As its title suggests, Metamorphoses is an exploration of transformations of all kinds, from the pedestrian and obvious to the literary and oblique. Some of the metamorphoses are straightforwardly literal: Diana turns Actaeon into a deer, for example, or Juno changes Callisto into a bear. Others are more metaphorical and subtle. Many metamorphoses clarify and highlight an essential quality of the transformed person. When Jupiter turns Lycaon into a wolf, he is responding to Lycaon’s bloodthirsty, wolfish character. Other metamorphoses are still subtler. Pentheus’s transformation, for example, is figurative. His mother and aunt hunt him down not because he is actually an animal but because they perceive him as one. The worship of Bacchus morphs the women’s mindsets, rather than Pentheus’s body. Ovid suggests that subtle or figurative transformations can be just as dangerous as literal ones. Pentheus may not have transformed, but he is torn to shreds nonetheless.
Ovid suggests that only art enables people to transcend suffering. He condemns those characters who do not appreciate or cannot create art and praises those who do. Phaeton, for example, is a philistine who does not appreciate the splendid art that decorates the Sun’s palace doors. The same immaturity and poor judgment that blind Phaeton to the beauty of art prevent him from comprehending the danger of his flight. His flight not only destroys him, but it also nearly destroys the whole world, which suggests that lack of artistry can damage others, not just one’s self. Most of the key characters in the Metamorphoses display the kind of artistic merit that Phaeton lacks. Daedalus escapes his prison in Crete by creating wings. Philomela escapes her literal prison and the metaphorical prison of her speechlessness by embroidering a message. Pygmalion creates an ivory statue so lovely and accurate that it comes to life. Ulysses defeats Ajax’s brawn by deploying the art of rhetoric. Ovid puts himself in the same class as his artistic characters. In the last lines of the poem, he states that he will escape the misery of death by living on forever in his artistic creation, the Metamorphoses.
In Ovid’s work, love almost never leads to a happy ending. Male gods usually express their love for female mortals by raping them. Io, Callisto, and Semele, among many others, suffer from the gods’ violent expressions of love. Male mortals treat the objects of their affection in a similarly brutal way, abducting, raping, and mutilating them. Pelias ties up Thetis to rape her. Tereus repeatedly rapes Philomela and then cuts out her tongue. When women love men, their passion often causes them to betray their fathers, families, and cities. Medea’s love for Jason leads her to turn against her father and her home. Scylla’s love for Minos inspires her to scalp her father and betray her people to a foreign army. Women’s incestuous love for their male relatives, such as Byblis’s love for her brother, Caunus, or Myrrha’s love for her father, Cinyras, reliably ends in disaster. Socially acceptable love, such as the love between Pyramus and Thisbe, is no guarantee of happiness. Pyramus and Thisbe wind up as a double suicide. Ovid emphasizes the disastrous quality of all romances by showing that even the goddess of love, Venus, is powerless to find lasting happiness.