The Metamorphoses is an epic poem by the Roman philosopher and poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso), written in the cities of Rome and Tomis in the 1st decade A.D. As the title indicates, it focuses on changes, and is the best source of around 250 classical myths.
I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world's first origins to my own time (Metamorphoses Bk I, trans. A.S. Kline).
Ovid refers to the Metamorphoses as one continuous epic, an assertion that can appear false, as the poem does not focus on any one main character – rather on a series of characters and events. This gives it the appearance of being a series of poems, but there are strategies within the poem that provide unity, and render it one magnificent whole. The theme of metamorphoses – changes – links every section – each tale has its indication of the lack of permanence in the world. There is a certain chronological progression to the poem – it begins with chaos and the beginning of the world, and ends in the time of the Emperor Augustus – the time in which Ovid was writing. Scholars have suggested many other unifying themes within the Metamorphoses, and it is certain that Ovid himself saw the work as a whole epic poem.
The Metamorphoses is a massive work. Divided into 15 books, with around 700 – 800 lines per book, the work describes in detail the world of Roman myths, and some Roman history. With 14 syllables per line, much of the work has a rhythmic and sonorous beauty that is seldom found in Latin texts. The original Latin is a pleasure to read, even if you only understand one word in ten, it’s a beautiful sounding poem.
There are several translations – some in poetic form, others in prose. Probably the most well known was translated in the 1600’s under the direction of Sir Samuel Garth by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve and others, and is usually listed as “Garth, Dryden et. al”. These gentlemen transformed Ovid’s masterpiece into English, changing it to iambic pentameter – as opposed to the heptameter of the original. There are a few prose translations that I like – that of Evelyn J. Douglas in the 1950’s, and the one quoted above, by Anthony Kline – a modern day linguist whose translations are designed for posting on the internet.
While change is the main subject of the poem, it is not always foremost in each section or story. Some tales, such as that of Narcissus, or Midas, have change as their central topic, whereas other stories are more obscure. Narcissus, the beautiful young boy, metamorphosed into the flower that bears his name, and King Midas was granted the ability to change all he touched to gold. In the tale of Icarus (my personal favourite), however, it is more difficult to find the central subject of metamorphosis. While many aspects of the story can be pointed to as an alteration in the state of the character, it is likely that this and other tales illustrated the development of humankind through innovation and philosophy, rather than any particular physical alteration.
Ovid inspired many more modern writers. The tale in Book IV of Pyramus and Thisbe is paralleled by Romeo and Juliet, with Shakespeare including a reference to Thisbe in his immortal work. Milton’s Paradise Lost draws on the classical tales of the Metamorphoses, and Ovid’s tale of Apollo and Coronis formed the basis for Chaucer’s Tale of the Crowe, from the Canterbury Tales.
Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis,
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terries,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
si quid habent veri vatum prefagia, vivam.
(Metamorphoses Bk XV, trans. A. S. Kline).
The main topics of each of the books of the Metamorphoses are listed here. Many minor characters are immortalised also, but the sheer number of stories makes it difficult to list them all.
Chaos, Four Ages, Flood, Daphne, Io, Syrinx, Phaethon
Phaethon’s fall, Callisto, Coronis, Aglauros, Europa
Cadmus, Actaeon, Semele, Tiresias, Narcissus, Pentheus
Pyramus, Leucothoe, Salmacis, Ino, Cadmus, Perseus
Perseus, Calliope, Proserpine, Arethusa, The Pierides
Arachne, Niobe, Marsyas, Procne, Philomela, Boreas
Jason, Medea, Minos, The Plague, Myrmidons, Procris
Scylla, Daedalus, Icarus, Meleager, Philemon and Baucis
Hercules, Alcmene, Iole, Galanthis, Dryope, Byblis, Iphis
Orpheus, Pygmalion, Myrrha, Venus and Adonis, Atalanta
Death of Orpheus, Midas, Peleus, Ceyx, Alcyone, Aesacus
Rumour, Cycnus, Caeneus, Lapiths and Centaurs, Achilles
Ajax, Ulysses, Polyxena, Hecuba, Memnon, Galatea, Glaucus
Scylla, Sibyl, Polyphemus, Circe, Picus, Pomona, Romulus
Pythagoras, Hippolytus, Cipus, Aesculapius, The Caesars
“Melting Point” by Nadia Wheatley, Random House publishers, 1994.
Thanks to CloudStrife for information on Shakespeare's links to Ovid.
The two quotes in the text above are the beginning and end lines of Ovid's Metamorphoses.