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 XV begins where Book XIV left off: the Romans, anxious for a new leader, decide on Numa. Numa as a king focuses heavily on the keeping of peace through religious ritual: he claims to be married to a nymph who provided him and the Roman people with laws that they must follow. The focus then turns toward Pythagoras, the inventor of the Pythagorean theorem. Pythagoras taught vegetarianism, telling people that by enslaving, harming, and murdering other species they are engaging in awful behavior and are defiling themselves. He begins his argument by mentioning that there is a large abundance of other foods to consume: “‘There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavoursome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.’” Moreover, he makes it clear that eating meat is in itself a form of cannibalism, for one is devouring other sentient creatures for frivolous gustatory pleasures. This becomes all the more true when the concept of evolution is discovered for Darwin, for every creature is indeed related if the pedigree is examined closely enough. Pythagoras compares people eating other species to how Polyphemus devoured people for his amusement: “‘Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh; for a greedy body to fatten, by swallowing another body; for one creature to live by the death of another creature! So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!’” Pythagoras claims that the Golden Age was one of vegetarians. He then moves on to discuss the sheer injustice of murdering other animals, especially when one examines how much they do for humans as a whole: “‘He is truly thankless, and not worthy of the gift of corn, who could, in a moment, remove the weight of the curved plough, and kill his labourer, striking that work-worn neck with his axe, that has helped turn the head earth as many times as the earth yielded harvest. It is not enough to have committed such wickedness: they involve the gods in crime, and believe that the gods above delight in the slaughter of suffering oxen!’” A large section of Pythagoras’s vegetarianism comes directly from his belief in metempsychosis, otherwise known as the transmigration of souls. To put it simply, metempsychosis states that when organisms die, their souls don’t dissolve; rather, they are reborn in new bodies. Following this logic, when people (and other organisms) consume meat, they may very well be eating their ancestors and deceased friends and loved ones who temporarily took that guise. Interestingly enough, Pythagoras claims that he remembers his previous reincarnations: “‘O species, stunned by your terror of chill death, why fear the Styx, why fear the ghosts and empty names, the stuff of poets, the spectres of a phantom world? Do not imagine you can suffer any evil, whether your bodies are consumed by the flames of the funeral pyre, or by wasting age! Souls are free from death, and always, when they have left their previous being, they live in new dwelling-places, and inhabit what received them. I myself (for I remember) was Euphorbus, son of Panthoüs, at the time of the Trojan War, in whose chest was pinned the heavy spear of the lesser Atrides, Menelaüs. I recognize the shield I used to carry on my left arm, recently, in the temple of Juno at Argos, city of Abas!’” Pythagoras continues his descriptive, poetic language, so much so that he sounds like Lucretius with his focus on the fact that things change over time: “‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms. So, I say as a seer, cease to make kindred spirits homeless, by wicked slaughter: do not let blood be nourished by blood!’”
Adding on to the idea of metempsychosis is the idea of cyclical cycles. That is, Pythagoras postulates that existence itself repeats itself innumerable times: “‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists. Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image. Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river. For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and equally, follows, and is always new. For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.’” Pythagoras also believed in four ages of human history, with each succeeding phase being less beautiful, peaceful, and intelligent than the last. In moving language, he describes, “‘When the middle years are also done, life takes the downward path of declining age. Milon, the athlete, grown old, cries when he looks at those weak and flabby arms, that were once, like those of Hercules, a solid mass of muscle. Helen, the daughter of Tyndareus, also weeps, when she sees an old woman’s wrinkles in the glass, and asks why she has been twice ravaged. Devouring Time, and you, jealous Age, consume everything, and slowly gnawing at them, with your teeth, little by little, consign all things to eternal death!’” Pythagoras maintains that the elements themselves are mortal in character and are subsequently subject to change. Predicting the law of conservation of energy, Pythagoras details that “‘Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect, and what we call ‘being born’ is a beginning to be, of something other, than what was before, and ‘dying’ is, likewise, ending a former state. Though, ‘that’ perhaps is transferred here, and ‘this’, there, the total sum is constant.” Pythagoras moves on to natural disasters, stating that lands are changed by phenomena over countless aeons. Pythagoras was also a believer in autogenesis/spontaneous emergence. Because of the little science of his age (biology in this instance), Pythagoras found it to be amazing that when dead bodies are left in the open or are buried, creatures like worms, hornets, and maggots appear on and near them. Pythagoras offers the mythological phoenix as an analogy for change: born out of its own ashes, it lives for a while before burning up, only to be born again. Just like how the phoenix borns and dies repeatedly, empires and ages rise and fall. Pythagoras specifically mentions the future ascendancy of Rome, but his previous statement is also ominous, for it firmly demonstrates that in most instances, even the very best must eventually fall. Ovid’s covering of Pythagoras’s teaching ends with a reiteration of Pythagoras’s view that life is sacred and must be maintained, which is very similar to that of the Buddhists and Jains: “‘We should allow those beings to live in safety, and honour, that the spirits of our parents, or brothers, or those joined to us by some other bond, certainly human, might have inhabited: and not fill our bellies as if at a Thyestean feast! What evil they contrive, how impiously they prepare to shed human blood itself, who rip at a calf’s throat with the knife, and listen unmoved to its bleating, or can kill a kid to eat, that cries like a child, or feed on a bird, that they themselves have fed! How far does that fall short of actual murder? Where does the way lead on from there?’” Put more aptly, Pythagoras once also said, “As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” Pythagoras thus encourages people to be merciful, or at least as fair as possible, towards other creatures. They may kill them for the sake of self-defence, but not for sport or pleasure: “‘Let the ox plough, or owe his death to old age: let the sheep yield wool, to protect against the chill north wind: let the she-goats give you full udders for milking! Have done with nets and traps, snares and the arts of deception! Do not trick the birds with limed twigs, or imprison the deer, scaring them with feathered ropes, or hide barbed hooks in treacherous bait. Kill them, if they harm you, but even then let killing be enough. Let your mouth be free of their blood, enjoy milder food!’” The son of Theseus, Hippolytus, comforted the nymph Egeria, wife and widower of Numa, after his death, by recounting how she’s lucky compared to him: Pasiphaë, the mother of the Minotaur, had Phaedra as a daughter, fancied him. Upon his rejecting her out of principle, she made her father banish him from the city. As he moved towards the city of Pittheus, Troezen. A bull suddenly emerged from the water and his horses panicked, eventually leading to his being thrown from the chariot, turning his body into a bloody pulp as it collided with a tree. He then went down into the underworld and bathed himself in the fiery Phlegethon to purify himself until he was rescued by Aesculapius, the son of Phoebus. The goddess Cynthia provided him with a body but made it somewhat old to make him difficult to recognize, and ordered him to remain in the area where he was then talking to Egeria to ensure he wouldn’t be sought out by those envious of a cure for death. She also instructed him to be known as Virbius from then on. He then reveals that he became a deity that serves Diana. Hearing Hippolytus’s story didn’t ease Egeria’s grief one bit: “prostrate, at the foot of a mountain, she melted away in tears, till Phoebus’s sister, out of pity for he true sorrow, made a cool fountain from her body, and reduced her limbs to unfailing waters.” The next story is that of Cipus, who grew horns unexpectedly. Though initially upset, it turned out his advantage, for when he went to Rome, the people thought of him as divinity, and gave him land and cattle, as well as commemorating him by engraving horns on their gateposts. The focus then moves to Aesculapius, the god of healing. On one occasion, he rescued Rome from a plague and was subsequently honored. Ovid notes that Aesculapius was a rescuer while Caesar was a longstanding citizen of massive reputation in Rome. Ovid praises Caesar for his various military triumphs and cunning, noting that his assassination prevented Rome from reaching its full potential. He imagines that after Caesar’s death, he was deified and became a famed figure of Olympus, and that he was pleased when Augustus/Octavian, his adopted son, ruled Rome: “He had barely finished, when gentle Venus stood in the midst of the senate, seen by no one, and took up the newly freed spirit of her Caesar from his body, and preventing it from vanishing into the air, carried it towards the glorious stars. As she carried it, she felt it flow and take fire, and loosed it from her breast: it climbed higher than the moon, and drawing behind it a fiery tail, shone as a star. Seeing his son’s good works, Caesar acknowledges they are greater than his own, and delights in being surpassed by him. Though the son forbids his own actions being honoured above his father’s, nevertheless fame, free and obedient to no one’s orders, exalts him, despite himself, and denies him in this one thing. So great Atreus cedes the title to Agamemnon: so Theseus outdoes Aegeus, and Achilles his father Peleus: and lastly, to quote an example worthy of these two, so Saturn is less than Jove.” Ovid, who had a patron in Octavian, compares his role to Jove: while Jove rules the world above, Octavian is the leader of the Earth. As for Ovid’s future expectations, “I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetime, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!” Ovid then ends Book XV and The Metamorphoses with the following sentences, in which he reminisces the role of books and art: “And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilized, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam– I shall live.”
Read The Metamorphoses online: