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always, you must wait to see the end of a person, and no one ought
to be called blessed until he dies and his funeral is over.
This quotation, from III.135–138,
comes after Cadmus’s victory over the serpent and his miraculous
founding of Thebes. It expresses a dark sentiment, and its inclusion
in the midst of Cadmus’s successes reminds us that happiness, prosperity,
and good fortune may not last. Present blessings do not guarantee
future prosperity. Ovid packs two meanings into this quotation.
First, he suggests that we should wait until people have died to
assess their lives, since disasters might befall them at the last
minute. But the phrase “no one ought to be called blessed until
he dies” has another, bleaker meaning. It suggests that we are better
off dead and in our graves than alive and subject to the gods’ whims.
This certainly proves true in Cadmus’s case. In Books III and IV,
horrors are rained down on Cadmus’s family. Actaeon turns into a
deer and is savagely torn apart by his own dogs; Semele is killed
by Jupiter in the act of copulation; Pentheus is ripped to pieces
by his own mother and aunt; Athamas bashes his grandson’s head into
a rock and chases his last daughter, Ino, and her son over a cliff;
and Cadmus and his wife are turned into snakes. Neither is Cadmus’s
life exceptionally dreadful. The extent of the devastation is unusual,
but most of the mortals in the poem suffer similar fates.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Metamorphoses!