Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid: Class Activities

Delahoyde & Hughes


A) This exercise bridges mythology and psychology somewhat and can be effectively done either at the beginning of the semester or before the start of Ovid. Ask students to complete the following sentences. (Qualify the first with a skeptical definition of the New Age field of past life regression and its examples of people with irrational claustrophobia, or leg pain with no physiological explanation, who discover through past life regression therapy that they are the reincarnations of people who died in elevator accidents or getting limbs blown off in WWI. For the second and third, either 1) mark down students who refuse to grasp the notion of “simile” by explaining in gruesomely tedious detail actual life events, or 2) overtly insist that you do not want to know personal details but that they must supply similes, and that these might be detailed but that it’s not necessary.)

  • In a past life I died….
  • The worst time in my life, it was like….
  • My best moment, of new consciousness, self-actualization, enlightenment, peak experience, it was like….

Inevitably, responses will in most cases match stories (primarily those recorded by Ovid). For example, in response to “the worst time in my life, it was like,” the answer “being flayed and having all my skin peeled off” matches the fate of Marsyas (Book VI) or “being chopped up in a million pieces” matches Pelias’ end (Book VII) and Itys’ (Book VI). Classical mythology has Leander for generic drownings; Pentheus, Actaeon, and Orpheus for dismemberments; Antigone and Leucothoe for cave or hole imprisonments; Icarus for plummetings; Phaethon for auto wrecks; and so on. Responses to the cheerier question will include soarings (like Ovid’s birds) and walking on clouds (not unlike the Olympian gods themselves). For a best moment, “it was like I could lift the earth,” responded one unsuspecting Atlas. For a worst, “it was like having my hands tied behind my back and chocolate waved in front of my face, just out of munching reach,” responded a modern-day Tantalus.

The significance of this exercise is that it shows the myths to be stories that work within the personal or emotional life, that our own seemingly irrational fears and psychological experiences are in fact the stuff of myth. Joseph Campbell insisted that the key to understanding how myth worked was to recognize it as metaphor, and these similes serve as a step towards that. Thus, mythology addresses our lives in ways genetic science cannot even begin to illuminate.

B) Note the different ways fathers treat their children in Classical Mythology. Daphne’s father Peneus wants grandsons and tell her that she “owes” him. Yet as a father he is benevolent and understanding, not a tyrant (?). Phaethon’s father also will keep his promise to his son even though he knows the potential danger involved. These fathers stand in striking contrast to Fathers like Cronus the ruling Titan who castrated his own father, Uranus. Cronus’ son Zeus eventually revolts against his tyrannical father and the other Titans. One of the most horrifying images of Cronus was painted by Goya: Saturn devouring his son (1823). Goya’s painting is more like an emblem of “resistance to change.”

Describe the relationships between these fathers and their respective children:

  • Peneus–Daphne
  • Inacus–Io
  • Phoebus as Sun-God–Phaethon

C) Identify a relatively obscure myth within Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turn it into a psychological complex or behavioral syndrome. Freud used the Oedipus myth. Jung found many myths to be registering and manifesting various psychological issues. Many successful pop-psych gurus have made their way through the talk-show circuit pitching a book with one or another mythological figure in the title and claiming that many people suffer from an inner conflict expressed in the myth (e.g., The Peter Pan Syndrome). So it’s easy! You make one up and win valuable prizes!