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...
(The entire section is 1,289 words.)