Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Motifs

Punishment and Reward

Although the gods of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a violent, capricious bunch, the punishments they mete out are not entirely random. In general, the gods penalize wickedness and reward piety. Ovid sets the tone in Book I, in which the gods punish Lycaon, an impious man who tries to kill Jupiter in his sleep, and reward Deucalion and Pyrrha, two models of piety. Later, Bacchus punishes the daughters of Minyas and Pentheus for refusing to worship him, Minerva punishes Arachne for her unyielding heart, and Latona punishes Niobe for her boasting. Jupiter rewards Baucis and Philemon for their generous hospitality. Even when the gods are not involved, punishment usually falls on the wicked, and rewards on the pious. Tereus is paid back for raping his wife’s sister and cutting out her tongue when he unwittingly eats his own son and is transformed into a bird. And Iphis’s piety is rewarded when she is changed into a young man so that she might marry Ianthe, a Greek maiden.

Storytelling

Among other things, the Metamorphoses is a collection of stories and stories within stories. Ovid plays with many narratives that would have been familiar to his audience, such as the Trojan War, Ulysses’ travels, and Aeneas’s founding of Rome. He takes these narratives as a starting point and then reverses our expectations or stresses a surprising aspect of a familiar tale. Ovid’s narrator is not the only, or even the primary, storyteller. He often hands the reins to other characters. There are also embedded stories, which means that characters within these characters’ stories tell their own tales. In fact, roughly a third of the Metamorphoses consists of embedded stories. We hear from a diverse group of characters, including men, women, gods, nymphs, and even animals. No one perspective is dominant or consistent. Even within the same story, the perspectives of different characters can conflict with each other. With his varied storytelling techniques, Ovidachieves a kaleidoscopic effect.