Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
The Metamorphoses represents Ovid’s greatest artistic challenge, 250 stories from Greek and Roman mythology, legend, and history woven into a loosely chronological continuous narrative, starting with the creation of the world and ending with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Written in the meter of epic poetry, dactylic hexameter, the stories concern the transformation of bodies into different forms, such as animals, plants, or stars, each story evolving from the preceding one. Almost every deity, hero, or heroine from classical times is represented in these tales. In fact, most of the myths with which modern readers are familiar were preserved by the Metamorphoses.
One important element that helps to hold this massive work together is the voice of the poet himself; instead of remaining completely outside the events that he narrates, Ovid asserts his presence in the poem by addressing the reader, as well as the characters, on occasion. The voice is witty, sophisticated, occasionally sympathetic, frequently mocking.
Ovid begins his tales with the ultimate metamorphosis, the transformation of primal cosmic matter into the beautiful, fruitful earth. He then describes the four ages of the earth, Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, which saw the transformation of humanity from peaceful, innocent beings into bloodthirsty, deceitful exploiters of other humans and of the earth itself. An angry Jove intervenes in human affairs by sending a great flood and starting afresh with a new race of mortals, and the Metamorphoses begins, telling the story of one transformation after another through all of history and through most of the known world and Olympus. Some of the metamorphoses are grotesque, some humorous, some quaint, and some touching.
After the introductory material on the creation and on the first transformation effected by Jove, the poem divides into three parts that deal with the deities, heroes and heroines, and actual historical figures (although these divisions are blurred by Ovid’s frequent digressions). The deities of the Metamorphoses frequently have the same flaws and foibles as the mortals in these stories. They can be petty, jealous, unfaithful, vengeful. In fact, the story of Apollo and Daphne stems from the revenge that Cupid takes on Apollo, who, in his arrogance, has offended Cupid. In retaliation, Cupid shoots him with a gold-tipped arrow that causes Apollo to fall helplessly in love with Daphne, who shuns him because Cupid has shot her with a lead-tipped arrow that makes her reject love completely. Thus, Apollo can only feel thwarted and frustrated as he seeks to woo the beautiful demigoddess who inspires his passion but cannot share it. Ironically, then, in this story, love becomes ruinous to the beloved.
As arrogant as he was with Cupid, Apollo calls Daphne foolish for fleeing him and reminds her that he is no common shepherd or farm boy but a great and powerful god. Ovid, typically sensitive to the woman’s perspective, conveys vividly Daphne’s distress at her unwanted suitor and then her terror as Apollo chases her relentlessly through woods where briars tear at her legs. Pale, panting, feeling his breath on her hair, she engages the reader’s profound sympathy in this heart-pounding scene of near rape, for she is a suffering pawn used by one god in a game of vengeance against another.
She pleads for release from her torment, and, as she is metamorphosing into a laurel tree, still shrinking from Apollo’s touch and kiss, he triumphantly claims, in her form as a tree, the woman whom he could not possess as a flesh-and-blood being. He declares that, always green and shining, she will be his personal plant for all time, and he will always wear a wreath of laurel on his head. Ovid makes a respectful acknowledgment of his emperor by having Apollo foretell that the laurel will be worn in triumph by great Roman military leaders of the future and will decorate the portals of Emperor Augustus. Her metamorphosis, then, is poignant, yet satisfying.
During the time that Ovid was working on the Metamorphoses, a revival of an old Greek philosophy was underway in Rome. In the sixth century b.c.e., the Greek philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras had devised a humane philosophy opposing animal sacrifice and advocating vegetarianism. In Ovid’s day, this doctrine was being rekindled and preached around Rome. Critics have argued about whether Ovid himself was a neo-Pythagorean; nonetheless, he includes a lengthy section on the teachings of Pythagoras near the end of his Metamorphoses.
The historical figure Pythagoras lends himself quite well to this collection of tales of transformations, for he believed in the transmigration of souls from humans to animals or animals to humans and therefore shunned the eating of meat. Underlying his philosophy was a deeply compassionate concern for the living creatures that share creation with human beings. Ovid presents Pythagoras’s philosophy compellingly and persuasively.
In the opening lines, he establishes Pythagoras’s authority as a learned, wise man who understands the workings and the nature of the world and then allows Pythagoras to speak in his own voice. Pythagoras admonishes people that the earth provides a rich abundance of healthy foods—fruits and vegetables, milk and honey—which do not require bloodshed. He further strives to awaken compassion and respect in the hearts of his hearers toward animals because these creatures are fellow workers and beautiful and innocent in their own right. His last and strongest case against slaughtering and eating animals is his theory that souls transmigrate. Souls are deathless, he argues, and when the body housing a soul dies, the soul finds a new dwelling place. The souls of humans move into the bodies of animals and vice versa. Hence, eating animal flesh is akin to cannibalism.
Pythagoras speaks at length of the perpetual flux of the universe, asserting that nothing is unchanging. Referring to natural phenomena—the tides, the seasons—he draws attention to the mutability of all forms, while arguing that the underlying matter remains constant. Thus, he says, humans should never fear death because the soul is deathless. To include such a philosophy near the end of this work is to suggest a rationale for all the other metamorphoses presented: change as a universal principle. It is not possible to assert with finality whether Ovid personally was a neo-Pythagorean or whether he included the philosophy because it provided a fitting climax to his work, whose theme was transformations. The rather serious consideration of philosophy in this section of the Metamorphoses might not seem well assimilated with the other stories, but in fact it corresponds to the creation scene of the first book of the work in its cosmic implications.