Phaeton travels to the palace of the Sun to get some answers about who his father is. Exquisite artwork on the palace doors depicts the sea, land, and heavens, with their respective inhabitants. The Sun approaches and reaffirms to Phaeton that he is, indeed, his father. Unconvinced, Phaeton asks his father to prove it to him by allowing him to drive his father’s chariot and winged horses. The Sun pleads with Phaeton to ask for something else, but Phaeton is stubborn. The Sun tells Phaeton how to ride and rubs his face with sacred ointment to protect him from the heat.
As soon as Phaeton takes flight, his excitement changes to abject fear. He realizes that he is not able to control his father’s chariot. The earth suffers as he draws nearer. Moisture evaporates, mountain and forest are burned, rivers dry up, and the heat confines Neptune to the sea. The earth utters a lament, which is quickly silenced by heat and smoke. Jupiter sees what is going on and saves the day by hurling a thunderbolt at Phaeton, killing him. So devastated are Phaeton’s sisters that they are transformed into amber trees. Phaeton’s mother travels the world searching for her son’s remains to give him a proper burial. Meanwhile, Jupiter assesses the damage Phaeton’s flight did to the world. He pays special attention to his favorite place, Arcadia. He sees Callisto, a follower of Diana, and lust grips him.
Disguising himself as Diana, Jupiter rapes the unwilling Callisto. In nine months, Diana discovers Callisto’s condition and exiles her. Furious over her husband’s exploits, Juno turns Callisto into a bear. Fifteen years later, while Callisto is roaming the woods, she sees her son, Arcas. She longs to reach out to her son, but he sees her as a bear and stands ready to defend himself with a spear. Before Arcas unwittingly commits matricide, Jupiter transforms him and Callisto into constellations. The evidence of Jupiter’s adultery is now confirmed in the heavens. Enraged, Juno flies through the upper air in her peacock-driven chariot.
Ovid describes a conversation between a raven and a crow. The crow, who was once a beautiful princess, counsels the raven to remain quiet about what it knows, because loyalty does not pay off. Even if the raven knows that Apollo’s lover, Coronis, has been unfaithful, it should not divulge this to Apollo. The crow says it has learned this lesson in the hard way. Unconvinced, the raven reports Coronis’s infidelity to Apollo, who is so outraged that he kills Coronis with an arrow. Apollo regrets his act and punishes the raven by changing it from a white bird into a black one. In addition, Apollo saves the baby in Coronis’s womb and entrusts him to the centaur, Chiron, who is delighted to raise a child of Apollo. Chiron’s daughter, Ocyrhoe, who has the ability look into the future, prophesies that this child will bring great healing to the Roman people. After this prophecy, Ocyrhoe becomes a mare. Chiron seeks Apollo’s aid, but Apollo is nowhere to be found.
Mercury takes advantage of Apollo’s absence and steals his flock. As he does so, an Athenian maiden, Herse, steals his heart. Mercury fixes his hair, straightens his cloak, polishes his winged sandals, and washes his feet. He enlists Herse’s greedy sister, Aglauros, to help with his grooming efforts. Minerva sees what is happening and is angry with Aglauros. Minerva turns to Envy, who fills Aglauros with such great envy that she cannot bear the good fortune of anyone else and eventually turns into stone. Minerva gets her revenge, and Mercury fails to win Herse. Finally, Jupiter sends Mercury on a covert mission to set up another rape scene.
Throughout the Metamorphoses, Ovid stresses the importance of art. The story of Phaeton, the longest single episode of the Metamorphoses, opens with what scholars call an ekphrasis (a description of artwork). The doors of the palace, on which the art is engraved, portray a world of order and peace. The sea is peopled by melodious Triton and ever-changing Proteus; the land is full of cities, forests, men, and nymphs; and above these, the heavens gleam with the signs of the zodiac. It is a portrait of balance, peace, and harmony. The way this art is described in the narrative amounts to a critique of Phaeton’s character and a foreshadowing of the destruction he is about to rain down on the earth. Rather than have Phaeton admire the art, Ovid has the narrator describe it. In fact, he states explicitly that everything depicted on the door is new and foreign to Phaeton. If Phaeton had a single artistic bone in his body, Ovid suggests, he would appreciate the beauty of the orderly world shown in the art and would not risk driving the chariot. When he plunges toward the earth, Phaeton destroys the real version what the art represents.
Jupiter may save the day with his thunderbolt, but his heroics are almost immediately cancelled out by another rape scene. Ovid stresses that Callisto is an unwilling victim. He writes, “Whom can a girl fight and win? Who can fight against Jupiter and win” (II.436–437)? Moreover, Ovid does not suggest that Jupiter’s last-minute intervention to transform Callisto and her son into stars mitigates his guilt. While Jupiter does save Callisto from a bloody death and Arcas from killing his own mother, he robs them of their human existences to do so. He also immortalizes their conflict for eternity, making them into constellations of a bear and hunter that will be visible forever. Jupiter also comes off badly in this section in comparison with Phaeton. While Phaeton nearly destroys the world through selfish caprice, Jupiter’s recent intentional and total destruction of the world, which happened just one book earlier, seems much worse by comparison.
In this book, Ovid continues to highlight the comic elements of the stories he tells. Mercury’s efforts to impress Herse, which include sandal cleaning and feet washing, are amusing. Mercury is a god, but he is behaving like a smitten schoolboy. The scene is also comical because it includes a playful allusion to Ovid’s own work. Mercury attempts to win Herse in exactly the way Ovid recommends in Art of Love. The implication is that Mercury is familiar with Ovid’s work. Ovid is not merely plumping himself up by suggesting that even the gods need his advice. The episode turns self-deprecating; despite his good looks and careful preparation, Mercury fails, which suggests that Ovid’s advice is not worth much.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is remarkable for its great number of first-person narrators. Ovid loves storytelling, and he loves letting his characters tell stories. Rather than allow the omniscient narrator to explain what befalls Jupiter, Mercury, and the rest, Ovid allows his characters to speak. Out of the 11,995 total lines in the Metamorphoses, 4,422 consist of embedded tales. Ovid is often more interested in storytelling methods than he is in plot. At times, the poem seems to be driven by literary techniques, rather than content. Because technique rather than plot moves the poem forward, summaries of the Metamorphoses can seem disjointed. No summary can adequately convey why one tale precedes or follows another. For example, it is not immediately obvious why Ovid places the story of the raven and the crow where he does. But the story’s seemingly illogical placement shows off Ovid’s technique. The tale of the raven and crow frames the story of Apollo and Coronis, which in turn casts light on the story of the crow’s own transformation.
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