Summary of the Work
Ovid himself sums up his poetic intention in the introductory quatrain (four-line unit) of the Metamorphoses:
My intention is to tell of bodies changed
To different forms; the gods, who made the changes,
Will help me — or I hope so — with a poem
That runs from the world’s beginning to our own days.
These few lines explain that he will sing about changes: that the changes were brought about by the gods; and that he will sing a continuous song, encompassing tales from the creation of the world to his own time. Accordingly, the poem begins with the first change—when God or Nature ended the original chaos, separating land from water and sky, and the denser air from the light, fiery ether of the stratosphere. From that modest beginning, the Earth globe, the winds, stars, beasts, and mankind, evolved. History itself may be divided into four periods: the Golden Age, the Age of Silver, (and with it the four seasons), the Age of Bronze, and the Age of Iron, including the present.
When mankind became violent and wicked, Jupiter destroyed the world with the Flood; but the goddess Themis arranged a second creation by means of changing stones to people. A particularly vicious man, Lycaon, had already been turned into a wolf. A pattern had been established.
Almost imperceptibly, Ovid shifts from the story of the second creation into his main narrative: how the Earth had brought forth Python, a monstrous serpent; how Apollo killed Python with his arrow, founded the sacred Pythian games, and ordained that the winners should be crowned with oak leaves because the laurel of later victories did not yet exist. From this casual mention of the laurel, the poem moves effortlessly to the story of how the laurel came into being, the story of Apollo and Daphne. Daphne became the innocent victim of a wanton contest between Apollo and Cupid. To prove that even Apollo may be wounded by Cupid, the young god of love shoots an arrow into Apollo which causes him to become obsessed with desire for Daphne. Daphne is shot by another arrow which drives all love away. In a desperate flight to avoid Apollo’s unwanted advances, Daphne seeks divine intervention and is turned into a laurel tree.
This account of innocent maidens fleeing the rapaciousness of male gods is one of the typical story lines in the Metamorphoses, but the variations on it are endless. They explain how nymphs were turned into birds, flowers, reeds, and stones; how certain stars were placed into the Heavens; how the younger generation of gods and demigods came into being. The poem flows along almost like a stream, and it carries the reader with it.
More careful reading, however, reveals that this apparently seamless garment is artfully constructed. While it appears to be a chronological account of world history, certain pieces are placed out of chronological order into a thematic scheme. Toward the end, when the poem is already recounting the early history of Rome and approaching the poet’s own times, the undoing of the city of Croton seems to be included mainly to give occasion to introduce the teachings of Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, who, as a refugee from his native island, came to Croton and taught the citizens there. By setting forth the revolutionary thoughts of Pythagoras, (relative to vegetarianism and reincarnation), Ovid departs from tales of mythical gods and goddesses to champion Pythagoras’ causes. So eloquent is he in showing the evils of killing animals for food that all his arguments could have been written by modern-day vegetarians. But then Ovid skillfully returns to his narratives—King Numa, successor to Romulus, had listened to the teachings of Pythagoras! After Numa’s death, his wife Egeria mourns for him so piteously that she is scolded by Theseus’ son Hippolytus. This, in turn, provides an opportunity for Ovid to introduce the story of Hippolytus a young man, an innocent victim of slander, who was brought back from death, proving Pythagoras’ thesis of the immortality of the soul and the indestructibility of matter. With the threat of his banishment hanging over him, Ovid hastened to bring his tale up to date, ending with the deification of Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adopted father. He announced confidently that the work will endure and that the immortal part of himself, his soul, will survive.
Estimated Reading Time
The poem is divided into fifteen Books. Allowing two to three hours per book, the student should be able to read the entire Metamorphoses in 30 to 45 hours.
The Life and Work of Ovid
The title, Metamorphoses, is Greek and means “transformations” or “changes.” The author, Ovid, used ancient Greek myths as his principal subject matter and used the idea of changes as his leading motif—connecting the individual episodes within the poem.
Ovid was born as Publius Ovidius Naso in 43 B.C. in what is now central Italy. He died in Tomi, now Constanta, in A.D. 18.
His father, a landowner of some means, spared no expense in educating him; Ovid studied in Rome, and traveled over much of the Roman Empire to acquire knowledge. However, he refused to go along with his father’s ambitions to make him into a public official. Instead, the young man devoted all his energies to the writing of poetry and became both rich and famous. He had a happy, amorous disposition and was for a while very popular with the “smart set” of Roman society. He married three times and became the father of a daughter.
Unfortunately for him, the mores of Roman society swung back to the puritanical ideals of an earlier age, frowning upon moral licentiousness both in public life and in literature. The Emperor, Augustus, spearheaded this change. At the very peak of his popularity and fame, Ovid invoked official censure and was sentenced to be banished to a desolate, faraway shore. The official charges against him were based on the supposed immorality of some of his poems, but public opinion held that there were other, unnamed reasons for the extreme severity of the sentence—perhaps a personal grievance of the Emperor. Ovid’s third wife, who remained in Rome, championed his case loyally, but to no avail. He had to live out his life in Tomi, and die there, far from his beloved home, friends, and family.
His extant works—all but the Metamorphoses are written in elegiac couplets—fall into three principal groups. The Amores (Loves) traces a fictitious romance between the poet and a woman named Corinna—perhaps a composite of several of Ovid’s lovers. The Heroides consists of imaginary letters written by famous women in literature and history, treating the female sex with sympathy and understanding, which was unusual in that age and culture. It also contains three pairs of correspondences between lovers. A book on makeup (a relevant aspect of the art of love) was followed by the notorious Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love, 1 B.C.) a handbook on seduction in three volumes, two for men and one for women.
From 1 B.C. onward, Ovid worked concurrently on his two masterpieces: the Metamorphoses and the Fasti (Roman religious holidays). The latter was planned to take the reader through the Roman calendar year, but he finished only the first six months at the time of his banishment. The work on which he hoped to base his claim to immortality, in any case, was the Metamorphoses, one of the world’s supreme literary masterpieces.
After A.D. 9, the time of his exile, his main works were Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea). To this day, they are the most consummate expressions of homesickness and pleading.
When Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., he had designated his adopted son and nephew, Gaius Octavius, his heir. The 18-year-old youth accepted the dangerous legacy and performed so well that his rule is generally considered one of the most glorious in Roman history and, perhaps, in all European history. Popularly known as Caesar Augustus, or “august Caesar,” he was not only a great military leader but a superb administrator and a patron of the arts as well. During his reign, Roman literature came into its own, never to be surpassed in later ages. Among the authors who flourished in this, the Augustan Age, were Virgil, Horace, and Ovid.
Augustus was disturbed by the great moral laxity that had preceded his rule, and he was determined to put an end to it. It was this policy that destroyed Ovid’s flourishing career in the capital, for, as he complained, “a poem and an error.” Caesar, Augustus died in A.D. 14, but his successor, Tiberius, did not relent and Ovid was never permitted to return to Rome. With his death, the Golden Age of Roman literature came to an end.
Beginning with the two great poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the epic has flourished in Western literature. Its main characteristics include an invocation to the Muse; a lofty subject matter; a dignified tone; a hero with a generally admirable character; a traditional subject matter; supernatural elements, and; so-called epic conventions, such as epic similes, catalogs of armies, etc. The traditional meter has been either the iambic hexameter (six scanning feet with one short syllable followed by a long one) or the distich (one hexameter line alternating with one iambic pentameter consisting of five iambic feet). The Metamorphoses follows some, but by no means all, of these conventions.
Metamorphoses is Ovid’s only poem written in dactylic hexameters. It contains an Invocation of sorts: expressing a hope that the gods will help him. Its subject matter is traditional. It deals with ancient Greek myths and Roman traditions, but with a twist—the emphasis is on change. The idea that “everything always changes” was deeply imbedded in Greek thought starting with the philosopher Heraclitus, but Ovid transformed this dry philosophical tenet into dazzling poetry. He demonstrates that change is eternal and god-ordained, and that all life is interconnected.
The poem is full of supernatural elements; in fact, practically all of it concerns Greco-Roman divinities and their doings. However, unlike most other epic poems, it has no central hero—it ranges over the whole field of mythology, and its tone is, by turns, lofty or light, even flippant. Its main characters—depending on the interpretation the reader puts on the work—are either worthy of adoration (being gods and goddesses) or downright despicable, revealing their most un-godlike characteristics: jealousy, pride, envy, cruelty, petty rivalries. It is this tension, created by the contrast between the ostensibly divine characters and their less than admirable deeds, that gives the book its central momentum. This tension, together with Ovid’s unsurpassable poetic gifts, has made the Metamorphoses a book universally admired in the poet’s own age as well as through the centuries. The artists of the Renaissance used it as a veritable handbook for artistic themes. Among the innumerable poets who have read and enjoyed it, and borrowed copiously from it, are Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Metamorphoses is generally conceded to be Ovid’s finest work. In this collection of poems, Ovid manages to draw together artistically most of the stories of Greek and Roman legend. He renders more than two hundred of the myths of the ancient world into an organic work whose unifying theme is that of transformation. Thus Jove changes himself into a swan, Narcissus is transformed into a flower, Tereus is turned into a bird, and Midas is given the ears of an ass. Ovid arranges these stories into fifteen books, containing in the original Latin version almost twelve thousand lines of sweetly flowing verse in the dactylic hexameter common in classical poetry. The poems were written when Ovid was a mature man of perhaps fifty,...
(The entire section is 1217 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Book I: Summary and Analysis
The poet: expresses intention to tell stories of transformations
Nature or God: force that put an end to original chaos
The Winds: the winds that blow across the world’s surface, including Zephyr god of the warm west, and Boreas, god of the cold the North Wind
Earth: the planet whose land, air and water are ruled by the gods
Saturn: son of Heaven and Earth; father of three sons—Jove, Neptune, and Pluto; father of three
daughters—Juno, Ceres and Vesta; father of Chiron the Centaur.
Jove: lord of heaven; son of Saturn and Rhea, husband of Juno.
Giants: attempted an attack on Heaven
Lycaon: a barbarous king of...
(The entire section is 1695 words.)
Book II: Summary and Analysis
Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek): god of fire and metalworking; son of Juno, husband of Venus
The Sun-God: another name for Apollo or Phoebus; father of Phaethon with Clymene
Lucifer: the morning star
Phaethusa and Lamperia: sisters of ill-fated Phaethon
Cygnus: king of Liguria; turned into a swan and placed among the stars
Callisto: an Arcadian nymph, seduced by love, and turned into a bear by Diana, goddess of the moon and goddess of the hunt. (She is not named here, but her story was known during Ovid’s time.)
Arcas: son of Caillisto, by Jove
Thetis: a sea nymph, daughter of Neresu and Doris; wife of Peleus; mother of...
(The entire section is 1271 words.)
Book III: Summary and Analysis
Agenor: father of the princess Europa, who is abducted; she becomes the mother of Minos, the king of Crete
Cadmus: son of Agenor; brother of Europa; defeats the dragon; founds Thebes
Serpent: killed by Cadmus; the beast is sacred to Mars, god of War and son of Juno and Jove
Echion: one of the survivors of a battle with troops who spring up from serpents’ teeth sown in the ground
Actaeon: hunter turned into a stag by the goddess Diana, after he sees her bathing; grandson of Cadmus
Semele: daughter of Cadmus; beloved of Jove; mother of Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstasy, who is also known as Dionysus
Dionysus: another name for...
(The entire section is 1070 words.)
Book IV: Summary and Analysis
Alcithoe: a girl who, with her sisters, refuses to worship Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstasy (also known as Dionysus)
Pyramus: lovers of Thisbe
Thisbe: Babylonian girl, who is the lover of Pyramus
Leuconoe: sister of Alcithoe; tells the story of Mars and Venus
Mars and Venus: divine lovers, (the god of war and the goddess of love), they are snared by Vulcan’s net
Leucothoe: daughter of Eurynome; dazzled, seduced and abandoned by Apollo, but still longing for him, then buried alive by her father
Eurynome: mother of Leucothoe
Clytie: enamored of Apollo, who despises her, she turns into a flower and daily turns to face...
(The entire section is 1508 words.)
Book V: Summary and Analysis
Phineus: uncle of Andromeda and her promised husband
Cepheus: father of Andromeda, with Cassiope
Proteus: a sea god
Polydectes: ruler of the tiny island of Seriphos; an antagonist of Perseus
Urania: one of the nine Muses; daughter of Jove
Pegasus: enchanted horse who makes a stream appear on the land by striking his hoof on the ground; born from the blood of the Medusa
Pyreneus: king of Thrace
Pierus and Euippe: their daughters opposed Minerva and became magpies
Thyphoeus: a giant; a foe of the Olympian gods
Calliope: chief of the nine Muses, she is associated with epic poetry and songs; the...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)
Book VI: Summary and Analysis
Arachne: girl of humble origins whose weaving skills are masterly; she arouses the envy and anger of Pallas Athena and they compete to weave the most beautiful tapestry
Asterie, Leda, Alcmene, Danae, Aegina, Mnemosyne: women who were courted, seduced or raped by Jove; their stories are woven into a tapestry by Arachne
Melantho: ravaged by Neptune
Niobe: queen of Thebes, mother of many children, wife of Amphion; daughter of Dione and Tantalus; her children are slain because of her arrogance; she is turned into a stone by Jove
Latona (Leto): mother of Apollo and Diana, with Jove
Marsyas: a satyr who falls victim to Apollo’s music-related...
(The entire section is 1229 words.)
Book VII: Summary and Analysis
Minyans (Minyae): An ancient, pre-Hellenic people whose domain is the starting point for the Argonauts, who are called the Minyae in the Metamorphoses
Phineus: a Thracian king; a blind prophet tormented by harpies and rescued by the sons of Boreas (different from the Phineus in Book V.)
Harpies: monstrous birds with women’s faces
Jason: leader of the Argonauts; son of Aeson
Phrixus: son of Athamas and Nephele; stepson of Ino; flees from stepmother’s schemes with his sister, Helle, on a golden ram; arriving in Colchis, he sacrifices the ram and gives its golden fleece to King Aeetes, the father of Medea
Medea: the daughter of...
(The entire section is 1596 words.)
Book VIII: Summary and Analysis
Nisus: king of Megara; father of Nisus
Scylla: daughter of Nisus; betrays her father to ingratiate herself with King Minos; changed into a bird
Daedalus: Athenian inventor and architect; father of Icarus; dreams of flight lead to tragedy
Icarus: son of Daedalus; participates in father’s dreams of flight with tragic results
Ariadne: a princess of Crete
Minotaur: a monster, half-man and half-bull, who resides on Crete
Meleager: son of Oeneus, king of Calydon, and Althaea; becomes an Argonaut
Castor and Pollux: twin brothers who become constellations; sons of Leda, who was raped by Jove
Atalanta: a young woman...
(The entire section is 2127 words.)
Book IX: Summary and Analysis
Hercules: a celebrated hero. known for his strength; son of Jove with Alcmena
Nessus: a centaur in love with Deinaira
Iole: a princess captured by Hercules
Lichas: a servant of Deinaira
Geryon, Cerberus, Hydra, etc.: victims of Hercules during his Twelve Labors
Philoctetes: son of Poeas; friend of Hercules
Eurystheus: king of Mycenae; at Juno’s command, imposes the Twelve Labors on Hercules
Hyllus: son of Hercules
Ilithyia (Lucina): goddess of childbirth
Galanthis: servant girl of Alcmena
Dryope: half-sister of Alcmena; mother of Amphissus with Apollo; married by Andraemon
(The entire section is 1705 words.)
Book X: Summary and Analysis
Orpheus: a great musician; son of the muse Calliope
Ixion, Tityos, and the Daughters of Belus: sufferers in the underworld—the world of the dead
Eurydice: wife of Orpheus
Pluto (Hades): god of the world of the dead, called the underworld or Dis
Charon: boatmen whose cargo is the souls of the dead
Attis: a beautiful shepherd beloved by the goddess Cybele
Cyparissus: a handsome young man believed to have been invented by Ovid
Ganymede: a beautiful boy abducted by Jove to be a cupbearer
Hyacinthus: believed of Apollo; probably pre-dates the Olympic pantheon
Propoetides: formerly sacred women of Cyprus...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)
Book XI: Summary and Analysis
Midas: king of Phrygia; known for his lack of taste, judgment and wisdom; be careful what you wish for because you might get it
Silenus: a satyr; foster father of Bacchus (Dionysus), the god of wine and ecstasty
Eumolphus: singer; priest of Ceres
Pan: the god of the woods and of shepherds
Laomedon: king of Troy; father of Priam
Hesione: a Trojan princess
Thetis: a sea nymph; mother of Achilles
Ceyx: king of Trachis; husband of Alcyone
Daedalion: brother of Ceyx; father of Chione
Chione: daughter of Daedalion; pursued by Apollo and Mercury; bore Philammon and Autolycus
(The entire section is 1313 words.)
Book XII: Summary and Analysis
Priam: the last king of Troy
Hector: Priam’s most valiant son
Paris: another son of Priam; his abduction of Helen leads to the Trojan War
Calchas: an interpreter of dreams
Nereus: a sea god or the sea itself
Agamemnon: king of Mycanae; leader of the Greek forces against Troy
Iphigenia: daughter of Agamemnon
Protesilaus: first victim of the war
Cygnus: one of several heroes with the same name; each is changed into a swan
Menoetes: a victim of Achilles
Nestor: king of Pylos
Caeneus: born a girl, Caenis, and changed into a male; invinvible hero
Ixion: king of the...
(The entire section is 1337 words.)
Book XIII: Summary and Analysis
Palamedes: Greek warrior who tells tales about Ulysses and is cleverly betrayed by him
Philoctetes: friend of Hercules; heir to his bow and arrows
Rhesus: Thracian king; prevened from reaching Troy by Ulysses
Dolon: a Phrygian spy slain by Ulysses
Helenus: son of Priam with the gift of augury; captured by Ulysses
Diomedes: king of Argos; frequent companion of Ulysses
Pyrrhus: son of Achilles; his mother is a princess of Scyros, where Achilles was hidden to prevent him from going to war
Teucer: half-brother of Ajax; cousin of Achilles
Telephus: wounded then cured by Achilles
Antenor: Trojan chief,...
(The entire section is 2435 words.)
Book XIV: Summary and Analysis
Dido: queen of Carthage
Acestes: a Sicilian king of Trojan descent
Iris: messenger of Juno
Sibyl (Sibylla): priestess of Apollo at his temple
Caieta: old nurse of Aeneas
Macareus: companion of Ulysses
Achaemenides: companion of Ulysses
Aeolus: king of the winds
Antiphates: king of the Lestrygonians
Polites, Eurylochus and Elpenor: messengers of Ulysses to Circe
Cyllenius: Mercury; named after his birthplace
Picus: son of Saturn, a local god
Canens: a nymph loved by Picus
Turnus: a king of the Rutuli in Italy, and a rival of Aeneas for Lavinia’s...
(The entire section is 1655 words.)
Book XV: Summary and Analysis
Numa: king of Rome after Quirinis
Croton: hero who entertained Hercules; namesake of Crotona
Myscelus: founder of Crotona
Pythagoras: Greek philosopher; born in Samos and migrated to Crotona
Euphorbus: a brave Trojan who is killed
Helenus: advises Aeneas about the future
Thyestes: brother of Atreus—fed on the flesh of his sons
Egeria: wife of Numa
Hippolytus: son of Theseus and the Ammazon Hippolyta; tells his story to Egeria
Phaedra: stepmother of Theseus
Paeon: son of Apollo; inherits the god’s healing power and applies it to Aesculapius
Virbius: the name by whick...
(The entire section is 2263 words.)