Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Study Questions

1

What do Minerva’s and Arachne’s tapestries tell us about the women’s perspectives?

The images, themes, and organization of Minerva’s and Arachne’s tapestries are strikingly different. Minerva’s tapestry is an orderly work that depicts the majesty of the gods and the lowliness of humans. In the center of her tapestry, the gods sit in august solemnity. In the corners, they punish various humans by turning them into animals. The symmetry and orderliness of the work reflects its theme of divine grandeur. In contrast, Arachne’s work depicts the gods as deceitful and humans as their victims. In Arachne’s tapestry, it is the gods rather than the mortals who turn into animals. The gods in her work take the guise of animals to rape humans. The chaotic nature of Arachne’s tapestry reflects the messiness caused by divine exploitation. Minerva’s and Arachne’s perspectives are entirely different. Yet the result of the contest allows both women to hang onto their opposite points of view. From Minerva’s perspective, transforming Arachne into a spider is simply what the gods in her tapestry would do. She is punishing a mortal by turning her into a beast. For Arachne, however, being turned into a spider is evidence of the kind of godly cruelty depicted in her tapestry.

2

Should we consider Orpheus a failed artist?

Orpheus is known as an artist of surpassing skill. Using his art, he manages incredible feats, such as convincing Dis and Proserpina to give back his dead love, Eurydice. Still, we might argue that he is a failure. He loses his wife for a second time by looking back at her, after which he spins into a depression, rejecting women, arguing in favor of homosexual love, and singing songs in solitude. His art does not save him from death: Wild Thracian women drown out his music and mutilate his body. But if Orpheus can be called a failure, he cannot be called an artistic failure. True, he lost Eurydice for the second time. But his art succeeded in persuading Dis and Proserpina to give her back. Only his love for her caused him to lose her. In addition, the remarkable power of Orpheus’s songs speaks to his talent. The stories he tells in Books X and XI are some of the loveliest and most memorable in the poem. And like a true artist, Orpheus goes to his death still working. Ovid suggests that no matter what happens to Orpheus’s body, the songs he creates will live on. Not only do his creations survive him, but in death, Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice. Orpheus’s art allows him to triumph over death itself, which suggests that he is anything but a failed artist.

3

Why should Ulysses, rather than Ajax, win Achilles’ arms?

In one way, Ajax deserves the arms of Achilles. Arms and weaponry belong to soldiers, and besides Achilles, there is no greater solider than Ajax. Apart from Ajax’s professional claim on the arms, there is the fact that Ulysses does not need them. His own arms are in perfect condition, and Achilles’ are too big for him. Yet the artistry of Achilles’ arms, particularly the shield, gives Ulysses a claim to them. The shield, on which Vulcan has engraved the entire world, is the original ekphrasis (description of a visual piece of art) in Western literature. It is an important work of art that should not be damaged by warfare. The possessor of the shield should be someone who can truly appreciate it. Ajax cannot; Ulysses can. While the utilitarian purpose of the arms makes them Ajax’s rightful property, their artistic qualities make them Ulysses’.