Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes



1) What is Arachne’s punishment?
2) In what context have we heard of Niobe before?


Arachne’s ostensible hubris concerning her abilities “in the arts of wool-craft” (121) is enough to instigate the spinning and weaving contest with Minerva, who weaves a fairly self-serving set of scenes. More interesting than the etiological elements here (arachnids = spiders) is the politics of art involved. Aside from Minerva’s pettiness and jealousy, why does Arachne receive such a vicious punishment? Is it her pride, her skill, or the content of her artistic works?

“Arachne shows Europa cheated by
The bull’s disguise, a real bull you’d think,
. . .
Asterie in the struggling eagle’s clutch
She wove, and pictured Leda as she lay
Under the white swan’s wings, and added too
How Jove once in a satyr’s guise had got
Antiope with twins, and, as Amphitryon,
Bedded Alcmena; in a golden shower
Fooled Danae, Aegina in a flame,
And as a shepherd snared Mnemosyne,
And as a spotted serpent Proserpine.
Neptune she drew, changed to a savage bull
For love of Canace.” [Etc., etc.] (124)

“In all that work of hers Pallas could find, / Envy could find, no fault” (125). It’s just a simple scene of Pallas’ daddy’s rape history, and uncle Neptune’s too. So Pallas tears up Arachne’s work and beats her on the head. Trying to hang herself to escape, Arachne is transformed into a spider. Ovid seems to have some sympathy for persecuted artists whose subject matter upsets the authorities.


You may remember Niobe from the fourth episode in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, or from Achilles’ reference to her in the Iliad when trying to get Priam to let go of enough of his grief at least to eat something. Antigone compares herself to Niobe.

  • What do Antigone and Niobe have in common?
  • What do Niobe and Arachne have in common so that their stories are juxtaposed?
  • In the end of the story, Niobe is turned to stone. In your imagination, what causes her metamorphosis to stone? How is her transformation appropriate?

Niobe does sound like a jackass when she says of Latona, “She bore two children; so her womb was worth / A seventh part of mine. O happy me!” (127). Congratulations on the mathematics of being a SF breeder. Apollo and his sister mow down all the kids.
We hear of the origin of frogs (132), and then of Marsyas who, because he played flute better than Apollo, was flayed, becoming “one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere” (133) — a sort of Mr. Anatomy figure — gross. A brief mention of Pelops’ ivory shoulder brings us into the next story.

*Tereus, Procne, and Philomela*:

Chaucer includes this tale as one of the stories in his Legend of Good Women — really more an anthology of bad men. The tale is also a significant source for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses actually appears onstage as a prop.

Tereus sails to fetch his wife Procne’s sister, Philomela, for a visit. But he locks her in a cabin and rapes her. So that she cannot tell the tale,

“. . . he seized
Her tongue with tongs and, with his brutal sword,
Cut it away. The root jerked to and fro;
The tongue lay on the dark soil muttering
And wriggling, as the tail cut off a snake
Wriggles, and, as it died, it tried to reach
Its mistress’ feet.” (138)

Then he rapes her again. The tongue’s writhing about on the floor Ovid compares, with outrageous indelicacy to say the least, with a snake, so that the sexist association between a woman’s tongue and a serpent arises at the most vile time. But although Tereus tells Procne that her sister is dead, Philomela weaves her story on a loom and has it conveyed to Procne. During a Bacchic festival, Philomela is able to reach her sister. All revealed, Procne sees Itys, her son. (“What’s for dinner, mommy?”) “You’re like, so like your father!” (140). The sisters butcher and feed the rapist husband his own son. Philomela gets to throw the severed head at Tereus, who in turn wants to rip his own guts open when the horror dawns on him. Mercifully for this rather dysfunctional family, they all turn into birds (like those in the final short anticlimactic story in this book).

Metamorphoses Book VII
Ovid Index
Orpheus: Roman Mythology