The Metamorphoses of Ovid

by Ovid

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What are some examples of everyday miracles of metamorphosis that Ovid presents in the Metamorphoses?

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Ovid’s discussion of Pythagoras’s speech occurs in book 15 of the Metamorphoses; the examples cited here are drawn from lines 143–417. According to the poet, the Greek philosopher saw change as the constant in nature and believed that we will find metamorphoses everywhere in life—including ourselves. The idea of a “seed” that carries within it the complete creature is one recurring metaphor.

[O]ur bodies themselves are always, restlessly, changing: we shall not be, tomorrow, what we were, or what we are. There was a time when we were hidden in our first mother’s womb, only the seed and promise of a human being….

Pythagoras applies this principle to the elements as well, again emphasizing change:

Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect….

He applies this principle to water and land, explaining how rivers change course and that former islands are now far from shore, while peninsulas have been cut off into islands. Land also changes in form, from flat to a mound. Along with many examples of changing relationships of water to land, he also discusses fire. The volcano Etna will one day go cold, as it had been before.

One story that might not be totally believable, he says, is that men grew feathers after they jumped into a particular pool, and Scythian women do likewise by anointing their bodies with magic liquids.

Animals that turn into others is a common theme. He explains that heat makes dead carcasses, such as those of cows, generate insects such as bees. Changes in insects are frequently mentioned, such as butterflies coming from cocoons and honeybees born of honeycombs.

Birds are fascinating to him, as they emerge from eggs. But he devotes a long passage to a bird that does not hatch from an egg: the phoenix. The bird lives for five centuries, then settles into a nest and dies. The young phoenix, which emerges from the body of the male bird, will live five centuries as well.

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