The Metamorphoses of Ovid

by Ovid

The Metamorphoses of Ovid Summary

Overview Summary

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.

The Metamorphoses of Ovid Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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, shortly before Augustus Caesar banished him far from the city he loved to the little town of Tomi on the shores of the Black Sea. Ovid wrote that he destroyed his own copy of Metamorphoses, apparently because he was dissatisfied with his performance, but he nevertheless seemed to feel that the work would live after him. In his epilogue to Metamorphoses, he wrote,

Now I have done my work. It will endure,I trust, beyond Jove’s anger, fire, and sword,Beyond Time’s hunger. The day will come, I know,So let it come, that day which has no powerSave over my body, to end my span of lifeWhatever it may be. Still, part of me,The better part, immortal, will be borneAbove the stars; my name will be rememberedWherever Roman power rules conquered lands,I shall be read, and through all centuries,If prophecies of bards are ever truthful,I shall be living, always.

As if it were necessary for a work of literary art to have some edifying or moral purpose, the poems are sometimes regarded primarily as a useful handbook on Greek and Roman mythology. Certainly the work does contain a wealth of the ancient legends, and many later writers have become famous in part because they were able to build on the materials Ovid placed at their disposal. However, Metamorphoses is a work of art in its own right.

In later times, stories about the gods of the pagan Pantheon have been viewed in a different light from that in which Ovid’s contemporaries regarded them. Where readers in later times could smile, Ovid’s light, even facetious, tone is regarded by serious Romans as having more than a little touch of blasphemy. Perhaps his irreverent attitudes were even a partial cause for his exile, for Augustus Caesar was at the time attempting moral reforms. Moreover, after dealing good-humoredly with various gods, Ovid turned at the...

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The Metamorphoses of Ovid Summary and Analysis

Book I: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

Oneton: a...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)

Book XII: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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

New Characters:
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.)