Thursday, February 29, 2024

Metamorphoses, cantos 7 through 10 - more Heroides, more gore, more of everything - What meen my dreames then? what effect have dreames?

Metamorphoses is fluid, quick, and ever-changing.  Let’s look at cantos VII through X, which have their share of famous stories, stories famous, or as famous as they are, because of Metamorphoses.  Venus and Adonis, Baucis and Philemon, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pygmalion.  Icarus – I can’t read the Icarus story without Breughel’s painting in my mind, and perhaps even Auden’s poem about the painting.  The episode is now layered with art, as are those other stories – Shakespeare, Gluck, Shaw, and so many others.

Plus these cantos contain the Medea story at length and quite a lot of Hercules.  Large parts of these stories will still be fresh and perhaps overpowered a bit by the versions by Euripides, major sources for Ovid.

A funny case is the hunt for the Calydonian boar, the second all-star team-up in Greek mythology after the Argonauts, in canto VIII.  My understanding is that based on surviving titles the Calydonian boar and the soap opera among the various heroes was a popular source for Athenian playwrights, second to Homer as a source of plots, but none of those plays have survived, nor have any epic poems on the subject.  Our main source is now Ovid, who treats the heroes with contempt, disemboweling them or running them up trees:

And Naestor to have lost his life was like by fortune ere

The siege of Troie, but that he tooke his rist upon his speare:

And leaping quickly up a tree that stoode hard by,

Did safely from the place behold his foe whom he did flie…  (Golding, 205)

Or how about Telamon, an Argonaut, and the father of Ajax:

                   … whom taking to his feete

No heede at all for egernesse, a Maple roote did meete,

Which tripped up his heeles, and flat against the ground him laide. (206)

Some heroics.  So although Jason and Theseus are in the hunting party, most of these heroes are second-stringers, fathers of the better-known characters in the Iliad.  Nestor will return in Canto XII, telling stories to the Iliad heroes, including one even more gory than the boar hunt.  Ovid is brilliant in his repetitions.

Ovid’s details, his mix of big and small, are marvels.  Baucis and Philemon are the kind old couple who feed the gods, in disguise, when their selfish neighbors will not:

… the trembling old lady set the table,

correcting its imbalance with a potsherd

slipped underneath the shortest of its legs;

and when the table had been stabilized,

she scrubbed its surface clean with fragrant mint.  (Martin, VIII, 291)

Everyone who writes about this scene mentions the potsherd, because it is delightful. But Metamorphoses is full of such things.

I’ll end today by noting the continuity of Metamorphoses with Ovid’s earlier, youthful Heroides.  He often gives his heroines monologues, or sometimes even letters  Medea, who was in Heroides, has a great one at the beginning of Canto VII.  Atalanta has one in Canto X. The incestuous Byblis writes an impassioned letter to her brother that could almost be a monologue in a grim John Webster play, except that the lines have too many syllables:

What meen my dreames then? what effect have dreames? And may there bee

Effect in dreames?  The Gods are farre in better case than wee.

For why?  The Gods have matched with theyr susters as wee see.  (Golding, IX, 239)

Maybe I can blast through the last five cantos this weekend.


  1. Thanks to you, I have become obsessed with Ovid. I'm reading Amores at the moment and am already planning a reread of Metamorphoses. I'm so glad I found this site. I've had a wonderful few years reading the Greek plays and Ovid. Ovid is wonderful and I think underrread and therefore underrated,

  2. All right, you have inspired me to finally, after much delay, some of which (an ice storm) was not my fault, to write up a last post. Many, many thanks!

    You also inspired me to read Ovid's poetry of exile, ongoing. I believe you would like it a lot. In David Slavitt's translation, at least, the Tristia is full of Ovid's personality.