Metamorphoses by Ovid.

I began reading Ovid's Metamorphoses on the 1st January this year along with Cleo of Classical Carousel, and here I am just under sixteen weeks later writing a summary post! How time flies. Spending so much time with a book, one does grow very affectionate towards it - it's been a constant presence for this length of time, and I've loved it, been frustrated by it, enjoyed it, and a few times (just a few) hated it. It's a vast book, a book of fifteen books or sections with around one hundred and forty stories containing some 250 myths and countless metamorphoses.

At the heart of Ovid's Metamorphoses is change and the vast array of possibilities in the world. It's original title was Metamorphōseōn librī meaning 'The Book of Transformations'. He begins in his prologue,
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora
[I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities]
It is a chronology of Roman and Greek myth beginning with chaos and creation and ending in Ovid's own time with the apotheosis (deification) of Julius Caesar and the reign of Augustus who ruled from 27 B.C. up to his death in 14 A.D. (six years after Ovid completed Metamorphoses in 8 A.D.). These two themes of change and chronology are what ties up Metamorphoses and gives a frame and structure for the random within it.

It begins, as I say, with the change from chaos, "a general conglomeration / of matter composed of disparate, incompatible elements" where no gods existed, no land, nor sea or sun, to creation when the elements were separated and "set free from the heap of darkness". From creation to the four ages of man, gold, silver, bronze, and iron: iron, the age in which war and discontent begins, starting with the giants. Then the flood - mankind was wiped out by Jupiter apart from Deucalion and Pyrrha, and it is they who repopulated the earth. From here Ovid covers a multitude of myths and legends, some famous - Medea, Daphne and Apollo, Io, Europa, Narcissus and Echo, Pyramus and Thisbe, and  then the 'silver' myths - that is, the lesser known. Ovid borrows from Homer and recounts a few episodes from The Odyssey and the Trojan War, and from Virgil telling a potted history of The Aeneid.

Within these myths Ovid writes on the universal experiences of mankind - love (such as that beautiful story of Ceÿx and Alcyone in Book XI, both turned into kingfishers to spend the rest of their lives together after Ceÿx was killed: this was adapted for a part of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess, 1369 - 1372), sex (particularly uncontrolled sexual desire, for example the disturbing rape of Philomela in Book VI that inspired William Shakespeare's Titus Adronicus, 1588 - 1593), death and loss (the death of Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, in Book X), war (the Trojan War, for example, beginning in Book XII), rage (Jupiter's destruction of mankind in Book I), and revenge (for example Medea tricking the daughters of Pelias into killing him in Book VII). Ovid writes on the welcome and unwelcome interventions of the gods, the power of art (Pygmalion's beautiful statue literally comes to life in Book X) and speech (being unable to communicate, for example, led to the death of Actaeon in Book III who had been transformed into a stag then shot). Justice may nor not be served in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the gods may or may not be on your side.

It is, clearly, a very dense work but incredibly rewarding both in itself as a pleasure to read and as an introduction the myths and legends of the Ancient Romans and Greeks (this is invaluable when reading later classics, from Chaucer, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, the Georgians, through to the Victorians, Edwardians, and beyond). It's not one to be read quickly, at least if one is hoping for a good introduction to the myths - there is much to be savoured, enjoyed, and hopefully, sometimes, committed to memory. There were a few occasions when I was fed up with it (somewhere in the middle, I'm afraid I forget where) but persevering through some of the ugliness in it is worth it. It is a key text that opens up a whole world and a new appreciation for a great many classics.

And not only classics, Metamorphoses has had a great impact on art too - there are very few stories in Metamorphoses that haven't inspired some work of art, most notably (I think) by the likes of the pre-Raphaelites (John William Waterhouse in particular), Peter Paul Rubens, Evelyn de Morgan, and Gustave Moreau.

To finish, I'd like to share ten of my favourites:

Apollo Slays Python by Eugène Delacroix (1850-51).
From Book I.
Diana and Callisto by Titian (1556-59).
From Book II.
Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1894-95).
From Book III.
Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1903).
From Book III.
Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus by John William Waterhouse (1900).
From Book XI.
Halcyone by Herbert James Draper (1915).
From Book XI.
The Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1737).
From Book XII.
The Metamorphosis of Scylla by Rubens (1636).
From Book XIII.
Venus, Supported by Iris, Complaining to Mars by George Hayter (1820).
From Book XIV.
Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus by William Turner (1829).
From Book XIV.


  1. a truly Herculean task - finished! congratulations! it's been a treat, reading your posts about the various activities of the elder gods... an eclectic lot they were... by the by, i've been wondering if you've ever delved into robert graves, the "Greek Myths"; i have a copy and have been puttering about in it. it appears quite different than the more standard interpretations...

    1. I'm very glad you enjoyed the posts, thanks for letting me know! :)

      No I haven't read Graves. I started to years ago (before I had read any Greek myths) and unsurprisingly found it tough. I'll return to it though, I think I'd like it now!

  2. Yay! We finished! I can't believe it!! And I even wrote my concluding summary post! Now I just have to clear my plate and get ready for The Faerie Queene. Thanks for prodding me into this read ..... or was it me prodding you ...??? I never can tell which, which is great because that means we both equally want to participate. :-)

    1. I know! I can't believe it either! It's gone so fast! No idea whose idea it was... really can't think :)

      Yes, looking forward to The Faerie Queene!

  3. Love the art you posted. The Metamorphosis is on my list of must-read classics, but I haven't quite gotten around to starting it yet. Hopefully soon. :)

    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it - it is a very worthwhile read :D


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