Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes



“Of bodies changed to other forms I tell;
You gods, who have yourselves wrought every change,
Inspire my enterprise and lead my lay
In one continuous song from nature’s first
Remote beginnings to our modern times” (1.1-5)

  • How does Ovid distort this convention a bit?

Ovid announces his theme of change, but not his purpose. This is similar to the typical poor essay that includes in the opening paragraph, “In this paper I will [examine the origin of Zeus, or whatever]” and proceeds to report factoids instead of work towards supporting any kind of real thesis or perspective. But Ovid, unlike that obtuse writer, knows what he’s doing. It remains for us to determine what this unspoken purpose is.

Ovid invokes “the gods,” but the invocation is minimal, weird, and ambiguous. Instead of begging for inspiration and humbly praising the higher powers, he says rather bluntly, that the gods “Will help me — or so I hope” (Ovid 3). Given what he will say about these higher powers in the next pages, this is not much of an assurance.

The Creation:

“Chaos, a raw and undivided mass,
Naught but lifeless bulk, with warring seeds
Of ill-joined elements compressed together” (1.9-11).

  • Compare the creation story here with that in Genesis. What are the changes among the familiar features between the stories?
  • There is a shift in emphasis from what in Genesis to what in Metamophoses, even from the opening lines of this section?
  • What can be said about the character of the creator here?
  • How confident are the respective authors of the truth of what they are saying?

The difference in perspectives between Ovid and the author(s) of Genesis most pronouncedly includes the emphasis on the creator Himself in Genesis vs. the emphasis on the creation in Metamorphoses, the separation of elements; and Ovid goes so far as to blur the issue of the creator, attributing the work ambivalently to “God, or kindlier Nature” or “whatever god it was” (2), “with nature’s blessing” (1). He has no religious ax to grind, so Ovid’s view is more worldly. But what happens when you remove the creator from the story? Emphasis falls onto what? And why is Ovid doing this?

According to Ovid, the creation is an ending of strife between innately warring opposites, parallel to the Chaos of Genesis. This underlying strife characterizes Western thought, and one is less likely to see this elemental instability in the creation myths of other cultures. In fact, Ovid’s account on this score is more “scientific” than Genesis and apt to sound more familiar to us.

Also interesting are the details in Ovid; he sees the earth as a giant ball and he even gives us an account of the hemispheres, including a sense of global climate. He knows about the existence of both poles. What do you make of this? In other words, what happened to the history lesson where Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? Didn’t most of the people in the European world in 1492 suspect that the earth was flat? So was this information in Ovid’s account added later? Is there any evidence? Or did Roman intellectuals know the reality of earth as planet, and we’re simply in the habit of shortchanging the ancient world?

  • This section of the Book I also tells of the creation of humankind: what is our origin?
  • How does that make “mythological” sense?
  • Why does Ovid qualify and hesitate –“So Man was born, it may be, in God’s image”? Or, “perhaps from seed divine” (2).
  • Does Ovid believe in the supremacy of humankind (anthropocentrism)?

The Four Ages:

  • Ovid shows how evil and distress change the once idyllic world. Where in Ovid’s Four Ages would you place Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise? (See Thomas Cole, American painter, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1828). Is there anything in Ovid’s narrative that explains why these changes happen? (See Warren Hern’s essay in Bioscience, Dec. 1993, for one interesting explanation.) The well-known metaphor “Cradle of Civilization” implies that civilization is like a human being growing up, advancing even maturing. Is this the case in Ovid’s story of the four ages of humankind? Is Ovid giving us a moral evolution in reverse? Why?
  • What is the diet during the Golden Age (4), or in the Garden of Eden? What does this signify?

Rebellion in the form of the battle between the Titans and Olympians brings about the first degradation from gold to silver, then human disposition towards war brings about the bronze age, and then a ravaging of the earth’s bowels for iron. Ultimately, the human race relishes “cruelty, / Bloodshed and outrage” (6).


  • What is lycanthropy?
  • As Jove explains to the council of gods why he wants to wipe out the human race, Lycaon is singled out as representatively wicked and offensive. How does the story relate to other stories or folktales, particularly ones involving animalistic impulses and transformations?
  • Is Ovid suggesting that human beings were invaded by an alien animal nature of is he suggesting that the savage rapaciousness of wolves originated in a human being? What contemporary cultures and agencies in the Pacific Northwest are reintroducing wolves into the wild? Why these groups rather than say some other groups like the Cattleman’s Association or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation? Why is traditional Western culture so vicious about wolves? How do wolves challenge human dominance?
  • What then is the true mythological significance of lycanthropy?

*The Flood*:

  • Compare Zeus in Homer’s Iliad to Jove in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
  • Compare Ovid’s flood story to the flood story in Genesis.

Jove (Zeus) overthrew his father Saturn (Cronos), so humankind was not responsible for the first wave of degradation exactly, as Ovid may be hinting. The gods lament the extinction of humans, for “Who would cense their shrines?” (8). Jove promises a better race and considers a fire apocalypse, but a general prophecy about end-times has him decide instead on a deluge. Ovid interestingly personalizes the flood with colorful perversions of the natural order: fish in the tops of elm trees, etc. (12).

The wrath of god yields nearly genocidal flood, and one couple — Deucalion and Pyrrha — is saved. That sounds somewhat familiar. But in the aftermath of the flood, Ovid departs from Genesis; the biblical story gives us the covenant — the promise inherent in the image of the rainbow. In Ovid’s story, Deucalion and Pyrrha find themselves alone. They pray to Themis, daughter of Gaia, and she gives them an answer of sorts on how to redeem humankind — it comes in the form of a riddle: “cast behind you your great mother’s bones” (12). What are the bones of the great mother?

  • What does this riddle explain mythically and etiologically about humans? and about the earth?

“The earth is our great mother and the stones / Within earth’s body surely are the bones / The oracle intends” (12). If this is taken simply as the answer to the riddle, the result will be the same blindness Oedipus experienced in answering the riddle of the Sphinx simply as if it were a trivial Jeopardy question. Etiologically speaking, since we are born of stones, “Hence we are hard, we children of the earth” (13).

Then there’s some spontaneous generation out of “slime and ooze,” so that the world seethes with all forms of life like a WalMart on a Saturday afternoon. We hear about Apollo slaying the Python.

*Apollo and Daphne*:

  • Victimization will quickly seem rampant in this world. Daphne is the daughter of a river god and wants to remain a virgin, but when Cupid shoots his nasty arrow, she becomes the first “love” of Apollo (although “love” here is characterized by “burning,” “fire,” “aflame,” “consumed”). How reverent is Ovid in his portrait of Apollo? Daphne flees him while he pursues, reciting his resume (16). She knows she will not be able to outrun him and prays for salvation. How does the metamorphosis of Daphne bring Ovid’s portrait of Apollo to its comic (?) finale? Mandelbaum and Humphries both place this an image of this story on the cover of their editions/translations of Metamorphoses. Why?
  • What questions does a contemporary reading of this story raise about ownership of the female body?

Etymology: the laurel (more familiar as “bay”) is sacred to Apollo, the god of lyric and other poetic creation. The victors in athletic contests and renowned poets of many societies have been honored with a laurel wreath. The title “poet laureate” comes from Latin poeta laureatus, meaning “poet honored with laurel.”

*Jove and Io*:

There’s no reverential attitude towards the Olympian gods, but either a lighthearted one or maybe even critical. Jove is a philanderer: he always was in the myths but he seems especially cheesy here, perhaps because of the contrast with the pathos inherent in Io’s experience — he “stayed her flight and ravished her” (19) — especially her futile attempts to communicate when in her cow form, transformed by Jove to hide her from Juno. She scrapes her name in the dirt for her father to recognize who she is (20).

We get a story within the story — Juno’s distrust leads to her appointing hundred-eyed Argus as guard over Io the cow. Jove, though, sends Mercury to tell stories to Argus, such as the tale of Pan and Syrinx, the origin of reeds — involving more victimization. When Argus dozes, he is decapitated. And we get an etiology: how the peacock came by its (Argus’) “eyes.” When Jove promises Juno that he’s over Io, she gets changed back to her human form. So we’re all good, right?

Why doesn’t Ovid end Book 1 here and begin the story of Phaethon at the start of Book 2?! Why is he messing with our logical expectations?

Final Questions:

  • Is there a moral to Book 1?
  • What is the general philosophy of life reflected in Metamorphoses?

What is the worldview manifested in Metamorphoses? The “metamophoses” themselves are dehumanizing: Lycaon to a wolf, Daphne to a tree, Syrinx to reeds…. And the stories so far mostly seem to involve arbitrary victimization: surely being a tree is not Daphne’s dream come true; Io was changed back, but was toyed with cruelly — through any fault of her own? Was Argus’ fate justified?

  • So what do we have here? Another “Please, Lord, don’t let them hit it to me” philosophy as we examined in the Iliad?

Metamorphoses Book II
Ovid Index
Orpheus: Roman Mythology