet, uses that hexameter form so common to Greco-Roman epic, but then, the closing line of the elegiac couplet, with its five feet, sputters off into anti-climax. It’s a great form for pithy statements, as each elegiac couplet is almost always a single sentence or some sort of self-contained syntactical unit.

Caxton Ovid, 1480

An illustration of the Pyramus and Thisbe story from a 1480 edition of the Metamorphoses.

When Ovid set out to write the Metamorphoses, however, he switched from his trademark elegiac couplets to hexameter, the conventional meter for epics that Virgil, bowing to convention, had recently used in the Aeneid. Changing from elegiacs to hexameter presented Ovid with whole new compositional structure. After all, in elegiac couplets, a sentence usually spans just two lines. In hexameter, however, sentences can grow longer, and the syntactical relationships between clauses can become far more complex. What one scholar calls “the Latin verse period,” or a sentence lasting about four lines, had been pioneered in the previous generation by Virgil.8 Ovid followed this model in the Metamorphoses, and the enormity of the collection may well have been influenced by the younger poet’s zest in experimenting with a compositional structure that was new to him.

While Ovid had not yet written a hexameter epic, nor an anthology of myths, hexameter epics and anthologies of myths were not unprecedented in the world of Greco-Roman literature. In fact, let’s talk a bit about the literary roots of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Several compendiums of myths were available to Ovid that have not made it down to us today. A Greek poet called Nicander, who worked in the second century BCE, had written a text called the Heteroeumena, which might be translated as “Metamorphoses” or “transformations.” This book has not survived, but Ovid almost certainly consulted it while planning and executing his own Metamorphoses. And another ancient collection likely influenced the Metamorphoses. As we begin exploring the stories of Ovid’s most famous work, you will notice that some kinds of transformations are more common than others. One especially common transformation is for a character transform into some sort of a bird. And for bird transformation stories, Ovid actually had a specific anthology to draw from – a book written by a writer called Boios, or Boio. This book, called the Ornithogonia, was about people who had changed into birds, and, connectedly, the origins of various sorts of birds.

Writing stories about the origins of things was a common practice in the intellectual culture of the Hellenistic world. A number of episodes ago, while we were reading Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts, we noted how often Apollonius paused the Argonauts’ journey to have them consecrate a shrine, or build a temple, or dig a spring, and how Apollonius used these narrative inserts in order to tell about the origins of this or that settlement, or city, or river, or sacred temple. As modern readers, we often find the origin stories in Jason and the Argonauts to be needless little ornaments in an otherwise swift-moving narrative, but Hellenistic readers seemed to have loved them. These origin stories are often called etiologies, or tales about the causes behind something, and the etiology was a common form of story in Ovid’s day. Its most famous practitioner was the 3rd-century BCE Alexandrian poet Callimachus, whose 7,000 line book Aetia was perhaps the longest collection of origin stories in antiquity.9 So, the Heteroeumena of Nicander, the Ornithogonia of Boios, and the Aetia of Callimachus, all produced in the 200s and 100s BCE, were available indexes of Greek myths – indexes that often used a Greek myth to explain the roots of something that existed in the contemporary world. Many of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses have an etiological structure, offering an entertaining story, but also, an explanation of how this or that bird, or tree, or flower, or river, or spring, or promontory came to be. The etiological aims of Ovid and his predecessors – particularly Callimachus, led these writers to explore myth cycles in unconventional ways, paying close attention to figures who tended to get sidelined by previous authors.

Some of Ovid’s sources for the Metamorphoses are the lost anthologies we’ve just been discussing – anthologies that inspired him to believe that a linked short story collection would be worth undertaking. But Ovid had other sources for the Metamorphoses – sources we’ve learned about in our podcast. Like everyone in Latin literary history before him, Ovid knew the works of Homer. Ovid’s fluency with Homer, Virgil, and the lost epic cycle that lay between the two poets is clear in and after Book 12, when Ovid offers his own truncated history of the Trojan War, fall of Troy, and the subsequent wanderings of Odysseus and Aeneas. Book 3, which concerns itself with the early history of Thebes, borrows from Euripides’ Bacchae, just as Book 13 takes details from Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba. Book 6, telling the unspeakably dark story of Philomela, makes use of a lost play by Sophocles. It would maybe be difficult to find a work of Greco-Roman literature that Ovid does not synthesize into the Metamorphoses in some way or another, and as we go through the fifteen books of the epic we’ll talk about these borrowings in more detail.

Maybe the biggest influence of all on Ovid’s Metamorphoses was Hesiod’s Theogony, written seven hundred years before Ovid lived. The Theogony, which we covered way back in Episode 8, is that thousand line poem about the beginning of the universe up until the moment when a generation of mortal heroes is beginning to rise. Ovid and other mythographers like him would later tell origin stories about hyacinths, swans, and mountain springs. But Hesiod’s Theogony was an etiology about the entire universe. When Ovid read it, with the Theogony’s armada of characters and vast intermixture of stories, Ovid saw, perhaps, that he could combine two genres, insetting short etiological tales, like those of Callimachus, into an unfolding history of the universe, like Hesiod’s.

So, let’s dive into the first five books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a series of books about the beginning of the earth, some especially nasty early transgressions by the gods, the tumultuous early history of the city of Thebes, and the rise of the first human heroes. As we go through these stories, I will spend a bit more time on tales that have been particularly influential in literary history, and occasionally, when Ovid is piling structurally similar stories together, speed through other narratives pretty quickly. I’ll use a number of translations for these episodes on the Metamorphoses, but unless otherwise noted, quotes in this particular episode will come from the Charles Martin translation, published by Norton in 2004. So let’s take a deep breath, and get ready for what might just be the most influential short story collection in literary history, beginning with Book 1. [music]

The Metamorphoses, Book 1

Ovid’s Creation Story

The first two hundred lines of the Metamorphoses contain so many parallels to Hesiod’s Theogony that even summarizing all of them would take a long time. Ovid’s story of the world’s creation begins, as Hesiod’s does, with a formless mass called chaos. At this earliest point, “Nature displayed a single aspect only / throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name, / a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk / and nothing more” (I.8-11).10 A male deity, and Ovid doesn’t specify which one, separated the heavens from the earth and built the basic structure of the globe, setting in motion waters and winds, and this deity created plains, valleys, mountains, and woodlands. The god created a wind for each cardinal direction – Eurus, dwelling in the east; Zephyr, the west; Boreas, the north; and Auster, the south. After fish and birds were made, humankind was created. And Ovid is ambiguous about how humankind was created – either we came from the same material as the creator deity, and he made us, or, alternatively, the titan Prometheus squeezed some clay into the shape of a deity and thus created the first person.

Ovid Goldenes-Zeitalter-1530-2

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Golden Age (c. 1530). Clothing seems to be optional in most artistic renditions of the Ovidian Golden Age.

Following the creation of humanity, a golden age dawned, an age during which humans were virtuous and needed no public law codes posted, during which no tree had been chopped down and people peacefully lingered in their own countries, never fighting wars nor needing weapons. It was not only a peaceful era – it was also an era of natural bounty, as shovels and rakes had never scarred the earth, and humanity had never been compelled into agricultural labor. It was eternal spring, this first, golden age, and “the warm breath of [the] gentle [west wind] stroked / flowers that sprang up from the ground, unsown” (I.149-50).11

However, when Jupiter became the ruler of the world, dispatching his father Saturn to the underworld, things changed forever. Jupiter added three other seasons to spring, and for the first time people had to live in shelters to protect themselves from harsh weather. While this second age – this silver age, saw humanity undergoing the privations of harsher seasons, the third age – an iron age – was characterized by warfare. The iron age, a grim time indeed, was a far cry from the eternal springtime humanity first enjoyed. Ovid writes that during the iron age, “all forms of evil burst upon this time / of baser mettle; modesty, fidelity, / and truth departed; in their absence, came / fraud, guile, deceit, the use of violence, / and shameful lusting after acquisitions” (I.172-6). During the iron age, Ovid writes, we first began to cut down trees to make boats, and carved deep into the earth in search of precious metals. A plentitude of gold mines and oceanic expeditions induced humanity to further greed and all of the iniquity of modernity. Humanity’s general descent into avarice and conflict, Ovid says, led the gods to abandon earth and dwell elsewhere. If the story sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve heard it before – in Genesis and Psalms and Daniel, in the Theogony, in Virgil’s Georgics, in Catullus and Horace, in the Enuma Elish, in Old Anatolian myths, in the Epic of Inanna and Dumuzi – the tales of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East seemed particularly keen on envisioning golden pasts and falls into postlapsarian agricultural toil.

Having told of the creation of the world and the fall from an idyllic golden age, Ovid follows Hesiod in narrating the Titanomachy, or the war between the gods and titans. Now, even though Jupiter had banished his father Saturn to the underworld, the titans were still out there, keenly aware that their children had assumed ascendancy over the earth. The war with between the gods and titans, as Ovid tells it, is a fairly short, but extremely violent affair. A single bolt of lightning, so powerful that it smashed the base of Mount Olympus, killed the titans. The earth, Gaia, who had given birth to the titans, took their gory remains and made them into human beings – humans “marked by hatred of the gods, / by cruelty and eagerness for slaughter” (I.219-20). And with the defeat of the titans, Ovid finishes the part of the Metamorphoses that very closely follows Hesiod, and begins the first of the epic’s dozens of tales. [short music]

The Story of Lycaon

Jupiter, sensing the hostility of many humans on earth, decided that humanity needed to be snuffed out. There were nymphs and satyrs and forest spirits, Jupiter said, and they were not safe on earth. And Jupiter had a personal reason to resent humankind. A king called Lycaon had killed a hostage, and served this hostage’s flesh to Jupiter in a meal, in order to test Jupiter’s omniscience. Jupiter was not fooled. He leveled Lycaon’s palace with thunderbolts. And as Lycaon fled, the very first of many transformations in the Metamorphoses occurred – the fleeing king changed into a wolf. And Lycaon’s name, which comes from the Greek words lykos, or “wolf,” and anthropos, or “man,” is where we get the word “Lycanthrope,” or, literally, “wolfman.” [short music]

The Flood, Deucalion, and Pyrrha

Ovid The Flood, by Paul Merwart

Paul Merwart’s Deucalion holding aloft his wife (late 19th-century). The Atrahasis meets Adam and Eve tale at the Metamorphoses‘ outset is one of its more spectacular narratives.

The blasphemy of Lycaon, once the other gods heard about it, drove the Olympians into deeper resentment of humanity. They wanted to eradicate humans, but humans were also the source of sacrificial offerings and sacred incense. Did they really want to kill every human on the face of the earth? Jupiter had a solution. He would eradicate humanity, and create a new race more pious and less wicked. Jupiter considered using his lightning to massacre humanity, but then, worried that fire might spread to engulf the heavens, he decided on a flood instead. The ensuing deluge was so intense that Jupiter himself was soaked down to the roots of his beard. Poseidon helped, unloosing water from the depths of the sea. The ocean covered the land. Ocean nymphs swam amidst forests and villas, and dolphins made their way through the branches of submarine oaks. The mightiest creatures – lions and tigers, boars and wolves, paddled as long as their strength held out, and birds flew until they exhaustedly dropped into the water. Now this story should be familiar from Chapter 7 of Genesis, but Ovid’s version, particularly his portrayal of the council of the gods musing on the implications of killing humankind, is a bit closer to the Babylonian Atrahasis we read way back in Episode 2. Ovid, being Ovid, tells the story with an incredible vividness unprecedented in the many flood stories of the ancient world.

Following the flood, just one place remained above the surging ocean waters, and this place was the twin peaks of Mount Parnassus, a mountain about 70 miles northwest of Athens. A couple called Deucalion and Pyrrha, miraculously, had survived the flood and they ended up landing on the side of Mount Parnassus. Deucalion and Pyrrha, as Ovid tells it, are a sort of Atrahasis meets Adam and Eve – the sole survivors of the global deluge. Jupiter observed them and saw that they were morally upright and devout. And then Jupiter summoned an oceanic deity to make the floodwaters retreat. As the oceans and lakes went back into their beds, muck and kelp clung to the boughs of forests and groves.

Standing amidst the wreckage of the flooded earth, Deucalion told his wife that they were lucky to have one another – to bear such loss alone would have been unendurable. They went to a temple, where plants from the seabed still clung to steps and columns, and a goddess told them to perform a ritual. Deucalion and Pyrrha were told to toss dirt behind them as they descended the temple steps. They did so, and the clods the Deucalion threw behind him became men, and the clods that Pyrrha threw behind her became women.

With the restoration of humanity thus catalyzed, the earth itself began to restock its previous wealth of animals. The land remained puddled with water, and from the damp soil and warm pools arose a new bounty of life. Ovid writes, “So when the earth, still completely covered / with fresh muck from that just receded flood, / was heated by the sun’s rays, she produced / countless species; some were the old ones, restored, / and others were monsters, novel in their shapes” (I.601-6). [short music]

Apollo and the Python; Apollo and Daphne

Apollo Daphne Ovid September 2015-1a

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (1625), detail. One of the most astonishing and gorgeous sculptures ever created. Photo by Alvesgaspar.

One of the monsters that arose was called Python, a giant serpent almost the size of a mountainside. Apollo saw the creature and made it into a pincushion with his arrows. And to celebrate his victory against this serpent, Apollo created an annual festival called the Pythian games, to celebrate his victory over the serpent, and his oracle at Delphi was thereafter called the Pythia. This is one of the first etiologies in the Metamorphoses, by the way – the origin story of the Oracle of Delphi. Anyway, Apollo, having killed the huge snake, had other adventures on the newly populated earth. Apollo fell in love with a water nymph called Daphne. Apollo’s infatuation with Daphne proceeded as follows. Apollo saw Cupid shooting his bow. And Apollo mocked Cupid. After all, Apollo’s arrows killed things – Cupid’s only caused lovesickness. Cupid considered his words. And then Cupid shot Apollo. Cupid also shot the water nymph Daphne – only the arrow that struck Daphne caused her to be adverse to love, and flee from it. I guess Cupid had all sorts of arrows in that troublesome quiver of his.

Ovid’s description of the solitary Daphne is especially lovely in the Norton Charles Martin translation:
. . .Daphne calls it joy [Ovid writes]
to roam within the forest’s deep seclusion,
where she, in emulation of the chaste
goddess Phoebe, devotes herself to hunting;
one ribbon only bound her straying tresses.
Many men sought her, but she spurned her suitors,
loath to have anything to do with men,
and rambled through the wild and trackless groves
untroubled by a thought for love or marriage. (I.657-65)

Naturally, Daphne did not remain untroubled for long. In Greco-Roman mythology, bucolic virgins, whether Daphnes, or Hippolytuses, or Atalantas, tend to find themselves pursued by overzealous suitors. Apollo, burning with passion from Cupid’s arrow, looked at Daphne and admired every part of her. She fled from him, and he pursued, and he worried that she might fall and mar her perfect beauty. As they ran, Apollo shouted all the reasons she should stop and yield to his entreaties, but she didn’t want to hear any of it. She prayed to her father, a river deity, to change her into something to protect her.

And sure enough, she felt herself stiffening. Tree bark began to appear on all over her – her hair burst into leaves, and roots snaked out of her feet. Apollo embraced her with futility. Daphne became a laurel tree, and Apollo said that although he couldn’t have her as a woman, the laurel would always be his tree, and the laurel would be the victory emblem of all futurity – down to Roman generals and Augustus himself. [short music]

Jupiter and Io

Correggio 028b Ovid

Antonio da Correggio’s Jupiter and Io (c. 1530). The twisted form of Io and the sinister darkness of Jupiter here make Io’s plight particularly gloomy and pitiable.

That tale of Apollo and Daphne is one of dozens of stories in the Metamorphoses involving rape and attempted rape, and just after it Ovid includes a tale on a similar theme. Following the transformation of Daphne, the river gods wept at the demise of their beloved daughter. One of the other river gods had also lost a daughter – a girl called Io, who had disappeared. Ovid then tells the story of what happened to Io.

Io had been at a riverbank, and Jupiter saw her there. Jupiter told the water nymph to find some shade in the forest, and added that if she were afraid to enter the darkness of the woods, he would serve as her chaperone. Io, understandably, ran. Jupiter followed her, throwing a dark mist over the forest, and he raped her. To keep anyone from finding out, Jupiter changed Io into a cow.

Up in the heavens, Juno observed that a strange mist had fallen over a forest, and, ever suspicious of her licentious husband, she went to investigate. Juno saw her husband standing in the forest with a cow. She asked where the cow had come from – they were in the middle of the woods, after all. Jupiter said the cow had spontaneously generated from the earth. Juno was not fooled by this rather pitiful cover story, and Juno asked Jupiter for the cow as a gift. Jupiter really had no choice in the matter.

Juno kept the cow in a pen, under the guard of a hundred-eyed watchman. Poor Io, now a cow, ate grass and drank muddy water, unable to speak to ask for help from her jailor. Eventually, the bovine Io was able to find her father and other river deities and water nymphs, but she could not communicate with them, and they only thought she was a curious cow. Io was persistent, though, and she was able to write in the dust with her hoof. And her father, reading what was written there, was distraught. He had been arranging his daughter’s marriage, he said, but now she’d have to marry one of his bulls! I’m sure this was a great consolation to her. [short music]

Pan and Syrinx

Jupiter felt awful about what had happened to Io, and so he sent Mercury to make Io’s jailor fall asleep. The jailor wanted to know how Mercury’s reed pipes were created – who had made the musical instrument? And Mercury told him, in the first of the Metamorphoses’ many tales-within-tales. There was a forest nymph called Syrinx. This forest nymph was often pursued by satyrs, but always got away. Like Daphne, of whom we heard earlier, Syrinx was a chaste woman, uninterested in sex and romance. The forest god Pan noticed the wood nymph Syrinx, and began to pursue her. The short narrative then becomes variation of the Apollo and Daphne story. Syrinx reached a river, prayed to be transformed, and was transformed into a bunch of reeds. Pan, just as he seized at her, instead grabbed a bunch of reeds, and as he sighed into them, he found that he could make music, and that’s how the pan flute was created.

Now, we never found out what happened to Io, whom Jupiter had raped and turned into a cow. Mercury, having told the story of the pan flute, was successful in putting Io’s jailor to sleep, and Mercury then killed the jailor. Juno saw the murder, however, and rather than going after Mercury or Jupiter, she became more furious at the cow Io, chasing her all the way to the Nile. Io then cried out to Jupiter for help, and Jupiter, promising Juno that he’d never have sex with Io again, transformed Io back into a human woman. While Io’s plight isn’t easy – she becomes a cow for a while – at least her fate is better than Daphne, or Syrinx, who both get changed into plants. [short music]

Phaëthon’s Tale: The Beginning

The next tale in the Metamorphoses, which spans from the first to the second book, is one of the longer and more famous tales in the collection. One of Io’s sons was friends with a man called Phaëthon. Phaëthon had a bit of an ego. He was the son of the sun god Phoebus. And in Phaëthon’s opinion, he was every bit as capable of stewarding the sun as his father was. Phoebus pulled the sun across the sky in a chariot every day, and young Phaëthon figured he could do the same. His friend, however, disagreed, laughing in Phaëthon’s face. And so Phaëthon, demonstrating a great deal of strength and fortitude, literally went and cried to his mother. Phaëthon asked his mother to avow who his true father was, and Phaëthon’s mother swore that it was indeed Phoebus, the sun god. Phaëthon nodded. He decided that he would go to this sun god, and confirm the stories of his parentage. And Book 1 of the Metamorphoses actually breaks off in the middle of Phaëthon’s story, again one of the longer tales in Ovid’s epic. [music]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 2

Phaëthon and the Chariot

Phaëthon’s father Phoebus, the god of the sun, sat in his lavish palace, the source of the sun’s rising every morning. The great Phoebus, sitting amidst the deities of the seasons, saw young Phaëthon approaching, and asked the youth, “What brings you here?. . .What do you seek in this high tower, Phaëthon – you, an heir no parent would deny?” (II.41-3). Phaëthon explained – he was there to confirm that Phoebus was his father. The god of the sun removed his crown and embraced young Phaëthon. Of course he was Phaëthon’s father, said Phoebus – he was proud to be Phaëthon’s father and would give Phaëthon any gift that Phaëthon asked of him.

Phaëthon actually had something in mind. He wanted to drive his father’s chariot for the day – the chariot that the great Phoebus used to pull the sun across the arc of the sky. Phoebus winced. Pulling the sun across the sky wasn’t exactly easy. Phoebus’ description of doing so is famous. Phoebus told his son Phaëthon, in the Oxford A.D. Melville translation,
Steep is the way at first, which my steeds scarce
Can climb in morning freshness; in mid sky
The altitude is greatest and the sight
Of land and sea below has often struck
In my own heart an agony of fear.
The final part drops sheer; then above all
Control must be assured. . .
in constant flux the sky streams by,
Sweeping in dizzy whirl the stars on high.
I drive against this force, which overcomes
All things but me, and on opposing course
Against its rushing circuit make my way.
Suppose my chariot yours: what then? Could you
Confront the spinning poles and not be swept
Away by the swift axis of the world?12

Now, this might be the moment when a rational person would say, “Hmm, yeah, you know what, dad? I guess my taking the chariot for a spin isn’t such a good idea after all.” But even after this speech, and after Phoebus added that there were monsters up in the highest skies, and that the fire-breathing horses that pulled the chariot were very hard to control, even after Phoebus asked his son Phaëthon to request anything else in the world, young Phaëthon insisted on driving the chariot that pulled the sun across the sky.

Rubens- Ovid Fall of Phaeton

Peter Paul Rubens’ Fall of Phaëthon (1604-5). Borrowing his dad’s chariot, as it turned out, was not a particularly circumspect idea.

The next morning, the gates of dawn opened. The fire breathing horses thundered forward, their reigns clanging in the still air. Phoebus gave his son some desperate last minute advice, and told the boy it wasn’t too late to turn back, but even as he spoke Phaëthon was stepping into the chariot and hefting the reigns.

The horses surged forward furiously, their hooves cutting through the morning mists. And the horses felt something odd – the weight behind them in the chariot was lighter than they were accustomed to. The chariot tore upward, startling Phaëthon, and the light of the sun roared over his startled face. It wasn’t at all like driving a chariot – but more like being in a rudderless ship during a typhoon. The chariot rose even higher, and Phaëthon saw the constellation Scorpio angling its venomous tail toward him, and he dropped the chariot’s reigns, paralyzed in fear. For a moment, the sun streaked wildly through the dome of the sky, pulled willy-nilly by the untethered horses, until it collided with the top of the heavens. What followed was nothing short of a cataclysm.

The dome of the heavens exploded into flame. All over the planet, chasms yawned open, trees and forests caught fire, the walls of cities were pulverized, the tallest mountains were scorched with infernos, and even the coldest regions of the earth were engulfed. Young Phaëthon found himself sitting on a falling meteor and enveloped by white heat. Everywhere, rivers burned – the Nile, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Rhine, the Po, the Tiber – the crust of the earth shattered and hot light filled the caverns of the underworld. Fish and sea nymphs hid in the caves of the deep ocean.

The earth, torn with flame and light, cried out to Jupiter. She already endured the scars of hoes and plows, she said, year after year – she nurtured all living things. Did she deserve, now, to be burned alive? Jupiter heard, and he went up to the pinnacle of heaven, now little more than a mass of roiling fire. He threw a lightning bolt at the careening chariot, killing Phaëthon instantly. The chariot exploded, throwing spokes and axles everywhere. Phaëthon’s corpse, burning as brightly as a comet, fell into the Po river, and Italian nymphs took the boy’s smoking body and laid it in a tomb. And the inscription of the tomb, in the Norton Charles Martin translation, is as follows.
Young Phaëthon lies here, poor lad, who dreamt
Of mastering his father’s sky-born carriage;
Although he sadly died in the attempt,
Great was his daring, which none may disparage. (II.434-7)

The next day, Phoebus mourned young Phaëthon. The sun did not come up. But the whole world was on fire, and so its absence was almost unnoticeable. Phaëthon’s mother wept at his tomb, and his sisters did, as well. Standing around the dead Phaëthon’s inscription, they held fast to the turf and transformed into trees. Another relative of Phaëthon, singed and distraught, sought water and changed into a swan, becoming the progenitor of all swans forever after. [short music]

The Aftermath of Phaëthon’s Crash and the Story of Callisto

Phoebus, as the fires abated, was sick with exhaustion and grief. He said someone else should tow the sun across the sky – he was sick of the never-ending and harrowing labor. Jupiter ought to do it, said Phoebus – maybe it would keep Jupiter from killing so many innocent people. But an assembly of gods begged Phoebus to keep up his labor, and, gathering up his horses again, he whipped them grimly, thinking of his dead boy.

Sebastiano Ricci - Ovid Diana and Callisto - WGA19416

Sebastiano Ricci’s Diana and Callisto (1712-16) shows the awful moment at which Callisto’s illicit pregnancy is discovered by Diana, who promptly exiles the unfortunate nymph.

Meanwhile, up in the heavens, Jupiter investigated the damage wrought by the great inferno. The walls of his celestial palace were undamaged, and so Jupiter went down to a land called Arcadia and began to refurbish its plant and animal life. In Arcadia, there lived a beautiful nymph named Callisto, a virginal devotee of the goddess Diana. Jupiter disguised himself as Diana, made some prefatory remarks, and raped Callisto.

Callisto was stricken afterwards, afraid to speak with anyone, lest they be a predatory Jupiter in disguise. In the months that followed, shame led Callisto to conceal her pregnancy to the other nymphs, until one day a group of virginal nymphs were bathing in the river. One of them pulled off Callisto’s dress, and it was clear that Callisto was pregnant. Diana told Callisto that she had defiled the river, and the poor nymph wandered off, later giving birth.

Juno found out about the affair somehow. And, blaming her husband’s infidelity on poor Callisto, rather than Jupiter himself, Juno vowed revenge. Juno sprung upon Callisto and forced the girl’s face down into the dirt. Hair bristled up from Callisto, until the nymph became a bear. Callisto’s mind, however, remained unchanged. Years passed, until Callisto’s son was fifteen, not the identity of his mother, or the awful circumstances that had led to his birth. And the young man came upon his mother in the form of the bear. He was about to spear her, but Jupiter stopped it, lifting them up into the highest heavens and transforming them into constellations. And that is the ancient Mediterranean story of how the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor were originally put into the sky. [short music]

Apollo and the Raven

Following the tale of Callisto, Ovid makes a rather abrupt break in narrative to tell the story of how ravens and crows became black. Ravens, Ovid writes, were once silvery white, like doves. In those days, Apollo had a lover named Coronis. Apollo loved Coronis deeply, but she was unfaithful to him. Apollo found out about her infidelity because a raven saw Coronis making love to another man, and the raven hurried off to tell Apollo the bad news.

The Manciple - Ellesmere Chaucer

The Manciple, from the Ellesmere Chaucer (15th century). Chaucer’s retelling of this Ovidian story is where many of us encounter it today.

While the raven was en route to Apollo, a crow began flying next to him. And the crow warned the raven not to be the bringer of bad tidings. The crow told his own story. He had once been a man, he said, and not a dark little bird – he had once been Minerva’s favorite human, but had shared a piece of ugly news with her, which prompted her to transform him. But even after the crow told the raven this, and other stories of bringers of bad tidings being punished, the raven was undaunted. He was going to fly to Apollo, and deliver his news.

And so the raven reached Apollo. The raven told Apollo that Apollo’s beloved Coronis was having an affair. Impetuously, Apollo loosed an arrow and it pierced Coronis’ chest. As she died, she gasped that he was not only killing her – but also their unborn child. Apollo was shocked – shocked at her pregnancy, and shocked at what he’d done. He put her on a funeral pyre, but before he burned her he cut the unborn baby out of her stomach and took it to a centaur to be raised. And thereafter, the raven changed from white to black. And if this story sounds familiar, that might be because Geoffrey Chaucer tells it as The Manciple’s Tale – the second to last installment in The Canterbury Tales, taken directly from Ovid. [short music]

Mercury and Minerva’s Acts of Retribution

After the tale of Apollo and the raven, Book 2 of the Metamorphoses includes a flurry of quick narratives. The centaur who inherited Apollo’s premature son had a daughter, whose prophecies eventually caused her to turn into a horse. And toward the end of Book 2, Mercury becomes a prominent figure, turning a lawbreaker into stone, and trying to seduce an Athenian woman. The subject of Athens leads Ovid to tell of how Minerva once went to meet with the deity Envy, and asked the serpentine goddess to infect a girl who had displeased her. Ovid’s depiction of Envy is unforgettable. He describes, in the Norton Charles Martin translation,
. . .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. (II.1048-53)
[And Minerva sees Envy]
. . .at her feast of snakes,
a fitting meal for her corrupted nature. . .[a] dinner
of half-eaten reptiles. . .
Her glance is sideways and her teeth are black;
her nipples drip with poisonous green bile,
and venom from her dinner coats her tongue. (II.1058-9,63-4,69-71)

Envy, withering grasses and flowers as she went along, performed the cruel deed that Minerva had requested. Envy found the girl who had offended Minerva, exhaling poison into the girl’s mouth and filling her with cruel jealousy. When the girl went to pursue her revenge, however, Mercury turned her to stone. [short music]

Jupiter and Europa

One more tale begins which closes Book 2 of the Metamorphoses – and this is the tale of Jupiter and Europa – another of the epic’s many rape stories. Jupiter asked Mercury to go to the eastern Mediterranean and drive a herd of cattle toward the shore. Mercury did so, and Jupiter transformed himself into a bull – a white bull, magnificent and clear eyed. Jupiter went down to earth and mingled with the herd. A girl called Europa saw him there – a princess of that part of the world, and seeing the striking animal, she fed him fresh flowers. Europa stroked his coat, adorned his horns with flowers, and even sat on his back, until the bull carried her out to the beach, and then out into the water. And Book 2 closes with Europa riding Jupiter into the sea, and Ovid’s long overdue observation that “Majestic power and erotic love / do not get on together very well” (II.1160-1). [music]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 3

Cadmus Founds Thebes

Guido Reni - Jupiter and Europa

Guido Reni’s Jupiter and Europa (1640). The story of the Phoenician girl and her brother Cadmus crossing the Eastern Mediterranean and coming into the Aegean led Thebes to have long associations with the Levant, as we see in Statius’ Thebaid.

The beginning of Book 3 is about the founding of the city of Thebes, and much of Book 3 concerns this same city. We’ve talked a bit about the legendary history of Thebes in past episodes – especially Euripides’ play The Bacchae. And Ovid segues into the legends of early Thebes by rather quickly wrapping up the tale of Jupiter and Europa. Jupiter carried the eastern princess Europa deep into the Aegean Sea, to the island of Crete, where he had his way with her. Ovid says nothing else on the subject. Meanwhile, back in Europa’s homeland, her perplexed father wondered what had befallen her. He sent his son, Cadmus, after the missing girl. But Cadmus had other ideas. After leaving his homeland, Cadmus went to Apollo, and asked Apollo to find him somewhere to colonize and found a city. Apollo told Cadmus that Cadmus would find a single cow in an otherwise uninhabited place that had never been farmed, to follow the cow to wherever it led him, and to name the land that he founded Boeotia, after the Greek bous and Latin bos, which mean “cow.”

Cadmus, along with the other easterners who’d accompanied him, found the cow in question, followed her until she settled down in some thick grass, and proclaimed that he’d found his new land – Boeotia. Unfortunately, Boeotia was no unpolluted paradise. A huge serpent of the god Mars lived in a cave where there was a fresh spring, and some of Cadmus’ men were killed when they went to fetch water there. Cadmus saw the creature hulking over their corpses, and heaved a giant rock at it. The serpent, however, was protected by its scales.

The fight thereafter was long and vicious. Cadmus fought with his shield and spears, piercing the serpent’s tough hide several times before a deathblow stuck the monster to an oak tree. When the monster was dead, Minerva came to him and told him to tear out the monster’s teeth, and plant some of them in the ground . Sure enough, a moment later, a mass of warriors arose from the earth. Cadmus, alarmed, gripped his spear and prepared to defend himself again, but one of the strange warriors told him not to get involved – it was a civil war. I’m not sure what the newly arisen dragon-fang men could have done to one another in the four seconds that they had been alive to catalyze such a civil war, but at any rate, they fought furiously until only five were left, and these five became Cadmus’ lieutenants when he began building the city of Thebes not long thereafter. [short music]

Actaeon and Diana

Vois Diana and Actaeon Ovid

Ary de Vois’ Diana and Actaeon (1672) shows the unfortunate young hunter about to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Cadmus’ grandson Actaeon had a tragic fate, and Actaeon’s story is one of the more prominent narratives in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One day, young Actaeon was out hunting with his friends. It had been a successful hunt – so successful that Actaeon told his companions it was time to head back to the city for the day. As Actaeon trekked back to Thebes, he passed through a secluded tract of forest and made the mistake of discovering a riverside grove he’d never visited before.13 There, the virgin goddess of the hunt, Diana, was bathing with her nymphs in the water. Diana, who took her chastity very seriously, was not pleased at being seen nude by an intruding man. She splashed water in Actaeon’s face, and growled, “Now you may tell of how you saw me naked, / tell it if you can, you may” (III.241-2).

Actaeon abruptly began to transform, joining the ranks of many mortals who are changed into animals by deities in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and Actaeon changed into a stag. Looking at himself in a pool of water, he cried and tried to determine whether he’d stay there in the woods or try to return home. He never got a chance to decide. His hunting dogs found him, and Ovid includes a large catalog with the names and origins of the dogs. The dogs, spurred on by Actaeon’s hunting companions, began chasing him. Actaeon’s death was gory and excruciating. He screamed out noises that neither a human nor a stag would make. And Ovid writes, “[I]t is said / he did not die until his countless wounds / had satisified Diana’s awful wrath” (III.314-5). [short music]

Jupiter, Semele, and Bacchus

Having told the tale of Cadmus’ grandson Actaeon, Ovid then goes on to tell the story of Cadmus’ daughter, Semele. As a result of one of Jupiter’s rare consensual relationships, Semele had become pregnant with Jupiter’s baby. And, as is always the case, rather than giving her husband a long overdue castration, Juno’s anger was directed toward Jupiter’s victim, rather than her husband. Juno disguised herself as an old woman, and went to the pregnant Semele, princess of Thebes. Juno told Semele that in order to confirm that Semele’s seducer had actually been Jupiter, rather than some impostor, Semele should ask Jupiter to reveal himself in his true form, and embrace her.

Semele did exactly as she was recommended, first asking if Jupiter would grant her a wish. Because Jupiter had promised to grant the wish, he had to do as he was requested, and he appeared to Semele in a mass of blinding light and fire. Semele was incinerated. Her unborn baby was sewn up into Jupiter’s thigh, where it was carried to term. The detail about the baby being sewn into Jupiter’s thigh is so bizarre that even Ovid comments on it – Ovid actually writes that as Semele died, “Her child was torn out of her womb unfinished, / and – this part is scarcely credible – was sewn / into his father’s thigh” (III.399-104). It’s a funny little moment in the Metamorphoses – this instance of Ovid making fun of the story he’s telling. In any case, the child of Jupiter and Semele, if you happen to remember from Euripides’ The Bacchae, ended up being Dionysus, the patron god of Thebes. [short music]

Tiresias’ Verdict

Not long after Jupiter had divested himself of his drunken thigh-baby, he got into a friendly debate with his wife Juno. The subject of the debate was whether men or women got more pleasure out of sexual intercourse. Jupiter thought that women did, and Juno that men did. There seemed to be no way to settle the debate, until they realized they knew a transsexual sage called Tiresias. Tiresias had been a man, and then had been transformed into a woman and back, and, presumably, had had sex at least one time as both a man and woman.

Tiresias, asked to settle the debate between Jupiter and Juno, said that Jupiter was correct – women certainly received more pleasure from sex. Juno, never a particularly kind deity, blinded Tiresias in rage. But Jupiter, by way of compensation, gave Tiresias the gift of prophetic vision. And one of the first prophecies Tiresias ever gave anyone involved the fate of a young man named Narcissus, and a nymph called Echo. [short music]

Echo and Narcissus

Alexandre Cabanel - Echo Ovid

Alexandre Cabanel’s Echo (1874). Cabanel’s painting shows a nymph who was troubled to begin with, and who was also unlucky in love.

Once there was a nymph called Echo. Echo had an idiosyncrasy, which was that she could never speak of her own free will – but only repeat the last two words anyone else had said. This was a curse from Juno. Once, Juno had been about to sneak up on Jupiter while Jupiter copulated with another nymph. Echo had detained Juno, chattering away to distract Juno, and to punish the loquacious nymph, Juno condemned her to only be able to speak just after others had. Anyway, one day, Echo saw a young man named Narcissus.

When Narcissus was sixteen years old, he was dashingly handsome. Echo saw him, and burned with passion, but due to the odd nature of her speech patterns, she scared the young man, rather than seducing him. Echo went off and cried alone, wishing she could speak like everyone else could. And her story is a sad one – she perished, and all that remains of her now is the ghost of her voice.

Narcissus, meanwhile, was racking up a long list of admirers, many of whom loved him earnestly. One of these, a man, prayed that Narcissus would fall in love with himself as much as everyone loved him, and a listening deity made the prayer come true. Wandering through the forest, Narcissus found a clear, unusually calm pool of water. Tired from being pursued by all sorts of passionate lovers all day, Narcissus went to drink the water there, and saw his reflection. He was mesmerized. He admired his own face, his hair, his neck, and his beardless cheeks. He went to kiss his reflection, and to embrace it, but could not. And finally he arose, crestfallen. He lamented aloud that his unrequited passion was a true curse – for others could cross mountains and oceans to be with the ones they loved, but he could never be with his. Narcissus understood that he wanted himself, and the impossibility of the affair.

He became increasingly heartsick and frantic, lifting his shirt and beating his breast until he collapsed, dead, in the grass beside the pool. And Ovid tells us that as Narcissus crossed the river Styx, he gazed into the black waters at his own reflection the entire time. Nymphs went to collect his dead body, but found in its place a single narcissus flower – the first of its kind. [short music]

Bacchus and Pentheus

Book 3 of the Metamorphoses, remaining loosely around the city of Thebes, closes with the tale of Bacchus and Pentheus – the story of Euripides’ play The Bacchae that we covered in Episode 34, over the course of almost 300 lines. If you didn’t catch that play, which Ovid loosely follows, it’s about an impious king called Pentheus. Pentheus was the king of Thebes and the grandson of its founder Cadmus. When Bacchus came to Thebes and its inhabitants began ecstatic celebrations, young king Pentheus was disgusted at their sudden religiosity. Ovid adds an additional tale about Bacchus transforming a crew of sailors into sea creatures, and then finishes the story with the traditional ending of King Pentheus being torn limb from limb by his mother and other frenzied worshippers of Bacchus. The death of Pentheus, Ovid says, served as a warning to all Thebans not to doubt the sovereignty of their city’s patron deity. [music]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 4

Pyramus and Thisbe

John william waterhouse pyramus thisbe ovid

Waterhouse’s Pyramus and Thisbe (1909). One of the lovelier paintings inspired by the Metamorphoses, this picture captures the essence of one of the paradigmatic stories of star-crossed lovers.

There were some, Ovid writes, who even after the bloody demise of Pentheus, continued to remain blasphemous toward the great Bacchus. A trio of sisters from Boeotia, even though all Thebans had been instructed to partake in the sacred rights of Bacchus, remained at home. As the Boeotian countryside burst into revelry, this trio of sisters stayed in their house, and spun and wove, ignoring the religious rites all around them. The three sisters, daughters of a man called Minyas, worked at their looms and told many stories. And the daughters of Minyas, impious dissidents of the rites of Bacchus, become the tellers of many of the tales of Book 4 of the Metamorphoses. The first story these that sisters shared with one another was the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe – one of the more famous narratives in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Pyramus and Thisbe, a handsome youth and a lovely girl, lived next door to one another in the city of Babylon. They met one another, and through subtle displays, communicated their mutual love to one another, although their parents forbade them being together. Pyramus and Thisbe, however, managed to communicate with one another through a small fissure in the wall that separated their family properties. Late at night, they would talk, and curse the physical and metaphorical wall that lay between them, and before separating, kiss the stone barrier that kept them apart.

Finally, the burden of their mutual love grew too great for them to bear. Pyramus and Thisbe planned to sneak out one night and meet one another outside the city – at a tomb they both happened to know the location of. Having resolved to be together, Pyramus and Thisbe found that the day passed with agonizing slowness. When night fell, Thisbe was the first to sneak out. Waiting breathlessly at the appointed spot, Thisbe was startled to see a lion stalking around a nearby fountain – a frightening predator, with blood matted around its mouth from a recent meal. Thisbe jumped up and fled, hiding in a cave, but accidentally dropped her cloak. The lion found the cloak and mangled it before wandering off.

Pyramus arrived shortly afterward, and he found Thisbe’s cloak, torn and spotted with blood. He gasped, realizing that all evidence suggested that his lover had died an awful death – and had died an awful death because of him. He screamed at the lions to come and kill him too, but when none came, Pyramus drove his sword into his belly, bleeding profusely before collapsing into a crumpled heap. Just then, Thisbe came out and took in the awful sight of her lover lying in his own blood. She pieced together what had happened and told him to please raise his head and open his eyes. Pyramus did so, and his last sight was the fading face of his beloved. And Thisbe said, in the Norton Charles Martin translation,
O poor unfortunate! You’ve lost your life
by your own hand and by your love for me!
In my hand too, there’s strength to do the same,
and love that will give power to my stroke!
I’ll follow you until the very end;
it will be said of me I was the cause
as well as the companion of your ruin.
Death once had strength to keep us separate;
it cannot keep me now from joining you!
And may our wretched parents, mine and yours,
be moved by this petition to allow us,
joined in the same last hour by unwavering love,
to lie together in a single tomb. (IV.204-16)

With these words, Thisbe put the sword of Pyramus, still warm with his blood, against her chest and fell onto it. And Ovid tells us that indeed, they were entombed together. This story, by the way, is the most likely source narrative of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – star-crossed lovers, forbidding parents, and one who mistakenly believes the other is dead and takes his own life. And Shakespeare also parodies it in Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and replicates the double death scene in Antony and Cleopatra, too. [short music]

Venus and Mars, and Venus’ Revenge Against Helios

The next story that the blasphemous daughters of Minyas told one another was another tale of an illicit love affair. The story of Mars and Venus appears in Book 8 of the Iliad, and it is as follows. Venus was married to the smith god Vulcan, certainly a steady and useful marital partner, but not an especially handsome or genteel one. When Vulcan was informed that his wife Venus was having an affair with Mars, Vulcan wove a miraculously subtle net of bronze wires. He waited until the lovers were in bed together, and then captured them in the act with his net.

Nude and in one another’s arms, it was certainly impossible for Venus and Mars to deny their affair. Vulcan didn’t try to hide his wife’s infidelity at all – in fact, he pulled the bedroom doors open for all the other Olympian gods to see, and, almost as one, they laughed at the ridiculous and debased spectacle of the goddess of love cheating on her husband.

Venus was not happy about this. She had been betrayed – not by Vulcan, her husband, nor by Mars, her lover, but by the sun, Helios, or Sol in Latin – at least, that’s how she felt. Venus made the sun fall in love with a mortal girl called Leucothoë. The sun, who had evidently never been in love before, was soon overtaken with passion.

Soon, the sun, overcome with love for a mortal girl, had trouble performing its basic function – and Ovid writes a wonderful description of the sun’s increasing dysfunctionality under the throes of passion. This is the Oxford A.D. Melville translation:
Why he, whose fires set all the world aglow,
Glowed with new fire, and he who should observe
All things gazed only on Leucothoë,
And fastened on one girl those eyes he owes
To all creation. In the eastern sky
Sometimes he rose too soon; sometimes too late
He sank beneath the waves, and, lingering
To look at her, prolonged a winter’s day. (IV.270-7)

The sun was so desperate to be with Leucothoë that he disguised himself as her mother and snuck into her bedroom. He kissed her gently, as a mother would, and then told the servants to leave the room. Alone with Leucothoë at last, the sun revealed his true identity to her, and the poor girl was terrified. She did not resist, however, when he made love to her.14

Ovid wraps the story of the passionate sun up with a familiar ending. A water nymph loved the sun desperately, but had never had any luck with him. Jealous of the sun’s love for the mortal girl Leucothoë, the water nymph told Leucothoë’s father that Leucothoë was no longer chaste. As a result, poor, powerless young Leucothoë’s dad buried her alive in a big mound of sand. And the sun, though he tried to melt the sand off of his beloved, was brokenhearted to find that she had died. He bathed the area around her with warm light, and Leucothoë turned into a sweet fragrance, like incense. [short music]

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus

Now remember, in Book 4 of the Metamorphoses we’re still in a frame narrative, and the blasphemous sisters of Boeotia, who deny the sacred rites of Bacchus, are still telling the stories. With the tale of the sun’s ill-fated romance wrapped up, another sister began the next story – the story of a certain magical fountain. The fountain in question is the fountain of Salmacis, whose waters could make even the brawniest and most manly man soft and effeminate, and the story is about how this fountain came to be.

NAVEZ Francois Joseph Ovid The Nymph Salmacis And Hermaphroditus

Francois Joseph’s The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829) shows the moment when Salmacis, watching the bathing youth, can stand it no longer, and rushes to embrace him.

Once, there was a boy, the son of Venus and Mercury. At just 15, the young man began a long trek through the rugged terrain of modern day Turkey. After many adventures, he found a still pool unclogged by aquatic plants, full of clear water and surrounded by a carefully manicured lawn. A nymph lived there called Salmacis – a nymph who had rejected the virgin cult of the huntress Diana, and spent her days preening her hair and gazing into the still pool. This nymph, again Salmacis, saw the adventurous fifteen-year-old boy tramping around her pond.

The nymph Salmacis carefully arranged her hair and then gave lavish compliments to the boy, whose resulting blushes were becoming on him. Unable to resist, she leaned in for a kiss, but the boy wouldn’t let her, and so Salmacis retreated to a hiding place, leaving him alone to bathe. And bathe the boy did. Salmacis watched him, drinking in the details of his naked body as he paddled around her pool. Finally, she could resist no longer. The nymph Salmacis tore off her clothes and flung herself into the pool, seizing the boy and twining her limbs together with his. He resisted her kisses and other efforts, but she told him that even if he would not yield, he’d never escape. The nymph Salmacis prayed that she would never, under any circumstances be parted from her beloved youth, and the gods granted her wish – Salmacis and the boy were fused as one, and the new being was called Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus prayed to their divine parents that, for the sake of what they’d endured, anyone who touched the fountain of Salmacis would be softened and made effeminate, as they had been, and the gods granted their wish. [short music]

The Transformation of the Daughters of Minyas

Thus, the last daughter of Minyas, again one of the Boeotian girls who’d been ignoring the sacred rites of Bacchus, finished up her tale. And suddenly, these impious girls had to pay for their sacrilege against Bacchus, just as the Theban King Pentheus had at the end of the previous book of the Metamorphoses. First, the daughters of Minyas heard the commotion of Bacchus’ celebrants outside, beyond the walls of their home. As they had told the previous few stories, they had been weaving, and abruptly the threads and strings in their hands and looms turned green and changed into vines, and the vines grew leaves and burst with grapes. It was twilight, and the torches in the house flared up, throwing frightful shapes on the walls.

In the flickering half-light of the home, the daughters of Minyas began to change. They grew translucent wings, and their voices became almost inaudible. They mutated, at the bidding of Bacchus, into bats, thereafter haunting homes by night, and appearing against the darkening sky at dusk. And this, says Ovid, was yet further evidence of the primacy of Bacchus to the citizens of Thebes. [short music]

Juno Butchers Bacchus’ Caretakers

The next story Ovid offers in Book 4, also connected to Bacchus and the city of Thebes, is a blood and thunder tale of Juno seeking revenge against a Theban queen Ino, who raised Bacchus up from childhood after Bacchus’ mother Semele died. Always entirely rational, Juno at that point hated anything connected with Bacchus, because Bacchus was the product of her husband Jupiter’s extramarital meanderings. So Juno went down to the underworld.

There is a deity in Virgil’s Aeneid called Tisiphone – Aeneas sees her standing on the wall of the palace of Tartarus with snakes in her hair, her clothing slick with blood. This is the same deity whom Juno consults in an effort for revenge. Juno, thinking of the uncle and aunt of Bacchus who had raised the boy, asked the fury Tisiphone help her get revenge against the pair. Tisiphone said that that sort of thing was right up her alley. Ovid writes, “At once the ominous Tisiphone / selected a torch reddened with dripping gore, / and a belt of live snakes. And so appareled, / set out from home accompanied by Grief, / with Fear and Terror and convulsive Madness” (IV.659-64).

The fury Tisiphone went to the home of Bacchus’ aunt and uncle – that couple Juno hated so much. Tisiphone went into her victims’ home and soaked them with poison – dredged from various places in the stinking grottoes of the underworld. The unfortunate pair, who were not only the godparents of Bacchus, but also the current rulers of Thebes, quickly descended into insanity. The king seized his infant son and dashed the child’s head apart on a rock. The queen, in a mad frenzy, grabbed her daughter, sprinted to the ocean, and jumped in with the child.

It was a horrific end to the blighted dynasty of Cadmus of Thebes, a dynasty that had fallen into infanticide and various other forms of internecine killings. Juno was pleased, The Theban queen and her daughter, at the pity of Venus, were changed into ocean deities, and the queen’s servants, crushed by loss, transformed into statues. [short music]

Cadmus and Harmonia Transform

Now Cadmus, whom we first met almost two full books ago – that legendary, dragon slaying founder of Thebes, was still there in the city of Thebes, alive. Reflecting on the bloody disintegration of his city and his scions, Cadmus decided to take his wife Harmonia, and leave. They wandered far and wide, and Cadmus speculated about what he’d done to incur such horrors and misfortunes.

He thought that perhaps it was the serpent he’d slain long ago, when he’d first come to Thebes, and said that if this were the case, then the gods ought to change him into a serpent. And in the middle of his statement, indeed, Cadmus began to transform. Ovid describes the mechanics of this transformation in meticulous detail, as he does with many transformations in the Metamorphoses. Cadmus’ wife Harmonia was distraught at her husband’s change, and prayed that she could at least join him, and so she, too, became a great serpent with a forked tongue and a crest. Perhaps cognizant of just having told a long string of stories with dark endings, Ovid is careful to add that Cadmus and Harmonia “no longer flee from men, / nor do they harm them; mindful of their former / identities, they’re very gentle dragons” (IV.824-7). Thus, the great Theban hero Cadmus, who’d seen such miseries consume his city, found some respite in his old age. [short music]

Perseus’ Later Adventures

Just as some of Bacchus’ clan denied his divine parentage, Ovid writes, over in Argos, another of Jupiter’s children was falsely accused of being entirely mortal. This boy was called Perseus, and Ovid picks up Perseus’ adventures right in the middle of things, after Perseus had already slain the gorgon Medusa and taken her head. As Perseus was flying around the Mediterranean with his notorious winged shoes, he came to the far western lands of the titan Atlas.

Corinthian Vase depicting Perseus, Andromeda and Ketos

A Corinthian Vase showing Perseus, Andromeda and the kraken. Photo by BishkekRocks.

Atlas had an orchard of trees which grew golden apples, and Perseus asked him for one. Perseus said he was the son of Jupiter, after all, and thus he merited a bit of divine fruit. Atlas was not convinced. He said he’d heard that a son of Jupiter would come to him asking for fruit, and that that was why his orchard was encircled by walls and patrolled by a dragon. Perseus, unwilling to take no for an answer, flashed Medusa’s head at Atlas, changing him into a mountain, bristling with trees. The stone remains of Atlas grew, and grew, and grew, until they supported the heavens overhead.

A little later on, Perseus was flapping around North Africa, and he came to Ethiopia. There, the Ethiopian princess Andromeda had, at the behest of her evil parents, been chained naked to a rock. Perseus went down and spoke with her, asking what had happened. Andromeda was in the midst of explaining when an enormous sea monster burst out of the water. Perseus somehow had the time to work out an arrangement with Andromeda’s parents – if he could kill the monster, and save her, Perseus asked, could he have her as his wife? And Andromeda’s parents said that Perseus could not only marry their daughter, but also have their kingdom as a dowry, and then the fight began.

Perseus soared into the sky and the monster attacked his shadow on the water. And then he crashed down onto it like an eagle, stabbing its shoulder. Perseus attacked the creature from everywhere at once, until blood and seawater made his winged shoes ineffectual. Then, Perseus clung to a rock near the creature’s belly and stabbed it until it fell over dead.

As the assembled Ethiopians looked on in awe, Perseus set the head of Medusa temporarily down on the ground. Blood oozed out of the monster’s head and snaky locks, and from the severed part of the monster there grew the first corals. Perseus then built altars and made sacrifices. And as the Ethiopians had promised, it was time for him to marry the princess Andromeda. [short music]

Perseus’ Wedding Feast

The wedding feast of Perseus and Andromeda had soon taken place. And in the midst of the wine and after dinner chatting, someone asked Perseus how in the world he’d come to have the head of Medusa. Perseus told him what had happened. He’d gone to a dusky land, filled with the petrified forms of men and animals, evidence of Medusa’s formidable power. Perseus was able to watch Medusa in his reflected shield, and, sneaking up to her while she slept, he sliced off her head. Her blood, Perseus added, splashed out and gave birth to the winged horse called the Pegasus. Perseus went on to discuss his further travels, but the wedding guests actually wanted to know more about Medusa. Where had she come from? they asked. Why did she have snakes in her hair, whereas her sister gorgons did not?

Perseus then told the back story of Medusa. Medusa, he said, had once been a beautiful woman – particularly noted for her hair. And in one of the most patently nonsensical stories in the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s Perseus explains what happened to the beautiful Medusa. This is the Norton Charles Martin translation.
[I]t is said [, Perseus tells his listeners,] that Neptune ravished [Medusa],
and in the temple of Minerva, where
Jove’s daughter turned away from the outrage
and chastely hid her eyes behind her aegis.
So that this action should not go unpunished,
[Minerva] turned the Gorgon’s hair into foul snakes;
and [Minerva], to overwhelm her foes with terror,
bears on her breast the serpents she created. (IV.1086-93)

Evidently, Minerva was mad that Medusa had the effrontery to be raped in Minerva’s temple, and thus cursed her to be the ugliest creature in existence. It makes about as much sense as convicting a murder victim for getting shot in the chest. And with Perseus spinning yarns at his wedding feast, Ovid breaks off Book 4, setting the stage for more Perseus in Book 5. [music]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 5

Perseus’ Wedding Feast (continued)

The last book of the Metamorphoses we’ll cover in this episode picks up where the previous book left off – with Perseus at his wedding feast. It wasn’t all happy toasts and smiles and hugs at Perseus’ wedding feast, unfortunately. Before Perseus had managed to wrangle Andromeda into a hastily arranged marriage as the sea monster came for her, Andromeda had had a fiancé. Andromeda’s fiancé said that Perseus had stolen her from him. In spite of the counsel of his more reasonable brother, Andromeda’s fiancé threw his spear at the incredulous Perseus.

What followed was an incredibly violent battle in the feasting hall, a Homeric who killed whom with spears going through heads and enraged warriors slipping on the bloody floor, a gory index of single serving characters that lasts for an incredible two hundred and fifty lines and ends with Perseus whipping out Medusa’s head and turning scores of people to stone (V.50-300). When the killing was over, and Andromeda’s fiancé apologized, Perseus also turned him to stone. Ovid’s tale of Perseus meanders off into a closing pair of mini-episodes in which Perseus turns people to stone in his home city of Argos, and then on the island of Serifos. [short music]

The Thracian King and the Muses

The next part of Book 5 of the Metamorphoses concerns Minerva, Rome’s version of Athena. The Pegasus – that flying horse which had risen from the blood of Medusa, had sunk a hoof deep into the earth and created a new pool of water that everyone was suddenly talking about. Minerva asked the muses to show her this new spring, and Minerva admired it. As Minerva stared into the water, the muses told her an unsettling, and very strange story.

The muses had been up north, in the lands of Thrace. The weather had turned foul, and the Thracian king offered them shelter. They accepted, and before too long it became clear that the king intended to keep them captive and have his way with them. Conveniently, the muses could fly, and so they fluttered upward and escaped. The king climbed to his highest tower, and growled, “Whither thou goest, I shall go the same” (V.423). He flung himself from his tower. And he landed on the paving stones below on his head and split his head apart. That’s – uh – that’s the story. A strange little grotto of the Metamorphoses. [short music]

Nine Girls vs. Nine Muses

Minerva, standing at the pool forged by the Pegasus’ hoof, noticed something peculiar around her. Birds were singing with the voices of humans – magpies. The muses explained why this was happening. There had recently been nine girls – girls who were born to the same mother, who were rather simpleminded and arrogant, having grown up mainly in one another’s company. These nine girls came and visited the nine muses. And what happened next was nothing less than a rap battle. The Charles Martin translation replicates the nine girls’ arrogant speech to the nine muses. The arrogant nine sisters said,
We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through. (V.448-53)

The challenge speech as Charles Martin translates it is just wonderful, coming to a crescendo with, “So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam / And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!” (V.462-3). As you can probably guess, though, things didn’t go so well for these nine budding wordsmiths. They challenged the muses – if they won in a contest of song, they would be the new rulers of Mount Helicon – if the muses won, they could have Macedon.

The leader of the nine rhyming sisters went first, telling a pastiche of stories. Thereafter, as had been the terms of the contest, one of the muses replied. And as is the case in many books of the Metamorphoses, a tale-within-a-tale begins, the tale in question being the very important and widespread story of Proserpina and Pluto, or, as Greeks called them, Persephone and Hades. [short music]

Proserpina and Pluto

Ovid begins the familiar story of Proserpina and Pluto with Pluto being apprehensive about a bunch of commotion and ruckus up on earth and going to check the roofs of his great underworld caverns. At about this time, Venus told Cupid that it was time to get the underworld involved in love affairs – after all, people shouldn’t be resting in peace – they should be pursuing lovers in the world below as well as above. And what better place to start than with Pluto himself?

Ovid El rapto de Proserpina

Ulpiano Checa’s El rapto de Proserpina (1888). Scenes of Hades dragging Persephone down into darkness are pervasive in ancient Mediterranean pottery.

Pluto was thus struck by a fated arrow, and just thereafter, he saw Proserpina picking flowers. Hardly hesitating, the lord of the underworld seized the girl and rushed her off in his sooty chariot. On the way, back to the underworld, though, a nymph told Pluto to slow down. Really, said the nymph, abducting Proserpina was not a very good idea. Pluto hardly waited for her explanation. He tore open a portal to the underworld right there, and dragged Proserpina down into the darkness. The nymph who had warned Pluto and been ignored was so distraught that she transformed into pure water.

While this was going on, Proserpina’s mother Ceres, or the Greek Demeter, looked everywhere for the girl. After searching in a number of places, she saw her daughter’s girdle on the ground where young Proserpina had been dragged into the underworld. Ceres fumed. The goddess of the harvest looked all around her, and began to exercise her divine power. All over the fertile island of Sicily, crops began to fail. A water nymph pleaded with Ceres to stop withering that year’s harvest. She said Ceres had not lost out completely – Ceres’ daughter Proserpina was now the queen of the underworld.

Ceres was incredulous. She had not known that Pluto had abducted her daughter, after all, and so Ceres went up to the heavens to talk with Jupiter. Jupiter said he had no idea why Ceres was so upset – Pluto, after all, was a fine son-in-law. But if Ceres really was adamant about getting her daughter back, Jupiter said, he would consent to bring young Proserpina back – on one condition. Proserpina could return only if she had eaten nothing in the underworld.

As it turned out, Prosperina had, in fact, eaten food in the underworld – seven seeds of a pomegranate. One of the groundskeepers of the underworld told on Proserpina for doing so, and she changed him into a bird. But it was too late – Proserpina’s secret was out. And so Jupiter made a compromise – Prosperina was to spend half of her year in the upper world with her mother, and the other half below ground, with her husband. [short music]

Arethusa and the Close of Book 5

Having completed the well-known tale of Pluto and Proserpina, Ovid returns to one of the story’s minor characters – the nymph who had warned Pluto about kidnapping Proserpina, and who had changed into water. This nymph was called Arethusa. And one day, Arethusa was bathing in the river, in the nude. A river deity saw her and was captivated at the spectacle of the naked nymph. The river deity pursued Arethusa, and she fled. What happened next is something we’ve already seen in this episode – a woman, running from a pursuer she cannot escape, prays to be able to get away, and transformes. We heard this in the tale of Apollo and Daphne, who turned into a tree, and Pan and Syrinx, who changed into reeds. In the story of Arethusa, Arethusa, fleeing a river deity, changed into a cloud of mist and then melted into water. The river deity was not put off, however, and happily mingled his waters with hers, and she eventually became a fountain.

Two more short tales close Book 5 of the Metamorphoses, the final tales from Ovid that we’ll hear today. In one, an Athenian man ended up in the lands of Scythia, roughly modern day Ukraine and the territories east of it. This Athenian man went there to distribute the seeds of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, amidst the barbarians who lived north of the Black Sea. The barbarian king was so jealous of the Athenian’s gifts, however, that he tried to kill the Athenian in his sleep. Ceres, not wanting her seed-bearing emissary to be hurt, changed him into a lynx. Which makes about as much sense as most of the stuff that gods do in the Metamorphoses.

And one final tale wraps up an earlier framing narrative. If you recall, the last few stories have been told by a group of nine garrulous sisters who’d challenged the nine muses to a storytelling contest. Not too surprisingly, the nymphs refereeing the contest concluded that the muses were far better wordsmiths than the mortal upstarts who had challenged them, and so the nine mortal sisters were transformed into birds. [short music]

The Scope and Contents of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

So that was the first five books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a dizzying whirl of transformations that takes us a third of the way through the epic. From what we’ve heard today, the most famous tales are probably the stories of Deucalion and Pyrrha, or Ovid’s survivors of the global flood, the son of the sun, Phaëthon, Diana and the poor hunter Actaeon, turned into a stag, stammering Echo and handsome Narcissus, the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, and the unlikely duo of Pluto and Proserpina.

I hope my summary has given you an idea of the overall pacing and connectivity of the Metamorphoses. The book’s many stories move quickly, sometimes being spliced together by little more than a line or two. I also hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that Ovid’s most famous book is fun to read. With the exception, maybe, of the ultraviolent but not very interesting yarn of Perseus’ bloody wedding feast, the tales that you heard today, when you read them in Ovid, are concisely introduced and marvelously narrated. From time to time, Ovid’s Russian dolls of stories within stories grow a little confounding, and sometimes the poet’s instinct to pile in one or two couplet-long references to other transformation stories while already telling a transformation story seems like needless ostentation. But on the whole, the Metamorphoses opens with a bang and never lets up, inviting the reader, again and again, to turn the page and read just one more.

I think one of the unexpected things that you find when you read the Metamorphoses is that it is not, purely speaking, just an anthology of ancient stories. It is, more specifically, an anthology of parts of ancient narratives that have to do with transformations. Thus, when Ovid gets to the story cycle surrounding the ancient Greek hero Perseus, Ovid picks up Perseus’ saga in the middle of the hero’s adventures, glossing over Perseus’ birth, his being cast out to sea in a box with his mother, his later being armed by the gods, his wanderings and his victory over Medusa. Rather than telling this entire narrative, Ovid gets straight to the battle in the Ethiopian court, because Perseus turning his foes to stone, being a tale about a transformation, is the part of the hero’s deeds that Ovid wants to make sure and include in the Metamorphoses.

With Perseus’ story, and hundreds of other myths, Ovid’s inclusion and exclusion of tales or parts of tales is dictated by the overall scope of his project. He wants to tell stories about transformations. While Book 3 of the Metamorphoses, which we read today, engages widely with the myths surrounding the early history of Thebes, Ovid has almost nothing to say about Oedipus, Jocasta, Polynices, Eteocles, Ismene and Antigone, that notorious family at the center of Sophocles’ Theban plays. The Oedipus saga, after all, does not include any transformations. Occasionally, the rather narrow subject Ovid focuses on can make the Metamorphoses feel like a microscope, moving carefully through a long docket of stories and again and again retelling parts of stories involving transmutation. But the governing agenda of the epic only occasionally feels constricting. Most often, as Ovid dashes from tale to tale, particularly as you move into the later books of the collection, the stories seem to occur with a fresh spontaneity that belies the rather strict governing agenda behind them. The Metamorphoses might indeed be over 250 narratives about transformations, but Ovid spins them together with a variety and narrative energy that amply compensates for their occasional repetitiousness. [music]

Ovid and Postmodernism

Before we delve into the next five books of the Metamorphoses, I think we should take a minute and consider the ideology that loosely governs the entire poem. There is plenty to be said on this subject. Readers, hearing what you’ve heard today, have studied the parallels between Genesis and the opening book of the Metamorphoses. Critics have grouped Ovid’s references to Augustus and Augustan Rome together to try and determine whether the poet communicates a subversive message about Rome’s chief executive. A poem with such scope and variety, naturally, has inspired thousands of years of analysis, and it’s hard to find a single story in the poem that hasn’t occasioned a dozen onion layers of scholarly articles.

What I want to do now is give you a standard, middle-of-the-road assessment of the worldview that the Metamorphoses communicates as a whole. Let’s hear a quote from Ovid scholar Edward Kenney. Kenney writes,
Ovid depicts a universe in which human beings, and more often than not the gods who are supposed to be in charge, are at the mercy of blind or arbitrary or cruel, and always irresistible, forces. . .Repeatedly the emphasis is on deception and violence; the reader soon comes to realize that the description of an idyllic landscape is a prelude to rape or bloodshed. . .Ovid’s achievement in the Metamorphoses is to transmute what ought to be a profoundly depressing vision of existence into a cosmic comedy of manners.15

In other words, the relentless transmutation that lies at the heart of Ovid’s poem ravages everyone. Innocent youths suffer agonizing and humiliating fates, and reprobate gods get away with even the most perverse crimes. There is no morality that governs it all. The ostensible head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, is merely a dumb nymphomaniac, and the other immortals, who rape, transform, kill, and mutilate according to misconceived jealousies and outright perversions, are hardly the figureheads of a stable world. Yet, as Kenney notices, the Metamorphoses is no bitter and tragic dirge, but instead a sort of celebration of the evanescence of all existence.

Ovid inherited an intellectual lineage that we’ve talked about in past episodes, a lineage that stretched back to the mostly lost world of Presocratic philosophy. The philosopher Heraclitus was probably a part of Ovid’s intellectual heritage, that thinker who proposed change and flux as the only constants in nature, and theorized that you can’t step into the same river twice, because neither you nor the river are ever the same, from moment to moment.16 The perpetual and merciless transformation at the heart of the Metamorphoses exemplifies Heraclitus’ doctrine of constant change in scene after scene.

Now, we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves, here, because the final book of the Metamorphoses, Book 15, contains the most sustained philosophical statement in the epic, and we’ll talk about that more when we get there. To stick with what we’ve read so far, Ovid’s Metamorphoses demonstrates flux as the signature feature of all existence, dispensing with the notion that anything permanent governs life on earth. To return to the quote we heard earlier, in spite of the harsh randomness Ovid sees governing all existence, and in spite of the fact that seemingly every other story in the Metamorphoses involves some sort of awful suffering, the epic unfolds more like a garish ballroom than a bleak requiem.

The most obvious reason for the overall levity of the Metamorphoses is that Ovid is writing fiction, and he knows it. Even perhaps the saddest and most anguished story in the whole epic – the tale of Philomela, which we’ll read next time, is ultimately, utterly predictable. Its leading character turns into a bird at the story’s climax, just as dozens of other Ovidian characters do, and as sad as her tale has been, at that moment we realize she’s just a small figure in an enormous masque. The overwhelming formal unifier that directs the Metamorphoses – short stories about transformations – means that we as readers rarely begin a story without knowing how it’s going to end. And because we know the stories’ endings, the Metamorphoses can often have the feel of a melodrama or variety show – a production with many variant subcomponents that is still meticulously restricted to the same formal constraints. Nonetheless, in spite of the marvelous formal consistency of the Metamorphoses, as time has passed, the paradoxical worldview of the Metamorphoses – its glibly ruthless portrait of the human condition, has been poorly received by key generations of readers.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), perhaps the most quintessential image from modernism. Modernist artwork shows the creeds of the enlightenment, the assurances of religion, and even (as seen here) the structures of perception as disenchanted and broken by the realities of industrial modernity.

Ovid’s reputation was not at its height from the period that stretched from Romanticism up until very recently. Romanticism, that late-eighteenth-century European turn from the scientificity and rationalism of the Enlightenment and back to emotionality and spirituality, found Ovid to be a sort of substanceless dandy – a literary fop more fond of flamboyance than saying anything with sincerity. Ovid’s love poems, as we have seen, are wildly irreverent, both the Amores and the Ars Amatoria depicting the whole enterprise of romance as an occasionally sticky parlor game. During the Victorian period, and during the postwar high water mark of literary modernism, Ovid’s freewheeling attitude toward love, and his challengingly amoral fusion of all Greco-Roman myths in the Metamorphoses seemed evidence that he was an unfeeling, nihilistic pagan – a fine technical performer at best.

But times, as they always do in literary criticism, have changed, and in the postmodern period, Ovid’s reputation has soared. Now, if you haven’t been through some sort of humanities program, the terms modernism and postmodernism can sound more intimidating than they should – they’re both pretty simple at a high level. Modernism was that moment after World War I, when, after trench warfare, mustard gas, and machine guns, the nations involved with the conflict looked inward and realized that humanity still had a long way to go. The literature written during this period, by and large, was not characterized by optimism. After all, the creeds and theologies of the nineteenth century – creeds and theologies that since the Enlightenment had preached and predicted a general amelioration of the human species, got snagged up on barbed wire and mired in bullet-riddled trenches some time in the 1910s, and much of the literate world had to do some serious soul searching. One of the most famous lines of the ultimate modernist poem, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste-Land,” is “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” a line which, placed in the poem where it is, expresses the speaker’s sentiment that in the vacuous and alienating horror of postwar modernity, he only has a bunch of fragmented and unsatisfying creeds and stories. The modernists, who delved variously into stream of conscious narrative techniques, imagism, and new forms of visual representation in order to speak to their feelings of pain and disappointment with the twentieth century, were not partial to Ovid’s unsentimental levity.

Action painting 1

An action painting in the style of Jackson Pollock, painted by Michael Philip. Postmodern art sees the disintegration of tradition and convention not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity for radical and free form experimentation.

In the postmodern period, though, Ovid’s reputation has increased significantly. Modernists like T.S. Eliot saw the interwar period as a time of cultural tragedy – a time when the best creeds of the most inveterate institutions had failed, leaving humanity careening through an empty and meaningless universe. Postmodernists celebrated this new emptiness and meaninglessness, finding radical freedom in the disintegration of cultural and formal traditions. In “The Waste-Land,” Eliot says he has shored fragments against his ruins, propping up the shredded remnants of his cultural heritage to cope with the lawless and devitalized modernity around him. To postmodernists, though, lawlessness meant liberation, and the fragments of broken creeds were exciting raw materials to be refashioned into the mosaics and maches of an emancipated new style of art. So, while Picasso’s cubist works might be the simplest image of modernism – those images in which jagged polygons and squares distort the rules of traditional portraiture and naturalist representation, perhaps the best image of postmodernism is the explosively colorful canvases of Jackson Pollock. Modernists lamented the fact that theology and science had failed to deliver humanity from its baser tendencies. Postmodernists, observing the ultimate deficits of some of humanity’s best creations, chose to celebrate the meaninglessness and indeterminacy of a world seemingly without rules.

Classicist Philip Hardie, in an essay about Ovid’s historical reception which I quoted in an earlier episode, writes that in the postmodern period, “What formerly was seen as superficial wit and an irredeemable lack of seriousness has been reassessed in the light of a postmodernist flight from realism and presence towards textuality and anti-foundationalism.”17 It’s a wordy quote, so let’s rephrase it. The Metamorphoses does not advance a thesis. It flirts with creeds – Heraclitus’ notion of perpetual flux, for instance, and the atomic materialism of Epicurus and Lucretius, and later, as we’ll see, the Pythagorean doctrine of reincarnation. But by and large, the stories of the Metamorphoses flash by with little aim other than to showcase the author’s erudition and to recount tales of carnage and lust and startling turns of events. There’s an eventual turn to Julius Caesar and Augustus, but as we’ll see when we get there, it’s a turn performed with a satirical flourish that gently undermines any notion that the Augustan age will somehow be exempt from the demolitions of history.

And so Ovid, with his unfaltering irreverence, and his famous collage of stories, found great favor in the postmodern period. And the historical period in which he came of age has some uncanny resemblances to the late 20th-century. Europe, reeling from two world wars, found its ideologies and cultural institutions called dramatically to question. Similarly, Rome, which had just lost its 500-year republican form of government, felt a seismic shift in its entire social structure. The cosmopolitan cities where postmodernism arose had a diversity comparable to the million-citizen-strong metropolis in which Ovid lived. In both places and times, long and horrific wars gradually gave way to unanticipated prosperity. Theologies and cultural traditions splashed together, with few central institutions to police them. The literarily minded had access to seemingly limitless volumes of texts and ideas, and newly stable economies and institutions to help propel their efforts. The wars, and the concerns, and sacred interests of an older generation had passed, and a younger generation was left to improvise in the bittersweet peace of a new epoch. [music]

Moving On to Books 6-10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I’d like to thank Professor Rhiannon Evans of La Trobe University for giving this episode a once over before I recorded it. One of the things we read in the Metamorphoses today was Ovid’s tale of how a golden age of global history fell into violence and squalor, and this is a story we have seen again, and again in our podcast, throughout the theological and literary narratives of Bronze and Iron Age Eurasia. Professor Evans’ book Utopia Antiqua, published in 2008 by Routledge, is largely about Roman literary treatments of this narrative – a narrative of decline from a utopian past to a grim and withered present, whether it occurs in works of literature, like the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, or the diatribes of political conservatives like Cato the Elder, and how it influenced Roman culture, from city planning to art to coins and other everyday objects. While I strongly recommend her book for readers interested in this subject, to every single person listening, if you haven’t heard it, I have to recommend Professor Evans’ main podcast series Emperors of Rome. The series begins chronologically, from the empire’s inception, through the Julio-Claudians, Flavians, and beyond, but also engages with a wide and fascinating array of subjects pertinent to ancient Roman culture – slavery, old age, the history of the Latin language, Rome’s evolving geography, Roman historiography, philosophy, and literature. Just about any episode of the Emperors of Rome podcast can be enjoyed as a standalone piece, and the show is a truly unique combination of richness in information, humor, and extremely strong and organized teaching. Beyond her very popular program Emperors of Rome, Dr. Evans has released lecture sequences through her university on Roman history Rome’s epics, and classical mythology more generally. I also want to formally thank Dr. Evans from coming all the way from Melbourne Australia for our conference at Harvard last month. She’s a professional academic who also believes in popularizing her discipline and literally traveling across the world to do so, and in an era in which academics still have few institutional incentives to do things like podcasts, she’s been a pioneer of telling Rome’s story to people like us for free. Also, a big shout out to her university, La Trobe University, for being so proactive about soliciting and releasing a variety of high quality podcasts from faculty members. I hope the model catches on.

In the next program, we’re going to cover Books 6-10 of the Metamorphoses. These books contain some particularly well-loved stories – the tales of Arachne, Philomela, Theseus, the Calydonian Boar hunt, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and many more. As we journey into the heart of the Metamorphoses, I think we’ll begin to get a sense of the massiveness of his achievement in the poem, but also that perhaps there is an ideology behind it, after all. To modernists and readers several generations before them, Ovid was a sort of harlequin – a fine performer, certainly, but with no fiber or substance. To us today, though, the very expansiveness and inclusiveness of the Metamorphoses actually is a sort of governing ideology. Ovid may never have expressed loyalty to any specific doctrine. He may come across as a cold and suave playboy in his love poetry. He may be frustratingly opaque and emotionless in his treatment of the historical period in which he lived. But in the encyclopedic pages of the Metamorphoses, we can begin to understand that by the age of 40, Ovid had become a tremendous scholar, and that his loyalties to literature itself were so strong that he had little room left to espouse any other ideology.

Now we covered an enormous amount of information in this episode, and I just want to offer you an invitation to a couple of more resources for the purposes of retention and study. The Metamorphoses has probably inspired more works of visual art than any other text besides the Bible. I always put up maps and pertinent works of visual art in episode transcriptions at literatureandhistory.com so that you can see how artists have envisioned figures like, say, Clytemnestra or Abraham or Aeneas. These three shows on the Metamorphoses have an unusual quantity of visual art to accompany them on my website – you might enjoy seeing, for instance, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, or Peter Paul Rubens’ Phaëthon, or John William Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus. Additionally, I have some especially long and detailed quizzes on the Metamorphoses on my website – the three of them together should be about ninety questions on the most prominent stories in Ovid’s epic, and I hope you’ll be able to use them from time to time to review the who’s-who of all these terrific stories. For you Patreon supporters I’ve uploaded a couple of Metamorphoses-inspired poems for you – early works by Alfred Lord Tennyson – the poems “The Kraken,” and “Tithonus,” to be specific. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. Got a song coming up if you want to hear it. If not, I’ll see you next time.

I want to close this particular episode with something special – a song from someone else. One of the fun things about doing Literature and History is the people I get to meet. About a year ago I started corresponding back and forth with listener Joel McKinnon. We were chatting about books and ancient history, and he sent me a link to an album he’d recently finished with his band. It wasn’t just a rock album – it was a sci-fi rock opera. And though I had no personal experience with sci-fi rock operas – I mean the genre can’t be all that expansive, after all – Joel’s album was really, really good. And Joel, over the course of the past six months or so, has taken his band’s sci-fi rock opera and made it into a full on podcast, so that there are stories that introduce each of the album’s songs. I am familiar with the stories, because I did the voiceover for them in Joel’s podcast. It was a really fun mini-project for me to read someone else’s work, rather than my own, and I think the end product should be an enjoyable listen for anyone who likes science fiction and great music. So here’s one of the songs from the podcast, which is called Planet and Sky, and is available at planetandsky.com. It’s a song, fittingly for our program today, about transformation, in which three of the principal characters of the story are all changing into something else.

[“Travelers” played from Planet and Sky]

And again that was from the podcast Planet and Sky, at planetandsky.com – a show produced by Joel McKinnon, and featuring music from the Max Wyvern Band. I have not put it up on Patreon, since it’s not my song, but for my Patreon supporters, I again recorded some famous Metamorphoses-themed poems, complete with introductory blurbs that explain them. recorded something extra for you – an introduction to and reading of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Tithonus.” Thanks again for listening, and Ovid and I will be back soon!


1.^ See Knox, Bernard. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Martin. Norton, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 127.

2.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn and with an Introduction by Denis Feeney. Penguin Classics, 2004.

3.^ Barchiesi, Alessandro. “Narrative technique and narratology in the Metamorphoses.” Printed in Hardie, Philip, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Kindle Edition, Location 187.

4.^ Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1999, p. 12.

5.^ Dennis Feeney describes “the inexhaustible cunning Ovid displays in knitting together his diverse stories and in juggling his basic compositional unit, the book.” Feeney, Denis. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 289.

6.^ These demarcations are from Kenney, E.J. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford University Press, 1986, p. xx.

7.^ Ovid. Ovid’s Erotic Poems: Amores and Ars Amatoria. Translated by Len Krisak, with an Introduction and Notes by Sarah Ruden. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Further references noted parenthetically.

8.^ Kenney, E.J. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford University Press, 1986, p. xx.

9.^ Ibid, p. xxii.

10.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Martin and with an Introduction by Bernard Knox. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004, p.15.

11.^ The story of initial bountiful tranquility turning to agrarian industriousness has its nearest analog in Virgil, Geo 1.121-34.

12.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by A.D. Melville. Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 26.

13.^ The word used to describe the discovery is error, which scholars have paralleled with Tris 2.103 in an effort to theorize about Ovid’s exile. My thanks to Rhiannon Evans for pointing this out for me!

14.^ Much is at stake in the way that we translate Ovid’s rape stories, or even, in my case, summarize them. A recent short piece on this subject appears in this article in Electric Literature.

15.^ Kenney, E.J. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford University Press, 1986, p. xviii.

16.^ The most explicit reference to Heraclitus in the Metamorphoses is probably XV.178-83.

17.^ Hardie, Philip. “Introduction.” Printed in Hardie, Philip, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 4.