Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Book XI

Summary

Thracian women attack Orpheus with stones. Orpheus protects himself by charming the rocks with his songs. But the women drown out his music and tear his body apart. Orpheus’s shade descends to the underworld, where he joins Eurydice. Bacchus punishes the Thracian women for their crime against Orpheus by transforming them into trees. In Asia Minor, Bacchus rewards King Midas for finding Silenus by offering him a wish. Midas asks for a golden touch. Everything Midas touches turns to gold, including food and drink. He soon realizes that this gift is a curse, and Bacchus agrees to take it away. Midas witnesses a music contest between Pan and Apollo. The god of Mount Tmolous judges Apollo the winner. Everyone agrees with this decision except Midas. Apollo punishes him by giving him donkey ears and departs to Troy.

The founder of Troy, Laomedon, tricks two gods, Neptune and Apollo, into building the wall of Troy without properly paying them. The gods punish Troy with a flood. They say Laomedon must also sacrifice his daughter, Hesione. Laomedon asks Hercules to save Hesione in return for horses. Hercules does, but Laomedon fails to cough up the horses. Hercules gives Hesione to his comrade-in-arms, Telamon. The narrative shifts to Telamon’s brother, Peleus, who falls in love with Thetis. She escapes his attempted rape by changing into a lioness. Peleus prays incessantly to the gods, who counsel him to tie up Thetis in her sleep. He does so and succeeds in raping her. However, he is exiled for killing his brother.

Peleus is warmly received in Ceyx’s kingdom. Ceyx tells a sad tale of his brother, Daedalion. Daedalion’s beautiful daughter, Chione, has over a thousand suitors by the age of fourteen. Apollo and Mercury both rape Chione, and she bears twins with extraordinary talents. Chione considers herself greater than Diana. Diana kills her with an arrow. Daedalion goes mad and is transformed into a bird. As Ceyx is telling this story, a servant rushes in and says a wild wolf is ravaging the cattle and people. Peleus says he must deal with this situation. Ceyx decides to visit the oracle of Apollo for answers. Ceyx’s wife, Alcyone, tries to persuade him to stay home, but in vain. On the way to see Apollo, Ceyx dies in an enormous storm. As he dies, he bids the waves to bring his body home. Juno sends Sleep to tell Alcyone what has happened in a dream. The next morning, Alcyone sees Ceyx’s body floating in the sea. She leaps into the water and turns into a bird. Ceyx, too, turns into a bird.

Analysis

Ovid depicts Orpheus’s death as a triumph. Although his body dies, Orpheus is reunited in spirit with his wife. Orpheus’s manner of death demonstrates his artistry. The song he sings does not save him entirely, but it is magical. Before the shouts of the Thracian women drown him out, Orpheus manages to charm the very rocks with his music. Orpheus dies singing, which suggests his plucky allegiance to his art in the face of destruction. Even after his death, Orpheus remains an artist. Through silent gestures, he demonstrates that his spirit is unbroken. He artfully has Eurydice walk ahead of him, as she did not do the first time he found her in the underworld.

King Midas is the antithesis of Orpheus. A dull fellow and a poor artist, Midas makes a foolish request for a golden touch. Like Phaeton in Book II, who could not control his father’s chariot, Midas cannot master the power he has been given. Ovid implies that only true artists can use talent responsibly. Even after Midas’s golden touch is taken away, at his request, he continues to behave like a dunce. He becomes the first literary critic, analyzing the song contest between Pan and Apollo. Like many literary critics, Midas has dreadful taste. In defiance of popular opinion, he prefers the song of Pan to the sophisticated music of Apollo. Ovid may be suggesting that with the death of great artists such as Orpheus, we are left with sniping, silly critics such as Midas.

The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is one of the most tender and moving tales in the Metamorphoses. Even though it deals with suffering, the story’s symmetry suggests balance and peace are possible even in the face of great loss. The departure of Ceyx (II.573709) balances his arrival (II.71048) and forms the outer frame. The storm (II.474572) balances Alcyone’s dream (II.573709) and forms the inner frame. Nothing falls outside of the frames and nothing overlaps. The story’s structural symmetry also reflects its content. The partnership between Ceyx and Alcyone is as balanced as their story. Promises are kept, and experiences are shared. Ceyx promises to return and he does, although in an unexpected manner. Alcyone experiences Ceyx’s watery ordeal in her sleep, as if she is sharing her husband’s fate. After Ceyx returns to Alcyone on the waves, they share the same metamorphosis, as both become halcyon birds.