Metamorphoses by Ovid (Poem Analysis Essay Example)
Metamorphoses is a Latin Narrative Poem Written by the Roman Poet Ovid
This poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Caesar. The poem is epic by all criteria. Despite this fact, the work defies simple genre classification by using different tones and themes.
This poem consists of fifteen books, which represent the most known stories from the Greek mythology. The poem includes 250 stories that are separated among the 15 books. Every story includes some transformational element that links all of them together.
Further, transformation is the main theme of the poem, because it aims to express the idea that there is nothing permanent in the world, but it can explain the phenomenon of existence. This masterpiece still remains one of the most popular mythological works. Most probably, this is also one of the best known classical works written before medieval writers. Moreover, it strongly impacted the Renaissance and medieval poetry.
One of the reason The Metamorphoses is an epic poem is because it was written in the dactylic hexameter form that was mostly used in such great epic ancient poem as The Aeneid, The Odyssey, and The Iliad (Jones 13). Moreover, it is a historical poem that has a strong chronology that starts from the beginning of the world to the times of Julius Caesar. In general, a epic poem can be defined as a lengthy narrative poem that usually focuses on a serious subjects, including details of significant events for a nation or culture, heroic deeds, Gods, and mythological creatures. This description fully supports the position that Ovid`s poem can be defined as epic. Therefore, the paper focuses on the change as the main theme. It is expressed through transformations of people to animals, stones, water, and trees. This unites all stories together in an attempt to express the idea that change is the key to the understanding of existence, because there is nothing permanent in the world.
In general, the poem includes different themes and motives. All fifteen books examine such issues as violence, art, morality, nature, loss, destruction, love, anger, politics, desire, creation, sexuality, death, gender, birth, war, monstrosity, peace, and many others (Liveley 7). Transformation is the main theme of the poem that unites all stories together. To provide the atmosphere of change, Ovid uses metamorphoses to connect the stories. Almost everything in the poem is in the process of changing. For example, people are transformed by hate and love; chaos is changed in the universe; gods are able to change their shapes; rivers are created from nothing; and people are transformed into animals and plants. However, very often such transformations can be irrelevant and tangential, or even include a comic effect. Therefore, Ovid expands the transformation metaphor in a way that encompasses the poem as a whole piece of work.
The process of shifting between the small and large views makes readers transform their own focus. The inclusion of Pythagoras philosophical ideas at the end of the poem only proves this position by explaining the meaning of transformation. Pythagoras explains that everything in the world is in the process of constant change to his own students. Hence, some elements simply transform into other elements, while land masses are destroyed and created and power moves between people and cities. Therefore, when a person begins to look for change, they can see many examples of it. This only means that change in contrast to constancy defines the phenomenon of existence.
Such metamorphoses are expressed through transformations into trees, animals, water, and stone. The transformation into animals is often showcased in the poem because the similarities between animals and people are believed to be the main reason for people`s souls moving to animals’ bodies. A clear example of this can be a story about Lycaon. He was an Arcadian tyrant, who was well known for his evil behavior. In the end, his reputation reached Jupiter, who decided to check everything by himself. When he arrived, he was properly greeted by Lycaon`s subjects, while the tyrant laughed and promised to challenge the divinity of Jupiter. To do this, he decided to kill the God in his sleep. Before this, he offered Jupiter a meal that consisted of cooked man. However, when the meal was served Jupiter caused a fire in the house, and the terrified Lycaon ran to the countryside where he was transformed into a wolf (Ovid 1.163-239).
In this case, the transformation was a way to show the real face of Lycaon. His desire for blood and killing caused him to transform into his true form. In the quiet countryside, the reader can see the drama, when the wolf begins howling. The horror of this moment is only intensified by the realization that this sound is produced by a man. The poem`s metamorphosis stories put the emphasis on such key psychological moments, when a victim realizes for the first time that the transformation`s physical effect on the their power of speech is permanent. The poet describes now the jaws of Lycaon start to slave with familiar blood desire. Hence, the transformation of Lycaon begins from the inside out, that is perfectly matching the inner character of this man with his new external form. His clothes change into fur, just as his legs and arms, but he still saves some traces of his human form even in wolf shape. Therefore, he still has a wild look, blazing eyes, and gray hair (Ovid 237). In this case, Ovid managed to turn a metamorphosis into a metaphor. The man that already looked like a wolf and was even named the same was punished for his savagery and became what he was in essence, a real wolf. Therefore, the transformation in this story is expressed through the same content changing into a new form.
Another example can be the Io story (Ovid 1.567-746). She was the daughter of the river god Inachus and, because she was a pretty nymph, Jupiter was attracted to her. He raped Io and covered it with a cloud to avoid Juno’s attention. However, it did not help and Juno found them. Jupiter, in an attempt to hide his affair, quickly turned Io into a heifer, but Juno was not deceived and demanded the heifer for herself. Jupiter gave Io to his wife, not wanting to admit that this was his mistress. In the end, Io was guarded by Argus. She was freed by Mercury who killed Argus, but Io was driven by madness to Egypt, while remaining in the heifer form. When the relationships between Juno and Jupiter became better, Io was returned to her human form. Io`s transformation process into a heifer is not described, but the reader can see her change back to the human form. The transformation begins with her face that returned to its previous shape (Ovid 738). Then, she loses her bristly heifer coat (Ovid 739), and her horn decreases and then fully disappears (740). Ovid describes changes in the manner of her movements, particularly her fingers, hands, shoulders, and hooves. Moreover, Ovid puts a strong emphasis on her speech. It is said that Io fears to speak (Ovid 745). Io is forced to wear a halter on her neck, to sleep on the ground, to eat grass, and to drink water from stream (Ovid 631). In a familiar human gesture, she tries to stretch her arms in supplication, but realizes that she has no arms and when she tries to speak she is scared of the moo sounds. Moreover, when Io looks at own reflection in the stream, she is terrified by the horned creature and runs away from herself in terror (Ovid 635-641).
Hence, in this story, it is also possible to see a great accent on the moment when the main character realizes their own transformation. In contrast with the previous example, there is no continuity in Io story that makes it easier for readers to accept her plight. However, the moment of change still horrifies readers. This story is a bright example of how easily the transformation from one form to another can be done. This idea is reflected in all the stories in this poem. Because of the God’s desire, Io was changed into an animal and then back into a human. The same thing happens in the world very often, when some elements transform into others and then change their new shape to the previous one. This order explains the phenomenon of existence and shows how the world has existed from its beginning till now.
In general, it is possible to say that in describing the transformation moment from one shape to another, Ovid draws parallels between these forms. Such attitude gives the reader a sense of continuity between two forms, which is the basic premise for the phenomenon’s occurrence. The most interesting parallel in the change description method is the physical correspondence between an animal’s body parts and a human’s body parts. In the animal transformation description mostly, the poet focuses on the upper part of the body. Particularly, face changes are described the most often, as it was seen in Io’s story. Also, it is possible to notice that descriptions often follow the changes of body color, fur, the general size, and the quality of skin of the new creature. One may realize that a reader is provided with a general observation of the animal as the whole. Ovid describes changes by putting an emphasis on movement abilities. He does the same with speaking abilities. After transformation, many characters have difficulty in continuing to speak as humans. It also provides a sense of action. However, despite expressing continuity through physical parallels, there are some other methods through which Ovid provides the sense of continuing action and correspondence between old and new forms. Sometimes, the transformation in the stories is explained by negative character traits. At the same time, characters can be changed into other forms because of emotional reactions that are too strong. Additionally, in some stories the transformation saved positive traits in the new forms. Therefore, it is possible to note that the metamorphosis in the stories is expressed through the description of a person`s change into an animal and supported by a series of methods that provide a sense of continuity. Mostly, it is provided through physical correspondences, but in some cases, it is done through various traits.
The transformation theme includes changes to stone. As it was already mentioned, when Ovid was describing the changes to animals, he referred to such critical aspects as behavior, physical appearance, or character that were present in the old forms and then were represented in the new forms. It means that there are many similarities between animals and humans that can link them through the transformation process. However, it is difficult to say the same about humans and stone, because it seems that there are no factors that can link them. In some stories, Ovid described humans who transformed into stone parts or statues, but in others, the characters were changed into stone formations. In changes of humans to animals, the movement played a great role in the transformation. However, in this case, the lack of movement only represents another problem. To explain why humans became hard and stiff as stones, Ovid tried to use the issues of the natural world. A good example can be Aglauros (Ovid 2.708-832).
In the story, Mercury was spying on a beautiful girl Herse. He fell in love with her and went to her home to meet her, but instead he met her sister Aglauros. They agreed that she was going to help him win Herse in exchange for gold. However, Minerva who was defied by Aglauros was angry. She was interested in doing everything so that Aglauros would not benefit from the arrangement. Hence, she went to Invidia from the house of Envy and requested her to put envy in Aglauros who, in the end, was consumed with jealousy. Hence, Aglauros refused to lead Mercury Herse’s room, Mercury entered by tapping the door with his magic wand. When Aglauros tried to stop him, she realized that cannot get up from the sitting position. Therefore, the transformation moment starts when Aglauros attempted to stand, but found that she could not (Ovid 821). Her sitting position only intensifies her disability, for which there is no specific reason. Hence, it is possible to see a comparison between the statue and the person that turned to stone. Actually, Aglauros does not get why she is not able to rise and she keeps trying to get up from her position (Ovid 822). During her struggle, Aglauros feels that her knees stiffen, which also prevents her from rising (Ovid 823).
Moreover, cold slips through the ends of her nails, which includes her toes. fingers, and veins growing pale from blood disappearing (Ovid 824). It is possible to see that Ovid compares Aglauros’ transformation to stone with some incurable disease. Specifically, itis emphasized here that her ability to speak disappears, because of the closed air passages. Thus, Aglauros is changed into a bloodless statue that is not white. It shows that her own attitude infected her and caused all these changes. The mental state of this character led her to the new form and caused this transformation. The statue’s blackness is also associated with the cold that stopped her movement. Therefore, it is possible to note that transformation into stone explained the nature of the main character, which was expressed through a deathly change.
Another example is the story of Niobe (Ovid 6.301-312). Niobe was sure that she was better than anyone, because she had more children than the goddess Leto. In response, to avenge her own mother, Diana and Apollo killed all the children of Niobe. In the end, Niobe petrified because of her grief. In the story, during her transformation, Niobe sits among her dead children and starts hardening because of her evils. In contrast to the previous example, she turned into the white marble. Her eyes are immovable because everything living has left her (Ovid 304-305). In this story, Ovid puts a great emphasis on the physiological side of the transformation. He describes that Niobe`s tongue freezes hard against her palate (Ovid 306). Then, he turns to her external appearance, particularly to movable body parts. He notes that her neck is not able to turn, just as her arms cannot move, and she is not able to walk (Ovid 308). By referring to her tongue hardening, Ovid emphasizes that she loses her ability to speak just in the moment of her request to save her last child. Hence, the great meaning in this story is Niobe`s disability to walk, because changes in movements during the transformation of persons into animals was described through their change from two to four feet. This is parallel in the transformation of persons to the stone is shown through the victim`s lack of ability to move.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that in the description of the metamorphoses to stone, there is a specific method that is used to explain these transformations. In the animal metamorphoses, Ovid pays special attention to the upper parts of bodies. He described the changes of face and arms. The same interest can be observed in transformations to stone. Another moment that has to be analyzed is movement. It plays a great role in the description of animal metamorphoses. Hence, the poet describes the change in the manner of movements, and how the changes can force a person to run or walk on four legs instead of two. The same interest can be seen in the descriptions of movement of the people who turned to the stone. In general, it was described as a sudden inability to move. At the same time, there is a lesser emphasis on speech changes in transformations to stone in comparison with transformations to animals. However, this is logical, because, in animals’ changes, different sounds can empower the results of a metamorphosis, while the same approach cannot be applied to the changes to stone. Instead, more attention is given to physiological processes. Particularly, Ovide describes in details the stop of blood flow, coldness, rigidity, and hardness. Additionally, the poet compares the metamorphoses into stone with uncured illnesses. However, except for corresponding to physical issues, Ovid is also using other methods to explain the changes from one form to another. Hence, just in the changes to animals, the negative character traits explain transformations to stone. The Aglauros story can serve as an example. The main idea is that hardness in character’s turns in the hardness of stone. At the same time, in the Niobe’s story, the transformation was forced because of a strong emotional reaction. One can say that Niobe was frozen because of her grief. Therefore, it is possible to say that the theme of change is also strongly expressed through transformations to stone. If one were to compare them with the changes to animals, it would be critical to note that there were many similarities. However, at the same time, some differences appear, particularly, a greater accent on the physiological side of transformations. In general, the main connection that links the transfer from one form to another is character traits and strong emotions.
The transformation theme includes the change of humans to water. However, in the poem, there are only a few examples of such metamorphoses. This transformation is highly difficult to describe because of the lack of physical parallels and other connective issues that would explain the shift from being human into the water forn. One of such examples can be the story of Cyane (Ovid 5.341-571). She was a nymph in the pond that was used as an entrance to the underworld by Pluto after his stealing of Persephone. Cayne was trying to stop Pluto from raping Persephone, but she was ignored. As a result, she felt so sympathetic that she cried until being completely turned into water. She merged with her own pond. The poet describes how the nymph`s limbs would soften, nails lose their hardness, and bones become flexible (Ovid 429-430). He states that the slenderest parts. such as legs and feet, fingers and sea-blue hair disappear first (Ovid 432). Then, the disappearance of the less slender parts of the body begins, and the last part that disappears is veins. In the end, her blood is replaced with clear water (Ovid 437). Such detailed description can be explained by the fact that this is the first story with such type of transformation. Hence, the following stories do not require such details. Another reason is that such metamorphoses were not described before Ovid, so he puts a great emphasis on the details in this case.
Another example is the story of Arethusa. She was also a nymph, but in a different pond in Sicily. She was devoted to the hunting goddess Diana. She was a beautiful girl and attracted the river god Alpheus. Arethusa was hidden from him by a cloud of mist that was sent by Diana. However, Alpheus refused to give up and continued looking for Diana. The nymph was so terrified that she turned in a body of water and dove into the ocean to avoid Alpheus. She resurfaced in Ortygia and retained her own power to reach her previous shape. In the end, she rose out of her pond and told her story. Therefore, it is possible to say that a link that connects the human and water forms is the perspiration flow, at least in this casse. In this story, in contrast to the previous one, Ovid does not mention the details about the change to water. Instead, he just lists the parts of the body that were transformed. Readers have already witnessed the transformation process into cool water with Cyane and it is is easier for them to imagine the change in this story. Also, the shorter description of Arethusa’s transformation gives an impression that she disappeared in the flood rapidly.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that in these stories Ovid uses the two main methods to describe the process of change. The first method is similar to the device that was used in the previous metamorphoses types. Particularly, he draws physical parallels between human and water forms. However, this method is less obvious than it was in transformations to animals and stone. In each description, the poet refers to physical similarities. In the first story, Cyane weeps to the point that her body becomes water, while in the second story Arethusa is scared and because of this she sweats to the point that she transforms fully into water. The second story describes the moment of change less. However, an additional reason to follow such an approach can be the fact that Arethusa retains some powers over her own shape, as well as has an ability to return to her other form whenever she wishes. Another method that is used in both stories is also applied to the previous metamorphoses types is strong character emotions. Hence, both characters had emotional reactions that, in the end, caused the transformations. Particularly, fear and grief became the reasons for the changes that happened to the characters.
The last type of metamorphoses that can be attributed to the change theme is transformation to trees. This type is similar to the previous transformation types. However, continuity from the old to the new forms was harder to explain in this case. In general, Ovid explains the link between the transactions from one form to another by physical correspondence. One of the examples can be Daphne’s story (Ovid 1.452-567). She realized that her marriage was undesirable, but she was not responsible for such decisions, because she was pierced by the Cupid`s arrow. This causes her negative feelings toward her own husband and children. Moreover, Apollo was also pierced with an arrow that produced desire. When Apollo almost caught her, Daphne begged to be changed and her transformation began at that moment. The first evidence of the change is her movements comes to her when she almost finishes speaking (Ovid 548). The next change comes to her skin in the breasts area (Ovid 549). To form continuity, the two forms were described through the physical correspondences in parts of the body that exist in both forms.
Another example is Dryope’s story (Ovid 9.324-394). When she was wandering along a stream bank with her infant son Amphissos, she picked some lotus flowers to amuse him. However, this plant was recently changed from a nymph to a tree. This is why it bled when it was plucked. Hence, she found herself changed into a tree. Her change starts with her feet when she realizes that she cannot move. When she sees what is going on with her lower part, she is terrified and tries to pull her hair out, finding leaves instead. The change begins from the feet to the top and the reason of it is the desire of Ovid to focus on her face and speech (Ovid 354). When Dryope almost becomes a tree, she has concerns about her human state, but at the same time, she already has the fears of a tree. In the end, she becomes a tree from the psychological perspective.
Therefore, one may say that all the changes in characters that transform into trees begin with their feet. There is also a great accent on the movement abilities just as in previous stories. Additionally, Ovid puts an emphasis on the face. Quite often. this is the last part that changes. Almost the same situation can be observed with transformation to stone. To explain the continuity from one form to another, Ovid uses several devices. One of them is physical correspondence. For instance, Daphne retains her beauty as a laurel. Another similarity is that all of these changes were forced upon the characters. Hence, one can state that Ovid tries to present the transformations as a natural outcome. Moreover, by representing the transformation process in each story, he tries to express the idea that there is nothing permanent in the world and that changes are natural for people and the world in general.
The change theme is strongly expressed through the issues of the Gods. They have a lack of the moral authority, and their behavior towards each other and mortals is described as callous and filled with casual self-interest (Liveley 9). It is Gods that are responsible for provoking the various metamorphoses with their mortal victims. In some cases, the metamorphoses are inflicted as an answer to prayers or as a reward for good service. Sometimes, the changes were sent as punishment, but most of all they were provided because of lust, jealousy, and anger. Callisto’s story can serve as an example (Ovid 2.401-530). It tells the story of how Jupiter, who took that image of virgin huntress Diana, raped Callisto. In turn, when Diane discovered that Callisto is pregnant, she angrily banished her from her virgin followers. Moreover, when Juno discovered that Callisto had given birth to a baby boy, she decided to transform her into a bear because of jealousy. Thus, selfish Juno changed Callisto and her son into stars to prevent the situation when a son kills his own mother. This story is a good example of the Gods` injustices and cruelties. Ovid only emphasizes that a great change can only be caused through great power. However, at the same time, the Gods are shown as comedic figures. It can often be expressed through love and sex. For instance, Jupiter, who is shown from the negative side for treating Callisto cruelly, is shown in comedic situations at the same time. AN example would be the instance when he had the image of the prancing bull and gave slobbery cow-kiss to Europa (Ovid 2.833-75). A similar situation happened with bad-tempered Diana, when the nymphs that were trying to hide her nudity from Actaeon found out that her clothes were too short to hide her body (Ovid 3.138-255). Such new representation of the Gods, both humorous and serious, only shows the rapid changes that were happening in the Gods` behavior and motives. In one word, the mood and tone of the poem change, and tragedy is often transformed into comedy (Liveley 10). Therefore, it is possible to see how Ovid expresses the theme of change effectively through the Gods.
In general, there is a significant relationship between the themes of change and transformation and the continuity in the poem. The main question is that if changes appear so often, how can they be connected to continuity. To find continuity, it is critical to look at some other themes throughout the poem in addition to change. For instance, the continuity for lust and love can appear. Moreover, in the poem, love and lust are simply the driving forces. Many of the changes in the poem are results of the desire to escape unwanted love, as it was with Apollo and Daphne, or reach love or sexual pleasure as it was in the story of Jupiter. Therefore, love is the most powerful driving force of transformation in the poem, and it is one of the continuity sources at the same time. Brown insists that there are several continuities that unite stories that are separate at first glance. As it was already mentioned, one of them is the transformation theme that is shown in all stories. It aims to explain the nature of the world, particularly the ideas that nothing is permanent (Brown n.p.). The second continuity is the chronological approach that is seen throughout the whole poem. It begins with the description of the world`s beginning till Ovid`s lifetime. Such chronology lends the poem a clear narrative framework, particularly. a timeline in which the poet puts his transformation tale (Otis 5). The timeline provides a guide to the events’ sequence as they are narrated in the piece of work. It also presents numerous chronological slippages, flashes forwards, and flashbacks that encourage one to read every single one of the 250 stories as independent units (Liveley 11). However, one piece of the poem is quite confusing, because it can be considered as both a continuity and a change phenomenon. It is the Pythagoras speech in the last book. It includes such topic as reincarnation. The main points are change and continuity in equal measure. The metamorphosis in this context can be explained as the souls’ migration from one body to another. At the same time, there is continuity because the souls continue to live long after the original body has died.
In conclusion, it is critical to notice that the main theme that is seen throughout the poem is the theme of change or transformation. This is the only theme that unites all stories together. The change theme in this epic poem includes four types of transformation, such as metamorphoses to animals, stone, water, and trees. Through all these transformations, Ovid uses two main methods to link the process of transfer from one form to another. The first method is the physical correspondence, while the second is the character’s traits or emotions. In general, there is a tight connection between the themes of change and continuity that are expressed through the transformation issues in many stories. Overall, Metamorphoses by Ovid is a great epic poem that has a strong transformation theme, the main goal of which is to say that nothing in the world is permanent and that changes can explain the existence of the world.