Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Book XII

Summary

While Priam mourns his son, Aesacus, Paris absconds with Helen. As a result, the Greeks head to Troy to wage war. Hostile winds delay the Greeks until the wrath of Diana is quelled by the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, who is replaced by a doe at the last minute. As soon as the Greeks arrive, a battle ensues. Cycnus, the son of Neptune, alone slays over a thousand Greeks. Achilles, the great Greek hero, cannot pierce Cycnus’s impregnable skin. Further attempts are also foiled. Finally Achilles chokes Cycnus to death with the strap of his own helmet. The Greeks and Achilles recount their recent victory and Nestor begins another story.

Caenis, a young maiden, goes for a stroll on desolate seashore, where Neptune rapes her. Afterward, he grants her a wish. She asks to be changed into a man, so that she will not be raped again. Neptune turns her into Caeneus, a great warrior. Caeneus attends the wedding celebration of Pirithous, son of Ixion, and beautiful Hippodame. A drunken centaur, Eurytus, takes Hippodame by the hair and drags her off to rape her. The other centaurs follow his lead, each taking a woman. Theseus kills Eurytus by smashing a huge bowl over his head. The centaurs are incensed, and a brawl ensues. The impenetrable skin of Caeneus (he has the same kind of skin Cycnus does) infuriates the centaurs. They hurl boulders, trees, and whole mountains at him. Some say that the weight of these objects sent him to the underworld. Others say he became a bird.

Nestor’s tale concludes. Tlepolemus, Hercules’ son, is upset that Nestor didn’t mention his father’s victories over the centaurs. Nestor says he left out Hercules’ exploits because he hates Hercules for killing all of his brothers. The narrative shifts back to the Trojan War. Neptune and Apollo plot against Achilles. Apollo enters the fray covered in a cloud and counsels Paris to shoot his arrows at Achilles. Paris does, killing Achilles.

Analysis

Beginning in this book and continuing in Book XIII, Ovid offers an amusing take on the Iliad. Instead of treating the epic with reverence, he ignores most of the traditional story lines and gives lesser-known stories comic twists. He passes over the battle between Achilles and Hector (which is arguably the high point of the Iliad), adds the detail that a deer took Iphigenia’s place, replaces heroic combat with a drunken wedding brawl, and gives a lengthy account of the battle between Achilles and Cycnus. In none of these episodes is Ovid serious. For example, he sets the stage for an epic clash between Achilles and Cycnus by mentioning that Cycnus’s skin is impenetrable, but the battle quickly devolves into comedy. So certain is Cycnus of his own invincibility that he does not even guard himself against Achilles’ missile attacks. The black comedy continues when Achilles gets around the problem of Cycnus’s armor-skin by strangling him with his own helmet strap.

Ovid suggests that the Trojan War is nothing more than a huge wedding brawl. The wedding battle rages on for almost 400 lines, and Nestor describes it using an impressive collection of gory details. At the same time, the setting of the battle makes it hard to take seriously. The combatants are not in the open, but constrained to a wedding hall. The weapons of choice are not slings and arrows, but wine bowls, goblets, cauldrons, trees, antlers, and boulders. When the account of the battle concludes, we leap to the tenth year of the Trojan War. With this juxtaposition, Ovid is asking us to compare the humorous wedding fight with the Trojan War and to notice that Paris snatched Helen in the same way that the centaur snatched Hippodame. Ovid intentionally undercuts the gravity of the Trojan War by comparing it to a wedding brawl.

Nestor is not necessarily a reliable narrator. When confronted, he readily admits that he has left out crucial information about Hercules’ battles with the centaurs. He also admits that his reasons for editing the story in this way are personal. Ovid forces us to wonder what other information Nestor has seen fit to leave out. More broadly, he raises the question of unreliability in general. If one thing unites the characters in Ovid’s poems, it is their tendency to get mixed up in feuds. Resentments, grudges, and revenge teem through the poem. Nester is hardly the only character with personal biases, and it seems unlikely that he is the sole untrustworthy narrator in the Metamorphoses.