“Metamorphoses” by Ovid Essay

The Roman poet, Ovid completed his Metamorphoses (Ovid 2004) in 8AD whilst exiled in Tomis. Made up of fifteen books it covers the history of the world starting with creation through to the deification of Julius Caesar. It is poem written in dactylic hexameter and is a mock-epic. Ovid has used recurring themes to bring together the individual stories within each book, as well as throughout the whole story. This creates a unifying narrative that weaves and flows, creating an enjoyable tale that has survived over two thousand years. Book 6 covers seven tales, a fusion of those involving gods and humans and some just about humans. The first and last tales are linking stories that create a bridge to the previous or subsequent book. As with the other fourteen books, each tale within the book links into the next with relative ease via a recurrent idea.

The tale that links Books 5 and 6 is to do with competition. At the end of Book 5 the Muses punish the Pierides maidens for losing a singing competition by turning them into magpies. Minerva has been listening to the tale of the punishment when she challenges Arachne to a weaving competition; the cause of the challenge is Arachne’s hubris and her arrogance towards the Goddess (6.3-6). When humans are in competition with gods and goddesses the outcome is never a positive one for Ovid’s characters. The two tapestries show opposing views of the Gods and the world around them; Arachne’s shows the Gods bad behaviour how she perceives them, how they deceive, abduct and rape humans (102-28), whereas Minerva’s shows the Gods how she visualizes them, as triumphant, glorious and punishing humans who challenge them (69-101).

The tapestries are a representation of raw material being woven together to create a story, they are a reflection on Ovid’s skills as a poet as well as being a metamorphoses. They change from one form to another which is a theme that ties each of the stories. It is also possible that Arachne is a representation of Ovid himself, the gods and goddesses representing the establishment of Augustus and the senate whilst Ovid is the artist whose life is destroyed due to his upsetting the authorities (Feeney 1991). Even though Arachne’s work is equal to or better than Minerva’s she is punished anyway by being turned into a spider, forever to spin a delicate yet repetitive pattern. It is a very emotional punishment, as opposed to one of physical pain, Minerva has allowed Arachne to continue her art but only in the most mundane sense, there is no artistry involved and her creations can be destroyed by the gust of a breeze. The Arachne story also connects itself to Book 1 where we see creation of the world come out of the chaos and disorder.

The second story involving competition involves Apollo’s punishment of Marsyas. It is a very different outcome for Marsyas, who is flayed alive for daring to challenge Apollo to a piping competition. Ovid gives a very graphic depiction of Marsyas being stripped of his skin until his organs lay bare (6.384-391), his screams and his cries give a very different viewpoint of gods punishing those who challenge them. This punishment is much more masculine in its execution; it is violent and painful in a way that Arachne’s punishment is not. The metamorphosis is not connected to Marsyas but rather to those who grieve for him, it is their tears that transform into a river that then takes his name (391-400).

Although hubris was not a reason for the contest between Apollo and Marsyas it is a major subject matter in the Metamorphoses. It is the starting point of the competition between Arachne and Minerva and it provides the bridge between the first tale and the tale of Niobe. Niobe boasts about her ancestry, her husband and her beauty and of her abundance of children (and future children in law) (6.172-183). Niobe arouses Latona’s anger by proclaiming she is “near childless” (6.200). The resulting massacre of Niobe’s fourteen children by Apollo and Diana is brought about entirely by her foolish pride in her mortal motherhood (Lateiner 2006). The transformation that Niobe undergoes is to metamorphose in to stone; she becomes part of the mountain with her tears forever trickling down her face (6.311). Motherhood and the death of innocent children also feature in the story of Procne.

Procne murders her own child when she learns of her husband’s crimes against her sister. Like those mortals who enter a competition with a god, human mothers do not realise a positive conclusion. Latona however, has her revenge in both of her tales. Hubris and competition are again the themes in the anecdote of the Lycian Peasants. After the deaths of Niobe’s children, the residents of Thebes reflect upon the events and related it back to the tale of Latona’s revenge on Lycian peasants after they refused to allow her to drink water from the pond. Even after she begs for them to take pity on her babes (6.356), they muddy the water and shout threats and abuse at her. Latona exacts her revenge by turning them into frogs who will then reside in the pool ever after. The element of competition focuses on who wins the rights to drink from the water pond.

Rape is a subject matter that features throughout the whole of the Metamorphoses, in Book 6 it is Tereus’ rape of Philomela that is written about. It is so striking in its depiction of violence and ultimate revenge that it contrasts well with the rapes that have been carried out by the Gods or with their permission in the first five books. The tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela is the largest of the stories within Book 6 and is the only one involving only humans and for that reason stands out as important tale that the audience needs to take note of. Parallels can be directly drawn between this tale of human actions and the attempted seduction of Daphne by Apollo in Book 1. It juxtaposes lust with familial love. It contrasts desire with disgust and enchantment with enmity (Jacobsen 1984).

Tereus abducts his sister in law, after he has gained permission from her father to take her on a trip to visit her sister. He holds her captive for a year and repeatedly rapes her and tortures her. He cuts out her tongue to prevent her from talking. She finally manages to get word to her sister Procne by weaving a message into a tapestry. Procne rescues her and between them they take their revenge by murdering Tereus’ child and feeding him to his father.

When Tereus first sets eyes upon Philomela, Ovid describes his passion for her in the same way he describes Apollo’s passion for Daphne in Book 1. Both liken the heat of passion to the farmer setting fire to a field of corn (1.492-6 ; 6.455-6) although the undertones of Tereus’ imagery is much more characteristic of violence and destruction compared with Apollo’s passionate emotions. Both girls are naturally beautiful and Philomela is compared to the “naiads and dryads” (6.451). Here though the similarities end. Apollo’s attempted seduction of Daphne is written about lightly and almost with amusement, he pleads to her to take care not to scratch herself on the brambles and his self assured belief that once she knows who he is, she will stops running (1.506 & 511-524). In direct contrast Tereus decides he will have Philomela whatever it takes “Ensnared in the toils of unbridled desire, he’d commit any crime in the world” (6.464-5). It is far more sinister and gives a much greater sense of unease at how the story will evolve. Both girls are persuade by their unwanted admirers and both plea with their fathers to help them. Whereas Daphne’s pleas are answered with her father turning her into a laurel tree, Philomela’s pleas go unanswered as her father is mortal and unable to hear or help her.

Every other story revolving around rape in the Metamorphoses has either been carried out by a God or sanctioned by the Gods. Ovid has created a character in Tereus that can be condemned for his actions as he is mortal. Tereus breaks the laws of family and marriage, and ultimately therefore dishonoured the gods. Tereus’ rape of Philomela is in direct contrast to the actions of Zeus and his philandering ways. Firstly Zeus’ actions bring him very little harm, other than being on the receiving end of the wrath of his long-suffering wife! But what is a very real physical act of aggression and violence between Tereus and Philomela is contrasted with the seduction techniques and wooing that Ovid portrays the gods using.

Ovid has tied up many themes within this one tale. Philomela’s use of weaving to tell her sister of her plight brings it back to the story of Arachne and Minerva. Arachne’s entire tapestry showed the actions of gods and their seducing, abducting and raping mortals. Philomela uses weaving to tell her story to her sister and gain her freedom and revenge. By disrespecting the laws of family, marriage and ultimately the gods, Tereus commits not only an act of violent rape, but also hubris. Procne’s murder of her child to exact her revenge on her husband is in direct contrast to Latona’s murder of Niobe’s children, but both tales result in the death of innocent children due to the actions of their mother. The tales in Book 6 preceding Tereus, Procne and Philomela all warn against offending the gods.

The bridging story between those of hubris and Tereus, briefly explores Pelops’ metamorphoses after his father fed him to the gods but this links into the concept of cannibalism, which of course is the outcome for Itys. The final story in Book 6 is again of rape and abduction, but because Boreas is divine, it is a gentler tale that results in marriage and the birth of children. It harps back to the tales we have in Book 1 of Zeus’ escapades and ends the book on an acceptable note.

In conclusion I feel that Ovid has drawn together an accumulation of myths and has woven together with a grace and beauty previously unknown. Each tale makes reference to its predecessor and supplies a link to its follower. Each book within the poem flows seamlessly from one to another with ideas and themes cropping up time and again. The overriding theme of change and metamorphosis keeps the reader guessing as to what is going to occur, who is going to change and how it will happen. Within each of the books there are themes and messages that are explored in different ways but each gives the audience the same advice. Within Book 6 the message that Ovid is giving is not to mess with the gods, they will always come off better. On a deeper level it could be a message to the readers not to confront the State and the Emperor as he himself did. Whatever Ovid’s hidden or obvious goals in telling his stories, he has given the world a set of tales that has survived the centuries and has gone on to inspire many generations of artists.

References

Feeney, D.C. “Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” In The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition, 188-94. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Jacobsen, G.A. “Apollo and Tereus: Parallel Motifs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” The Classical Journal (The Classical Association of the Middle West and South) 80, no. 1 (Oct-Nov 1984): 45-52.

Lateiner, D. “Procul este parentes: Mothers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Helios (Texan Tech University Press) 33, no. 2 (2006): 189-202.

Ovid. “Metamorphoses A New Verse Translation.” In Orpheus’ Song: Ganymede, by Raeburn (Trans), 155-160. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Titian. Venus and Adonis. National Gallery, London.

Bibliography

Barolsky, P. “Ovid’s Protean Epic.” Arion 14, no. 3 (Winter 2007).

Clauss, J.J. “The Episode of the Lycian Farmers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (Department of the Classics, Harvard University) 92 (1989): 297-314.

Feldherr, A. “Metamorphosis in Metamorphoses.” In The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, by P (ed) Hardie, 163-79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lugo, J. “Blood, Barbarism, and Belly Laughs: Shakespeares’s Titus and Ovid’s Philomela.” English Studies 88, no. 4 (August 2007): 401-17.