Ovid begins the Metamorphoses by invoking the gods. He asks them to inspire his work, which opens with the creation of the world and continues on to the present day, and is about the transformation of bodies. After this short prayer, Ovid describes the birth of the world. A creator separated earth from heaven, sea from land, and lighter air from heavier air. He then made beings to inhabit these new spaces: Gods and stars filled the heavens, fish the seas, beasts the land, and birds the air. Man was created to rule the world. Four ages followed. The age of gold was a time of trust, moral goodness, and fruitfulness. In the age of silver, people had to work for a living. The age of bronze saw the first wars, but some semblance of morality persisted. In the age of iron, however, nothing is sacred. Even family ties lead to bloodshed.
In the iron age, the gods appear and witness human impiety. In particular, Jupiter visits the house of the Lycaon, who treats Jupiter with the greatest disrespect, even trying to murder him in his sleep. Outraged, Jupiter decides to punish humanity with a flood. Because of their piety, Deucalion and Pyrrha survive. No one else does. Themis gives Deucalion and Pyrrha cryptic advice about how to repopulate the earth: They must cover their heads, let their garments loose, and cast the bones of their great mother behind their backs. Initially, Pyrrha is disheartened, because she interprets this advice as sacrilegious. How can she desecrate her mother’s bones? Deucalion has a different interpretation. He thinks Themis was referring not to their actual mothers, but to the earth. They try throwing stones behind them, and the stones morph into people.
Apollo speaks disparagingly to Cupid, who shoots two arrows in retaliation. The first arrow causes Apollo to fall in love, and the second arrow makes the object of his love, Daphne, flee. Apollo pursues Daphne, but she rejects him. Apollo pleads and persists, and Daphne cries out to her father for help. He responds by transforming her into a laurel tree. Not entirely deterred, Apollo gropes the tree. At this point, Jupiter catches sight of a young nymph, Io, and lust fills his heart. He rapes her. Juno, Jupiter’s wife, suspects something. To throw his wife off the scent, Jupiter turns Io into a cow. But this move makes Juno even more suspicious. She asks Jupiter for Io as a present and sets many-eyed Argus to keep watch over the transformed Io. Upset by Io’s great distress, Jupiter sends Mercury to kill Argus. Mercury succeeds, and Io is eventually transformed back into a nymph. She has a son by Jupiter, Epaphus.
From the first sentence of his Metamorphoses, Ovid makes it clear that he is not writing a traditional epic. He states outright that his intention is to create something new, writing, “My mind carries me to speak of bodies changed into new forms” (I.1–2). The phrase “new forms” suggests that Metamorphoses will not mimic Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s Iliad. Ovid differentiates himself still further from Virgil by stating that his mind moves him to write. Instead of calling on a muse for inspiration, Ovid calls on the gods. This difference in inspirations may seem slight, but by invoking all of the gods, Ovid insures that none of them get credit. Ovid subtly suggests that this work is all about him.
Ovid depicts a group of gods who are often irrational. In this section of the work, Jupiter provides a prime example of the gods’ tendency to draw foolish conclusions. Based on his negative experience with one man, Lycaon, Jupiter decides that all humans are evil and must be exterminated. He fails to consider Deucalion and Pyrrha, two models of piety who prove that not all humans are immoral. Jupiter’s other reason for causing the flood is his desire to make the world a safer place for lesser divinities that do not inhabit the heavens: nymphs, fauns, satyrs, and mountain-dwelling divinities. However, this reasoning is also flawed. As the epic continues and we read about the brutal behavior of the gods—Apollo’s pursuit of the anguished Daphne, Jupiter’s rape of Io, and so on—we realize that the gods don’t have the moral authority to police the world. Indeed, the lesser divinities need to be protected from the gods, rather than protected by them.
The gods are as immoral as they are irrational. Ovid gets his narrative off to a dark start by introducing the theme of divine rape almost immediately. Apollo, filled with lust for Daphne, attempts to rape her. Even after she is turned into a tree, Apollo kisses her and gropes her bark. Jupiter is no better. He lusts after Io, rapes her, and turns her into a cow when his wife gets suspicious. Jupiter’s crime is both more violent than Apollo’s and more hypocritical; he commits it directly after flooding the earth to wipe it clean of impious mortals. The other gods are no less hypocritical. They care far more about token gestures of respect than they do about actual good behavior. When confronted with the possible destruction of humanity, they worry only about who will burn incense on their altars. Incense is more important to them than compassion.
Ovid weaves a strong element of comedy into the fabric of his narrative. While he depicts the gods’ behavior as darkly immoral, he also shows the funny side of it. Daphne’s transformation into a tree is tragic, but there is something amusing about the stolid, unmoving form her father gives her—and something downright comical about the image of Apollo copping a feel of her bark. Jupiter’s taste for extramarital affairs is also amusing. He can’t keep his hands off young maidens, and the lengths he goes to in an attempt to fool his wife might remind modern readers of the antics of cheating husbands in screwball comedies. Jupiter is king of the gods, but he flutters around in a panic, trying to pull the wool over Juno’s eyes by giving Io the comical form of a cow.