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 XIII begins with Ajax and Ulysses vying for Achilles’s armor through debate. Ajax went first, stating that he fought very bravely for their side to set examples for them all and didn’t flinch away from putting his life in danger, while Ulysses relies on trickery and deception: “In bloody fields I labour to be great; / His arms are a smooth tongue, and soft deceit: / Nor need I speak my deeds, for those you see, / The sun, and day are witnesses for me. / Let him who fights unseen, relate his own, / And vouch the silent stars, and conscious moon. / Great is the prize demanded, I confess, / But such an abject rival makes it less; / That gift, those honours, he but hop’d to gain, / Can leave no room for AJax to be vain: / Losing he wins, because his name will be / Ennobled by defeat, who durst contend with me.” Ajax then quotes his ancestry, recalling how his father, Telamon, attacked Troy before with Hercules and is a relative of Jove. Ajax proceeds to mention the record of their service: while Ajax went with little delay to the battlefield, Ulysses tried to avoid going and only went when there was little choice: “Then must I lose these arms, because I came / To fight uncall’d, a volutionary name, / Nor shunn’d the cause, but offer’d you my aid? / While he long lurking was to war betray’d: / Forc’d to the field he came, but in the reer; / And feign’d distraction to conceal his fear: / ‘Till one more cunning caught him in the snare / (Ill for himself); and dragg’d him into war. / Now let a hero’s arms a coward vest, / And he who shunn’d all honours, gain the best: / And let me stand excluded from my right, / Robb’d of my kinsman’s arms, who first appear’d in fight, / Better for us, at home had he remain’d, Had it been true the madness which he feign’d, / Or so believ’d; the less had been our shame, / The less his counsell’d crime, which brands the Grecian name”. He then describes how Ulysses’s cowardice placed his fellows, including a man named Nestor, in danger, citing his cowardice as a reason why he should be disqualified at once. He follows up by describing how he saved Ulysses when he was escaping from the enemy, and that Ulysses therefore owes him his life and the armor, for he wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him: “I heard, I ran, I found him out of breath, / Pale, trembling, and half dead with fear of death. / Though he had judg’d himself by his own laws, / And stood condemn’d, I help’d the common cause: / With my broad buckler hid him from the foe / (Ev’n the shield trembled as he lay below); / And from impending Fate the coward freed: / Good Heav’n forgive me for so bad a deed! / If still he will persist, and urge the strife, / First let him give me back his forfeit life: / Let him return to that oppobrious field; / Again creep under my protecting shield: / Let him lie wounded, let the foe be near, / And let his quiv’ring heart confess his fear”. Ajax continues to describe his military prowess, reminding the listeners that he helped defend the ships of the Greeks from the Trojans with his life with little protection. Ulysses then made his reply, beginning by detailing his ancestry: he is also a descend of Jove (shocker) and has Hermes on his mother’s side. Ulysses defends his reluctance to fight in the Trojan War by stating that Achilles too was reluctant to come: both of them had loved ones they were concerned for, which absolves them of the charge of cowardice. Moreover, Ulysses helped convince Achilles to come fight in the battle by using his wits to find out that the female he was talking to was in fact him. He then boasted of how he convinced Agamemnon to murder Iphigenia, his daughter (Lucretius describes the heinousness of this event in his On the Nature of Things, describing how superstition and crass fear could lead people to do deeds as wicked as a parent murdering their own child to appease some wrathful deity), by pressing on him the need to do so to appease Diana, whom he had previously wronged for killing some of her animals: “That by his daughter’s blood we must appease / Diana’s kindled wrath, and free the seas. / Affection, int’rest, fame, his heart assail’d: / But soon the father o’er the king prevail’d: / Bold, on himself he took the pious crime, / As angry with the Gods, as they with him. / No subject cou’d sustain their sov’reign’s look, / ‘Till this hard enterprize I undertook: / I only durst th’ imperial pow’r controul, / And undermin’d the parent in his soul; / Forc’d him t’ exert the king for common good, / And pay our ransom with his daughter’s blood. / Never was cause more difficult to plead, / Than where the judge against himself decreed: / Yet this I won by dint of argument; / The wrongs his injur’d brother underwent, / And his own office, sham’d him to consent.” When it came to sacrificing Iphigenia, Ulysses tricked her mother by lying to her.
Ulysses was the emissary of the Greeks who went into Troy to plead for the return of Helen: although he failed, he proved himself as willing to put himself in danger. Ulysses then called Ajax a warrior fit only for brute force while his value was of a more intricate, cunning sort, given his emphases on strategy and deception. For instance, after Priam had a dream sent by Jove that encouraged him to attack the Greeks, Ulysses led a counterattack, destroying much of his forces. Ulysses claims he wanted to fight Hector like Ajax, but didn’t get to because of luck. Odysseus brings up how he snuck into enemy ranks utilizing the darkness and learned of the plans of the Trojans, which helped the Greeks successfully repel them: “Our boasting champion thought the task not light / To pass the guards, commit himself to night; / Not only through a hostile town to pass, / But scale, with steep ascent, the sacred place; / With wand’ring steps to search the citadel, / And from the preists their patroness to steal: / Then through surrounding foes to force my way, / And bear in triumph home the heaven’ly prey; / Which had I not, Ajax in vain had held, / Before that monst’rous bulk, his sev’nfold shield. / That night to conquer Troy I might be said, / When Troy was liable to conquest made.” When it comes to the issue of their respective strengths, Ulysses claims how he deserves Achilles’s arms more than Ajax for his guidance of numerous individuals. While Ajax did indeed bravely fight for their side, he was, in the end, according to Ulysses, one person: “Thy body is of profit, and my mind. / By how much more the ship her safety owes / To him who steers, than him that only rows; / By how much more the captain merits praise, / Than he who fights, and fighting but obeys; / By so much greater is my worth than thine, / Who canst but execute, what I design. / What gain’st thou, brutal man, if I confess / Thy strength superior, when thy wit is less? / Mind is the man: I claim my whole desert, / From the mind’s vigour, and th’ immortal part.” Ulysses finishes his speech by making an emotional appeal to the listeners: “But you, o Grecian chiefs, reward my care, / Be grateful to your watchman of the war: / For all my labours in so long a space, / Sure I may plead a title to your grace”. The weapons of Achilles were promptly given to Ulysses. Ajax, ashamed and enraged, stabbed himself to avoid disgrace. Ovid poignantly writes, “He who cou’d often, and alone, withstand / The foe, the fire, and Jove’s own partial hand, / Now cannot his unmaster’d grief sustain, / But yields to rage, to madness, and disdain; / Then snatching out his fauchion, Thou, said he, / Art mine; Ulysses lays no claim to thee. / O often try’d, and ever-trusty sword, / Now do thy last kind office to thy lord: / ‘Tis Ajax who requests thy aid, to show / None but himself, himself cou’d overthrow: / He said, and with so good a will to die, / Did to his breast the fatal point apply, / It found his heart, a way ‘till then unknown, / Where never weapon enter’d, but his own. / No hand cou’d force it thence, so fix’d it stood, / ‘Till out it rush’d, expel’d by streams of spouting blood.” The next tale is that of Polyxena and Hecuba. When the Greeks overtook Troy and were planning to return, they were confronted by the angry ghost of Achilles, who demanded them pay homage to him through sacrificing Polyxena, the daughter of the king and queen of Troy, Priam and Hecuba. Achilles’s orders were followed, and Polyxena died without making a scene, asking that her body be given to her mother for burial without a ransom. Her request is agreed, and when Hecuba sees her dead body, she curses her circumstances, herself, and Achilles, who slew all her brothers when he was alive and destroyed her daughter in his death. Hecuba decides to go to find her youngest child, Polydore, who was given to another king, leader of the Thracians, to look after for his safety. Unfortunately, the king murdered him out of greed and fear. Hecuba, while collecting water to handle the ashes of her daughter, saw his corpse. Driven half-insane with grief, “She had nor speech, nor tears to give relief; / Excess of woe suppress’d the rising grief. / Lifeless as stone, on Earth she fix’d her eyes; / And then look’d up to Heav’n with wild surprise.” Hecuba gets her revenge on his murderer, though: she pretends that she doesn’t know of his death and offers the king money in exchange for him. The murderer unwittingly approached her, only to have his eyes gouged out in her fit of fury. The Thracians with their king respond by shooting arrows and throwing stones at Hecuba. Hecuba, consumed by her rage, transforms into a female canine. Leaving the scene, she remains in the area in her changed form.
Aurora, the goddess of the morning, lost her son Memnon, who was slain by Achilles on the battlefield. Going to Jove, she asks that her son is commemorated. Jove agrees, turning his funeral pyre into a multitude of birds that destroyed each other: “The The sooty ashes wafted by the air, / Whirl round, and thicken in a body there; / Then take a form, which their own heat, and fire / With active life, and energy inspire. / Its lightness makes it seem to fly, and soon / It skims on real wings, that are its own; / A real bird, it beats the breezy wind, / Mix’d with a thousand sisters of the kind, / That, from the same formation newly sprung, / Up-born aloft on plumy pinions hung. / Thrice round the pile advanc’d the circling throng. / Thrice, with their wings, a whizzing consort rung. / In the fourth flight their squadron they divide, / Rank’d in two different troops, on either side: / Then two, and two, inspir’d with martial rage, / From either troop in equal pairs engage. / Each combatant with beak, and pounces press’d, / In wrathful ire, his adversary’s breast; / Each falls a victim, to preserve the fame / Of that great hero, whence their being came. / From him their courage, and their name they take, / And, as they liv’d, they dye for Memnon’s sake. / Punctual to time, with each revolving year, / In fresh array the champion birds appear; / Again, prepar’d with vengeful minds, they come / To bleed, in honour of the souldier’s tomb.” The focus then proceeds to the voyage of Aeneas. Aeneas, the prince of Troy, fled with his father on his back and his young son Ascanius. He is instructed by priests to found a new land, but he eventually encounters Scylla and Charybdis at Straits of Gibraltar: “Here cruel Scylla guards the rocky shore, / And there the waves of loud Charybdis roar: / This sucks, and vomits ships, and bodies drown’d; / And rav’nous dogs the womb of that surround, / In face a virgin”. Scylla was once an attractive nymph who was friends with Galatea. Galatea tells her a story of how painful love and luck is: she was once engaged with a youth named Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus spotted her and became obsessed. After failing to persuade her to leave Acis for him, he crushes him with a boulder. Galatea asks for his body to be honored, and it is turned into a stream. Scylla eventually went back home, but she bathed herself near the ocean and slept on the beach for a while. When she awoke, she saw the sea god Glaucus admiring her. Glaucus pleads with her to be with him, and narrates his history: although he was once a regular human, one day he ingested a strange plant that made him go into the ocean. His body also changed, for his lower half is that of a fish. The gods of the ocean transformed him into one due to their sympathy, and he is important to a variety of operations. He tells Scylla that if she doesn’t care for him, then his godhood means nothing to him: : “But what avail these useless honours now? / What joys can immortality bestow? / What, tho’ our Nereids all my form approve? / What boots it, while fair Scylla scorns my love?” Scylla continues to rebuff him, leaving him bitter and unhappy. Book XIII concludes with the following lines: “Thus far the God; and more he wou’d have said; / When from his presence flew the ruthless maid. / Stung with repulse, in such disdainful sort, / He seeks Titanian Circe’s horrid court.”
Read The Metamorphoses online: