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As Eurydice is walking through the grass, a viper bites her foot, killing her. Orpheus travels to the underworld to ask Proserpina and Pluto to give back his wife. Orpheus’s song causes the harsh Fates to shed their first tears. Proserpina and Pluto agree to grant Orpheus’s request on the condition that he does not look back at his wife as they leave the underworld. Orpheus starts his ascent but, worried about Eurydice, looks back at her. This time, she is lost for good. Orpheus grieves and begins to sing. He sings of the love of boys. Jupiter transforms himself into a bird and snatches the boy Ganymede into heaven. Apollo loves the boy Hyacinthus, with whom he competes in throwing discs. Apollo accidentally strikes Hyacinthus in the face, killing him.
Orpheus sings of the lusts of women. The Propoetides are the first to prostitute themselves, for which Venus punishes them by turning them to stone. Pygmalion witnesses these actions and is repulsed by women’s immorality. He fashions his own perfect women from ivory. The statue is so lifelike that he falls in love with it. He dresses it, kisses it, and prays to the gods for a woman like the ivory statue. The gods hear his prayer, and to Pygmalion’s surprise, the statue comes alive. She bears Pygmalion a daughter, Paphos, who in turn bears a son, Cinyras.
Cinyras has a beautiful daughter named Myrrha, who is courted by princes from all over the world. However, Myrrha is in love with her father. Although she is agonized over her feelings, Myrrha tricks her father into sleeping with her for several nights. Cinyras discovers the deception and seeks to kill Myrrha. Now pregnant, Myrrha escapes and turns into a tree. Eventually she bears a beautiful son, Adonis.
Cupid accidentally pricks his mother, Venus, with one of his arrows, and she falls in love with Adonis. She prefers him even to heaven. She tells a story of Atalanta, a speedy woman whom an oracle has advised to avoid marriage. Hippomenes wants to marry Atalanta. She challenges him to a race. If he wins, she will marry him. If he loses, he will die. Before the start of the race, Venus gives Hippomenes three golden apples with which to distract Atalanta during the race. Hippomenes defeats Atalanta but fails to thank Venus for her help, so she turns him and Hippomenes into lions. After the story ends, Adonis goes hunting, and a boar gouges him to death. Venus mourns.
Ovid’s story of Orpheus and Eurydice is in conversation with Virgil’s account of it in the Georgics. Ovid fills in details Virgil leaves out and leaves out the details Virgil includes. Unlike Virgil, Ovid adds a wedding, Orpheus’s encounter with Pluto and Proserpina, and the effect of Orpheus’s song on the inhabitants of the underworld. Ovid’s additions not only harmonize and interact with Virgil’s story, but they also place a new emphasis on the power of Orpheus’s art. With his song, Orpheus achieves the impossible feat of calling his wife back from the dead. Eurydice remains in the underworld not because Orpheus’s art is flawed but because he is human and therefore flawed himself. He looks back out of natural concern for his wife. Despite this setback, Orpheus eventually succeeds when, later in the poem, he rejoins Eurydice in the underworld.
Ovid portrays Pygmalion as the literary twin of Orpheus. Through the story of Pygmalion, he foreshadows Orpheus’s reunion with Eurydice. He draws parallels between the two men. Just as Orpheus loses the love of his life, Pygmalion loses his love for women after witnessing the Propoetides selling their bodies. Just as Orpheus seeks to regain his woman through the use of song, Pygmalion attempts to regain his love for women by fashioning an ideal one from ivory. Orpheus’s art succeeds brilliantly, as does Pygmalion’s. In this book, Orpheus fails and Pygmalion succeeds. Orpheus loses his wife, but Pygmalion gains his. However, Pygmalion’s success here foreshadows Orpheus’s eventual success.
In the story of Myrrha’s love for her father, Cinyras, Ovid emphasizes the importance and power of language. He suggests that Myrrha’s fate is determined partly by her inability to find the right language to describe her desire for her father. In a soliloquy, she asks herself, “Do you not know how many laws and name you are confusing?” (X. 345) The implication is that if Myrrha could give a name to her feelings, she could control them.
Venus’s love for Adonis shows that even the goddess of love is not exempt from love’s power to destroy. She has no control over her own domain. She loves with the passion of a mortal, and she suffers with the desperation of a mortal. When Adonis dies on a hunting trip, Venus grieves passionately. If the more deeply one loves, the more deeply one experiences pain when the love object is removed, perhaps Venus, goddess of love, suffers more than anyone else in the poem.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Metamorphoses!