Books XI and XII of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Continuing the read-along of Ovid's Metamorphoses...

Book XI

The Death of Orpheus | The Punishment of the Maenads | Midas | Laömedon's Treachery
Peleus and Thetis | Peleus at the Court of Ceÿx [I] | Ceÿx's Story: Daedalion
Peleus at the Court of Ceÿx [II] | Ceÿx and Alcyone | Aesacus

The Death of Orpheus

Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus by John William Waterhouse (1900).
As Orpheus sings his songs and plays his lyre he is spotted by women - the Bacchantes. For rejecting all women they attack and kill him, dismembering him, and his head and lyre falls into the River Hebrus. His spirit passes to the Underworld where he is at last reunited with Eurydice.

The Punishment of the Maenads

The Maenads by John Collier (1886).
Maenads → Trees

Bacchus, enraged at Orpheus' death, transforms the women into trees.


Midas by Walter Crane (1893).
Midas' touch → Gold
Midas' ears → Ass's Ears

Bacchus then travels to Tḿolus where he is reunited with his tutor Silenus: he had been missing but was found by Midas, and as a reward Bacchus grants Midas one wish. Midas' wish is that he could turn everything he touched to gold, and with great misgivings and a heavy heart Bacchus grants this wish. Midas soon learns that this gift is a curse and begs Bacchus to remove this power. Bacchus does so but instructs him to cleanse himself of his sins in the river Pactolus. As Midas does so deposits of gold are left in the river.

So disillusioned with wealth, Midas wanders the fields and forests worshipping Pan. One day he encounters Pan in a flute playing contest with Apollo. Apollo is declared the winner and Midas objects. As a punishment Apollo gives Midas donkey ears. Midas hides his ears under a turban but his servant discovers his secret and whispers the secret into a hole. But, as Ovid writes,
... soon a close-packed cluster of quivering reeds
began to grow on the spot and, after a year of ripening,
gave the planter away. In the breeze from the south they would rustle
and whistle the buried words, 'King Midas has ass's ears!'

Laömedon's Treachery

Helen on the Walls of Troy by Gustave Moreau (1885).
Apollo then leaves for Troy where he finds King Laömedon building the new city's walls. Apollo and Neptune agree to help him for payment of gold, Laömedon accepts the offer, however when the walls are built Laömedon reneges. He is punished severely - Neptune raises the waves and floods Troy then demands Laömedon's daughter Hesione be sacrificed to a sea monster. Hercules rescues her for the price of some horses, but then Troy refuses to pay his reward. Hercules declares war, and he gives Hesione to his friend Télamon. Ovid then tells us Télamon is the brother of Péleus, who "married a goddess". 

Peleus and Thetis

The Wedding of Pelus and Thetis by Joachim Wtewael (1612). 
Thetis → Bird
Thetis → Tree
Thetis → Tiger

In Theogony Hesiod tells us that Thetis is the daughter of the Titan gods the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys who bear the Nereids - the fifty nymphs of the sea (Thetis is one of the nymphs). Thetis, Hesiod writes, goes on to marry Peleus and together they have a son - Achilles. In Metamorphoses Ovid writes on how Peleus 'won' Thetis. It was prophesied that Thetis would bear a son, "a hero who, grown to his prime, shall challenge the deeds of his father and merit a mightier name". Jupiter desired Thetis but feared this prophecy so he ordered his grandson Peleus to woo Thetis. "Wooing" in Ovid's terms is radically different from the usual sense of the word, I must say - Pelus "attempted to rape her" however she changed her form many times. Peleus was advised simply to grasp her until she gave up and resumed her natural state, which she did, and she gives up her fight and consents.

Peleus at the Court of Ceÿx [I]

Peleus, it is revealed, accidentally killed his brother Phocus. He is exiled, and he goes to Trachin where Ceÿx (the son of Lucifer, the morning star) is king. Ceÿx is too in mourning for his lost brother.

Ceÿx's Story: Daedalion

The Death of Chione by Nicolas Poussin (1622 - 1623).
Ceÿx goes on to tell Peleus his story about his brother Daedalion. The two brothers were very different, Ceÿx was a peaceful man whilst Daedalion loved war. Daedalion had a daughter, Chione, who at fourteen was ready for marriage. Apollo and Mercury both fall for her and rape her as she sleeps, and she is then pregnant with twins, Autolycus and Phillamon. Chione then becomes very vain, and she declares she is more beautiful than the goddess Diana. Diana hears and kills her by shooting an arrow through her tongue. When Daedalion hears of his daughter's death he throws himself off a cliff, however Apollo transforms him into a hawk.
Now he's a hawk, a mischievous creature who vents his rage
on the kingdom of birds and inflicts his pain and distress on his neighbours.
Peleus at the Court of Ceÿx [II]

Psamathe by Frederic Leighton (1880).
Wolf → Marble Statue

They are interrupted by a messenger who tells them of a disaster that has befallen Trachin: a wolf has emerged from a swamp and is intent on killing anyone who comes near it. Peleus guesses that this wolf was sent by Psamathe, the mother of Phocus. Thetis intervenes and begs Psamathe to forgive Peleus. Psamathe then turns the wolf into marble.

Ceÿx and Alcyone

Halcyone by Herbert James Draper (1915).
Ceÿx and Alcyone → Kingfishers

In this penultimate (and longest) tale of Book XI Ceÿx decides to travel to Clarus to consult the oracle (the Oracle of Dephi is besieged by King Phorbas). His wife Alcyone begs him not to leave however he insists. He and the sailors soon encounter a tempest, all are killed. Alcyone is unaware and prays to Juno to keep him safe; Juno asks Sleep to make Alcyone sleep and Morpheus, disguised as Ceÿx tells Alcyone of his fate. She goes to the shore to try and find him and there she sees his body, and at that moment she is transformed into a kingfisher. The gods then transform Ceÿx into a kingfisher and to this day they remain together and in love.


Aesacus → Diver (bird)

In the final tale of Book XI, an old man is watching the two kingfishers when he spots another bird, who was once Aesacus. Ovid tells of how Aesacus was in love with Hesperie and he chased her, but as she ran she was bitten by a snake and died. He is heartbroken and throws himself off a cliff, however Thetis intervenes and changes him into a bird - a diver, or merganser.

Book XII

The Greeks at Aulis | Rumour | Cycnus | Achilles' Victory Celebration
Caenis | The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs | Periclymenus | The Death of Achilles

The Greeks at Aulis

Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1863).
The twelfth book of Metamorphoses begins with Aesacus' father King Priam of Troy, unaware of his son's fate. He and Hector, his son and Aesacus' brother, build an empty tomb and offer funeral gifts. Ovid notes of the brothers only Paris is missing - Paris is of course in the process of stealing Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The Greeks pursue Paris, however they get held back at Aulis by the storms so they remain and make sacrifice to the gods. The prophet Calchas (who is in both Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1382 - 1386, and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, 1602) proclaims,
Rejoice, you Greeks! We will surely triumph,
Troy must fall, but our toil shall be long.
The storm continues, however, and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to Diana (having previously killed her favourite stag). Diana then transforms Iphigenia into a deer, and accepts the sacrifice. The Greeks then have a clear voyage to Troy.


Detail of Die Einführung des Ganymed in den Olymp (The Induction of Ganymede in Olympus)
by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (1768). Pheme, or Rumour, is seen holding a trumpet and wreath.
Ovid then tells of the goddess Rumour and her abode, described as "at the heart of the world":
... Not one of the rooms is silent or quiet, but none
is disturbed by shouting. The noise is merely a murmuring babble,
low like the waves of the sea which you hear from afar, or the last faint
rumble of thunder, when storm-black clouds have clashed in the sky.
The hall is filled by a crowd which is constantly coming and going,
a flimsy throng of a thousand rumours, true and fictitious.
wandering far and wide in a turbulent tangle of language.
They chatter in empty ears or pass on stories to others;
the fiction grows and detail is added by each new teller.
Geoffrey Chaucer also describes this 'house of fame' (in, of course, House of Fame, 1379 - 1380), and the second part of Henry IV by William Shakespeare begins with a monologue by Rumour.


The Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1737).
Cycnus → Swan

Rumour then spreads the word to the Trojans that a fleet of Greeks is approaching. And so they are ready and do battle on the beach. The Trojans' best fighter is Cycnus, and he encounter's the Greeks' best fighter Achilles. The two fight, but Cycnus tells Achilles he has been made invulnerable by his father Neptune. And so Achilles outwits Cycnus by making him so dizzy he collapses, at which point Achilles tries to choke him, however when he removes Cycnus' armour he finds it empty, except for a swan: Neptune had intervened.

Achilles' Victory Celebration

A temporary truce is called, and the Greeks enjoy a feast after Achilles sacrificed a heifer in honour of Athena. They talk of courage, and then of the death of Cycnus. Nestor tells the group he once saw a man invulnerable just like Cycnus - Caeneus. They ask Nestor to tell them the story, and he agrees.


Poseidon and Caenis by Virgil Solis (1563).
Caenis → Caeneus

Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a woman who was raped by Neptune. He then promises her a gift, and she replies,
... let me never be able to suffer
such a wrong again. If you will make me a woman no more,
your promise will be fulfilled.
And so Neptune makes Caenis a man - Caeneus, who could never be hurt or wounded.

The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs

The Rape of Hippodame by Rubens (1636 - 1638).
Caenus → Golden-winged bird

The tale of the wedding feast of the king of the Lapiths, Pirithous, and his wife Hippodame is then told. Pirithous has invited centaurs, notoriously unruly, and a great fight breaks out. Eurytus, a centaur, grabs Hippodame and the other centaurs follow suit and grab any woman they can. Theseus tackles Eurytus, smashing a wine bowl in his face, Cyllarus and his wife Hylonome (both centaurs) are killed, and then Latreus attempts to kill Caenus, who of course cannot be killed, however the centaurs bury him alive under rocks. A golden-winged bird is seen flying out of the heap, and it is thought that was Caenus.


Periclymenus the Eagle by Isaac Briot (17th Century).
Periclymenus  Eagle

Here Tlepólemus interjects, objecting that Nestor did not mention his father Hercules who once defeated the centaurs. Nestor replies that Hercules is one of his foes; long ago Hercules destroyed his city and killed all eleven of his brothers, and that one of his brothers, Periclymenus, transformed into an eagle however Hercules shot him down.

The Death of Achilles

The Death of Achilles by Rubens (1630 - 1632).
In the final tale of Book XII Ovid tells of how Neptune hated Achilles for trying to kill his son Cycnus and how he asked Apollo for help. Apollo consents, and guides the arrow of Paris into his heel, killing him.

Achilles' armour, it was told, was made by Vulcan: it must be decided who will inherit it: Odysseus or Ajax. Agamemnon summons the Argive chiefs to make the decision, and there Book XII ends.

Books IX & X


  1. fascinating stuff. complex and colorful to say the least... i gravitate through awe to the intriguing tale of Midas' servant, speaking into a hole. possibly a comment on the futility of communication? ultimately, the only person who listens is ourselves? and the reeds whispering back in the ever present wind... curious!

    1. I did like that aspect too, though I thought of it more along the lines of someone unable to contain themselves, yet the warning is no matter what one must keep secrets :)

  2. I became very distracted by the paintings and had to return to read your post. ;-) Where do you find them all? They're fantastic!

    I loved the description of Rumour and I laughed at old Nestor's stories, as he seems the never-ending storyteller and wisdom-dispenser from The Iliad.

    Orpheus' demise was so very poignant. I just loved it.

    Only two more posts (for you) to go!

    1. Two more posts BUT - just one more double post! The next post will be tough - XIII is the longest book, and XIV is pretty long too.... :)

      I loved Rumour too, and the descriptions of Orpheus. My favourite in this thought was Ceÿx and Alcyone :)

      Really must get on with the Iliad. Perhaps I'll be ready after this or The Faerie Queene... I won't be doing a long read of it, just read it as I want and then a single post.

    2. If you wait, I'll do a long read of it with you. It's in the plans, but of course, it won't be until after a good number of books! :-Z

    3. I think I'll just read it more casually to start with, but then next year go a bit more in depth with you. I cannot let another year go by without re-reading it! Best, I think, for an easy, short(ish) read to start with :)


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