Metamorphoses Summary
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Ovid begins by saying that he will “sing about the forms of things changed into new bodies” (Ovid 9). He then proceeds to do exactly that. From the formation of the world to his own life, Ovid focuses on the changes that affect humanity without taking his topic too seriously. He makes witty remarks throughout that keep the tone light and joking, even when he discusses some very dark tales.
The first item to be addressed is the creation of the world, which is notable because he does not even try to say which god created the world. He simply says “whichever god it was” (Ovid 1). This seemingly insignificant phrase sets the tone for everything that follows.

The next thing he addresses is the destruction of the world in a flood. Jupiter and Neptune work together to drown the world. Jupiter creates storms, while Neptune raises the seas from their beds. Ovid tells the reader that “[t]he deluge carries off most living things. Those whom it spares, because food is so scarce, are overcome by gradual starvation” (Ovid 21). Only Deucalion and Pyrrha are spared, because they alone were pious enough to be worthy. In this second book, we see more evidence of Ovid’s doubt when he says, “and who would ever think this true, if old traditions did not confirm it?” (Ovid 25). Clearly, Ovid is not convinced, in spite of the age of the story.

After the world is repopulated, Ovid relates the stories of Europa, the founding of Thebes, the birth of Bacchus, the blinding of Tiresias, Narcissus and Echo, and tales of Bacchus’s might. In relating the stories of Zeus’s many lovers, Ovid never misses an opportunity to show Juno’s petty, jealous nature. Though Juno and her Greek counterpart have been portrayed as a vengeful wife of a constant cheater throughout history, Ovid seems completely unimpressed by the Queen of Olympus, often portraying her as one would any spoiled brat. Another reference to his disbelief occurs when he speaks of Bacchus being twice-born. Ovid says, “if such things can be believed,” leaving the reader with the clear impression that they cannot (Ovid 91).

Bacchus is also addressed in the following section, when he is scorned by the daughters of Minyas and proves himself to be a god worthy of worship. The women swap stories as they refuse to observe the god’s festival. Through them, Ovid relates the stories of Pyramus and Thisbe, Vulcan laying a trap for his adulterous wife, and several more before telling how Bacchus rewarded the sisters for their impiety.

When Ovid turns his attention to heroes of lore, instead of recounting tales of daring courage he make clear that he is unimpressed with the mighty battles. He portrays Phineus as cowardly and Perseus as not quite dishonest. Phineus hid while his fiancé, Andromeda, was offered as a sacrifice. Yet, when Perseus claimed Andromeda as his bride in exchange for saving her, Phineus returned to demand that his previous claim to the girl be honored. A battle ensued; many died. Perseus seemed to be losing until he used his greatest weapon, Medusa’s head, against Phineus’s army. Perseus promised not to use his sword on Phineus, but destroyed him with the gorgon’s head. Throughout this exchange, Andromeda had no say in events. She was simply the spoils going to the victor.

The gods return to punishing prideful mortals after Ovid leaves Perseus’s adventures. Minerva hears of Arachne’s boast that she is better at weaving than Minerva and challenges the mortal to a contest. They compete and there is no clear winner in skill, but Arachne has woven a tapestry indicting the gods for many of their crimes against mortals, while Minerva has glorified the actions of the gods. Minerva is filled with rage at the subjects Arachne chose and rips her tapestry to pieces before turning Arachne into a spider. Most people hear the story and are cautioned to be more respectful of the gods, but not Niobe. She believes herself to be superior to Latona, because she has fourteen children while Latona only has two. Latona’s two children take offense to the disrespect shown their mother and they destroy Latona’s children, many of them in front of her. Apollo and Diana reigned down this destruction purposefully and without mercy, even as Niobe begs forgiveness. The people grow more respectful after this.

Medea’s story follows, outlining her love for Jason and the powerful magic she uses. Aeacus calls on Jupiter for help and Jupiter creates the Myrimidons. Aurora, Goddess of Dawn, abducts a married Cephalus. Cephalus is true to his wife, Procris, but Aurora’s jealousy compels her to plant doubt in his mind about his wife’s fidelity. Both Procris and Cephalus doubt one another, which results in Procris accidentally dying at her husband’s hand when she sneaks around trying to see if he is cheating on her. The tragic misunderstanding is relayed to Phocus when he asks about Cephalus’s spear.

The story of faithfulness gives way to one of betrayal, as Ovid tells how Nisus’s daughter, Scylla, betrayed her own father for her love of Minos. Scylla has never met Minos, only watched him from afar. (It may be the first celebrity stalker tale in history.) Minos is rightly horrified by her action and returns to Crete after imposing his rule on the city. He then has the labyrinth built to contain the Minotaur. This, of course, leads to the story of Daedalus and Icarus, as well as Theseus’s defeat of the Minotaur. Here, Ovid begins to descend to previously unexplored depths of mankind’s depravity. He tells of an adventure of Theseus where a seemingly unbeatable boar was hunted by many heroes. The men were having no success until Atalanta, a female, wounded the animal. Meleager finally killed it, but wanted the honors to go to Atalanta, because she had drawn first blood. The other men in the hunting party were offended and a fight ensued. Meleager killed two of his uncles and was in return killed by his own mother. (This is reminiscent of Antigone—she valued her brothers over her son.) Ovid finishes this section with a story of Erisichthon. Erisichton chopped down a tree that was sacred. Ceres punished him with a hunger so powerful that he ended up eating his own body.

Achelous and Theseus are still trading stories as the next book begins, but Achelous turns it to a more personal tale. He recounts fighting with Hercules over Deianara and how Hercules broke off one of Achelous’s horns. Achelous is ashamed, because he lost to Hercules before the son of Zeus was deified. Next is the tale of Hercules and the river god Nessus, who attempted to rape Deianira, now the wife of Hercules. Nessus was killed by an arrow soaked in the poison of the Hydra, but found his revenge before dying. The river god soaked a shirt in his poison blood and gave it to Deianira, saying that it would “arouse new love” (Ovid 289). His revenge was carried out by Deianira without her knowledge when she thought Hercules’ love was waning. She gave him the poison shirt and it killed him. Jupiter sought and received the approval of the gods to make Hercules divine. Even Juno did not disagree. So, when his humanity was burned away by the poison, Jupiter brought Hercules to the heavens.

Ovid returns now to Bacchus, whose handmaidens (the maenads) kill Orpheus for rejecting them. The god punishes the maenads for this act by tying them down and turning them into oak trees, before journeying to Thrace to “reward” Midas for his dedication with the gift of turning everything he touched into gold. When Midas realizes the foolishness of his wish, he prays to Bacchus, who restores him. Midas spent his remaining days in the wilds, where he was unfortunate enough to come across a disagreement between Apollo and Pan over which instrument was superior. Apollo rules that the flute will forever be less than the lyre, but Midas disagrees with the ruling. For his hubris, Apollo changes the man’s ears into those of an ass. The building of Troy and the birth of Achilles are next described as a mixture of the gods disregard for human lives and the deviousness of humans.

Troy, once it is built, becomes a hotbed of activity. The war with the Greeks is addressed from the Roman viewpoint. Apollo is said to kill Achilles with the bow of Paris and Achilles’ weapons are claimed by Ajax and Ulysses. Agamemnon seeks the counsel of Greek leaders to settle the dispute between warriors.

The next section covers much bravado as both sides present their case. Each lists his accomplishments and insults the other’s deeds. The weapons are given to Ulysses and Ajax kills himself. Ulysses sets off to collect the weapons of Hercules. Troy’s destruction is complete. Hecuba’s transformation into a dog is described. Glaucus, the sea god, pursues Scylla, who flees because she sees him as a monster.

Following Scylla’s flight, Glaucus appeals to Circe, who falls in love with Glaucus. Instead of making Scylla love Glaucus, Circe transforms Scylla into a monster. Aeneas continues to tell his adventures. Romulus becomes a god and rules fairly. Hersilia, his queen, mourns his loss until Juno commands the mortal queen. Juno says that if Hersilia wants to be reunited with Romulus, the only path that leads there is following Juno.

The final installment of the book deals with more recent history of Rome and the ascension of Julius Caesar to godhood. Much praise is heaped on Augustus, who is the current emperor. This was probably due in large part to the fact that Ovid never stopped begging Augustus for forgiveness of his unnamed crime. The exiled poet longed for nothing more than to be returned to his home, and glorifying Augustus in this way was one attempt at reaching that goal.

His final passage refers to his own immortality through this undertaking. His prophecy does, indeed, seem to have been fulfilled. His immortality through his epic poem has been assured.