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Literature Review: Ovid's Metamorphoses

Updated on February 2, 2016

Background

In 8 AD, Ovid first published his Metamorphoseon libri, which has been more commonly referred to as The Metamorphoses and is considered his magnum opus. Considered an epic or type of epic, the story has no central cast of characters, but contains a number of them both god and man over 250 narratives across 15 books. And though many of those stories originate with other writers like Hesiod and Homer, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has a considerable amount of influence, including on such authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Edmund Spenser, Dante and Giovanni Boccaccio. It has also influenced a number of painters from Titian, Pieter Brueghel, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Synopsis

A comprehensive chronology, the work recounts every event from the creation of the world to the deification and death of Julius Caesar. Scholars divide it into four sections: The Divine Comedy (not Dante’s story), The Avenging Gods, The Pathos of Love, and Rome and the Deified Ruler.

Review

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting as it combines storytelling, over a number of genres, with the historical narrative of the Roman Empire. For one, there’s quite a bit of romance laden throughout, especially when it comes to the actions of the gods and nymphs. This includes the interactions between Daphne and Apollo, where the latter was made to fall in love with the former due to the wrath and an arrow of Cupid. Another couple worth mentioning is Orpheus and Eurydice, where the former loves the latter so much that he attempts to retrieve her from the underworld. And there’s horror, which can be seen in Bacchus’ birth and emergence. The whole event includes Jupiter raping Semele, burning her alive and bearing the son in his leg. And once Bacchus is born, he uses intimidation to become Acoetes’ high priest and literally whipping Theban women up to force them to kill King Pentheus by tearing him apart. The story also has some stories of revenge. One of which happens when Juno plagues an island because it’s named after a woman who slept with Jupiter. Further, there’s also some tragedy and revenge coupled with the aforementioned horror, which can be seen when a satyr is flayed alive because he loses to Apollo in a music contest or when Erysichthon is punished with never ending hunger because he chopped down a tree in Ceres’ sacred grove. His undying hunger leads him to sell everything for food, including his daughter and then dies trying to eat himself.

But a theme that’s present in every story contained within is that of change with all of them having someone or something transform, which is quite apt considering it’s known as the Metamorphoses. It’s even in the opening lines of the poem where Ovid claims that he’s intending to speak of forms changing into new entities. And throughout, humans are changed into inanimate objects and animals (usually because they're stupid enough to think that insulting gods who happen to be immortal and all-powerful are good ideas), animals and fungi are changed into humans. There are even changes of sex and color. And with all that change, Ovid finds himself wishing for improvement in his own time, which he states at the beginning as well. In recounting the ages of the world, he mentions that the period he’s in is awful and wishes that he were either born earlier with all the gods and heroes so he could witness the change or that he was born later as things would have improved for the better. It also becomes ironic due to the standard of living having grown significantly since Ovid’s time.

However, with all the stories that the Metamorphoses presents, it can be a bit difficult to get through because of all the genre shifts. There’s difficulty in following from story to story due to either mood whiplash, changing from a comedy or romance to something like a horror or a revenge. Or vice versa and the oddness of switching from a gruesome recounting of revenge to something so absurd it’s silly or something that’s romantic.

3 stars for Ovid's Metamorphoses

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion

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