Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes



1) Why is the fruit of the mulberry tree red? (82)
2) Why do flowers face the sun? (Love-crazy Clytie jealous of Leucothoe over sun-god, 90)
3) Where do we get the word “hermaphrodite” from? (Parents Hermes/Aphrodite)
4) According to Book 4, what might happen to you if you refuse to honor Bacchus? (Turn into bats, dash your kid’s brains against a wall as Athanas did)
5) Offer one interpretive comment regarding Perseus’ weapon against Atlas.


Among blasphemers against Bacchus/Dionysus, the daughters of Minyas prudishly “deny the god,” “Spoiling the holiday” or “mar the festival (75). Instead of joining in, they pass the time on fiber arts and telling stories while the rest of the town throws itself into the Bacchic festival.

*Pyramus and Thisbe*:

This story is most familiar in its goofed-up version by Bottom and company in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to the numerous film versions of the entire play, the Beatles performed this play-within-the-play for a tv show in the ’60s.

The names Pyramus and Thisbe come from rivers in southeast Asia Minor, so perhaps these are river deities originally. They serve as the precursors to the Romeo and Juliet story — star-crossed, or rather parentally disapproved, lovers. Separated by “wall,” they agree to meet at Ninus’ tomb (a vere-y interesting choice for “Shake-speare”). Thinking that Thisbe has been eaten by a lion, Pyramus kills himself. Thisbe discovers this and kills herself. Ovid makes the story serve as an etiology for mulberries (83-85). I have not yet confirmed if Paramus, New Jersey is a corruption.

Mars and Venus:

The Sun-God discovers these illicit lovers and informs Venus’ husband Vulcan (Hephaestos) who fashions a net to catch them in bed. When they are caught, another unnamed god envies that kind of disgrace: “The gods were not displeased; / One of them prayed for shame like that. They laughed / And laughed” (79). A version of this story appears in the Odyssey.

The Sun-God and Leucothoe:

Venus has her revenge on the Sun-God by making him victim to the pains of love. He dons drag to appear as Leucothoe’s mother in order to get close. A jealous Clytie rats her out to her father, who, despite her cry that ” He ravished me / Against my will” (81), buries Leucothoe in the earth. The Sun-God cannot revive her, and instead she turns into frankincense. Clytie goes bonkers and Ovid etiologically explains through her the botanical phenomenon of heliotroping: Clytie turns into a flower whose face follows the sun.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus:

The waters of this fountain weaken men. Originally Salmacis was a water-nymph who fell in lust with Hermaphroditus (an etymological etiology: the son of Hermes and Aphrodite). She welds herself onto him in the water and, hence, “both bodies merged” (85): hermaphroditism. What is the purpose of Ovid’s apparent sexism in the waters’ victims being called “half man” (but not half woman)?

The Daughters of Minyas:

We are reminded that we have been hearing stories from the weaving daughters. As punishment for snubbing the god, they turn into bats (86).

Athamas and Ino:

Juno (Hera) is jealous of Ino, aunt of Bacchus, and so journeys to the underworld (88). Along the way we see Cerberus, Tityus, Tantalus, Sisyphus, Ixion, and the regular gang. Juno wants to destroy the house of Cadmus and have the Furies drive Athamas, Ino’s husband, mad. The hellish plan works and Athamas snatches their kid from Ino’s arms, swings him around, and smashes his brains out against a granite block (90). Ino throws herself off a cliff into the sea.

*The End of Cadmus*:

Cadmus attributes the curse of his entire family over the years to his slaying the serpent that was sacred to Mars. Somewhat rashly he says that if a serpent is so blasted wonderful he wishes he were one: “If it is he the jealous gods avenge / With wrath so surely aimed, I pray that I / May be a snake and stretch along the ground” (91-92). Need we say more? He turns into what he slew in a pathetic description of metamorphosis. Interestingly, he becomes a “gentle” serpent along with his wife — “Quiet snakes, that neither shun nor harm mankind” (92) — in a moment of textual pro-herpetology, very uncharacteristic of Western culture.

The Story of Perseus:

Perseus, another of Jove’s sons, with the head of Medusa, renders Atlas (the animate force behind the world) fossilized into a mountain. The horror of the Medusa head etiologically explains why there are so many snakes in Libya. Perseus slays a sea monster and frees Andromeda. Coral is explained with its source as Medusa’s head (97), and we learn why the shield of Athena/Minerva contains the image of Medusa’s head (98). Perseus reports how he decapitated Medusa while avoiding being turned into stone by her gaze.The book ends with an allusion the origin of Medusa — her rape in Minerva’s temple by Neptune and her subsequent punishment for being raped. Thanks so much.

Metamorphoses Book V