Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Book VII

Summary

Jason appears before King Aeetes of Colchis to demand the Golden Fleece. Aeetes will give it to him only if he completes certain feats. Medea, who knows her father and the dangers that await Jason, is torn. She knows she should be loyal to her father, but she cannot deny the passion she feels for Jason. Jason promises to marry her in exchange for her help, and Medea uses her knowledge of magic to aid him. Jason succeeds and obtains the Golden Fleece. Jason asks Medea to transfer some of his strength to his aging father, Aeson. Moved by this request, Medea does something even better. She returns Aeson to youthfulness with her magic.

Pretending that she has been fighting with her husband, Medea seeks refuge in the palace of the aged Pelias. She says she could revive him as she revived Aeson and demonstrates her power on an old sheep. Pelias’s daughters ask Medea give their father youth. Medea tells them to cut their father with knives to empty him of old blood. The daughters cannot bear the sight of knives in their father’s flesh, so they strike blindly and unintentionally kill him. Medea flees and finds refuge in Athens until she must flee again following the attempted murder of the king’s son, Theseus.

Minos is seeking allies for a military campaign against Athens. He wants Aeacus, the king of Aegina, to help him, but Aeacus is loyal to Athens. He explains that his land recently suffered a catastrophic plague. Aeacus asked Jupiter either to take away his life or to restore his people. That night he dreamed that he was under a sacred tree covered with numerous industrious ants. The next night, in the midst of a similar dream, he woke up to see a group of men called the Myrmidons hailing him as their leader.

Cephalus tells Phocus, the son of Aeacus, about his wife, Procris. He says the goddess Aurora abducted him during a hunting expedition but let him go when she saw his love for Procris. She said he would regret his choice, which made Cephalus doubt his wife’s fidelity. To test her, he donned a disguise and tried to seduce her. She failed the test and exiled herself in shame and anger. Cephalus asked for forgiveness, and they repaired the relationship. One day, Cephalus called upon the breeze to refresh him. However, some unnamed person wrongly believed that he was calling to a nymph named Breeze. This person told Procris, who decided to spy on Cephalus during one of his hunting trips. Cephalus mistook her for an animal and slew her with his golden-tipped spear.

Analysis

Book VII contains the first soliloquy, and the first subtle psychological struggle, in the Metamorphoses. Medea, who delivers the soliloquy, paves the way for the private ruminations of Scylla (VIII.4480), Byblis (IX.487516), Myrrha (X.320355), and Atalanta (X.611635). Medea’s speech is remarkable for its clarity and wisdom. First, she names her condition, saying that she is falling in love. Second, she identifies the two competing sides of the conflict: her desire to be faithful to her father and her urge to betray him by helping Jason. She picks out the right course of action, saying she knows she should be loyal to her father. Then, in a compelling display of self-awareness, she says, “I clearly know what the better way is and I know that it is right, but I will follow the worse way” (VII.2021). While passion drives Medea, she is aware that it drives her. Her ability to analyze herself sets her apart from a character like Tereus, whose emotions control him utterly. It also sets her apart from the gods, whose total confidence that everything they do is right prevents them from thinking critically about their behavior or trying to understand their own motivations. Medea’s rationality is not just impressive; it is also frightening. She never strikes out blindly in a fit of temper. She considers her behavior first. Because they are planned, her cruel deeds are scarier than the spontaneously cruel deeds of other characters.

Ovid invites his readers to compare his account of a plague with the accounts created by his predecessors, writers such as Thucydides, Lucretius, and Virgil. Rather than slavishly imitating his literary forebears, Ovid uses the setting of the plague as a backdrop for a story of metamorphosis on a grand scale. The deaths of the people of Aegina become the occasion for transformation and life, as industrious ants are shifted from figments in Aeacus’s dreams to hardened soldiers. Ovid may have lifted this idea from Virgil’s Georgics, one section of which juxtaposes a story of a plague with a story of bees that are miraculously generated from the carcass of an animal. Ovid may draw inspiration from Virgil, but he does him one better. In Virgil, death is transformed into bees. In Ovid, death is transformed into warriors.