I composed these notes and questions at a time when students read the entire text. Use the material below to guide your reading of BOOK 1 (E-reserves).

Ovid's Metamorphoses

Prologue and Books I-V

Prologue: Given the reality of human inquiry, we can predict the first question about Metamorphoses: Why is change such a compelling theme?

What kind of changes are there?
What is Ovid's intention?

Book I:

Three Creation stories: What are the main differences between the creation accounts in Genesis and in Ovid? What about the difference in perspectives between Ovid and the author(s) of Genesis. Ovid's view is more diverse. Why?


  • Cosmogony (7-95)
  • The Ages Of Man (96-150)
  • Gigantomachy (151-165)


  • Council of the gods (166-252)
  • Story of Lycaon
  • flood (253-313)
  • Deucalion and Pyrrha (314-415)


  • Pytho (416-449)

    In Ovid, the creation is an ending of strife between opposites as one entity. More interesting to me are the details in Ovid; he sees the earth as a giant ball and he even gives us an account of the hemispheres, including a sense of global climate. He know about the existence of both poles. What do you make of this? In other words, what happen to the history lesson where Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? Didn't most of the people in the European world in 1492 suspect that the earth was flat? Was this information added later? Is there any evidence? Or did Roman intellectuals know the reality of earth as a planet?

    What about the character of the creator?

    The Four Ages: In Metamorphoses, Ovid shows how evil and distress change the once idyllic world. Where in Ovid's Four Ages would you place Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise?

    Thomas Cole, American painter, Course of an Empire, 1833-1836.

    Is there anything in Ovid's narrative that explains why these changes happen?

    See Warren Hern's essay in Bioscience,Dec. 1993, for one interesting explanation. The well-known metaphor "Cradle of Civilization" implies that civilization is like a human being growing up, advancing even maturing. Is this the case in Ovid' story of the four ages of humankind?

    In the second creation, Lycaon is singled out as wicked and offensive to Jove. How does the story relate to other stories or folk tales?

    Is Ovid suggesting that human beings were invaded by an alien animal nature of is he suggesting that the savage rapaciousness of wolves originated in a human being?

    What contemporary cultures and agencies in the Pacific Northwest are reintroducing wolves into the wild? Why these groups rather than say some other groups like the Cattleman's Association or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation? How do wolves challenge human dominance?

    What is Lycanthropy?

    Compare Zeus in Homer's Iliad to Jove in Ovid.

    The Flood: compare the flood story in Ovid to the flood story in Genesis.

    In the aftermath of the flood, Ovid departs from Genesis; the biblical story gives us the covenant--the promise inherent in the image of the cloud and the rainbow. In Ovid's story, Deucalion and Pyrrha find themselves alone. They pray to Themis, daughter of Gaia, and she gives them an answer of sorts on how to redeem humankind--it comes in the form of a riddle. What are the bones of the great mother? This story tells of the second creation of humankind: what is our origin? This story represents the second creation, the ascent of man.

    The Love of the River Gods:

    The HOUSE of FATHERS: I use this phrase to underscore the evolution of natural rights for children and thus put in contrast the different ways fathers--in particular Greek and Roman--treat their own children. Daphne's father Peneus wants grandsons and tells her that she "owes" him. Yet as a father, he is benevolent and understanding, not a tyrant? Phaethon's father also will keep his promise to his son even thought he knows the potential danger involved. These fathers stand in striking contrast to Fathers like Cronus the ruling Titan who castrated his own father, Uranus. Cronus' son Zeus will eventually revolt against his tyrannical father and the other Titans. One of the most horrifying images of Cronus was painted by Goya: Saturn devouring his son (1823). Goya's painting is an emblem of "resistance to change." What other Greek fathers/ parents sacrifice their own children in order to further personal gain?

    Describe the relationships between these fathers and their respective children

    Pheobus as Sun god--Phaethon

    Apollo and Daphne: Daphne is the daughter of a river god, Peneus, and the first love of Apollo. How reverent is Ovid in his portrait of Apollo? How does the metamorphosis of Daphne bring Ovid's portrait of Apollo to its comic finale? Mandelbaum and Humphries both place this story on the cover of their editions/translations of Metamorphoses. WHY? A contemporary reading of this story raises questions about ownership of the female body.

    If you were asked to design a front cover for Metamorphoses which images (or Story) would you choose to represent the text? Why?

    Etymology: The laurel (more familiar as 'bay') is sacred to Apollo, the god of lyric and other poetic creation. The victors in athletic contests and renowned poets of many societies have been honored with a laurel wreath. The title 'poet laureate' comes from Latin poeta laureatus,' meaning 'poet honored with laurel.'

    Book II:

  • Phaethon continues
  • Callisto
  • The Raven and the Crow
  • Mercury and Battus
  • Mercury and Aglauros
  • Europa

    One of my favorite stories in Book II is the story of Phaethon, a young man who embarks on a father quest that takes him to the palace of the sun god, Phoebus. Phoebus is on his throne and DAY and MONTH and YEAR and CENTURY stand next to him, and HOUR is there too as well as Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. This assembly of gods of times and seasons invites our imagination. What do these personifications of time look like?

    Ovid tells us the difference between fathers and sons or the difference between being old and being young. What is the difference between the Sun God and his son Phaethon? What do young people want? What do older people want? What does this story tell us about parentage?

    The story of Phaethon exemplifies the "father quest." What is the significance of such a quest in myth? Is the story about the necessity of moderation and self-control? Or is the story the about the necessity of pushing human dimensions to break through the limits of convention and ordinary experience?

    "The boy insists; he longs to guide the chariot." Why does Phaethon disregard his father's warning? Read "George Sand Defines Happiness" (1852) George Sand was a French Novelist and a Romantic Idealist. She writes that complete happiness requires the happiness of the society; the happiness of others is absolutely necessary to our own.

Once again Ovid voices the science of Rome. What earth's properties does Ovid acknowledge?

What are the sun's stallions--Eous, Aethon, Pyrois, and Phlegan--like? Flying Horses? If no one had imagined this already, then what era might we as humans come up with such a fantastical cross between steeds and birds? Why?

the team can sense the difference; those four
berserk--desert their customary course:
no rule, no order governs their wild rush

What is Ovid saying about humans? About government? About leadership? In Plato's Apology Socrates creates the metaphor of the gadfly and the great horse which is allegorically the Athenian State:

"For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. "

Is Ovid using horses in the same metaphorical fashion as Socrates? What is the difference between Socrates' story of the gadfly (and the horse) and Ovid's story of Phaethon and the stallions?
How might these stories help us understand the differences in attitudes about individualism between the Greeks and the Romans?
What is the American perspective?

Mother Earth pleads for help from the Great Lord of Gods: "is this how you repay me--the reward/ for my fertility, my patient work?/ It's I who bear the harrow and hooked plow;/ yearlong I get no rest; I furnish leaves/ to feed the beasts and harvests for mankind,/their peaceful food; and I, for you, provide/ incense."

Ovid gives us the Mother as the great provider. The queen of resources now feels the plight, the confounded chaos of old. With sea and land and sky ruined, Mother Earth "fell silent. . . . And she withdrew into her deepest caves. . . ."

In what ways in Mother Earth still silenced? In what ways do we continue to forbid the earth to speak of its ruin? How can we best communicate with the earth?

Terry Tempest Williams gives us a different story of humans and nature in "The Erotic Landscape."

Phaethon's mother Clymene and her daughters mourn Phaethon. What happens to Phaethons' sisters, the Heliades? The meaning of the Heliades seems connected to the notion of jurors and law. What is the driving emotion that transforms the three sisters into trees? Ovid again explicitly expands the human community to include trees. What is Ovid saying about trees? "When you rip this tree, it is my body that you tear." What is the connection between Ovid's characters and the erotic in Williams' essay.

What is the difference between eroticism and pornography?

The Raven and the Crow: the history of the raven in narrative goes back to antiquity with the story of the flood in Gilgamesh (2700 BC). In this Summerian epic, the survivor of the flood Utnapishtim--the precursor to Noah--releases a swallow which failing to find land returns to the ark. He then releases a raven and "she" does not return. In Genesis, at the end of forty days Noah opens the window in the ark and releases a raven that "went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth (Genesis 8:7). In the ancient stories, these birds are present at the apocalypse and yet do not return to the ark, preferring a kind of abandonment or freedom independent of the human survivors. In contemporary wildlife studies, we learn that the raven prefers to live in the wild, in the untrammeled places called wilderness where human populations are transitory and temporary; the crow on the other hand, often seeks out the rural and urban habitat in close occupancy with humans. Consequently these two birds become a measure of change for as we domesticate the wild the raven moves on and is replaced by the crow.

Ravens and crows belong to the Crovine family which includes jays. Among other things, this family of birds is associated with trickery. The Steller's Jay, for instance, can imitate the call of a Redtail Hawk.

What does the crow tell the Raven? Does the crow understand humans and their gods better than the Raven? What is the origin of the crow in this story? Nyctimene becomes a night-owl. Why?

Raven disregards crow's warning and goes on to tell Apollo about Coronis' infidelity. What does Apollo do? What happens to the raven?

Book III: Theban Cycle

  • Arrival of Cadmus (1-143)
  • Actaeon (143-258)
  • Semele (259-312)
  • Tiresias (313-336)
  • Narcissus and Echo (337-508)
  • Pentheus and Bacchus (510-733)

    Actaeon (143-258): Actaeon's transformation into a deer at Diana's hand is one of my favorite tales in Ovid's text. If we apply Greek tragic vision to this story, the tale fits into an ancient formula of art. Aristotle's Poetics defines the three characteristics of successful Greek Tragedy as recognition, reversal, and tragic flaw. The story of Actaeon has all three of these elements. The hunter becomes the hunted, a classic version of reversal. Actaeon also surely must recognize what it feels like to be a deer, the one pursued by hounds. His consciousness has become entrapped in the animal world. What is his tragic flaw?

    What are Actaeon and his friends doing at the beginning of the story? Are they hunting to survive or are they hunting for other reasons. How can you tell?

    What is the poet's sentiment about the hunters and their actions?

    Actaeon sees Diana (and her nymphs), twin sister of Apollo, an eternally virgin huntress who haunts wild places. She is sometimes referred to as Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Beasts) indicating her concern for and power over wild animals. She is also concerned with women's transition from girlhood to adulthood (via marriage) and with childbirth, a concern she shares with Hera and Eileithyia. Women who die are said to be struck down by her arrows. From a woman's point of view, Artemis represents an experience of her nascent feminine nature. But, from a man's point of view, an image of a young girl suggestive of Diana/Artemis represents the anima--the name Jung gave to a female figure, in a man's dream or fantasy, which belongs not to the personal, but to the collective unconscious. The anima is an image of the feminine indicative of the male subject's unconscious attitudes towards women, and his notions about them. Diana/Artemis thus reflects a particular stage in his relation with his unconscious image of the feminine.

    Diana without her clothes blushes which explains the crimson colors of the dusk and dawn. She punishes Actaeon for seeing a goddess in the buff and turns him into a deer. At first, how does Actaeon react? Then the hounds get the scent. What happens? What is the moral to this story? Ovid tells us that some say Diana was too cruel. Waht do you think of the way she punishes Actaeon?

    Titian 1485-1576: Diana and Actaeon; Actaeon's death

    Jan Fyt 1611-1661: Diana and her hunting dogs

    Etymology: what is the meaning of the word narcissism? Compare this word to "ethnocentrism" and "anthropocentrism." Similarites?

    Waterhouse: Echo and Narcissus

    Juno puts a curse on Echo. Describe the curse. Where is Echo now and why?

    Who is Teresias? What did he mean when he tells Liriope that her son will live to see old age if "he never knows himself."

    Narcissus and the pool: explain. What happens to Narcissus? Why a flower?

    Salvador Dali: Metamorphosis of Narcissus

    Book V:

  • Perseus and Cepheus
  • contests

    Perseus and Phineus

    In Book IV, Perseus cuts a deal with King Cepheus and Queen Cassiope; they accept a pact and promise their daughter in marriage to Perseus if he frees her from the chains of the monster Ammon. Perseus saves Andromache, a woman betrothed to Phineus, King Cepheus' brother. So in Book V, Phineus is pissed off, unjustly so. King Cepheus points out to his angry brother that he was not the one to save Andromache from the horned Ammon, that monster of the sea. "You did nothing; you brought no aid." King Cepheus asks his brother how he can now outcry against her marriage to Perseus, when Perseus is the man that rescued her from death?

    Phineus' rage persists and he strikes out at Perseus with his spear. He misses. Perseus retrieves the spear and fires it back, missing the scrambling Phineus and hitting the face of Rhoetus. What happens next?

    Perseus is a formidable warrior but he is eventually hemmed in by Phineus and a thousand of his men. Perseus says," You have compelled me to this step; from my own enemy I must seek help." He raises the Gorgon's head.

    Image of Perseus raising the Gorgon's head. What might the Gorgon signify in contemporary culture?