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.