Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes


Nisus and Scylla:

King Nisus has one purple lock of hair growing on his head, and retaining the kingdom rests with this lock. His daughter Scylla suffers a mad infatuation with the warring Minos and rationalizes her betrayal of father and country. She lops off the lock when Daddy’s asleep and offers it to Minos, who is horrified by her and calls her a monster. She rants against him and bemoans the consequences of her actions, then turns into a bird — a Ciris, or Shearer — pecked at a bit by her father, now transformed into an osprey. Ovid reports quickly the existence of the Minotaur, the monster created by Minos’ queen’s adultery with a bull and hidden in the labyrinth built by Daedalus. Every so many years an Athenian human sacrifice was offered to the monster. (There is compelling evidence that the traditional bull sacrifice on the Greek island of Crete harkens back to some sort of bull-related sacrifice at the palace at Cnossus in ancient times.) Theseus, thanks to Ariadne’s help, was able to kill the Minotaur and find his way back out of the labyrinth.

Daedalus and Icarus:

In order to escape Minos, Daedalus hatches a plan to fly off Crete with wings constructed of feathers, twine, and wax. He instructs his son Icarus to fly “a middle course” (177), but the kid rises too close to the sun, the wax melts, and he plummets to his death (in the Icarian sea). We hear afterwards that an apprentice sent to Daedalus invented the compass and that Daedalus in a fit of professional jealousy hurled the youth off the top of the temple of Minerva. The goddess transformed the boy into a partridge, a bird that tends to flutter to the ground and detest high places.

The Caledonian Boar:

King Oeneus accidentally snubbed the goddess Diana so she unleased a wild boar on his land Calydon. Ovid provides an epic list of warriors all attempting to quell the onslaughts (180-181). They do badly. Nestor jumps up a tree. The female athlete Atalanta (unnamed here to avoid confusion with the more famous Atalanta) does better than the macho, boastful, threatened Ancaeus, who is gored between the legs, disemboweled, “the shortest road to death” (183). Jason, of Argonaut fame, accidentally spears one of the hunting dogs. Meleager succeeds and honors Atalanta. The other guys oppose this and Meleager turns on them and kills a couple.

The Brand of Meleager:

Althaea, mother of Meleager, is grieved by his murder of her brothers. When Meleager was born, the Fates had set a log on the fire and announced that the kid would live only until the log was burnt to ash. Althaea had preserved the log until now. She agonizes a bit first, but vengeance for her brothers outweighs motherly affection, and while the log burns, Meleager, in sympathetic connection with the wood, feels the burn. He dies, and mom knifes herself. Mourning sisters are turned into birds.

Return to Theseus and Achelous’ Story:

Achelous is a river-god who warns Theseus of his powers and tells of some islands that were once naiads (199-200).

Baucis and Philemon:

Baucis and Philemon are an old poor couple, nice to strangers, with no hubris issues. Apparently, humility is one way to avoid humiliation since because of their kindnesses in the form of humble courtesies and treats served on their wobbly table to the disguised and wandering Jupiter and Mercury, they get to choose the kind of old age they want. They ask to be priests to the gods and to die together; so when they die, they become “Two trees from one trunk grown side by side” (193).


This may be the best representative story for what seems to be Ovid’s final perspective. Erysichthon is reckless and rapacious with the environment. He decides to log a sacred grove of Ceres, bragging, “Be this the tree the goddess loves, be this / The goddess’ very self, its leafy crown / Shall touch the ground today” (194). When he strikes, “Blood issued, flowing from the severed bark, / As when a mighty bull is sacrificed / Before the altar and from his riven neck / The lifeblood pours” (194). One man tries to stop Erysichthon, who turns on him and decapitates him with the axe before turning back to the tree.

  • How is the intense famine impulse that does him in an appropriate punishment for his crime?

Hunger did Ceres’ bidding, though their aims / Are ever opposite” (196). Erysichthon is cursed with insatiable hunger: “The more he crams his guts, the more he craves” (196). He “Exhausted his ancestral wealth” (197), and then commodifies his shape-shifting daughter, whom he sells off “A mare, a cow, a bird, a deer” (197). Still insufficient, he ends by consuming himself: “his own flesh supplied his appetite” (198).

Understanding this story’s significance will make you a talented diagnostician for a phenomenon we like to call the Erysichthon Syndrome.

  • Identify a relatively obscure myth within Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turn it into a psychological complex or behavioral syndrome. Freud used the Oedipus myth. Jung found many myths to be registering and manifesting various psychological issues. Many successful pop-psych gurus have made their way through the talk-show circuit pitching a book with one or another mythological figure in the title and claiming that many people suffer from an inner conflict expressed in the myth (e.g., The Peter Pan Syndrome). So it’s easy! You make one up and win valuable prizes!

Metamorphoses Book IX