Section II: the Avenging Gods
The focus in this section of books is less on the gods' exploits and more on the mortals who suffer at their hands
Cadmus and the founding of Thebes:
Like most Hellenistic writers, Ovid was interested in novelty for its own sake, and focused on lesser known tales of Thebes rather than on the more familiar story of Oedipus and his children, depicted by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Thus, we turn to the house of Cadmus, brother to Europa, and 6th generation ancestor of Oedipus on both sides.
Cadmus is first mentioned by Hesiod. The theme of Cadmus' story: mortals pay for divine escapades, but in turn they become the founders of cities, have lasting fame, and are forever associated with deity. Cadmus' slaying of the serpent and sowing the "dragon's teeth" are exploits mentioned in countless myths. Ovid's depiction of this colossal monster may have inspired Milton's description of the serpent in Eden (Paradise Lost 9.500f)
Cadmus' father Agenor was the brother of Belus, whose family
produced many famous heroes as well: Danaus (see notes on book 1 and 4), Perseus
(book 4 below), and Heracles (book 9). Harmonia, Cadmus' wife, was the daughter of Mars and Venus (book 4). Boeotia, a region in Greece,
is named after the Greek word for cow, which led Cadmus to the future site of
Ovid compares the warriors rising from the ground to a painted theater curtain rising from the stage. Romans had a front curtain (auleum) that lowered into a slot in the stage, but Ovid specifically describes “raising” a scene with designs (signa) on it, not revealing actors behind it, so he must be referring to the backdrop curtain (siparium), perhaps raised by pulleys in front of the elaborate frons scaenae of the stage.
The Cadmus story concludes with the famous proverb of Solon (6th century) also found at the end of Sophocles' Oedipus; "Call no man happy until you see how his life ends."
Next Ovid turns to several of Cadmus' descendants who also run into trouble from the gods.
Actaeon: the grandson of Cadmus by Autonoe
In the Latin text he is not named until he attempts to identify himself to his dogs; Ovid always assumes his readers know these famous stories.
The painting is by Giuseppe Cesari (1606); notice that Actaeon's transformation has already begun (also see the modern statue of Actaeon by Paul Manship).
His only "sin" is seeing the goddess naked by accident. In Euripides' Bacchae the story goes that Actaeon claimed to be a superior hunter to Diana, thus his punishment, but Ovid presents him as innocent. Even the gods argue about the injustice of Actaeon's treatment.
As with Io and Callisto previously, loss of hands means loss of the gesture of prayer and appeal; loss of speech signifies the major distinction between man and beast. Often in Ovid, metamorphosis is poetically justified, as when the beastly Lycaon becomes a wolf (book 1) or Arachne the weaver becomes a spider (book 6). Actaeon's metamorphosis is ironic - the hunter becomes the hunted - but undeserved, as he doesn't become what he already is.
Shakespeare alludes to the story, as Orsino speaks of his love:
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, Twelfth Night 1.1.18-22
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.
Twelfth Night 1.1.18-22
Semele and Jupiter:
Phoebus' rash promise to Phaethon (book 2) foreshadowed Jupiter's promise to Semele (both swear by the river Styx which binds them to their deadly vows). Unlike other virginal victims, Semele is a willing lover, not raped by the god.
Juno's jealous rage blinds her to the truth: she had almost no children by Jove; she overlooks Mars and Hebe. In Virgil, Juno is a disruptive force because she loves both Carthage and Turnus, not for petty jealousy and sadistic revenge. Ovid gives us a less lofty view of the gods and their motivations. When the next story begins, Jove seems untouched by Semele's loss, another sign that the gods don't care.
In another version of the god's birth, Dionysos was the child of Zeus and Persephone, queen of the Underworld. As a child he was dismembered and eaten by the Titans at the encouragement of Hera, but then was reincarnated by grandmother Rhea. Zeus destroyed the Titans with his lightning bolt, and from their ashes mankind arose; thus humanity is a mixture of divine and evil elements: Clement, Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Heathen) 2.18.1.
In Marlowe's play, Dr. Faustus tells the reincarnation of Helen, “Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter when he appear'd to hapless Semele” (V.i).
Echo and Narcissus: (the surreal treatment at left is by Salvador Dali).
Ovid seems to be the first to connect the stories of Echo and Narcissus. In Latin the word imago denotes both an echo and a reflection, tying the two stories together.
Echo is another one of Juno's victims, punished for distracting her while Jupiter escaped from another adulterous escapade.
Asked if Narcissus will have a long life, Teiresias (the same prophet as in Oedipus, Antigone, Bacchae, Phoenician Women) answers, "If he never knows himself," an ironic and humorous inversion of the famous Greek motto "Know thyself" inscribed on the temple of Athens at Delphi. Teiresias is also a descendant of a dragon-born Theban (Apollodorus 3.6.7).
There are several famous "echo" scenes in dramatic literature: see Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusie (Women's Festival), and the Renaissance tragedy by John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi.
In the balcony scene, Juliet remarks: "Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies, And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine, With repetition of my Romeo's name" (2.2.162). Milton alludes to this scene when Eve first sees her reflection (Paradise Lost 4.460f):
As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleas'd I soon returned,
Pleas'd it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love; there I had fixt
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me, What thou seest,
What there thou seest fair Creature is thy self ...
Fred Chappell created a clever rendition of this story in his poem "Narcissus
and Echo." Actually two poems in one, notice how the echoed words, when read together, express her feelings of despair:
Shall the water not remember Ember
my hand's slow gesture, tracing above of
its mirror my half-imaginary airy
portrait? My only belonging longing;
is my beauty, which I take ache
away and then return, as love of
teasing playfully the one being unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure Is your
moves me. I live apart heart
from myself, yet cannot not
live apart. In the water's tone, stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower Hour,
whispers my name with such slight light:
moment, it seems filament of air, fare
the world becomes cloudswell. well.
J. W. Waterhouse (1903)
Pentheus and Bacchus:
Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus and son of Echion, one of the original Thebans born of the dragon's teeth, is a cousin to the god Bacchus (Dionysos) but refuses to recognize his deity. Compared to Euripides' play the Bacchae, Ovid's depiction of Pentheus is totally unsympathetic; unlike in the earlier version, he is not driven mad by the god but spies on the women out of wicked curiosity. In Euripides, Dionysos punishes Semele's sisters for denying she slept with a god, driving them insane and forcing them to worship him; also in the play Dionysos disguises himself as his own priest, and drives Pentheus insane, prompting him to spy on the worshipping women.
Because of his impiety toward Bacchus, Pentheus deserves his fate, whereas Actaeon his cousin does not. It's ironic that Pentheus holds up another king Acrisius as an example of opposition to Bacchus, as he too will learn repentance for defying a god (Book 4).
Besides the attached dolphin story (taken from the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos), no metamorphosis plays a role here except in Agave's mind as she sees her son as a beast. Notice the theme of mother killing child, in this case unwittingly, but later an intentional murder in the story of Procne (Book 6) and Althaea (Book 8). Ovid depicts these later stories as conscious crimes because the cause is human passion, not a god's revenge.
Book three has a theme of people seeing something that they should not see: Actaeon sees Diana bathing, Semele sees Jupiter's deadly glory, Teiresias saw two serpents mating, Narcissus views his reflection, Pentheus spies on the women's rites.
This 6th century BCE Etruscan vase depicts the sailors' transformation into dolphins. The painting from Pompey in the House of the Vetii shows Pentheus' fate at the hands of his mother and aunts. Whereas earlier Ovid describes the dire results of metamorphoses in that Io as a cow cannot use her hands or tongue to implore for mercy (1.635), Pentheus' arms are torn off, and when he tries to speak, his mother tears off his head.
Further notes on Dionysos:
Dionysos’ name (Di-wo-nu-sos) has been found in the language of the Mycenaean culture (ancient Greece in the 13th century BCE) indicating that Dionysos was one of the oldest Greek gods.
Dionysos was a god of multiple roles: god of wine, madness, fertility; the god of illusion appearing in many forms. In Antigone, Sophocles calls him the “god of many names.” Plutarch called him the god of fluid nature, or metamorphosis.
Dionysos also became known as the god of theater. There may have been political reasons for this development. The fifth century historian Herodotus (5.67) suggests that the tyrant Cleisthenes (6th century) tried to eliminate the cult of hero worship of a political rival by substituting the worship of Dionysos. Being god of fertility and springtime, he was naturally associated with the new art of tragedy performed at the festival held in March each year beginning in 501 BCE.
His sexuality was ambiguous; as fertility god the phallus is his symbol, but he is often depicted as effeminate. In art he is depicted with satyrs and female worshippers. In the Bacchae Pentheus ridicules his long hair and soft features, but at the same time accuses him of seducing the women of Thebes. Dionysos and Aphrodite’s offspring was Priapus, always shown with a large phallus. Phallic symbols were carried in the parades at the Greater Dionysia theater festival, symbol of the rite of spring and the life force.
In another version of his birth, Dionysos was the child of Zeus and Persephone, queen of the Underworld. As a child he was dismembered and eaten by the Titans at the encouragement of Hera, but then was reincarnated by grandmother Rhea. Zeus destroyed the Titans with his lightning bolt, and from their ashes mankind arose; thus humanity is a mixture of divine and evil elements (Clement, Protrepticus 2.18.1). Zagreus, an alternate name, may mean “torn in pieces” which the Bacchic rites re-enact with Pentheus as victim.
The mystery religion of Orphism (6th century) was based on the death and rebirth of Dionysos. Orphism emphasized the division of body and soul; their major concern was the purification of the soul, removing the sinful taint of the Titans left in human nature. Dionysos’ reincarnation led to hope of an afterlife; thus Orphism changed the cult of Dionysos from a celebration of this life into a religion of salvation in the next, influencing both Pythagoras and Plato in their beliefs.
Different from Orphism, the major cult of Dionysos focused on the experiences of this life. Dionysian worship offered union with a god (en-theos meaning “the god within” gave us our word enthusiasm). Dionysos was also known as Lusios, the liberator, as divine possession frees a person from oneself temporarily, offering a cathartic experience (Plutarch 2.613c). The Dionysos cult appealed to women as one area they could express themselves freely in Greek society; it was also one of few cults in which slaves could participate.
Much of this book is in the form of meta-narrative (stories within stories). Picking up the theme from the last tale, the daughters of Minyas, rather than worship Bacchus, prefer to stay at home and tell stories. Their tales of thwarted or forbidden love (Pyramus and Thisbe, Venus and Mars, Apollo, Leucothoe, and Clytie, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus) look ahead to the theme of Section III (the pathos of love), while the parallel stories by the Muses (Book 5: telling of Proserpina and Arethusa) look back to Section I (gods chasing women). Although mainly an excuse for telling more stories, both these interludes end with divine vengeance, the theme of this section. For the most complex use of meta-narrative, see book 10 where Ovid tells of Orpheus who tells of Venus who tells of Atalanta.
Pyramus and Thisbe: perhaps most famous because of its parody at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream (see video 1 and 2), this story of star-crossed lovers may also have influenced the tradition leading to Romeo and Juliet.
Venus and Mars: The Sun sees all things; his part in this story perhaps repays Vulcan's craftsmanship of the golden doors and chariot in book 2. See Odyssey 8.266 for Homer's version. Shakespeare alludes to this episode when Cleopatra says to Antony: "O infinite virtue, comest thou smiling from the world's great snare uncaught?" (4.8.16-18).
In the next story, Venus has her revenge on the sun-god. Apollo is now back to his old tricks with the seduction of Leucothoe; notice the clever mythological explanation of eclipses. Venus prompts her rival Clytie to get Leucothoe in trouble, then Clytie in sorrow becomes the sunflower, always facing her beloved. In the original Latin Ovid refers to Venus as Cythereia, as some accounts say she was born from the sea foam near the island of Cythera. In Greek Aphrodite means "risen from the foam" according to Hesiod. The "Birth of Venus" pictured here is by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1879).
Salmacis: unlike previous seductions, this time the girl "rapes" the unwilling boy. Salmacis foreshadows other aggressive females whose stories are more sordid, including incest (Byblis, book 9; Myrrha, book 10).
After this brief interlude, the story of Ino and Athamus returns us to the tragedies of the house of Cadmus. Unlike her sisters, who did not believe Semele's claim to have Jove as a lover, Ino does believe and worships Bacchus as divine. However, Juno hated her because of Bacchus, another illegitimate son of Jove. Thus she reminds us of the unfortunate but innocent Actaeon, her nephew. Juno punishes Ino for her sister's fault; in both instances the victim is innocent, committing no tragic error which leads to their downfall. Ovid now emphasizes the terrifying, vindictive nature of the gods.
The Furies cause Ino and Athamus to kill their children, driving them to madness using poisons from two famous monsters, first described by Hesiod in the Theogony. Echidna was half-woman, half-serpent who gave birth to several creatures found in later myths: the hell-hound Cerberus, the many-headed Hydra, the Chimera (part lion, goat, and serpent), the Sphinx, and the Nemean lion.
On Juno's trip down to Hades to summon the Furies, there is a brief mention of several famous punishments in Hades (see Odyssey 11.575):
When Ino throws herself into the sea, Venus asks Neptune to transform her into the sea goddess Leucothoe (not to be confused with the girl whom Apollo loved earlier in this book). Finally at the conclusion of his family's tragedies, Cadmus and Harmonia meet their prophesied fate by turning into serpents, a reminder that Cadmus long ago slew the giant serpent at Thebes.
Perseus: one of several heroic epics in the poem (Heracles, Meleager, Aeneas) with no obvious thematic connection to the surrounding material. Instead, Ovid offers the variety of an exciting, gory battle (similar to the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in book 12). The story of Perseus and Andromeda is the classic knight-rescues-damsel-in-distress-from-dragon.
Ovid makes the transition to Perseus by way of his grandfather, Acrisius, who committed a double fault of not worshipping Bacchus (as in the previous stories) and not believing the account that his daughter Danae had sired a son of Jove. In the past Acrisius had heard an oracle that his grandson would one day cause his death, so he locked his daughter up in a tower to prevent anyone from mating with her. However, Jupiter transformed himself into a shower of gold and through a window poured himself into her lap. Acrisius later dies when Perseus accidentally kills him with a discus (Apollodorus 2.4).
Below are sculptures of
Perseus and Medusa
by Benvenuto Cellini (1554) and "Andromeda and the Sea Monster" by Pierre
Etienne Monnot (1704).
Note the anachronisms as Ovid plays with the order of events. Perseus turns Atlas into a mountain by means of the gorgon's head, but later tells how previously he had beheaded Medusa who was living in a cave at the foot of the mountain (painting by Gillis Congnet, 16th century).
Furthermore, in other versions of the myth Atlas was expecting Hercules (another son of Jove, and Perseus' great-grandson) who would try to steal the golden apples as one of his labors. In Ovid, Perseus turns Atlas into stone before this episode with Hercules can happen, but later (book 9) Hercules alludes to his holding up the heavens, which he did in the traditional account while Atlas obtained the apples for him, an event which didn't happen according to Ovid's version.
Some might accuse Ovid of carelessness with these details, but most scholars believe Ovid likes to play tricks on his readers, seeing if they are paying attention. Keep in mind the classical reader would have been more familiar with these stories than modern students of Ovid.
At the end of book four, Ovid mentions how Medusa was once lovely, but her seduction by Neptune in Minerva’s temple angered the goddess, who transformed her beautiful hair into serpents, another case of the rape victim being punished while the divine rapist escapes. Interesting details: the birth of winged Pegasus from Medusa’s severed neck (first mentioned by Hesiod) and the explanation for the stony nature of coral.
Perseus Continued: The battle at his wedding feast foreshadows the gory fight of the Centaurs in book 13. The Romans presumably would love the gruesome details, seeing that their other entertainment was the brutal arena.
Minerva and the Muses: traditionally living on Mt. Helicon, the Muses were the daughters of Jupiter and the Titan Mnemosyne and served as patrons of the arts and sciences. They have a storytelling contest as Ovid's device for relaying the famous tale of Ceres and her daughter Proserpina, the mythical explanation of the seasons.
The Muses' competitors, the nine daughters of Pierus, slight the gods in their version of the battle with the gigantic Typhoeus (see Hesiod and Apollodorus 1.6.3), making them appear cowardly. Typhoeus was the child of Gaia (earth) and Tartaros (hell), a fiery dragon with one hundred heads; this battle resembles the myths from Babylon and other cultures of the sky god defeating the chaos monster. The gods' flight to Egypt and hiding in animal form was a Greek way of explaining the animal-like gods of that country. Mercury becomes an ibis associated with Thoth, Juno becomes a cow like the goddess Hathor, Diana the cat is Bubastis, etc.
Calliope first sets the story straight, depicting Typhoeus' ultimate defeat at the hands of the gods, buried under Sicily, which explains the existence of earthquakes and volcanoes there.
This serves as her transition to Dis (or Pluto), whose underworld is disturbed by the uproar. Much like Jove after the fire (book 2), his survey of his territory leads him to see Proserpina, but Pluto has some excuse, being struck by Cupid's arrow when Venus wants to extend her realm to the world below. Unlike his brother, Pluto wants Proserpina as his queen, not just a one-night stand. Eros the god of passion rules over all the gods, a good commentary on what we've seen so far. (see Bernini's statue of the abduction of Proserpina)
Ovid doesn't mention Ceres/Demeter's visit to Eleusis during her search for her daughter (as in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter), strange since the Eleusinian mysteries were one of the most important cults of Greek and Roman times. These sacred rites were celebrated at springtime (the return of life) and at harvest (Ceres was goddess of grain, hence our word "cereal").
Curious that in this version, Proserpina eats 7 seeds; in Ovid's Fasti she eats 3, in the Homeric Hymn only one. Scholars are puzzled as to the discrepancies.
Typically, Ovid adds numerous secondary metamorphoses to the traditional Proserpina story, including the origin of the Sirens, whose songs tempt sailors to their deaths in the Odyssey and the Aeneid.
Section II ends with divine vengeance falling on Arachne and Niobe, who dare to boast before the gods. Dante refers to Arachne as a symbol of the proud being punished in Purgatory (12.39). At the right is Gustav Dore's grotesque illustration of Arachne's transformation (1861).
Arachne's weaving (depicting the tales of Europa, Leda, Alcmene, Danae, Proserpina, Medusa, etc) points back to the first section of the Metamophoses concerning divine seductions. Minerva's tapestry depicts the contest between Neptune and Minerva along with more images of divine vengeance, as if the goddess offers an unheeded warning to Arachne. Ovid may have invented Minerva's brief examples of vengeance; note that this Antigone is not the famous daughter of Oedipus.
The famous contest between Athena (Minerva) and Poseidon (Neptune) to determine the patron of the city was depicted on the Parthenon west pediment (seen here in the replica in Nashville, Tennessee).
Ovid mistakes the Areopagos (Mars Hill) for the Acropolis, where the Erechtheion marks the legendary spot of the contest. Its unusual, asymmetrical design (in contrast to the symmetry of the Parthenon) was needed to enclose five sacred spots: the ancient wooden statue of Athena which fell from heaven, her olive tree which survived the fires of the Persian war, the site of Poseidon's spring of sea water, the supposed grave of Cecrops, first king of Athens, who decided in Athena's favor in the contest, and the memorial to Erechtheus, later king of Athens who sacrificed a daughter to win a battle, and whose other daughters threw themselves off the Acropolis in grief. Erechtheus was then killed by Zeus' thunderbolt. Athena honored the dead by deifying his daughters and establishing a cult for Erechtheus (details from a fragment of a play by Euripides).
Europa (book 2) was mother to Minos, king of Crete (book 7). Continuing the family fascination with bulls, Minos' wife mated with a bull to produce the monstrous minotaur which Minos entrapped in the labyrinth built by Daedalus.
Leda was seduced by Jove as a swan, and gave birth to Helen and Polydeuces, while Clytemnestra and Castor were fathered by Tyndareus the same night. (see classical image below).
Alcmene, mother of Heracles, was deceived by Jove in the guise of her husband Amphitryon.
Danae's father locked her up in a tower believing that her future son would kill him. Jove poured a golden shower into her lap (see painting by
Gustav Klimt below, 1908), and she gave birth to Perseus, who later killed his grandfather by accident with a discus (Apollodorus).
The tragedy of Niobe concludes this long section of tales of divine vengeance. Her disaster was very familiar in antiquity (Iliad 24.601, Antigone 822, Electra 150); both Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote tragedies about her (now lost).
Ovid points out the Irony in her situation: Niobe was the "happiest of all mothers had she only not thought herself the happiest." By boasting that she has more children than Latona (also known as Leto), she brings down the wrath of Apollo and Diana. She also boasts of being a goddess and of her heritage, mentioning her father Tantalus, but we remember how he abused his dining privileges with the gods; same reckless talk, mentioned in Euripides' Orestes as boasting with pride. She will share her grandfather Atlas' fate, turning to stone. In Apollodorus' version, one daughter survives, but Ovid is not so merciful.
Niobe is weeping even to this day. Carved on a rock cliff on Mt Sipylus (Turkey) is the fading image of a female that the Greeks claim is Niobe (originally it was probably Cybele, the great mother-goddess of Asia Minor). Composed of porous limestone, the stone appears to weep as the water seeps through it.
Niobe is sister to Pelops with the ivory shoulder (Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris 385). His father Tantalus tried to feed him to the gods; most of them realized the horrible trick in time, but one ate the piece of his shoulder which was replaced with ivory when he was resurrected. His story foreshadows that of Tereus feasting on his son in the next tale.
After witnessing Latona's cruelty, it is difficult to sympathize with her plea for mercy for her children in the next tale.
Dante describes a portrait of Niobe carved on the path of pride: "O Niobe! in what a trance of woe thee I beheld, upon that highway drawn, seven sons on either side thee slain!" (Purgatory 12.33)
Ham let compares his mother to Niobe:
... and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer ... (1.2.149f)
SECTION II SUMMARY: notice the symmetry of the thematic sections
1. Vengeance episodes (Actaeon, Semele, Teiresias, Pentheus)
A. Love tales of Minyades (foreshadows Section III)
-- Heroic interlude: Perseus
B. Love tales of Muses (looks back on Section I)
2. Vengeance episodes (Arachne, Niobe)