Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes



  • With the story of Phaethon, Ovid tells us the difference between fathers and sons, or the difference between being old and being young, or being experienced vs. inexperienced. What is the difference between the Sun God and his son Phaethon?
  • What do young people want? What do older people want?

Dad supplies “The Rash Promise” from which he cannot back out — a common folklore motif: his son may ask any favor and it will be granted. D’oh! — anything but that! Phaethon wants to drive the chariot of the sun, and despite Phoebus’ lengthy appeal to reconsider the dangers, his son insists.

  • Why does Phaethon disregard his father’s warning?
  • Once again Ovid voices the science of Rome. What earth’s properties does Ovid acknowledge? What do we see cosmologically?

Note reference to constellations: Scorpio, Leo, Cancer, Taurus (27).

“Press not too low nor strain your course too high;
Too high, you’ll burn the heaven’s palaces; too low,
The earth; the safest course lies in between” (28).

  • What are the sun’s stallions–Eous, Aethon, Pyrois, and Phlegan–like? Flying horses?
  • If no one had imagined this already, then in what era might we as humans come up with such a fantastical cross between steeds and birds? Why?

“… the team can sense the difference; those four
berserk–desert their customary course:
no rule, no order governs their wild rush….”

  • What is Ovid saying about humans? About government or leadership?

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates creates the metaphor of the gadfly and the great horse which is allegorically the Athenian State:

“For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the god; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which god has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.”

  • Is Ovid using horses in the same metaphorical fashion as Socrates? What is the difference between Socrates’ story of the gadfly (and the horse) and Ovid’s story of Phaethon and the stallions?
  • How might these stories help us understand the differences in attitudes about individualism between the Greeks and the Romans?
  • What is the American perspective?

When Phaethon loses control, fires break out on earth, Aethiopians get toasted, the Sahara Desert forms, the Nile hides its origin, and Mother Earth sends up a complaint:

“Scarce can my throat find voice to speak (the smoke
And heat were choking her). See my singed hair!
Ash in my eyes, ash on my lips so deep!
Are these the fruits of my fertility?
Is this for duty done the due return?
That I endure the wounds of pick and plough,
Year-long unceasing pain, that I supply
Grass for the flocks and crops, sweet sustenance,
For humankind and incense for you gods?” (33).

Ovid gives us the Mother as the great provider. The queen of resources now feels the plight, the confounded chaos of old. With sea and land and sky ruined, Mother Earth “fell silent…. And she withdrew into her deepest caves….”

  • In what ways is Mother Earth still silenced?
  • In what ways do we continue to forbid the earth to speak of its ruin?
  • How can we best communicate with the earth?
  • Phaethon’s Epitaph: what does it suggest about the boy’s choice?

So despite everything, Phaethon goes out like a shooting star, which remains a deadly if glamorous myth about reckless youth (38). (The 1939 Ford Phaeton seems a particularly poor choice of names for a car! But then, the Toyota Cressida is named after literature’s archetypal inconstant and unreliable woman.)
The Sun-God mourns his son’s death, resulting in an eclipse.

  • Phaethon’s mother Clymene and her daughters also mourn Phaethon. What happens to Phaethon’s sisters?
  • Ovid again explicitly expands the human community to include trees. What is Ovid saying about trees?

“When you rip this tree, it is my body that you tear.”

We learn etiologically why swans don’t like fire.
We learn the story of Callisto, whom Jove seized while disguised as a female: Diana’s form — “and by his outrage stood betrayed” (37). Of course she’s pregnant, and further victimized by the real Diana’s rage. She is metamorphosed into a bear and thereafter into a constellation.

The Story of the Raven:

“His ruin was his tongue; his chattering tongue…” (40).

The history of the raven in narrative goes back to antiquity with the story of the flood in Gilgamesh (2700 bce). In this Summerian epic, the survivor of the flood Utnapishtim–the precursor to Noah–releases a swallow which failing to find land returns to the ark. He then releases a raven and “she” does not return. In Genesis, at the end of forty days Noah opens the window in the ark and releases a raven that “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth (Genesis 8:7). In the ancient stories, these birds are present at the apocalypse and yet do not return to the ark, preferring a kind of abandonment or freedom independent of the human survivors. In contemporary wildlife studies, we learn that the raven prefers to live in the wild, in the untrammeled places called wilderness where human populations are transitory and temporary; the crow on the other hand, often seeks out the rural and urban habitat in close occupancy with humans. Consequently these two birds become a measure of change for as we domesticate the wild the raven moves on and is replaced by the crow.

Ravens and crows belong to the Crovine family which includes jays. Among other things, this family of birds is associated with trickery. The Steller’s Jay, for instance, can imitate the call of a Redtail Hawk.

  • What does the crow tell the Raven?
  • Does the crow understand humans and their gods better than the Raven?
  • What is the origin of the crow in this story?
  • Nyctimene becomes a night-owl. Why?
  • Raven disregards crow’s warning and goes on to tell Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity. What does Apollo do? What happens to the raven?

Phoebus (Apollo), enraged by the bird’s notice of his lover’s infidelity, kills her, then laments.

“Deep from the very bottom of his heart,
As a cow groans who sees, before her eyes,
Upon theforehead of her suckling calf
With echoing crash the high-held hammer fall” (43).

Pretty far to go for a simile concerning grief, no?

Ocyrhoe is too good at prophesizing and turns into a horse. Mercury tests an old man’s promise of silence. Mercury wants Herse, but Minerva has a fit, especially because of a grudge against her sister Aglauros, and calls on Envy, who eats vipers’ flesh (47). Envy infects Aglauros, jealous of her sister’s fortune, and she ends as a stone. Finally, Jove/Jupiter disguises himself as a bull and runs off with Europa.

Book 2 contains numerous etiologies: why Africans are dark-skinned, why Libya is a desert, why the Nile’s beginning is hidden (35-36). It also reveals the origin of amber (39), the swan (Cygnus, cousin of Phaethon), and certain constellations (Ursa Major and Minor — a bear and Arcus/arctic son/hunter).

Towards the larger meaning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, take note of these moments:

* “earth, our mother” (36).
* earth being outraged, reminding us of her beneficence (37).
* breaking twigs = bloodletting (39).
* a bear might be your mother (44).
* the odd and nasty butchery simile that doesn’t really apply to Apollo’s mourning. hmmm…. (48).

Metamorphoses Book III
Ovid Index
Orpheus: Roman Mythology