Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes



Cadmus, about whose ending will be described later in Book 4, is sent by their father to find Europa. Apollo provides a cow as guide, but Cadmus slays a serpent sacred to Mars (52). He is cursed to end up as a snake, but first, by sowing the serpent’s teeth he creates a new people and founds the city of Thebes. This section ends with an echo of the last lines of Oedipus Rex, appropriately enough: Cadmus seems blessed, “But yet in truth one must ever await / A man’s last day, nor count him fortunate / Before he dies and the last rites are paid” (55).


Ovid challenges us to find any fault in Actaeon deserving of the ferocious “punishment”: “if you ponder wisely, you will find / The fault was fortune’s and no guilt that day, / For what guilt can it be to lose one’s way?” (55). Actaeon, out hunting, stumbles upon the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs. Diana without her clothes blushes, which explains the crimson colors of the dusk and dawn. Actaeon’s transformation into a deer at Diana’s hand means that he becomes the hunted; the hunter becomes the prey.

If we apply Greek tragic vision to this story, the tale may fit into an ancient formula of art. Aristotle’s Poetics defines the three characteristics of successful Greek tragedy as recognition, reversal, and tragic flaw. Does the story of Actaeon has all three of these elements? The hunter becomes the hunted, a classic version of reversal. Actaeon also surely must finally recognize what it feels like to be a deer, the one pursued by hounds. His consciousness has become entrapped in the animal world….

  • But what is Actaeon’s tragic flaw? Ovid states overtly that this disaster was not his fault.
  • However, what are Actaeon and his friends doing at the beginning of the story?
  • What do you think is the sentiment of the poet about the hunters and their actions?

Actaeon sees Diana (and her nymphs), twin sister of Apollo, an eternally virgin huntress who haunts wild places. She is sometimes referred to as Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Beasts) indicating her concern for and power over wild animals. She is also concerned with women’s transition from girlhood to adulthood (via marriage) and with childbirth, a concern she shares with Hera and Eileithyia. Women who die are said to be struck down by her arrows. From a woman’s point of view, Artemis represents an experience of her nascent feminine nature. But, from a man’s point of view, an image of a young girl suggestive of Diana/Artemis represents the anima — the name Jung gave to a female figure, in a man’s dream or fantasy, which belongs not to the personal, but to the collective unconscious. The anima is an image of the feminine indicative of the malesubject’s unconscious attitudes towards women, and his notions about them. Diana/Artemis thus reflects a particular stage in his relation with his unconscious image of the feminine.

  • At first, how does Actaeon react?
  • Then the hounds get the scent. What happens?
  • What is the moral to this story?
  • Ovid tells us that some say Diana was too cruel, others that she was justified (58). What do you think of the way she punishes Actaeon?


It doesn’t pay to be the mistress of a powerful male. Juno convinces herself that Semele’s arrogance is the result of her being impregnated by Jove (Zeus). Disguised, Juno urges Semele to demand that Jove reveal himself in all his godlike glory. Jove visits Semele and makes “The Rash Promise.” Of course, the mortal Semele can’t handle the phenomenon and is singed. Jove assumes the role of the mother by sewing up in his thigh the fetus that will become Bacchus (Dionysus).


  • Who is Tiresias?
  • What did he mean when he tells Liriope that her son Narcissus will live to see old age if he never knows himself (61).

A fuller version of the story has Tiresias, who has lived as both a man and a woman because of the magical snake incidents, answer the question about who enjoys sex more, men or women: women, nine times as much. Bizarre quantitative declaration. But the annoyed Juno blinds him while Jove gives him the gift of prophesy or inner vision.

*Narcissus and Echo*:

  • Etymology: what is the meaning of the word narcissism?
  • Compare this word to “ethnocentrism” and “anthropocentrism.” Similarites?
  • Juno puts a curse on Echo. Describe the curse.
  • Where is Echo now and why?
  • Narcissus and the pool: explain.
  • What happens to Narcissus? Why a flower?

Here’s another case of the hunter (as Narcissus starts out in this story) becoming the hunted. Spurning Echo and others, he ends his life pining for himself — or the image of himself….

For medieval symbologists, the pool of Narcissus is located at the center of the Garden of Love. In the most famous and influential tale, the Lover first catches a glimpse of his beloved (Rose) reflected in this pool. What does this indicate about love? (Think Jungian, if possible.)

Pentheus and Bacchus:

There’s always a sullen, scornful resistence when a dynamic, charismatic god of dionysian celebration comes to town. The conservative, repressed, disapproving authorities and Pharisees are particularly nasty when women (Bacchus’ groupies are called Maenads) are attracted by the droves to the visiting male god: Jesus, John Lennon, Michael Jackson.
Pentheus listens to the report of Bacchus having his vengeance against some seafaring betrayers, but intolerantly locks up the boy recounting the story. Still, the boy is miraculously freed, his chains falling away. In the end here, the Maenads in their characteristic frenzy kill Pentheus, ripping his hands off and tearing him apart, limb from limb.

Metamorphoses Book IV
Ovid Index
Orpheus: Roman Mythology