An introduction and commentary with discussion of myths and links to sources and influences in art and literature

Larry A. Brown, Nashville, TN

 

Introduction:

Ovid's influence on Western art and literature cannot be exaggerated. The Metamorphoses is our best classical source of 250 myths. "The poem is the most comprehensive, creative mythological work that has come down to us from antiquity" (Galinsky). Based on its influence, "European literature and art would be poorer for the loss of the Metamorphoses than for the loss of Homer" (Hadas). Ovid was a major inspiration for Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton (see bibliography on last page). If Virgil is Rome's greatest poet, Ovid is the most popular (even in his own time; Ovidian graffiti has been found on the walls of Pompeii).

As one example of Ovid's influence on Western art and literature, read the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus in Book 8. Ovid's account is the earliest in extant literature, although the story is much older, found on 6th century vases. Christopher Marlowe alludes to this story in his tragedy of Dr. Faustus, comparing his protagonist's ambition to that of Icarus:

Till swoll'n with cunning of a self conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow. (prologue)

Now look at the painting below by Peter Brueghel, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (1558). Notice how he takes details of ordinary life from Ovid's language: the farmer at his plow, the shepherd leaning on his staff, the fisherman down by the water. However, in Brueghel's version of the story, these men are oblivious to Icarus' plight. (If you haven't found him yet, look in the water in the lower right corner.) Why do you think Icarus's tragedy is reduced to a minor detail in the painting? In "Musee des Beaux Arts," a poem inspired by this painting (which was inspired by Ovid), W. H. Auden explains:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along ...
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure. The sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

 

Biography:

Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - 18 AD). Ovid seems to have believed in art for pleasure's sake, having no ethical agenda for his writings, unlike his predecessor Virgil, who wrote for the betterment of Romans. Ovid's other works include: Medea (a tragedy, no longer extant), Heroides (letters to legendary heroes from their wives; read them here), Amores (poetic essays on love), The Art of Love (advice on how to seduce a woman; scandalous in Augustus' time, one possible reason for Ovid's banishment in 8 AD), the Fasti (a poetic calendar of religious festivals). Ovid offered something of an apology for his immoral reputation (Tristia 2:354): "My life is respectable, my Muse is full of jesting. A book is not evidence of one's soul." (for more biography)

 

Organization:

In the first verses of the Metamorphoses, Ovid claims to write one continuous epic, not an anthology of myths. Unlike the Iliad, however, there is no central hero, thus no simple Aristotelian unity to the work. So what binds this poem together, making it more than a random collection of stories? We might first consider three superficial strategies of unity within the poem:

  1. All of Ovid's tales involve metamorphosis. But some stories (see Phaethon, Pentheus, Heracles) only have metamorphosis tacked on as an incidental element, almost as an afterthought. Ovid is more interested in metamorphosis as a universal principle which explains the nature of the world: Troy falls, Rome rises. Nothing is permanent.
  2. Chronological progression: Ovid begins his poem with the story of creation and the flood, and ends in his own day with Augustus on the throne. However, chronology becomes unimportant in the vast middle section of work, as seen by the numerous anachronisms throughout (see notes on Callisto, Atlas, Cycnus stories for examples).
  3. Transitional links: Ovid continually surprises us, as we never know where he's going next. He changes strategies using several techniques:

    • He follows the same character through different adventures (Perseus, Hercules).
    • He tells a story within a story: to put Argus to sleep, Mercury tells another story, becoming an internal narrator within Ovid's story.
    • He "slides" from the story of one character to that of a relative or friend (Epaphus and Phaethon, end of book 1).
    • He even will note the absence of a character in one tale as an introduction to a new story (Tereus, book 6).

These different types of links provide only a superficial continuity to the poem. A better way of viewing the artistic unity of the Metamorphoses considers Ovid's use of "theme with variations." For example, in Books 1-2, there are five variations (at least) of the virgin-pursued-by-god theme:

  1. Daphne and Apollo: with focus on the chase, her metamorphosis into a tree serves as Daphne's means of escape.
  2. Jupiter and Io: with emphasis on Hera, the jealous wife, and the metamorphosis as Io's disguise in hiding from Hera (both these early instances make the gods appear comic).
  3. Syrinx and Pan: a meta-narrative or story within a story, told by Mercury, serving to put Argus to sleep.
  4. Jupiter and Callisto: similar to the Juno/Io plot but not treated comically; this more serious tale prepares for the later savage treatment of Semele and Ino by the gods; here metamorphosis serves as apotheosis (Callisto taken up to heaven as a constellation).
  5. Jupiter and Europa: serves primarily as a transition to the story in Book 3 of Cadmus' exile.

This pattern of theme and variations gives Ovid numerous means to tell his stories in inventive ways, weaving a complex web of interrelationships throughout the entire work. This thesis, suggested by Brooks Otis (Ovid as an Epic Poet, 1970), will organize (with some modification) the following discussion notes.

Otis sees four major divisions (after a prologue depicting the Creation and primordial events) to the Metamorphoses:

  1. "Divine Comedy" or Gods in Love: Books 1-2
  2. "Avenging Gods": Books 3-6, line 400 (up to the story of Tereus and Procne)
  3. "Pathos of Love": the rest of Book 6-11
  4. "History of Rome & the Deified Caesar": Books 12-15

Following this outline, we see a general movement from gods acting like humans (section I), to humans suffering at the hands of gods (II), to humans suffering at the hands of humans (III), to humans becoming gods (IV). 

Each section prepares the reader for future sections: the tales of the Minyads (section II, book 4) foreshadow the thwarted or forbidden loves in section III; Hercules' becoming a god (section III, book 9) points toward those later of Aeneas, Romulus, Caesar (section IV). Thus, throughout the work Ovid creates a complex chain of interconnecting themes.

Classical Sources:

Throughout the notes are links to other ancient works of mythology, most of which were available to Ovid. Homer's famous epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey were written sometime in the 8th century BC. Homer's contemporary Hesiod wrote his Theogony about the birth of the gods around the same time. The Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides composed their tragedies during the 5th century BC. Virgil completed his Latin epic the Aeneid, patterned after Homer, about 19 BC, a generation before Ovid. The Library of Apollodorus was attributed to a writer in the 2nd century BC, but scholars believe the work was actually written more than a century later by an anonymous author; it may or may not have existed prior to the Metamorphoses. Hyginus wrote his Fabulae sometime in the 1st or 2nd centuries AD, after Ovid.

Translations:

There are many English translations of this work. I use the Humphries version throughout my notes; it's been around awhile (1955) but it's still my favorite to read. The Simpson version (2001) has excellent notes along with a highly readable translation. I also like Mandelbaum, and the Martin version is fairly recent (2005) and has gotten good reviews. (Buying a text through these links provides some funding for this site, so thanks. I do not use or collect any information from you for using these links).

 

 

Ovid Intro

Prologue

Books 1-2

Books 3-6

Books 6-11

Books 12-15

More Pages on Mythology

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since February  2000

Latest revisions: August 2013

 

How to cite this page for use in a paper or electronic report:

Brown, Larry A. Ovidís Metamorphoses. http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/xeno.ovid1.htm (todayís date)