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Phineus, the former fiancé of Andromeda, bursts into Perseus and Andromeda’s wedding banquet to contest the marriage. Phineus hurls his spear at Perseus but misses. Perseus retaliates, and a melee ensues. At one point, over a thousand men surround Perseus. He turns them to stone by pulling out Medusa’s head. Phineus pleads for his life, and Perseus promises that he will not touch him with his sword. He technically keeps his word but petrifies him with Medusa’s head.
Minerva visits the virgin Muses and the spring, which Pegasus created with his hoof. The Muses begin to tell Minerva about Pyrenus, a wild Thracian man, who invited them into his house. While they are talking, the sound of nine magpies fills the air. The Muses explain that these birds were once human sisters, the nine daughters of Pierus. They challenged the Muses to a contest of song, and the Muses reluctantly accepted. The Pierides sang first, telling a story that cast the Olympian gods in a negative light. Calliope alone sang on the Muses’ behalf.
Calliope sang of Venus and Cupid, who made Dis fall in love with Proserpina. As Proserpina picks violets in a grove, Dis rapes her and then takes her to his underworld kingdom. Cyane, a nymph of Sicily, sees the crime, but all she can do is weep. Her tears make her part of the spring she inhabited. Ceres, Prosperpina’s mother, searches everywhere for her daughter. When she comes to Cyane’s spring, Cyane manages to convey what happened. The rich soil of Sicily feels Ceres’ wrath. Arethusa, a sacred spring, explains to Ceres that Dis, not the earth, is to blame. After grieving, Ceres speaks to Jupiter. Initially, Jupiter says that Dis raped Proserpina out of love, and that Proserpina married well. The brother of Jupiter is no insignificant son-in-law. Jupiter says that if Ceres still wants Proserpina back, she may have her, as long as Proserpina has not eaten anything from the underworld. Proserpina has eaten something, so Jupiter offers a compromise. Proserpina will divide her time equally between Dis and Ceres.
Arethusa tells Ceres she was transformed from a nymph into a sacred spring to escape Alpheus, a river god. Ceres takes flight in her serpent-driven chariot and gives Triptolemus seeds that cause great fruitfulness. Triptolemus travels to the kingdom of Scythia bearing this gift. The king of the land, Lyncus, is jealous and seeks to kill Triptolemus and steal his seeds. Ceres intervenes and turns Lyncus into a lynx.
At this point, Calliope ended her song, and the nymphs declared her victorious. But even in defeat, the Pierides showed such contempt that the Muses turned them into magpies.
In narrating the battle that breaks out at the wedding banquet, Ovid draws attention to the dissimilarities between himself and his literary predecessors, Homer and Virgil. Whereas those writers make much of men clashing in competition for a woman, Ovid pointedly refuses to do so. Instead of mimicking the grandeur and pomp of, for example, Odysseus’s battle with suitors for Penelope, or Aeneas’s battle with Turnus for Amata, Ovid turns his battle scene into a near farce.
The first spear thrown misses its target, setting the comic tone. As the battle rages on, the comedy broadens into something approaching slapstick. More spears are misfired, people slip and fall, others are struck by errant blows, and the battle climaxes with an unheroic gesture. Once again, in what is becoming a running joke, Perseus turns to Medusa’s head when the going gets tough. When Perseus petrifies his thousand opponents (and at least one of his own men), it further undercuts the solemnity of traditional battle scenes. If Perseus always had the ability to defeat all of his enemies at once, the tussling that just happened was meaningless. Perseus caps the frivolous battle by cruelly mistreating Phineus, deceiving him in a way that runs utterly counter to heroic code.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the real battles do not involve men such as Perseus, but artists and musicians. In Book V, the significant contest is the song competition between the Pierides and the Muses. By placing the song contest so close to the wedding banquet fight, Ovid playfully points out how, to him, a battle of two epic poems is of far more interest than a battle of two men and their allies. Ovid is not just tweaking convention or playing with our expectations; he is also serious about the importance of poetry. Men’s lives are at stake during the wedding banquet battle, but the stakes are arguably higher for the Pierides and the Muses. In their contest, at issue is the right to control poetry itself.
Calliope sings with the prowess of a skilled fighter. The mere length of her song shows her superiority. Whereas the Pierides’ poem is only thirteen lines long, Calliope’s is over 300 lines. Furthermore, the structure of Calliope’s poem demonstrates her mastery of poetic forms and discourse. Calliope’s choice of topic shows her wisdom and sensitivity. As nymphs, the judges are predisposed to be moved by Proserpina’s story, since nymphs are frequently victims of rape. In addition to winning the judge’s sympathy, Calliope flatters them. In her poem, Ceres only manages to find Proserpina thanks to the heroic acts of two nymphs. The nymph Cyane tries to stop Dis and then tells Ceres that her daughter has been raped, and the nymph Arethusa provides Ceres with information about what actually happened to her daughter. Ovid shows his respect for artistic talent like Calliope’s by replicating her sophisticated storytelling technique. The dialogue between the Muses and Minerva contains no fewer than three embedded stories.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Metamorphoses!