The Metamorphoses is a narrative poem by the famed poet Ovid. Published in 8 AD, it focuses on Greek mythology, telling stories that have—you guessed it—a metamorphosis. That is, a character is transformed by higher beings into a form it finds alien. Sometimes, the morphological change involves them being turned into an inanimate object. The Metamorphoses has fifteen books; due to the fact that each book has multiple stories, I’ll split this summary into those components.
Note: some words are misspelled because that’s how they appeared in the text I utilized, not because of my personal carelessness. Moreover, Books I-XIII are from the MIT website while the last two arise from the translation by Anthony S. Kline.
Book XIV begins with Glaucus going to Circe’s court. He begs Circe to make Scylla return his feelings, but somewhat hilariously, Circe falls for him. She offers herself to him, but Glaucus rejects her. Angry, she went to the pool where Scylla frequently bathed and containment it: “the goddess tainted in advance and contaminated with her monstrous poison. She sprinkled the liquid squeezed from harmful roots, and muttered a mysterious incantation, dark with strange words, thrice times nine, in magical utterance.” When Scylla entered the water, she was mutated into a vicious creature: “Scylla comes, wading waist deep into the pool, only to find the water around her groin erupt with yelping monsters. At first, not thinking them part of her own body, she retreats from their cruel muzzles, fears them, and pushes them away: but, what she flees from, she pulls along with her, and, seeking her thighs, her legs, her feet, in place of them finds jaws like Cerberus’s. She stands among raging dogs, and is encircled by beasts, below the surface, which from her truncated thighs and belly emerge.” Glaucus became broken-hearted upon witnessing this and escaped from Circe. Scylla, in retaliation, attacked Ulysses and his crew, seeing how Circe was trying to help them. She is eventually transformed into a rock by some unknown deity to prevent her from doing any more harm. The next story involves Aeneas going to Cumae. Beforehand, he went to Carthage, where the queen Dido became infatuated with him. He left, however, to found what would become Rome (getting revenge on Greeced, for it would be incorporated), and Dido, in a fit of grief, stabs herself and throws her body on a funeral pyre. Aeneas is troubled by a people known as the Cercopes, and Jove, as punishment for their dishonesty, turns them into monkeys that are incapable of doing anything but screeching. He eventually meets the Sybil of Cumae, who offers to take him to the underworld so that he can acquire knowledge on what he should do next. While they are going down, Aeneas praises her for her courage and offers her a large reward. She declines it, recollecting how she once was careless when it came to asking for gifts: when she was a youth, Phoebus desired to sleep with her. To show that he could give her fantastic presents, he offers her a wish beforehand. Ovid describes, “‘I was offered eternal life without end, if I would surrender my virginity to Phoebus my lover. While he still hoped for it, while he desired to bribe me beforehand with gifts, he said: ‘Virgin of Cumae, choose what you wish, and what you wish you shall have.’ Pointing to a pile of dust, that had collected, I foolishly begged to have as many anniversaries of my birth, as were represented by the dust. But I forgot to ask that the years should be accompanied by youth. He gave me the years, and lasting youth, as well, if I would surrender: I rejected Phoebus’s gift, and never married.” As for her growing older without remaining young, she states that she has lived for more than seven hundred years. Moreover, “‘The time will come when the passage of days will render such body as I have tiny, and my limbs, consumed with age, will reduce to the slightest of burdens. I will thought never to have loved, and never to have delighted a god … I will go as far as having to suffer transformation, and I will be viewed as non-existent, but still known as a voice: the fates will bequeath me a voice.’” The Sybil and Aeneas then reached the underworld, and encountered Achaemenides. He was a friend of Aeneas who became trapped on the island of Polyphemus after Ulysses blinded him and was afraid for his life, watching some of his companions being brutally eaten by the cyclops. After days of deprivation and hiding, he caught sight of a Trojan ship that received him. He eventually made his way to the underworld to find peace of mind and to hide from a wide variety of dangers.
Another companion of Ulysses in the underworld, Macareus, said that when he was on the boat of Ulysses, they came extremely close to home, only to have some irresponsible crewmates open up a bag which they thought contained valuables. In truth, it contained only a powerful wind gifted to them by Aeolus, the controller of wind, which sent them right back to his palace. When they tried to go home again, they happened to go by Lamus, the city of Laestrygonians. The king Antiphates ordered his citizens, who were cannibals, to attack them. They escaped, though a significant number of them were slain and subsequently consumed. They next arrived at the island of Circe. Circe offered the scouting party, including Maecareus, nourishment, but when they consumed it, they were transformed into pigs. One of them, Eurylochus, escaped. Ulysses himself came and with a white herb—“moly, that springs from a black root”—from Mercury, forced Circe to negotiate. She agreed to restore his crew to their human forms if she sleeps with him. He agrees, and they’re transformed into their usual semblances. They relaxed and lived a luxurious lifestyle at Circde’s palace in one year. While staying at Circle’s home, Macareus learned the story of Picus, who was the son of Saturn but was transformed into a bird when he rejected Circe in favor of Canens, the daughter of Canens. The friends of Picus tried to punish Circe, only to be turned into wild animals. Canens, heartbroken, tries to find Picus to no avail, and after six days of searching dissolves into nothingness, and the palace where she died is known as Canens: “‘Tiber was last to see her, as she lay down, weary with grief and journeying, on his wide banks. There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully, in faint tones, in harmony with sadness, just as the swan sings once, in dying, its own funeral song. At the last she melted away, wasted by grief, liquefied to the marrow, little by little vanishing into thin air. But her story is signified by the place, that the Muses of old, fittingly, called Canens, from the nymph’s name.” Soon the nurse of Aeneas, Caeita, died, and her body was cremated and the ashes placed into an urn. Aeneas eventually left the underworld and succeeded in courting Lavinia, princess of the kingdom of Latinus. A rejected suitor, Turnus, sought vengeance, and he engaged in a battle with him, only to be defeated. One of Aeneas’s comrades, Acmon, was transformed into a bird beforehand, for he advised Aeneas to not leave and to stand his ground, seeing how they have travelled so much already, not-mentioning how their current location seems an ideal place to establish an empire, as well as insulting Venus. The creation of the wild olive is then narrated by Diomede: “A shepherd from … Apulia scared them [the nymphs] to flight, at first, suddenly inspiring terror in them. When they had collected their wits, scornful of their pursuer, they returned to their dancing, feet skipping to the measure. The shepherd mocked them, leaping wildly in imitation, and adding foul language, with coarse abuse. Nor was his mouth silent till tree-bark imprisoned his throat: he is indeed a tree: you may know its character, by the taste of its fruit that bears the mark of his speech in the wild olives’ bitterness. The sharpness of his words has entered them.” Turnus attacked Aeneas by burning the ships, only to be rebuffed by deities such as Cybele, who remembered that the wood that formed the ships came from Mount Ida. They proceeded to transform the ships into joyful nymphs who aid Trojans but loathe Greeks, as can be noted in their refusing to help Ulysses. After Turnus was defeated, the area, Ardea, was consumed by fire. The “ardea, the heron,” emerged from the fire, and “in the beating of its wings, Ardea mourns itself.” Venus succeeded in persuading Jove to deify Aeneas: “The ordered the river-god to cleanse Aeneas, of whatever was subject to death, and bear it away, in his silent course, into the depths of the ocean … what was best in him remained. Once purified, his mother anointed his body with divine perfume, touched his lips in a mixture of sweet nectar and ambrosia, and made him a god, whom the Romans named Indiges, admitting him to their temples and altars.” The lineage of Alban kings is then mentioned.
The next tale is that of how Vertumnus, a god, attempted to wed the nymph Pomona. He tells her the story of Anaxarete and Iphis in the guise of a crone. Iphis was a young man who fancied Anaxarete, who was of a higher social rank. After trying to repress his feelings, he at last conceded to them, only to be savagely rebuffed. Outraged and despairing, he hung himself. As his body was being burned, Anaxarete watched and was turned into stone as punishment for her cruelty. After telling Pomona the story, he took off his disguise into his usual form. Ovid disturbingly recounts that he was ready to assault her to get what he wanted: “He was ready to force her”. However, he didn’t do so upon her conceding to him (which is yet another demonstration of the utter sexism of a variety of civilizations). The land that was Latonia became Rome, and after the Sabine women were abducted by Roman men for reproductive purposes, the Sabines were led by their king, Tatius, into war. Tarpeia, the daughter of the keeper of the watchtower, lets them in in exchange for their gold jewelry. However, they gave her what she deserved by crushing her to death with their shields and threw her body off what would become known as the Tarpeian Rock, for it would be a place to put to death traitors and liars by throwing them to the surface below. After much bloodshed, the king of Rome, Romulus, agrees to a peace with Tatius, with them forming an alliance. Romulus, according to legend, ascends godhood: “There he [Mars] caught up Romulus, son of Ilia, as he was dealing royal justice to his people. The king’s mortal body dissolved in the clear atmosphere, like the lead bullet, that often melts in mid-air, hurled by the broad thong of a catapult. Now he has beauty of form, and he is Quirinus, clothed in ceremonial robes, such a form as is worthier of the sacred high seats of the gods.” His wife, Hersilia, grieved for his earthly demise, only to be told by Iris that she should go to the grove on the Quirinal hill to again see her husband. Hersilia obeyed Iris’s orders, and “climbed to Romulus’s hill … There a star fell, gliding from sky to earth, and Hersilia, hair set alight by its fire, vanishes with the star in the air. The founder of the Roman city receives her in his familiar embrace, and altars her former body and her name, and calls her Hora, who, a goddess now, is one with her Quirinus.”
Read The Metamorphoses online: