The poem begins with the promise that we will hear how "bodies are changed into different bodies." Ovid then summons the gods, asking them to reveal how the world was created and to aid him in his task. He says that first there was something we can call Chaos: darkness and formlessness. Then, a powerful being divides the chaos into substance. He creates earth and all of its waters, then its land masses, forests, and weather. He creates the winds and gives each a region of the earth to rule over, then he create the stars. After this he creates sentient life: everything from the gods in the heavens to the fish in the rivers. Everything, that is, except man, whose origin is disputed: either man came to be as a superior being to animals, or Prometheus sculpted man out of the clays of the earth.
At first men live in a Gold Age without war, cities, labor or commerce. Men feast on nature's abundance. Jove castrates Saturn, however, sending men into a Silver Age, when the four seasons come to be and men have to work for food. The Bronze Age follows and men become violent and warlike, though not so much as they will. Finally, in the Iron Age men become evil, greedy and dishonest. They treat gold as money and forge weapons of iron. The giants see the behavior of men and imitated it, attempting even to overthrow Jove, but he crushes them with thunderbolts and boulders. From the giants' blood new creatures arise: they look like men but think nothing of murdering each other. Distraught, Jove tells the gods that he must punish these men.
Jove tells the gods how he dealt with an especially corrupt man, Lycaon, who plotted to kill him and tried to trick him into eating human flesh. When Lycaon served him the flesh, Jove destroyed his household with thunderbolts. Lycaon survives as a madman, behaving like a wolf. Jove tells the gods that all men are like Lycaon and must be punished in turn; they must give way to a new and better humankind. Jove decides to flood the world, which he does with Neptune's help. Only two people, the best of humanity, survive the flood: Deucalion and his wife. They find shelter on Mount Parnassus, the only land that rises above the waters. Jove allows the waters to retreat, leaving them to repopulate the earth. They ask the gods how they can do such a thing, and an oracle sent by Themis tells them to throw behind them the bones of their mother. Pyrrha refuses to dishonor her mother's remains, but Deucalion interprets the oracle as referring to "mother earth," and so they throw stones, the earth's "bone's," behind them. The stones become a new race of people, who inherit the toughness of stone.
Other creatures return spontaneously, springing from the sun on the water-soaked soil, including monsters like Python, a gigantic snake, which Phoebus Apollo slays, thus initiating the Pythian games. Soon after, Apollo taunts Cupid who takes revenge by making Apollo fall in love with Daphne, Peneus's daughter. Daphne wishes to remain chaste, like Diana, and loves the woods and hunting rather than men. Nonetheless, Apollo chases Daphne through the woods. As she approaches the streams of her father's land, she begs to lose her beauty. As she speaks she is transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo makes the laurel his symbol and wears a laurel crown from then on.
Ovid turns to another tale of the gods' love, that of Jove and Io. When the beautiful Io resists Jove, he covers the earth with fog and rapes her. Juno, the jealous queen of the gods, notices the mists and suspects her husband. She clears the fog but not before Jove hides Io in the form of a cow. Juno claims the beautiful cow as her own, giving her for safe-keeping to the watchman, Argus, who has one-hundred eyes and never closes them all at once. Io is able to communicate her fate to her father by drawing in the dirt with her hoof. He mourns for her, but cannot stop Argus from taking her to pasture.
Jove orders Mercury to kill Argus. Mercury pretends to be a shepherd and tries to lull Argus to sleep with his reed pipe. Argus, intrigued by this unusual instrument, asks about its origin. Mercury tells Argus the story of the nymph Syrinx, whom Pan loves though she wishes to remain a virgin. She prays for aid and is turned into reeds at the riveer side. Pan signs unhappily and notices that his sighs make music through the reeds. Thus he fashions an instrument. As Mercury tells the story, he realizes that Argus has dozed off, and so he beheads the guardian. Juno takes Argus's eyes and sets them into the tail-feathers of her symbolic bird, the peacock. She then has one of the Furies chase Io, in cow form, all around the world, until she reaches the Nile, where she convinces Jove to appease her wife and return her to human form.
Io's son, Epaphus, is treated as the son of Jove. Epaphus becomes friends with a boy named Phaethon, who claims to be a son of Apollo. Epaphus does not believe him, and so Phaethon asks his mother, Clymene, how to prove his parentage. She sends him to seek Apollo himself in the east, and Phaethon makes his way to the palace of the sun, where bright Apollo acknowledges that he is the boy's father. When Phaethon asks for a token of proof, Apollo promises to give the boy anything he wants. Phaethon asks to drive the sun-chariot and Apollo replies that no one but himself, not even Jove, can drive the chariot. Phaethon, however, holds his father to his oath, and Phoebus takes him to the chariot where he rubs Phaethon's face with a sacred ointment to protect him from being burned. After giving the youth advice about the path Apollo tells him he must begin.
The chariot immediately goes off course because Phaethon is not strong enough to rein the horses in. He draws the horses too high, threatening the constellations, then too low, setting cities and mountains ablaze and, drying up rivers. Soon the whole world is on fire. Mother Earth herself begs Jupiter to intercede, and the god brings Phaeton down, chariot and all, with a thunderbolt. Phaethon falls to earth, where he is caught by the river god Eridanus and buried in a tomb far from his homeland. Phaeton's family mourns -- his sisters are transformed to trees in their morning; they are left with the ability to speak and Clymene, their mother, tries to rip them from the bark, before they are finally sealed inside the trees. Cycnus, a dear friend of Phaethon, wanders the woods in mourning until he becomes a new kind of bird, the swan. Distrustful of the sunny skies where his friend was struck down, this swan chooses to remain in standing water, never taking to the sky. Phoebus Apollo, also in mourning, refuses to act as the sun should, despite the entreaties of the other gods, and even the threats of Jove. Finally, he gives in, taking his anger out in lashes on the horses.
As Jove repairs the heavens and the earth, he notices Callisto, a beautiful girl from Nonacris. One of Diana's handmaids, Callisto roams the woods, chaste and beautiful. Jove disguises himself as Diana and rapes her. Shamed and afraid, Callisto rejoins the handmaids and attempts to hide her shame. But, months later, Diana and her maids discover her pregnancy during a bath. Juno's anger at the pregnancy grows after Callisto gives birth to a boy, Arcas. Juno turns Callisto into a bear. At fifteen, Arcas comes across his mother in the woods and nearly kills her. Jove intervenes just in time by changing both Arcas and Callisto into constellations: ursa major and ursa minor. Furious, Juno goes to the ocean gods Tethys and Oceanus and asks them to forbid the two constellations to enter their waters, to which they agree.
Ovid turns from the origin of those constellation to the story of how the raven became black. The raven reports to Apollo that his lover, Coronis, cheated on him. Phoebus Apollo kills Coronis with an arrow, and as she dies she tells him that she is pregnant with his son. Apollo regrets his action too late and, furious at the raven, turns him from white to black. He takes his son, Aesculapius, from Coronis' womb and takes him to a prophet, Chiron's daughter Ocyrhoe, who predicts that Aesculapius will have healing powers but anger the gods. Then she predicted her father's own death, but as she finished, she realized that the Fates would let her speak no more, and as she predicted that she would be turned into a horse, she was transformed. Chiron called out to Apollo, but the god is disguised as a cowherd. Mercury steals Phoebus' cows with only Battus as a witness. Mercury bribes Battus to keep quiet, and when Battus proves untrustworthy, Mercury turns him into a stone.
Returning to heaven, Mercury passes over a festival of Pallas and spots Herse, the most beautiful of the virgin girls participating in the festival. He approaches Herse's sister, Aglauros, in an attempt to enter Herse's room. Aglauros asks for a weight of gold in return, a request that Minerva overhears. Minerva recalls that Aglauros betrayed her and entreats Envy to poison Aglauros's heart. Out of envy Aglauros tries to stop Mercury from accessing her sister, and Aglauros is turned to stone. Back in heaven, Mercury meets his father, Jove, who asks him to fly to Sidon and drive a herd of cattle there to the sea shore. Mercury obeys his father. Jove then joins the herd as a gorgeous bull. Europa, the beautiful princess of that land, marvels at the bull, twining its horns with flowers and eventually climbing on its back for a ride. Jove takes his opportunity and carries her into the ocean.
At the beginning of the Metamorphoses, Ovid accomplishes several things. First, he defines the world of the poem. He is going to tell the reader, how "bodies are changed into different bodies." Ovid then demonstrate that he means "bodies" in the loosest sense: in this poem, he is going to address all kinds of transformation, from the transformation of Chaos into the Universe to literal physical transformations, to the founding and destruction of cities, the evolution of man, and even pedestrain emotional transformations. In other words, this poem examines transformation as an omnipresent force in the universe, affecting high and low, mythic and ordinary forces alike.
The first transformation -- Chaos into the Universe -- illuminates a few general characteristics about these events. Transformations are never truly spontaneous. Chaos does not transform itself into earth, a powerful being transforms it. There is always something which does the transforming and something which is transformed (though in rare cases people can transform themselves). Consequently, this book is also about relationships, most often the relationship between that which has the power to transform and that which is transformed. This relationship most often exists between the gods and mortals.
The first section of Metamorphoses suggests that people are often transformed in punishment for some misbehavior. Most broadly, Jove destroys humankind because the race as a whole misbehaves. But Ovid subtly suggests that just because the gods are capable of punishing mortal misdeeds, that doesn't mean that they themselves are virtuous. Indeed, though the stray man, such as Lycaon, may perform some gruesome act, the preponderence of unjust and violent actions are committed by gods. The first books are full of the rapes, deceptions, murders, and fickle revenges of the gods. The message seems to be clear: the gods aren't just, they're merely powerful. Because they, immortal and unchanging themselves, have the power to effect change in mortals, they can and will use that power, however fickly. Those who try to stand against the gods' exceptional status will be destroyed and transformed, individually or as a whole race (as the flood episode shows us). Those who worship the gods without questioning them, like Deucalion and his wife, will be allowed to live. Ovid's view of the virtuousness of authority is, in this light, quite cynical.
The major arena where these power dynamics play is love -- or, more pointedly, lust. These two concepts are inseparable for the Romans, who do not treat love as a matter of courtship and chivalry so much as a matter of irresistable passion. This passion is often unrequited. Indeed, in these first stories, again and again we read of a beautiful woman who wishes to live as a virgin, free from all men, but is pursued and/or raped by a god. Beginning with Apollo's unrequited love for Daphne, through Pan's for Syrinx, through Zeus' catalogue of rapes -- Io, Europa, etc. -- we see women raped, changed into trees and animals, and otherwise used without consent. In all of these examples, love is a transformative force for both parties. Apollo's love for Daphne results in her transformation into a laurel tree, and in a more restrained transformation within Apollo, who adapts her branches as a symbol. Zeus frequently changes himself into an animal or another form in order to facillitate his rapes, which in turn result in transformations in the women, such as Io's metamorphosis into a cow. Thus, Ovid suggests, the power of love alters both parties, but without a doubt the gods are at an advantage. Those who wish to live outside of the power structure, especially the virgins of Diana, find themselves repeatedly unable to do so.
Ovid is especially sensitive to the manner in which transformations build on one another causally, with tragedy begetting tragedy. In Phaethon's episode, for instance, the death of Phaethon sets into motion the transformation of his sisters into trees and the transformation of Cycnus into a swan. It also transforms the earth and the sky as both are threatened by Pheobus' out-of-control chariot, and incites subtler transformations as well in Phaethon's father and mother, both of whom mourn their son tenderly. Every transformation follows a similar pattern: an initial metamorphosis, often a tragic one, will set off a series of contingent metamorphoses. Fathers and mothers, mourning lost sons and daughters, become birds or trees in their grief. Thus Ovid demonstrates the manner in which change affects human beings. We are all touched by each other, and one person's tragedy ripples through his or her community. Hundreds of years before the Reverand John Donne wrote it, Ovid understood well that "no man is an island."
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (AD 3-8) was not originally as controversial as his other poetic works. But as centuries have passed, its notoriety has increased. Recent calls to provide trigger-warnings to university students before they study the work tell us as much about modern Western attitudes towards sex, violence and censorship as the Metamorphoses tells us about the gender politics of ancient Rome.
Ovid’s 15-book epic, written in exquisite Latin hexameter, is a rollercoaster of a read. Beginning with the creation of the world, and ending with Rome in his own lifetime, the Metamorphoses drags the reader through time and space, from beginnings to endings, from life to death, from moments of delicious joy to episodes of depravity and abjection.
Such is life, Ovid would say.
The madness and chaos of some 250 stories, spanning around 700 lines of poetry per book, are woven together by the theme of metamorphosis or transformation. The artistic dexterity involved in pulling off this literary feat is testimony to Ovid’s skill and ambition as a poet. This accomplishment also goes a long way in explaining the rightful place the Metamorphoses holds within the canon of classical literature, placed as it is beside other great epics of Mediterranean antiquity such as the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid.
Kicking against the pricks
But for some, the Metamorphoses sits uneasily alongside its more morally and patriotically sound predecessors. Like a troublesome younger brother, an embarrassment to the family, Ovid’s epic “kicks against the pricks,” to paraphrase the paraphrase of Nick Cave.
The Homeric Iliad (c. 850 BC) soars to the literary heights of the sublime, and shows us how to live and die, to meditate on mortality, to embrace sorrow, to grip and then release hate, to truly love.
The Odyssey (c. 800 BC) takes us on an epic voyage forever leading towards home, sometimes making us laugh, and occasionally letting down its high-brow hair with some sex and infidelity. Yet, appropriate to the gravitas of epic poetry, the Odyssey is also about the journey of a man determined to maintain his heroic stature as he navigates all sorts of dangers in strange lands.
Some 700 years later, when the Homeric verses were still regarded as the benchmark for epic poetry, Virgil composed the Aeneid (19 BC). This Latin epic casts a patriotic spell over its audience in its evocation of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy to the glory of the Augustan Age. Unlike his poetic successor, however, Virgil is alert to literary censorship under the reign of Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), Rome’s first emperor, and carefully navigates its perilous terrain.
Rome is great according to Virgil. It always has been. It always will be. But Ovid is not convinced, and he seeks to capture an epic world of uncertainty and destabilisation instead of “drinking the Kool-Aid” that flows from Augustus’ fountains.
Ovid’s graphic tales of metamorphosis begin with the story of Primal Chaos; a messy lump of discordant atoms, and shapeless prototypes of land, sea and air. This unruly form floated about in nothingness until some unnamed being disentangled it. Voilà! The earth is fashioned in the form of a perfectly round ball. Oceans take shape and rise in waves spurred on by winds. Springs, pools and lakes appear and above the valleys and plains and mountains is the sky.
Lastly, humankind is made and so begins the mythical Ages of Man. And, as each Age progresses – from Gold, to Silver, to Bronze and finally to Iron – humankind becomes increasingly corrupt.
Ovid’s gods and humans never really escape the Age of Iron in the Metamorphoses. Throughout the epic, the setting that emerges in Book I functions as a brilliantly appropriate dystopic stage on which the poet-cum-puppeteer orchestrates his spectacles.
Drawing on the Greek mythology inherited by the Romans, Ovid directs his dramas one after another, relentlessly bombarding his readers with beautiful metrics and awe-inspiring imagery as that of Deucalion and Pyrrha, Arachne, Daphne and Apollo, Europa and the Bull, Leda and the Swan.
Hundreds of hapless mortals, heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses rise victorious, experience defeat, endure rape, and inevitably metamorphose into something other than their original forms. Chaos begins the world, and so into Chaos we are born, live and die. As the offspring of the Age of Iron, we must endure and struggle against corruption, brutality and injustice.
A poem and a mistake
Ovid experienced a world of chaos and iron firsthand when, in AD 8, he was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).
The poem was the Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-volume lovers’ handbook that explains the dos and don’ts of personal grooming, how to organise trysts with married women (get her maid “on side”), repairing a broken heart (surprise your “ex” while she’s in the middle of her beauty routine – yuk!), names the best places for “hooking-up” (try the races or the theatre), and offers advice on keeping your girl (be attentive when she’s unwell). Interestingly, the third volume was written for women – quite a revolutionary move in view of the gender inequality in the twilight years of the 1st century BC.
What irritated Augustus sufficiently enough to relegate the poet to the middle of nowhere was his perception that the Ars Amatoria made a mockery of his moral reforms. Not one for frolic, Augustus had spearheaded and implemented a series of legislative campaigns that raised the moral bar for the goodly citizens of Rome. Adultery, while always illegal in Rome, was made especially so under the watchful eye of the emperor and legal ramifications were more actively enforced than in previous decades.
The mistake that Ovid mentions is more difficult to identify – with scholarly opinions differing on what it was Ovid actually did to offend Augustus. Theories range from Ovid engaging in an affair with one of the imperial women – perhaps Augustus’ daughter (Julia the Elder) or granddaughter (Julia the Younger) – to his accidentally witnessing an imperial scandal.
Whatever the error, combined with the ill-themed Ars Amatoria, it was sufficiently serious to result in Ovid’s banishment to Tomis (Constanța in modern-day Romania). Tomis, at the very edges of the Roman Empire, was regarded as a barbaric, frightening and uncivilised place. Ovid certainly painted it this way in his poetic epistles, the Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae Ex Ponto (Letters from the Pontus).
Forced to exist in a place where his native Latin was scarcely heard, Ovid’s despair is evoked in one of his most memorable couplets: “writing a poem you can read to no one / is like dancing in the dark.”
For the optimal punishment of Ovid, Augustus chose his location well, and he never reneged on his decision. Nor did his successor, Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37).
Ovid died in Tomis in AD 17.
An epic about silencing
In one of the definitive pieces of scholarship on the Metamorphoses, Reading Ovid’s Rapes (1992) by classicist Amy Richlin, it is argued that the epic was completed during Ovid’s time in Tomis. This may not initially appear to have any bearing on its content or intent, yet Richlin suggests a profound relevance:
The silenced victims, the artists horribly punished by legalistic gods for bold expression … read like allegories of Ovid’s experience …
Accordingly, Tomis not only gave Ovid time to augment the poem in view of his own experiences but, equally as important, its composition was being finalised during the emperor’s inquisition into the carmen et error.
Indeed, Ovid’s own silencing by Augustus may be seen to be enacted over and over again in the Metamorphoses in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means.
The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing.
Jealousy, spite, lust and punishment are also consistently present in Ovid’s chaotic world.
So is rape.
Rape is undoubtedly the most controversial and confronting theme of the Metamorphoses. It is the ultimate manifestation of male power in the poem and the hundreds of transformations that occur are often the means of escaping it.
An early tale of attempted rape is narrated in Book I, involving the nymph, Daphne and the god, Apollo. Intent on raping Daphne, Apollo chases her through the forest until, utterly exhausted, she calls out to her father, the river god Peneus to rescue her:
“Help, father!” she called. “If your streams have divine powers!
Destroy the shape, which pleases too well, with transformation!
Peneus answers his daughter’s entreaty, and Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree:
… a heavy torpor seizes her limbs,
her soft breasts are encircled with thin bark,
her hair changes into leaves, her arms change into branches,
her feet once so swift become stuck with stubborn roots,
her face has a leafy cover; only her elegance remains.
The tale of Daphne and Apollo, like so many stories in the Metamorphoses, is classified as an aetiological myth; that is, a narrative that explains an origin. But, as the excerpt above testifies, it is so much more than that.
Reading Ovid now
Where does a modern audience begin with a story such as Daphne and Apollo?
How do we begin to unravel the hundreds of other such tales that follow it?
During the last few years, the Metamorphoses has been challenged as a legitimate text for tertiary Humanities students. Defying the hundreds of years of pedagogical tradition that has seen the poem set for both Latin students and, more recently, literary students who study it in translation, the Metamorphoses has not only been interrogated by scholars such as Richlin, but has also been the subject of increased student complaints and calls for trigger-warnings.
In response to the growing number of objections to the work, academic and university executives have been called on to take a position – not only in relation to the Metamorphoses, but in response to other materials that are perceived to render the tertiary experience unsafe.
The Chancellor at Oxford, Chris Patten, has been quoted as saying that history cannot be rewritten to suit contemporary western morals. At the opposite end of this debate, are students such as the members of Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Council, who have challenged the inclusion of the Metamorphoses without an explicit trigger-warning in one of the core curriculum courses in the Humanities.
How close such responses to the Metamorphoses verge on literary censorship or, in the words of one journalist, Literature Fascism, does not only depend on one’s philosophical or educational viewpoint. Equally as important to the debate, and the decisions that may ultimately result from it, is the life-experience of every individual in the classroom. Amid a class of students taking notes from a lecture on the Metamorphoses, for example, may be a rape survivor.
Current statistics from the United States in particular suggest that the likelihood of this is exceptionally high. Emerging statistics from across Australia are painting a similar picture.
Such a situation requires alertness and sensitivity when handling texts such as the Metamorphoses. But should the work of Ovid be banned or placed among the shelves marked "Warning: Wicked Books”? What would such measures ultimately achieve? Would it augment safe spaces? Or, would it censor discussions around rape and shut down interrogations of sex, violence and female exploitation? Would it silence one of the means of opposition to the societal sickness of rape?
The Metamorphoses of Ovid has had a long and fascinating history. Its presence among the literary canon of the West has functioned as a strange but valuable mirror that has, for over two millennia, reflected social, moral and artistic customs.
From the time that Shakespeare read Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation and incorporated so many of the stories into his plays, to the thousands of artworks that have been inspired by the poem, to Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright’s 2006 extravaganza, The Lost Echo, to the production in the 2016 Sydney Fringe, to the student protests and the calls for trigger-warnings, the Metamorphoses – much like Ovid himself – simply refuses to go away.
Much like the self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, Olympia by Edouard Manet, the works of modernist painters that enraged European Fascists, Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the installations at MONA, Joyce’s Ulysses, and a host of films and photomedia, Ovid’s Metamorphoses testifies to the fact that great art is not necessarily created to please.
Recommended reading: Metamorphoses: A New Translation Paperback by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2005).
Montague Basement’s Metamorphoses is currently showing as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.