As its title suggests, Metamorphoses is an exploration of transformations of all kinds, from the pedestrian and obvious to the literary and oblique. Some of the metamorphoses are straightforwardly literal: Diana turns Actaeon into a deer, for example, or Juno changes Callisto into a bear. Others are more metaphorical and subtle. Many metamorphoses clarify and highlight an essential quality of the transformed person. When Jupiter turns Lycaon into a wolf, he is responding to Lycaon’s bloodthirsty, wolfish character. Other metamorphoses are still subtler. Pentheus’s transformation, for example, is figurative. His mother and aunt hunt him down not because he is actually an animal but because they perceive him as one. The worship of Bacchus morphs the women’s mindsets, rather than Pentheus’s body. Ovid suggests that subtle or figurative transformations can be just as dangerous as literal ones. Pentheus may not have transformed, but he is torn to shreds nonetheless.
Ovid suggests that only art enables people to transcend suffering. He condemns those characters who do not appreciate or cannot create art and praises those who do. Phaeton, for example, is a philistine who does not appreciate the splendid art that decorates the Sun’s palace doors. The same immaturity and poor judgment that blind Phaeton to the beauty of art prevent him from comprehending the danger of his flight. His flight not only destroys him, but it also nearly destroys the whole world, which suggests that lack of artistry can damage others, not just one’s self. Most of the key characters in the Metamorphoses display the kind of artistic merit that Phaeton lacks. Daedalus escapes his prison in Crete by creating wings. Philomela escapes her literal prison and the metaphorical prison of her speechlessness by embroidering a message. Pygmalion creates an ivory statue so lovely and accurate that it comes to life. Ulysses defeats Ajax’s brawn by deploying the art of rhetoric. Ovid puts himself in the same class as his artistic characters. In the last lines of the poem, he states that he will escape the misery of death by living on forever in his artistic creation, the Metamorphoses.
In Ovid’s work, love almost never leads to a happy ending. Male gods usually express their love for female mortals by raping them. Io, Callisto, and Semele, among many others, suffer from the gods’ violent expressions of love. Male mortals treat the objects of their affection in a similarly brutal way, abducting, raping, and mutilating them. Pelias ties up Thetis to rape her. Tereus repeatedly rapes Philomela and then cuts out her tongue. When women love men, their passion often causes them to betray their fathers, families, and cities. Medea’s love for Jason leads her to turn against her father and her home. Scylla’s love for Minos inspires her to scalp her father and betray her people to a foreign army. Women’s incestuous love for their male relatives, such as Byblis’s love for her brother, Caunus, or Myrrha’s love for her father, Cinyras, reliably ends in disaster. Socially acceptable love, such as the love between Pyramus and Thisbe, is no guarantee of happiness. Pyramus and Thisbe wind up as a double suicide. Ovid emphasizes the disastrous quality of all romances by showing that even the goddess of love, Venus, is powerless to find lasting happiness.
Although the gods of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a violent, capricious bunch, the punishments they mete out are not entirely random. In general, the gods penalize wickedness and reward piety. Ovid sets the tone in Book I, in which the gods punish Lycaon, an impious man who tries to kill Jupiter in his sleep, and reward Deucalion and Pyrrha, two models of piety. Later, Bacchus punishes the daughters of Minyas and Pentheus for refusing to worship him, Minerva punishes Arachne for her unyielding heart, and Latona punishes Niobe for her boasting. Jupiter rewards Baucis and Philemon for their generous hospitality. Even when the gods are not involved, punishment usually falls on the wicked, and rewards on the pious. Tereus is paid back for raping his wife’s sister and cutting out her tongue when he unwittingly eats his own son and is transformed into a bird. And Iphis’s piety is rewarded when she is changed into a young man so that she might marry Ianthe, a Greek maiden.
Among other things, the Metamorphoses is a collection of stories and stories within stories. Ovid plays with many narratives that would have been familiar to his audience, such as the Trojan War, Ulysses’ travels, and Aeneas’s founding of Rome. He takes these narratives as a starting point and then reverses our expectations or stresses a surprising aspect of a familiar tale. Ovid’s narrator is not the only, or even the primary, storyteller. He often hands the reins to other characters. There are also embedded stories, which means that characters within these characters’ stories tell their own tales. In fact, roughly a third of the Metamorphoses consists of embedded stories. We hear from a diverse group of characters, including men, women, gods, nymphs, and even animals. No one perspective is dominant or consistent. Even within the same story, the perspectives of different characters can conflict with each other. With his varied storytelling techniques, Ovid achieves a kaleidoscopic effect.
The loss of speech, a frequent byproduct of metamorphosis, stands for the loss of identity and life. In Ovid’s poem, to speak is to be alive and to create one’s reality. Characters like Orpheus and Ulysses survive and triumph solely because of their powers of rhetoric. When characters are transformed and can no longer speak, they are often doomed to death. On a literal level, characters like Callisto and Actaeon are susceptible to disasters that could have been averted through speech. Callisto cannot pray to the gods for help, and Actaeon cannot call off his hunting dogs. On a metaphorical level, the loss of speech erases one’s identity and makes death inevitable. When characters can no longer express themselves, they no longer have a way of existing in the world. Only those characters who find an alternate way of communicating have any hope of survival. Philomela may lose her voice, but she saves herself, at least for a time, by devising a new way to speak. Ovid suggests that those who speak live, and those who do not die.