If the Metamorphoses can be said to have a protagonist, Jupiter, the king of heaven, is that protagonist. He is the first god on the scene in Book I as he encounters the impious Lycaon, and he is present at the end of the poem in the Book XV at the deification of Julius Caesar. Jupiter’s frequent presence in the poem does not, however, mean that he is a character worthy of respect. In most instances, Ovid portrays Jupiter as foolish, rash, and lustful. Jupiter destroys the world out of anger at one man, he rapes countless women (Io, Europa, Callisto, and Semele, to name a few), and he constantly deceives his wife, Juno, whom he fears. When Jupiter does attempt to do good deeds, he bungles them. When he tries to defend Dis, for example, he tells Ceres that at least her daughter, Proserpina, was raped by a god with good lineage. Ovid’s portrayal of Jupiter is sometimes comic and nearly always dark.
Simply because she is Jupiter’s wife, Juno is a key figure in the Metamorphoses. Unlike Jupiter, however, she does not make world-changing decisions or seek out extramarital relationships. Her less powerful role means that she does not drive the plot, as Jupiter does. Still, the brutal punishments she metes out are what give the poem much of its spice. She constantly catches her husband sleeping with other women. His exploits enrage her, and she vents her wrath on Jupiter’s lovers, revenging herself on Io, Callisto, Europa, and Semele, among others. She also torments the offspring, such as Ino, that these women have by Jupiter. Even those who impede Juno’s efforts to catch Jupiter, such as Echo, feel her wrath. Juno never takes revenge in a foolhardy or thoughtless way. She is always cunning and calculating. She may not be as powerful as her husband is, but Juno is an intelligent, fearsome goddess.
Although Orpheus appears in only two Books (X and XI), his presence resonates throughout the work. He is an artist, and the Metamorphoses is a poem preoccupied with the problems of art. Ovid portrays Orpheus as a being who transcends his limitations through art. Orpheus is a flawed man; in a matter of seventy lines, he loses his wife, Eurydice, twice. But when he starts singing, his shortcomings fade in importance. His songs comprise some of the most memorable and beautiful lines in the Metamorphoses. By the end of his song, we can no longer doubt his skill. Ovid creates a metamorphosis in our perception of Orpheus, transforming our pity into appreciation.
Ovid characterizes Apollo as a god of foolish and ineffectual passions. The son of Jupiter and the god of the sun, Apollo is a hothead. His strong emotions often get the best of him, making him look and act foolish. In Book I, his lust for Daphne leads him to caress and kiss her—even after she has been turned into a tree. In Book II, he allows his son, Phaeton, to ride his chariot, which almost destroys the whole world. In the same book, he kills his lover, Coronis, in a fit of fury. He ultimately regrets this murderous act. Apollo is not only tempestuous but also inept. Although he is the god of healing he is not able to help anyone. He fails in his attempt to heal Hyacinthus, his boy lover, and he does nothing to drive away the plague in Rome.
No single character dominates the Metamorphoses’ 250 stories from Greek and Roman mythology, legend, and history. Only the narrator, a version of Ovid, unites and controls the narrative. He makes his presence known with attention-getting literary techniques. Often, there is no logical or structural reason why one story precedes or follows another. Rather, the narrator arranges them according to more subtle principles. The unobvious, often surprising structure draws attention to itself, and to its author. We are never allowed to forget that a literary mind has constructed the poem. The narrator also draws the focus to himself by breaking into the narrative and, in the first person, offering his perspective and insights.