Metamorphoses Summary and Analysis

Book III - Book IV

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Summary

Picking up with Europa's abduction, Jove reveals his identity to the girl and heads for Crete. Meanwhile, Europa's father, Agenor, tells his son, Cadmus, to seek his sister and never return until he finds her. Cadmus goes to Apollo for help, and the god tells him to found a new city called Boeotia. Cadmus locates the site for his city and sends attendants to fetch water for a libation to Jove, but they are killed after disturbing a serpent sacred to Mars. Cadmus finds his dead friends and slays the serpent. Pallas Athena appears and tells Cadmus to plant the serpent's teeth: he does so, giving rise to a race of warriors. All but five kill one another in battle, but those five, along with Cadmus, found the city of Thebes.

Many years later, Cadmus' grandson Actaeon is hunting with some friends, when he accidentally comes upon Diana bathing. Unable to access her bow and arrow, Diana takes vengeance His friends' dogs catch sight of him and his friends give chase, untimately killing Actaeon. The gods discuss Actaon's fate, and Juno is glad that Europa's relative was killed. But now her envy has turned on another, Semele, who bears Jove's child. Juno goes to Semele disguised as Semele's own nurse, Beroe, and convinces Semele that Jove should reveal the full extent of his powers to her. Semele gets Jove to promise her anything, and then asks to see him in all his power. Unable to undo his promise or her request, Jove kills her with the sight of him. He removes their son from her womb and sews him up in his own thigh, where he is carried to term. The child is born Bacchus, and is raised by the nymphs of Mount Nysa.

Later, as Jove and Juno recline at Mount Olympus, Jove suggests that women enjoy the pleasures of love more then men. They decide that only Tiresias, who has been a man and a woman, can answer (Tiresias disturbed two snakes mating and he was turned into a woman for seven years). Tiresias agrees with Jove, and Juno blinds Tiresias in revenge. Jove gives him the gift of prophesy in recompense, and Tiresias goes on to be the most famous of all prophets. His first prophesy concerns Liriope's son Narcissus: Tiresias says that Narcissus will never grow old if he discovers himself. One day when the beautiful Narcissus is sixteen, the nymph Echo, who can only repeat what others say, falls in love with him. He spurns her and she wastes away to nothing but a voice. After this, one of Narcissus' disappointed suitors prays that Narcissus be loved and spurned himself. Nemesis hears this prayer and causes Narcissus to see his own reflection, which he falls desperately in love with. Unable to eat or rest, just staring at the water, Narcissus wastes away. After he dies, a flower stands in place of his body.

Narcissus's tale confirms Tiresias's powers, whose fame spreads. Pentheus, however, scorns his god-given powers. Tiresias tells him to honor the gods or he will die, but Pentheus doesn't listen, instead taunting those who participate in the festival of Bacchus. He maligns Bacchus and asks the revelers to prove Bacchus' divinity. They return with a priest, Acoetes, who tells of how he came to be one of Bacchus' priests. After his parents' death, he became a sailor, and one day on his his fellow-sailors brought home a beautiful youth, half-drunk, with the intent to do him wrong. Acoetes saw that the youth was a god, Bacchus, and prevented the wrongdoing. Later, Bacchus convinced the sailors to take him to Naxos; the sailors agreed, only to change course once at sea. Bacchus realizes this, stops the ship, and turns all the sailors except for Acoetes into dolphins. Thence, Acoetes became a follower of Bacchus. Pentheus learns nothing from this tale, and he orders his followers to torture and kill Acoetes. Before they can do so, however, his chains fall off of their own accord and he escapes. Furious, Pentheus approaches the place where the Bacchic rites are taking place. His own mother and sister are so caught up in the ritual that they mistake him for a boar and decide to make him their sacrifice. They rip his arms then his head from his body as he cries out to them.

Others refuse to worship Bacchus as well, specifically the daughters of Minyas. During Bacchus' festival they stay inside, weaving and honoring Minerva and telling stories to pass the time. Arsippe begins with the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, two youths in love who live next door to each other in the town of Babylon. Friends since childhood, they are prevented from marrying by their parents, so they stand by a small crack in the wall between their houses and whisper endearments to each other. One night they plan to flee the city together, agreeing to meet at the grave of Ninus. Thisbe reaches the grave first, but suddenly seeing a ferocious lion, she runs away, dropping her veil. Before departing, the lion comes across the veil and smears it with the blood of his latest kill. When Pyramus arrives, he sees the bloody veil and, believing Thisbe dead, stabs himself. Thisbe returns to find Pyramus' body. Before she stabs herself too, she prays that their parents will bury them in a single grave, and that the mulberry tree which marks their death will carry red fruit in remembrance. Her prayer is answered.

Next, Leuconoe tells a story. When Apollo discovers that Venus and Mars are having an affair together, he tells Venus's husband, Vulcan, who fashions a net of threads so fine that they are invisible. He places it over his bed and catches Venus and Mars together during their next tryst. Vulcan brings the other gods to see the humiliated lovers. Venus gets revenge by causing Apollo to fall desperately in love with the beautiful Leucothoe. Apollo disguises himself as Leucothoe's mother to gain entrance to her room, then reveals himself. Leucothoe gives in to his advances, inspiring jealousy in Clytie, who is passionately in love with Apollo. She tells Leucothoe's father about the affair, and he buries her deep in the earth. Unable to save her from death, Apollo annoints her body with nectar and her body changes into a fragrant tree. Apollo rejects Clytie, showing no compassion for the love that drove her actions, and she wastes away in grief, eventually becoming the vine and flower called heliotrope.

Next, Alcithoe tells the tale of Hermaphroditus, a child born of Hermes and Aphrodite who has the features of both mother and father. When he is a youth of fifteen, he comes across a nymph in his wanderings, Salmacis, who falls in love with him. He reists her and she pretends to depart, hiding and watching as he strips and dives into a pool. She then jumps Hermaphroditus, and when she is unable to overwhelm him, she asks the gods to make them into one creature. They respond, merging them into a half-man, half-woman hybrid. Hermaphroditus asks his parents to curse the pool so that it takes half the strength of any man who comes there, and they grant his wish.

The daughters of Minyas continue to spurn the festival and worship of Bacchus; however, suddenly their weaving changes into Bacchic ivies and they hear cymbals and music. The women try to hide in the shadows of their home, but they too change into bats.

Bacchus' divinity is a controversial matter among gods as well as men, and Juno becomes especially angry at Ino's pride in her nephew's powers. She calls forth the Furies from the underworld and asks them to drive Ino's husband, Cadmus, insane. The furies torment Athamos and Ino until they have been infected with a great and terrible madness. Athamos kills his infant son, and Ino, catching up her son's body, throws herself into the sea. Venus, looking on, pities the woman and her son. She asks Neptune to make them into sea-gods, and he agrees. The child becomes Palaemon, Ino, Leucothoe. Some of Ino's women followed her to the cliffs and lament Juno's cruelty. Angered, Juno turns them into statues just as they prepare to throw themselves after their mistress. Cadmus wonders aloud if he is being punished for killing a snake, which he thinks must have been sacred, and asks the gods to transform him into a snake if it is true. He begins to change, and Ino asks to be a snake as well. As serpents, they live quietly in the woods, remembering what they once were.

Acrisius, thr ruler of Argos, is another who refuses to acknowledge the deity. He also denies the divinity of Perseus. As revenge, Perseus carries the head of the slain Medusa over Argos, dripping her blood as he goes; everywhere her blood lands, a deadly serpent springs up. Acrisius is overwhelmed by the snakes and repents his view. Perseus next goes to the country of Atlas, where he asks to enter Atlas's kingdom, but Atlas, remembering a prophecy about a man who would steal the riches from his tree of gold, refuses him. In response, Perseus uses Medusa's head to turn Atlas into stone. Perseus then puts on his winged sandels and speeds towards the land of the Ethopians, where Andromeda has been chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Perseus rescues Andromeda, but not before getting her parents to promise her as his wife. They offer Perseus the kingdom as his dowry, but he rejects any dowry but her hand. They marry after sacrificing to Mercury, Minerva and Jupiter.

During the wedding feast, a guest asks Perseus to tell the story of how he captured Medusa's head. Perseus tells them of how he went to the Graeae, three daughters who share one eye between them. He stole their eye and used it to find the Gorgons' lair. He then slew Medusa by never looking at her directly, instead watching her reflection in his shield. After he cut of her head, the winged horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor sprang up from her blood. Perseus then tells them of other adventures before explaining why Medusa has snakes for hair. She was once a beautiful maiden, but she was violated by Neptune in the temple of Minerva, and as punishment, Minerva transformed the girl's hair to snakes of the same kind as those Minerva wears on her breastplate.

Analysis

The same two types of stories predominate this section: stories of lovers pursuing beloveds and of gods punishing those who offend them. The latter type of tale dominates these books, especially the sections centering around the worship of Bacchus: an interesting addition to the Roman pantheon. Bacchus is a god especially appropriate for Metamorphoses -- his very nature is rife with change. As the god of wine, Bacchus represents the transformative power of intoxication, both positive and negative. He is a god who represents both communal festival and drunken chaos, which is perhaps best illustrated in the fates of the Minyas daughters: they are hermetic, conservative women, dilligently weaving away, who resist the festivity of bacchanal, preferring to recount the doings of the more properly established gods. Thus opposition to Bacchus is associated with anti-social behavior, hiding in the shadows. Tellingly, their tales also concern the weakness of the gods, emphasizing Venus and Mars' humiliation or the tale of Hermaphroditus. Their stories, then, seek to resist a worshipful attitute toward the gods, just as they do. They cannot hide forever, though, as their weaving itself becomes Bacchic vines and they are changed to bats. In all cases, those who resist the festive powers of Bacchus succumb to his darker side. The curmudgeonly Pentheus, too, meets his death at the hands of his own family, blinded by Bacchic worship.

Bacchus threatens gods as well as men, upending traditional power structures. Most tellingly, perhaps -- especially in the context of women's sorry fates throughout Metamorphoses) -- Bacchic worship frees women to behave in a public, unrestrained manner. It is then women in Pentheus' family who destroy him. While this is undoubtedly a cruel irony, it's also a lonely instance of a god giving a woman power, rather than taking power away. Though there are several more examples of god-rapes-virgin-and-virgin-suffers-for-it in these books, most notably the tale of Semele, the Bacchic activities slyly undermine such powerlessness.

Ultimately, though, the prevailing distinction of Metamorphoses continues to be that between mortals and gods. Neither race is more just than the other, it's just that the gods have the power and the mortals can be killed. Again and again Ovid emphasizes the fragility of the human condition. This fragility is expressed in physical terms through violence and dismemberment -- Cadmus's warrior people destroy each other at the moment of their birth; Actaeon is turned into a stag and ripped apart by his dogs; Pentheus is ripped apart by his mother and sisters. It's also expressed in more subtle ways through the transformative power or grief, as in the frequent examples of mortals becoming trees or plants. Mortals are delicate creatures, unlikely to undergo the humiliations and revenges of the gods without permanent change. Gods, on the other hand, can play as they will with transformation, never fearing permanent consequences. Jove can turn himself into a bull or someone's mother or whatever he wants, always assured that he can become Jove again. When a mortal becomes a flower, a bat or a snake, however, you can rest assured that their never going to return to the identity they had before.

Apart from these examinations of social roles, mortality, lust and love, Metamorphoses also functions as an important collection of mythology, especially tales of Greek and Roman heroes. It is a cultural memory-box of sorts as well as a diagnosis of the human condition. The first of these stories is the tale of Perseus's destruction of Medusa, and his rescue of Andromeda. In many ways, this story does not seem to fit into the themes of the poems. Yet, at its heart, this story is about Perseus's ability to harness the power of transformation. Killing Medusa is not an accomplishment in itself. Perseus only kills Medusa to get her head. With her head, he gains the power to transform others into stone. Thus Perseus becomes a hero -- and later a god -- by acquiring the power of transformation and using it to his advantage. Indeed, the power to use transformative powers willfully and selfishly distinguishes gods from mere heros, and Perseus joins the former's ranks when he proves so adept at this god-like trick.