Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Book VIII

Summary

Minos attacks the city of Alcathous, which is ruled by Nisus. During the siege, Scylla, the daughter of Nisus, falls in love with Minos. She scalps her father to give his power, contained in a lock of purple hair, to Minos. Minos is horrified by her betrayal. He decides to impose the fairest terms on the defeated city, and he leaves. Scylla angrily purses Minos’s ship but is thwarted by her father, Nisus, who is now an osprey. Scylla turns into a bird. Back in Crete, Minos orders Daedalus to build a labyrinth to conceal the Minotaur, the shameful product of a union between Minos’s mother and a bull. Daedalus complies but is not happy to be in exile. He builds wings so that he and his son, Icarus, may fly away. Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax that holds the wings together melts, and Icarus falls to his death.

After Theseus’s victory over the Minotaur, his fame spreads, and the Calydonians appeal to him for help in slaughtering a boar that has terrorized their land. Many exalted heroes join the hunt for the boar, but the chase goes badly. Echion wounds a maple tree, Jason overshoots, Nestor has to pole-vault to escape death by pig, and Telamon trips over a root. At last a women warrior, Atalanta, grazes the boar’s back. Meleager deals the death blow, but he wants the honor of the hunt to go to Atalanta. This angers the men, especially the uncles of Meleager—Plexippus and Toxeus. After a fight, Meleager kills his two uncles. Althaea, Meleager’s mother, is outraged by the death of her brothers. She remembers an old prophecy that as long as a certain log is not consumed by fire, Meleager will live. After debating what to do, Althaea decides to throw the log into the fire. As the log burns, Meleager’s life fades away.

On his way to Athens, Theseus stays with Achelous. They men share several stories of metamorphoses. Achelous says that the islands in the distance used to be naiads. He transformed them as punishment for failing to invite him to a banquet. Pirithous, one of Theseus’s men, is skeptical about the story. Lexes, an older man, tells a story about Jupiter and Mercury assuming human disguise. They knocked on a thousand doors, and everyone turned them away except Baucis and Philemon, who, despite their poverty, offered the disguised gods food and drink. When the wine failed to run out, they realized who their guests were. Jupiter and Mercury granted them their wish to be priests of Jupiter and to live and die together.

Achelous tells a story about Erysichthon, a man with no regard for the gods. He chopped down a sacred tree for no reason, persisting even when the tree groaned in pain. Ceres called on Hunger to strike him. A powerful urge to eat gripped Erysichthon. He sold his daughter into slavery to pay for more food and eventually consumed mouthfuls of his own flesh, killing himself.

Analysis

The Metamorphoses almost never depicts love affairs or loving relationships that end happily. Rather, Ovid argues that love creates great pain. His character Scylla suffers the torment of unfulfilled love, or as one scholar puts it, “frustrated female libido.” Althaea’s familial love puts her between her son, Meleager, and her brothers. Both Scylla and Althaea find themselves pulled in two directions by love. Moreover, they must choose only one course of action. For Scylla, the correct path is clear, but she does not take it. Instead, love leads her to scalp her father in a wild bid to gain the favor of Minos. Althaea, in contrast, has no obvious course of action. She loves both her son, Meleager, and her slain brothers. However, love for her brothers (and the familiar thirst for revenge) leads her to kill Meleager.

With the story of Daedalus, Ovid develops the theme of the power of art. We have seen that art enables artists to express themselves, communicate, and relieve their pain. In this book, Daedalus demonstrates art’s nearly magical properties. By deploying his creative powers, Daedalus accomplishes the impossible. He masters land, sea, and air—in a word, he masters nature. However, Ovid stresses that art is as dangerous as it is powerful. Those who use it without mastery may harm themselves and others. Icarus, for example, does not understand his father’s creation, and as a result he plummets to a watery death. Even a master may be hurt by his creations. While Daedalus saves himself, he still loses his son. His art is the cause of his broken heart.