Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Delahoyde & Hughes


Reading through story after story of people’s miserable lives and miserable transformations as the only escape from misery and victimization by gods in what certainly seems like a completely amoral world, one has to wonder what the point of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is.

The environmental theme has been easy enough to see perhaps. Earth was given a voice and considered our “mother”; hunters typically fared badly; and Erysichthon’s story came closest to revealing Ovid’s apparent attitude about respect for Nature.

But the wide side-step to Pythagoras in the final book ought to be the key. The Romans go back to killing animals in the remainder of Book 15, but the long section on Pythagoras serves as Ovid’s commentary on the natural world: Metamorphoses tells us that it is filled with souls. It’s not necessarily that we need to subscribe wholeheartedly to Pythagoras’ philosophy and way of life, although it’s a good idea for a myriad of reasons — it’s not that we should respect a tree or a bird because it might be the reincarnation of Aunt Millie; rather, we should respect that tree or bird because it too has a life story.

Some extreme English teachers claim that we are our stories, that all we have is our stories. This sounds a bit batty, and a literal reception of Metamorphoses, even in this respect, is suffocatingly anthropocentric. But understood on these human terms, and granted some tolerance for the dramatic nature of them, the stories of Metamorphoses are the stories behind various flora and fauna — the things on earth that do indeed have life and with which perhaps we can occasionally empathize.

So, “the problem of change”? No, the joy of change! And the joy of being able to connect with life.

Ovid Index
Orpheus: Roman Mythology