The poem begins with the promise that we will hear how "bodies are changed into different bodies." Ovid then summons the gods, asking them to reveal how the world was created and to aid him in his task. He says that first there was something we can call Chaos: darkness and formlessness. Then, a powerful being divides the chaos into substance. He creates earth and all of its waters, then its land masses, forests, and weather. He creates the winds and gives each a region of the earth to rule over, then he create the stars. After this he creates sentient life: everything from the gods in the heavens to the fish in the rivers. Everything, that is, except man, whose origin is disputed: either man came to be as a superior being to animals, or Prometheus sculpted man out of the clays of the earth.
At first men live in a Gold Age without war, cities, labor or commerce. Men feast on nature's abundance. Jove castrates Saturn, however, sending men into a Silver Age, when the four seasons come to be and men have to work for food. The Bronze Age follows and men become violent and warlike, though not so much as they will. Finally, in the Iron Age men become evil, greedy and dishonest. They treat gold as money and forge weapons of iron. The giants see the behavior of men and imitated it, attempting even to overthrow Jove, but he crushes them with thunderbolts and boulders. From the giants' blood new creatures arise: they look like men but think nothing of murdering each other. Distraught, Jove tells the gods that he must punish these men.
Jove tells the gods how he dealt with an especially corrupt man, Lycaon, who plotted to kill him and tried to trick him into eating human flesh. When Lycaon served him the flesh, Jove destroyed his household with thunderbolts. Lycaon survives as a madman, behaving like a wolf. Jove tells the gods that all men are like Lycaon and must be punished in turn; they must give way to a new and better humankind. Jove decides to flood the world, which he does with Neptune's help. Only two people, the best of humanity, survive the flood: Deucalion and his wife. They find shelter on Mount Parnassus, the only land that rises above the waters. Jove allows the waters to retreat, leaving them to repopulate the earth. They ask the gods how they can do such a thing, and an oracle sent by Themis tells them to throw behind them the bones of their mother. Pyrrha refuses to dishonor her mother's remains, but Deucalion interprets the oracle as referring to "mother earth," and so they throw stones, the earth's "bone's," behind them. The stones become a new race of people, who inherit the toughness of stone.
Other creatures return spontaneously, springing from the sun on the water-soaked soil, including monsters like Python, a gigantic snake, which Phoebus Apollo slays, thus initiating the Pythian games. Soon after, Apollo taunts Cupid who takes revenge by making Apollo fall in love with Daphne, Peneus's daughter. Daphne wishes to remain chaste, like Diana, and loves the woods and hunting rather than men. Nonetheless, Apollo chases Daphne through the woods. As she approaches the streams of her father's land, she begs to lose her beauty. As she speaks she is transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo makes the laurel his symbol and wears a laurel crown from then on.
Ovid turns to another tale of the gods' love, that of Jove and Io. When the beautiful Io resists Jove, he covers the earth with fog and rapes her. Juno, the jealous queen of the gods, notices the mists and suspects her husband. She clears the fog but not before Jove hides Io in the form of a cow. Juno claims the beautiful cow as her own, giving her for safe-keeping to the watchman, Argus, who has one-hundred eyes and never closes them all at once. Io is able to communicate her fate to her father by drawing in the dirt with her hoof. He mourns for her, but cannot stop Argus from taking her to pasture.
Jove orders Mercury to kill Argus. Mercury pretends to be a shepherd and tries to lull Argus to sleep with his reed pipe. Argus, intrigued by this unusual instrument, asks about its origin. Mercury tells Argus the story of the nymph Syrinx, whom Pan loves though she wishes to remain a virgin. She prays for aid and is turned into reeds at the riveer side. Pan signs unhappily and notices that his sighs make music through the reeds. Thus he fashions an instrument. As Mercury tells the story, he realizes that Argus has dozed off, and so he beheads the guardian. Juno takes Argus's eyes and sets them into the tail-feathers of her symbolic bird, the peacock. She then has one of the Furies chase Io, in cow form, all around the world, until she reaches the Nile, where she convinces Jove to appease her wife and return her to human form.
Io's son, Epaphus, is treated as the son of Jove. Epaphus becomes friends with a boy named Phaethon, who claims to be a son of Apollo. Epaphus does not believe him, and so Phaethon asks his mother, Clymene, how to prove his parentage. She sends him to seek Apollo himself in the east, and Phaethon makes his way to the palace of the sun, where bright Apollo acknowledges that he is the boy's father. When Phaethon asks for a token of proof, Apollo promises to give the boy anything he wants. Phaethon asks to drive the sun-chariot and Apollo replies that no one but himself, not even Jove, can drive the chariot. Phaethon, however, holds his father to his oath, and Phoebus takes him to the chariot where he rubs Phaethon's face with a sacred ointment to protect him from being burned. After giving the youth advice about the path Apollo tells him he must begin.
The chariot immediately goes off course because Phaethon is not strong enough to rein the horses in. He draws the horses too high, threatening the constellations, then too low, setting cities and mountains ablaze and, drying up rivers. Soon the whole world is on fire. Mother Earth herself begs Jupiter to intercede, and the god brings Phaeton down, chariot and all, with a thunderbolt. Phaethon falls to earth, where he is caught by the river god Eridanus and buried in a tomb far from his homeland. Phaeton's family mourns -- his sisters are transformed to trees in their morning; they are left with the ability to speak and Clymene, their mother, tries to rip them from the bark, before they are finally sealed inside the trees. Cycnus, a dear friend of Phaethon, wanders the woods in mourning until he becomes a new kind of bird, the swan. Distrustful of the sunny skies where his friend was struck down, this swan chooses to remain in standing water, never taking to the sky. Phoebus Apollo, also in mourning, refuses to act as the sun should, despite the entreaties of the other gods, and even the threats of Jove. Finally, he gives in, taking his anger out in lashes on the horses.
As Jove repairs the heavens and the earth, he notices Callisto, a beautiful girl from Nonacris. One of Diana's handmaids, Callisto roams the woods, chaste and beautiful. Jove disguises himself as Diana and rapes her. Shamed and afraid, Callisto rejoins the handmaids and attempts to hide her shame. But, months later, Diana and her maids discover her pregnancy during a bath. Juno's anger at the pregnancy grows after Callisto gives birth to a boy, Arcas. Juno turns Callisto into a bear. At fifteen, Arcas comes across his mother in the woods and nearly kills her. Jove intervenes just in time by changing both Arcas and Callisto into constellations: ursa major and ursa minor. Furious, Juno goes to the ocean gods Tethys and Oceanus and asks them to forbid the two constellations to enter their waters, to which they agree.
Ovid turns from the origin of those constellation to the story of how the raven became black. The raven reports to Apollo that his lover, Coronis, cheated on him. Phoebus Apollo kills Coronis with an arrow, and as she dies she tells him that she is pregnant with his son. Apollo regrets his action too late and, furious at the raven, turns him from white to black. He takes his son, Aesculapius, from Coronis' womb and takes him to a prophet, Chiron's daughter Ocyrhoe, who predicts that Aesculapius will have healing powers but anger the gods. Then she predicted her father's own death, but as she finished, she realized that the Fates would let her speak no more, and as she predicted that she would be turned into a horse, she was transformed. Chiron called out to Apollo, but the god is disguised as a cowherd. Mercury steals Phoebus' cows with only Battus as a witness. Mercury bribes Battus to keep quiet, and when Battus proves untrustworthy, Mercury turns him into a stone.
Returning to heaven, Mercury passes over a festival of Pallas and spots Herse, the most beautiful of the virgin girls participating in the festival. He approaches Herse's sister, Aglauros, in an attempt to enter Herse's room. Aglauros asks for a weight of gold in return, a request that Minerva overhears. Minerva recalls that Aglauros betrayed her and entreats Envy to poison Aglauros's heart. Out of envy Aglauros tries to stop Mercury from accessing her sister, and Aglauros is turned to stone. Back in heaven, Mercury meets his father, Jove, who asks him to fly to Sidon and drive a herd of cattle there to the sea shore. Mercury obeys his father. Jove then joins the herd as a gorgeous bull. Europa, the beautiful princess of that land, marvels at the bull, twining its horns with flowers and eventually climbing on its back for a ride. Jove takes his opportunity and carries her into the ocean.
At the beginning of the Metamorphoses, Ovid accomplishes several things. First, he defines the world of the poem. He is going to tell the reader, how "bodies are changed into different bodies." Ovid then demonstrate that he means "bodies" in the loosest sense: in this poem, he is going to address all kinds of transformation, from the transformation of Chaos into the Universe to literal physical transformations, to the founding and destruction of cities, the evolution of man, and even pedestrain emotional transformations. In other words, this poem examines transformation as an omnipresent force in the universe, affecting high and low, mythic and ordinary forces alike.
The first transformation -- Chaos into the Universe -- illuminates a few general characteristics about these events. Transformations are never truly spontaneous. Chaos does not transform itself into earth, a powerful being transforms it. There is always something which does the transforming and something which is transformed (though in rare cases people can transform themselves). Consequently, this book is also about relationships, most often the relationship between that which has the power to transform and that which is transformed. This relationship most often exists between the gods and mortals.
The first section of Metamorphoses suggests that people are often transformed in punishment for some misbehavior. Most broadly, Jove destroys humankind because the race as a whole misbehaves. But Ovid subtly suggests that just because the gods are capable of punishing mortal misdeeds, that doesn't mean that they themselves are virtuous. Indeed, though the stray man, such as Lycaon, may perform some gruesome act, the preponderence of unjust and violent actions are committed by gods. The first books are full of the rapes, deceptions, murders, and fickle revenges of the gods. The message seems to be clear: the gods aren't just, they're merely powerful. Because they, immortal and unchanging themselves, have the power to effect change in mortals, they can and will use that power, however fickly. Those who try to stand against the gods' exceptional status will be destroyed and transformed, individually or as a whole race (as the flood episode shows us). Those who worship the gods without questioning them, like Deucalion and his wife, will be allowed to live. Ovid's view of the virtuousness of authority is, in this light, quite cynical.
The major arena where these power dynamics play is love -- or, more pointedly, lust. These two concepts are inseparable for the Romans, who do not treat love as a matter of courtship and chivalry so much as a matter of irresistable passion. This passion is often unrequited. Indeed, in these first stories, again and again we read of a beautiful woman who wishes to live as a virgin, free from all men, but is pursued and/or raped by a god. Beginning with Apollo's unrequited love for Daphne, through Pan's for Syrinx, through Zeus' catalogue of rapes -- Io, Europa, etc. -- we see women raped, changed into trees and animals, and otherwise used without consent. In all of these examples, love is a transformative force for both parties. Apollo's love for Daphne results in her transformation into a laurel tree, and in a more restrained transformation within Apollo, who adapts her branches as a symbol. Zeus frequently changes himself into an animal or another form in order to facillitate his rapes, which in turn result in transformations in the women, such as Io's metamorphosis into a cow. Thus, Ovid suggests, the power of love alters both parties, but without a doubt the gods are at an advantage. Those who wish to live outside of the power structure, especially the virgins of Diana, find themselves repeatedly unable to do so.
Ovid is especially sensitive to the manner in which transformations build on one another causally, with tragedy begetting tragedy. In Phaethon's episode, for instance, the death of Phaethon sets into motion the transformation of his sisters into trees and the transformation of Cycnus into a swan. It also transforms the earth and the sky as both are threatened by Pheobus' out-of-control chariot, and incites subtler transformations as well in Phaethon's father and mother, both of whom mourn their son tenderly. Every transformation follows a similar pattern: an initial metamorphosis, often a tragic one, will set off a series of contingent metamorphoses. Fathers and mothers, mourning lost sons and daughters, become birds or trees in their grief. Thus Ovid demonstrates the manner in which change affects human beings. We are all touched by each other, and one person's tragedy ripples through his or her community. Hundreds of years before the Reverand John Donne wrote it, Ovid understood well that "no man is an island."