Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses


Ovid’s Metamorphoses is considered a treasury of classical myths, practically a reference book of stories forced or twisted to relate to the theme of “change.” This is a disappointingly dismissive reduction of the work, as if it did not have any message of its own. Ovid is also interested in the feelings, idiosyncrasies, sometimes even pathologies, of people in love and gods in lust. But readers of the work should be constantly asking questions as to its real purpose. The struggle to make sense of it all will pay off eventually and rewardingly. And web-page summaries do not have the answer.

Ovid abandoned his usual couplet, adopting the six-foot dactyllic line of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. Thus he self-consciously places the work in this epic tradition, but notice as you read through how the narrative serves to fill in the gaps left by these great earlier works and skims through the events related in them, or renders them from a quirky perspective (e.g., we get a drunken brawl of centaurs in a tavern right where the Trojan War should appear).

Attempts are made towards “Ovid Moralisee” later — that is, forcing a moral onto each of the seemingly very amoral tales. This can be taken as evidence of the problems readers had with the work from the start. (The famous Elizabethan translation into English, credited to the otherwise moralistic and puritanical Arthur Golding, probably was done by his nephew, Edward de Vere, the foremost proposed candidate as the man who wrote the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s works are saturated with allusions to Metamorphoses.)

“Metamorphoses” are changes of form; note the root word “morph.” The first questions about Metamorphoses may be predictable: why is change such a compelling theme? What kind of changes are there? How do you perceive change?

The so-called “problem of change” is an age-old Philosophy 101, Chapter 1, textbook issue ­ indeed the key early philosophical issue among the Greeks who invented philosophy. The first among them, the rather eastern-sounding Heraclitus “the Obscure” (540-470 bce) said, “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not” (Fragment #81). Ovid inherits this concern, but treats change as a universal principle, offering endless variety. Still, this is a theme, not a message, like a paper with a topic but no thesis. So we still need to understand Ovid’s purpose.

As you read, look for:

  • Etiologies: stories that explain origins.
  • Vestiges/Survivals: traces remaining in popular consciousness.
  • Deeper Meaning: the stories tap into something deeper? a lesson or point?
  • Larger Meaning: what is Ovid’s ultimate purpose in this work?

Ovid Index