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Rather than worship Bacchus, the three daughters of Minyas weave, telling stories to pass the time. The first (unnamed) daughter tells a tale of forbidden love. Pyramus and Thisbe fall in love. Their fathers oppose the match, so they decide to run away together. Thisbe arrives first at their meeting place, but she flees when she sees a lioness approaching. Pyramus finds the tracks of a lioness and Thisbe’s shawl. Believing that Thisbe is dead, Pyramus thrusts his sword into his belly, killing himself. Thisbe returns, sees what has happened, and kills herself.
Leuconoe, the second daughter, tells another love story. After being tipped off by the Sun, Vulcan catches his wife, Venus, having an affair with Mars. Furious at the Sun for gossiping to Vulcan, Venus makes him fall in love with Leucothoe. Leucothoe and the Sun have an affair. The Sun’s wife, Clytie, finds out and tells Leucothoe’s father what is going on. Leucothoe is buried alive and dies. The Sun turns her into frankincense, a plant.
Alcithoe, the third daughter, tells the final love story. The sexually adventurous Salmacis desires Hermaphroditus, but he spurns her. She grabs him when he jumps into her pool, and she prays to the gods to make them one. The gods answer her prayer by making Hermaphroditus become soft and feminine. Salmacis’s nature becomes part of him. At the end of these stories, the devotees of Bacchus draw near, and Bacchus turns the three sisters into bats for their impiety.
The narrative returns to the house of Cadmus. Juno hates Cadmus’s daughter, Ino, for her devotion to Bacchus. Juno enlists the help of the Furies, who make Athamas, Ino’s husband, insane. Believing his wife to be a lioness and his children to be cubs, Athamas bashes the head of one of his children against a rock. Ino jumps off a cliff with her other child. At Venus’s request, Neptune transforms Ino and her child into sea deities. When Cadmus learns of this new tragedy, he leaves his city and prays to the gods to transform him into a serpent. He gets his wish. His wife is also changed. They slither away.
We now meet Perseus. Instead of flying during the night, he stops in Atlas’s kingdom. Atlas reacts with hostility, because an ancient prophecy has him worried that Perseus will plunder his riches. Perseus’s strength is no match for Atlas’s, so he turns Atlas to stone using Medusa’s head. Perseus takes to the air again. He sees Andromeda chained to a rock as an offering to a sea monster. Perseus descends, strikes a deal with Andromeda’s parents, and uses Medusa’s head to petrify the monster. Perseus marries Andromeda.
As the sisters literally weave, they figuratively weave stories of unfulfilled love. While their love stories feature different kinds of people, they all center on frustrated longing. The two young lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, are separated in life by the objections of their families. They come together only when it is too late, in death. The Sun, who loves Leucothoe, can do nothing to save her from being buried alive. He can turn her into a plant, giving her a sort of rebirth, but that is cold comfort. Salmacis’s love for Narcissus is one-sided. Even when the gods fulfill her request, they do so in an unexpected and unwanted way. Melding her with Narcissus actually prohibits the kind of love she desires.
When Ovid returns to the story of Cadmus’s household after several intervening stories, it suggests that divine wrath is unrelenting. What the gods start, they will finish. They decided to destroy Cadmus’s family, and they will do so. Ino’s downfall seems particularly unfair. She is a zealous worshipper of the gods in general and Bacchus in particular. She suffers not for her own sins, but for Jupiter’s. Juno does not hate Ino in particular. Rather, she hates Ino’s enthusiastic worship of Bacchus, who is the fruit of one of Jupiter’s extramarital affairs. Ino’s punishment is not only unfair, but also bloody, cruel, and ironic. Bacchus inspires madness, and Ino, his zealous follower, is killed by her maddened husband. The story of Cadmus comes full circle: He witnesses the last of his line fall, and he becomes a serpent, the very beast he killed to establish Thebes. This tidy ending points to the thorough, methodical way in which the gods exercise their wrath.
With the introduction of Perseus, Ovid shifts directions, moving away from tragedy and toward comedy. Perseus is no hero. Rather, he is a cautious man who is afraid to fly at night. His fight with Atlas is less than impressive. It doesn’t feature punches or hand-to-hand combat. In truth, it doesn’t feature danger. Knowing he cannot hope to defeat Atlas fairly, Perseus resorts to his secret weapon: the head of Medusa. He is equally unheroic in his battle with the sea monster. Only after settling on a contract with Andromeda’s parents does he engage in battle. Again, the fight is anticlimactic. Defeating the sea monster by his own hand is impossible, so Perseus again whips out Medusa’s head. He may resemble a savvy, meek businessman more than he resembles a mighty hero, but Perseus’s sneaky tactics work.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Metamorphoses!