Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses



*Orpheus and Eurydice*:

One of the classic myths that appeals to writers and directors of art films is the story of Orpheus. Some see Orpheus as the archetypal artist — and not simply because his music made even the mountains sway and the trees strain to hear it. The journey of Orpheus to the Underworld could be considered an allegory for the artistic process. Like Orpheus, the poet or artist descends to the darkest depths of the soul and stares death in the face. And like Orpheus, the artist who gives in to his or her doubts will lose everything.

Orpheus’ wife Eurydice is bitten in the ankle by a serpent and dies. Orpheus journeys to hell. As Orpheus sings his request, all those miseries of the underworld we saw in Virgil’s Aeneid stop: Ixion’s wheel stops spinning, the vulture stops chewing on Tityos’ liver, Tantalus stops trying to reach food and water, and so on. “And Tantalus forgot the fleeing water, / Ixion’s wheel was tranced; the Danaids / Laid down their urns; the vultures left their feast, / And Sisyphus sat rapt upon his stone” (226). What does it mean that “Hell” stops in the underworld when Orpheus sings?

Orpheus respectfully requests of Pluto a “loan”: his wife back until she’s older — after all, we all will end up here in the underworld sooner or later anyway.

  • How is the Underworld of mythology different from Christian Hell?
  • How is Hades/Pluto different from the Devil?
  • Who the devil is the Devil?

Orpheus’ request is granted with a catch in the form of folklore’s “one forbidden thing” motif: as he and Eurydice exit, he is not to look back at her. Of course, he’s worried about her, and on the way out he does look back. She’s gone forever in a “double death” (226). He tries to get back down, but is not allowed, and so lives in misery.

Ovid’s tale of Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld, the realm of Hades, provides a beginning place from which to consider the changing constructs of the afterlife in mythology. It is possible to view the changing images of the underworld by looking at the iconography of hell and the devil. See the Orpheus discussion of Hell.


A sacred deer is fond of the youth Cyparissus. Cyparissus rides the deer about and they have happy picnics together, until Cyparissus accidentally shoots the deer. He wants to die himself, and in order that he might lament forever, Apollo turns him into a cypress tree, a tree of mourning (229).


Orpheus sings the brief tale of Ganymede, beloved by Jove and so carried off by Jove’s eagle incarnation to serve him nectar (239).

Apollo and Hyacinthus:

Another youth, Hyacinthus, oils up with Apollo for a discus-throwing competition. He catches one on the rebound in the face and dies, becoming the hyacinth.


An angry Venus invents whores. Pygmalion turns away from such vile humanity, sculpts an ivory woman, and falls in love with it. Venus grants it life. This story serves as the prototype for My Fair Lady, Mannequin, and other Svengali tales.

Cinyras and Myrrha:

Ovid warns the squeamish away from this story, especially encouraging fathers and daughters to skip over it, thereby drawing more lurid attention to it. Cinyras and Myrrha are father and daughter, and Myrrha harbors incestuous impulses towards daddy, which she rationalizes with references to various animal practices (235). She even curses geography for the cultural taboo. Daddy’s pleased when she claims to want a husband exactly like him. After Myrrha prepares to hang herself, her nurse finally realizes why she is mooning all the time and, when mom is busy with the festival of Ceres, helps Myrrha to daddy’s bed. She revisits night after night until Cinyras calls for some light and turns homicidal. She flees, pregnant, and turns into a myrrh tree. Her son is Adonis.


We hear that Venus hunts a bit. She is accidentally grazed by one of Cupid’s arrows and falls in love with Adonis. To keep him from endangering himself hunting, she tells him the following story.


Atalanta is not interested in getting married, especially to any man who cannot outrun her. Losers receive death. Hippomenes scoffs at first but sees her and is struck by her beauty. During the race he throws golden apples farther and farther off course, which Atalanta fetches; thus he is able to win the race, and her.

Back to Adonis:

Venus warns Adonis off hunting, especially lions. But Adonis doesn’t listen and one day is gored in the groin by a wild boar. He dies and turns into the anemone flower, which blooms early and fades fast.

Metamorphoses Book XI
Ovid Index
Orpheus: Roman Mythology