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Literature / The Metamorphoses

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"flavaque de viridi stillabant ilice mella." note 
Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Bk.I:112

The Metamorphoses, completed in 8 AD, is a Narrative Poem by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, better known today as Ovid. The fifteen books of the poem consist of many stories from Greek and Roman mythology.

These stories range from the origin of the world from Chaos to the deification of Julius Caesar and the celebration of Augustus's rule over Rome. Countless tales from mythology are told in between, including the stories of "Apollo and Daphne," "Orpheus and Eurydice," "Baucis and Philemon," "Daedalus and Icarus," et cetera.

The Metamorphoses has served as the primary source for Classical Mythology and an enormous influence throughout the ages on writers like Dante, Chaucer, and especially Shakespeare. The Bard borrows a lot from The Metamorphoses; for example, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream borrow from "Pyramus and Thisbe", one of Prospero's speeches from The Tempest is derived from Medea's in Book VII, and the plot of Titus Andronicus is compared to "Procne and Philomena" in the play itself.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is available online here... (What, can't read the Latin? Kids these days... A.S. Kline's English translation is available here.)

The poem is not to be confused by Antoninus Liberalis' The Metamorphosis, or Apuleius' novel Metamorphoses (AKA The Golden Ass).

It's also not to be confused with Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

The Metamorphoses provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: The huntress Atalanta is the first to strike the Calydonian boar in an expedition of dozens of experienced male warriors. More impressive, she later proves to be so fast that even demigods need her to go easy on them and stop racing three separate times to beat her in a footrace.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: The story of Deucalion and Pyrrha sees the two survive The Great Flood alone and with no recourse to restore the human population. It is only through their devout prayers that humanity is saved when the goddess Themis teaches them how to create new men from the stones of the Earth.
  • Adaptational Sympathy: Earlier versions of Medusa myth portrayed her as a garden variety monster with little to no backstory beyond being one of the three gorgon sisters; Ovid was the first one who wrote her as a helpless victim of the Jerkass Gods, turning her into a Tragic Villain.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Cupid often makes gods fall in love with maidens who want nothing to do with them.
    • Apollo is willing to run across Greece to make love to Daphne, but she's willing to give up her life and turn into a tree not to give into him.
    • Clytie fell hard for Sol, but he couldn't care less about her. She turned into a heliotropium, which is still in love with him to this day.
    • Neptune saw the daughter of Coroneus and immediately fell in love with her, although she would rather be turned into a crow than give into the sea-god.
    • Narcissus is beloved by all the women who see him, but in his madness, he only loves his own reflection. Echo is especially enamored with him, leading to a situation where Narcissus' declarations of love for himself are repeated to him and refused by him endlessly as he spurns Echo for a shadow.
    • Alpheus has a Love at First Sight moment with Arethusa, who responds differently and runs across the mountaintops to escape him until she can hide in moon-fog and turn into a Stygian lake all to escape the rapey river-god.
  • Angel Unaware: Philemon and Baucis give food and lodging to a disguised Jupiter and Mercury.
  • Animorphism: In a work called The Metamorphoses, you'd expect there to be a lot of this.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: A couple of the characters are personifications of abstract concepts, such as Sleep or Hunger.
  • Author Tract: Possibly Pythagoras' hella long speech near the end of the poem.
  • Battle Couple: A non-human example: the centaurs Cyllarus and Hylonome fight side by side in the battle against the Lapiths.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Bacchus grants Midas the wish of turning everything he touches into gold. Midas soon learns this includes food and drink, which causes him to go hungry.
  • Best Her to Bed Her: Atalanta holds a race and anyone who can defeat her in it is allowed to marry her—and those who lose, she kills. She goes unchallenged mostly, until she meets Hippomenes, who she actually falls in love with and laments that he will have to die when he loses the race. Since, of course, he has no hope to win against her with her great speed, he simply cheats using some golden apples from Aphrodite and he and Atalanta end up Happily Married.
  • Bifauxnen: Apparently Iphis, considering that Ianthe (who ignores her true gender) can't wait for their wedding night...
  • Bittersweet Ending: The lovers Orpheus and Eurydice are separated by Eurydice's death by snakebite, and Orpheus' attempt to bring her back from Hades fails. They are finally reunited, but only in Hades after Orpheus too has been killed.
  • Black Comedy: Icarus' death is written in a playful manner in the original Latin. In English, the humor has been Lost in Translation.
  • The Empire: Love, as overseen by Cupid, is described by Venus as an "imperium" that dominates two-thirds of the universe through its control of Jupiter, Neptune, and all their godly allies. On Venus' request, the imperium expands even further as Cupid attacks Pluto/Dis with his arrows and puts the Underworld under the tyrannical rule of Love.
  • Extra Eyes: Argus, though they don't help him once he falls asleep.
  • First Law of Gender Bending: Inverted; Iphis and Caenis/Caeneus' female-to-male transformations are permanent, while Tiresias' male-to-female transformation is reversed after seven years.
  • First Love: Apollo's first love was Daphne, which was not caused by unwitting chance, but by the fierce wrath of Cupid...
  • Food Chains: Proserpina ate six pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld and is thus forced to stay there for six months out of every year.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Daedalus. Also his young nephew, Perdix/Talus, who gets tossed down the Acropolis and turned into a bird.
  • Gender-Blender Name: It's specified Iphis is a unisex name, which lets the character use it whether presenting as a man or woman.
  • Gender Bender: Iphis, Caenis/Caeneus, and Tiresias all have their sexes changes—twice, in the latter's case.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg:
    • In later books, the text goes out of its way to show how affected the gods were by an event by mentioning that Juno herself is moved by it.
    • For Hecuba, it's actually to point out that even Trojans' worst enemy feels bad for their queen.
  • Götterdämmerung: The beginning of the poem, with the deposing of the Titans.
  • Happily Married: Baucis and Philemon. Orpheus and Eurydice (before Eurydice's death), Iphis and Ianthe and Atalanta and Hippomenes also qualify.
  • Heaven Above: The gods live in the Milky Way far above the Earth, with their palaces neighboring the constellations that they created. This becomes a problem once Phaethon sets the sky on fire with his father's chariot, since the gods' living spaces start going ablaze with the stars.
  • Heaven's Devils: The Furies, Harpies, and other cthonic monsters Orpheus charms are agents of justice imposing punishment on wicked men. They may be intimidating, but they punish those who offend the gods and are not themselves tortured like Christian devils.
  • Hide Your Lesbians: Despite their love, Iphis can't be happy with Ianthe until she's finally turned into a boy. Mainly because of Values Dissonance.
  • I Want Grandkids: Daphne's father was pretty insistent about this:
    Saepe pater dixit "Generum mihi, filia, debes."
    Saepe pater dixit "Debes mihi, nata, nepotes."
  • Jerkass Gods: Though they arguably get better over time. Maybe not to the point of Took a Level in Kindness, but they are a little more sympathetic.
  • Jerk Jock: Apollo behaves this way towards Cupid, gloating about having killed a dragon and mocking Cupid's little bow. Cupid retaliates by shooting him with an arrow of love.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Unlike in other versions of the story where Medea is a tragic figure, Ovid's version has her using her magic to kill random people for no reason, even before Jason ever wrongs her. No explanation is ever given for her actions.
  • Kill It with Fire: Though not much is made of it, Jupiter seems to be uncomfortable with fire, apparently remembering a vague prophecy about how fire would one day be the end of him. He remembers this while Phaethon nearly burns Heaven and Earth while driving his father Sol's chariot.
  • Love Imbues Life: Pygmalion was a sculptor who creates a beautiful ivory statue. He falls in love with the statue, and eventually Venus brings her to life for him. The statue was not named in the original myth, but later adaptations would name her Galatea.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Venus in the tale of Ceres and Proserpina. Pluto falling in love with Proserpina was her idea (with Cupid' help, of course), as doing so would a.) allow her power (love) to spread to the Underworld, thereby claiming it along with Earth and Sky as under her domain, and b.) doing so would prevent Proserpina from remaining a virgin, thus allowing her to defy Venus, as Minerva and Diana had done.
  • May–December Romance: There's a generational gap between Pluto and Proserpina. One way to interpret this is Pluto appearing as like a middle-aged man, while Proserpina would be physically in her mid-to-late teens.
  • Metamorphosis: Every single story has one, albeit sometimes one that's only tangential to the main point. Many of them are into birds and trees, often as escape or punishment (which is sometimes both).
  • Midas Touch: Midas asks Bacchus for the ability to turn what he touches into gold, and this wish is granted. Turns out this applies to everything. Trope Namer.
  • The Mourning After: Defied with Baucis and Philemon; their wish to die at the same time is granted by the gods.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Ovid uses language and style associated with epics to describe things like the appetizers in Roman peasants' dinner.
  • No Body Left Behind: The nymph Cyane slowly dissolves into tears after Dis abducts Prosperina. Her dissolution is quite graphic, with Ovid describing her nails and bones getting softer before her nails and soft limbs turn to water, followed by her back and sides, leaving only her weak veins to melt into water and sink into Dis' infernal crevice.
  • Noodle Incident: More than once, there are offhand mentions of metamorphoses whose stories are not elaborated. Some of them are known by other authors, others are not.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: The gods punish Lycaon by transforming him into a wolf. He's said to retain some human traits, much like many werewolves in modern pop culture.
  • Parental Incest: Myrrha (daughter) and Cinyras (father); entirely unintentional on the latter's behalf. When he learns the truth, he is clearly repulsed.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Theoretically Book 15. In reality, probably quite Tongue In Cheek, seeing as this is Ovid (as he'll later be).
  • Plot Hole: There are several, since it is based on conflicting mythology.
    • Generally deliberate allusions, rather than accidental confusions. For example, the narrator directly calls the Argo the "first ship", despite the fact we'll already had several voyages in the narrative.
    • Orpheus is the son of Apollo and a Muse, yet he is presented as mortal, while other god-children like Mars and Proserpina are shown to be immortal.
  • Pride: A recurring theme; it usually spells the downfall of many a mortal. Can also cross over with Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?, such as in the case of Niobe and the Titaness Latona.
  • Questionable Consent: Many couples. Notably, Thetis and Peleus. Thetis quickly goes from fighting him off and refusing to marry him, to Happily Married and protecting him at the cost of her own family.
  • Raised as the Opposite Gender: Iphis' mother raises her daughter as a boy on divine orders to avoid exposing her at birth.
  • Romantic Fusion: A nymph named Salmacis lusts after a young boy named Hermaphroditus, but he fights back when she tries to force herself on him, prompting her to wish that they could never part. The gods, who side with Salmacis, respond by merging their bodies into one.
  • Sacred Hospitality:
    • Hospitality is extremely important, particularly in the Baucis and Philemon story. They get turned into trees for their trouble (it's actually rather sweet).
    • Latona turns the Lycian peasants into frogs for being hostile toward her and not allowing her to drink from a fountain.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: The whole thing is a collection of earlier myths and folktales, which are occasionally told by characters in-story. If you're not paying close attention, it can get confusing. The worst (best?) example of that is Alpheus. In order: A visiting Minerva is told by an unnamed Muse how Calliope in a competition was singing how Arethusa was telling Ceres what Alpheus said.
  • Separated by the Wall: Pyramus and Thisbe, who can only communicate through the literal wall separating their parents' properties.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: Myrrha, after she gets pregnant with her father's child. She gets turned into a myrrh tree, but still gives birth to a boy.
  • Tag Team Suicide: Pyramus, thinking Thisbe has been killed by a lion, commits suicide. Thisbe discovers his body, and kills herself with the same sword he used.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: Mercury tells the hundred-eyed monster Argos a story that causes Argos to fall asleep, upon which Mercury kills him.
  • To Hell and Back: Orpheus entered Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice. Unfortunately, he was told that he might not look back upon her until both were out of Hades, and Orpheus was unable to follow this one command. As a result, Eurydice vanished back to the Underworld.
  • Transflormation: Quite a few of them:
    • Myrrha is turned into a myrrh tree after committing incest with her father, and gives birth to her child through the bark.
    • Baucis and Philemon are the only ones in their town to welcome the disguised Zeus and Hermes into their home. Part of their reward for upholding Sacred Hospitality is that when one of them dies, the other will die also; when death comes for them, they are changed into a pair of intertwining trees to symbolize their Eternal Love.
  • The Transmogrifier: Juno likes to use transformations to punish her husband Jupiter's lovers/rape victims. Among other things, Callisto was transformed into a bear and Io into a cow. In another case, Lucina (goddess of childbirth), was ordered by Juno to prevent the birth of one of Jupiter's illegitimate children but was tricked and ridiculed by the maid Galanthis - who in turn thereafter had to live as a cat or weasel.
  • Trapped in Another World: Proserpina is abducted and brought to the Underworld.
  • Unprovoked Pervert Payback: You can't really blame Actaeon for seeing Diana naked, he just walked into her bathing in a spring. But because Diana Does Not Like Men, he gets turned into a stag and ends up being killed by his own hunting dogs.
  • Virgin Vision: Discussed. Ovid says that Diana couldn't see that Callisto lost her virginity to Jupiter because she's herself a virgin. The other nymphs on the other hand did notice...
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Not very common (except when used by gods), but the daughter of Erysichthon has this ability.
  • Werewolf Theme Naming: The name of King Lycaon, who is turned into a wolf by Jupiter, already contains "lycos", the Greek word for 'wolf'.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Since Iphis' father wanted a male heir so badly, her true sex was concealed and she was raised as a man.
  • Wretched Hive: Thrace, having Mars as a patron deity, tends to be filled with rather unkind men, Orpheus being the exception.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: This was the case for Aeneas in one of the many stories, who had escaped the recently destroyed Troy.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Orpheus says that he will stay in the underworld with Eurydice if he isn't allowed to return with her.

Alternative Title(s): Metamorphoses