The Argonauts arrive at King Aeetes' kingdom and Jason demands the return of the Golden Fleece; meanwhile, the king's daughter Medea falls in love with Jason. After an inward struggle, Medea decides to betray her father and help Jason to conquer the tasks that he stipulates for the return of the fleece. Jason promises to marry Medea in return for her help and she gives him some magic herbs. Jason passes his first task: to yoke together two fire-breathing bulls and plow a field with them. Then he sews the ground with dragons teeth, which give rise to warriors. With Medea's help, Jason defeats them by throwing a stone in the middle of the group, which sets them attacking one another. Finally, Jason uses Medea's drugs and incantations to put the dragon guarding the fleece to sleep. He and the argonauts flee with Medea and the fleece.
Jason returns home to find his father extremely ill. Medea promises to restore his father's life. She journeys for nine days and nights, gathering herbs for a dark ritual which heals Aeson and brings him youth. During Aeson's sickness, the daughters of Pelias had usurped Aeson's throne, and Medea tricks them into killing Pelias under the pretence of restoring his life as well. She flees on her chariot pulled by winged dragons and returns to Corinth much later, only to discover that Jason has taken a new bride, Glauce. Medea kills her and Jason's own children and also murders Glauce before fleeing once again to Athens, where Aegeus gives her sanctuary and marries her.
Theseus arrives in Athens and Medea attempts to kill him. Aegeus recognizes Theseus as his own son, however, and prevents the murder just in time. Medea escapes in a mist. Soon war threatens: Minos of Crete declares war on Athens because his son, Androgeos, died on Aegeus' lands. In preperation for battle, Cephalus of Athens calls upon the people of Oenipia -- newly renamed Aegina -- for help. Aeacus of Aegina promises to aid Athens, meanwhile relating the story of their city. He says that Juno struck them with a plague, which killed many, until he prayed to Jove, who had lain with the city's namesake, Aegina. Jove repopulated Aegina with a colony of ants who had nested in an oak tree, whom he turned into industrious men known as Myrmidons. These Myrmidons join Athens in battling Crete.
As Cephalus and the Myrmidons await a favorable wind to return to Athens, Cephalus tells the story of how he was married to Procris, daughter of Erechteus. After they had been married for two months, the goddess Aurora tried to seduce him. Cephalus refused, angering Aurora, who suggested as revenge that Procris was unfaithful to him. She allowed him to alter his appearance and test Procris' fidelity, which he does, eventually offering her a massive fortune for one night in bed. Procris hesitated and Cephalus revealed himself, sending Procris fleeing into the mountains. Eventually Cephalus and Procris made up and by way of apology Procris offered Cephalus the fastest hound in the world and a magic spear that always hits its mark and returns when it is thrown.
Cephalus turns to the story of the hound, saying that the hound, called Laelaps, was called upon to catch a very fast beast that was plaguing Thebes. Laelaps caught up to the creature, but was not able to catch it, and the two creatures turned to marble statues, frozen in their pursuit. Cephalus also tells a tragic story about his spear, saying that he went hunting every morning with the spear and called to the breeze, "Aura," at the end of every day. Someone overheard him and told Procris that "Aura" was his lover, and so Procris hid herself during one of his hunts to see if it was true. Cephalus heard her rustling in the bushes and killed her with the spear, thinking she was an animal. She died in his arms as he explained the misunderstanding.
As Cephalus and his men return to Athens, Minos lays waste to nearby cities, testing his might. As he battles Alcathous, the land of King Nisus, Nisus' daughter, Scylla, falls in love with Minos. After debating, Scylla decides to betray her city in return for Minos' love; she brings her father's purple lock of hair as an offering. Minos recoils from Scylla, damning her unnatural betrayal of Alcathous, and Scylla, enraged, torments Minos for his wife's strange adultery -- she had fallen in love with a bull and conceived a creature by it. Finally Scylla throws herself into the sea, trying to catch up with Minos' boat. Nisus, who had been turned into a sea eagle, pecks at her until she changes into a bird as well.
Minos returns home and his wife gives birth to the half-human, half-bull creature. Minos orders Daedalus to create a labyrinth to house the beast, dubbed the minotaur. Minos establishes that each nine years an Athenian youth is to be sacrificed in tribute to the monster. The third tribute arrives and Theseus is designated as the sacrifice. He survives the minotaur, however, with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne, who gives Theseus a spool of thread to help him find his way through the labyrinth. Theseus and Ariadne set sail for Dia, where Theseus abandons Ariadne; she finds comfort from Bacchus, who transforms her crown into a constellation.
Meanwhile, Daedalus plans an escape from Crete. He fashions wings out of feathers and beeswax -- one pair for himself and one for his son, Icarus. He warns Icarus not to fly too high, or the sun will melt the wax, or too low, or moisture will weigh down the feathers, but as they are in flight Icarus flies too high, thrilled by the ablitity to fly, and his wings fall apart. He plummets to his death. As Daedalus buries his son, a partridge reproaches Daedalus -- the partridge recalls one of Daedalus' former rivals, Telus, who was also a brilliant inventor until Daedalus defenestrated him out of envy. Minerva changed Telus to the partridge as he fell. Daedalus finds refuge in King Cocalus' land.
Theseus' fame spreads and many request his help, including King Oeneus of Calydon, who forgot Diana in a sacrifice. In revenge, a fierce boar ravages Calydon. A group of heroes, including Theseus, Jason, Atalanta, and Oeneus's son Melaeger, hunt the boar. Meleager falls desperately in love with Atalanta, and after the two of them cooperate to slay the boar, Meleager offers it to Atalanta as a tribute. Meleager's jealous uncles try to prevent him and Meleager kills them in a rage. Meleager's mother, Althaca, avenges their deaths by burning a log that the fates had linked to Meleager's mortality. All of Calydon mourns Meleager's death and Alcatha kills herself in grief. Meleager's sisters are so distraught that Diana takes pity on them and turns them into guinea hens.
On his way back to Athens, Theseus takes shelter from a storm in the house of Achelous, a river god. Achelous tells Theseus the story of the five islands near his house, saying that the islands had been nymphs who forgot him during a sacrifice to the local gods. Achelous points out another island, explaining it was once a young girl whom he loved. After he took her virginity, her father threw her from a cliff and Triton changed her into an island at Achelous' request. One of the men present, Pirithous, objects that such things are impossible. In response, a man named Lelex tells a story, saying that Jupiter and Mercury once disguised themselves as mortals and went from house to house seeking shelter. Only an old and pious couple, Baucis and Philemon, received them. The couple offered them all that they had, and in return the gods led them up a hill. From this vantage they witnessed the gods destroy the area except for their house, which was changed into a glorious temple. Furthermore, the gods granted Baucis and Philemon their only wish: that they could die at the same hour so they would never have to be apart. At the hour of their death, Baucis and Philemon were transformed into trees.
Theseus asks to hear more stories of the gods and Achelous tells of Erysichthon and Mestra. Erysichthon was an impious man who once desecrated a tree sacred to Ceres. As revenge, Ceres arranged with Famine that Erysichthon would be eternally hungry, no matter how much he ate. He eats himself out of house and home, finally even trying to sell Mestra to buy more food. Mestra appeals to Neptune, who had taken her virginity, to save her, and Neptune grants her the ability to change her shape. She transforms into a fisherman and convinces the man who had bought her that he has been fooled. Erysichthon learns of her ability and exploits it to trick men. At last, however, Erysichthon has no way of buying more food and eats himself. At the end of this story, Achelous mentions that he has a limited ability to shift forms as well.
Medea is one of the most complex characters in ancient mythology, not least because she continually eludes punishment. In some ways, she seems like another example of a mortal woman who is corrupted by love and excessive pride. Her love for Jason leads her to betray her father and murder Aeson's rivals. Like other stories that begin with a betrayal of family, we know that Medea's will not turn out well, and indeed she lashes out murderously at her own children, like Procne before her, when she finds Jason has married another woman. However, Medea's story does not end there; she continues on to Athens, only to flee from there as well. This is where her tale is different: Medea shows the love and pride-induced failings of so many others, but she evades transformation. With her magic, she has harnessed the power of metamorphoses, and so she uses it to escape consequences. Medea thus represents the mortal who best resists the logic of crime-and-punishment that determines so much of Metamorphoses; she inspires pity due to Jason's ungrateful treatment and fear because of her cruel murder of others. She is at once another example of a "woman gone bad" -- like Procne or Scylla -- and a woman with the acumen and audacity to reist their fates.
Speaking of Scylla, she and Medea have much in common, yet Scylla could almost be described as the anti-Medea. Where Medea is cunning, Scylla is obtuse. Medea secures a promise of marriage from Jason before aiding him; Scylla assumes that Minos will love her for her betrayal. Furthermore, whereas Medea simply gets Jason the fleece, Scylla practically kills her own father by cutting off the lock of hair that protects him. She is a traitor without strategy, and Minos reviles her both for her betrayal of her country and for her lack of dignity. Unlike Medea, she meets a typical end, transformed into a bird.
This section once again emphasizes the danger of love. Even when love seems destined to bring only happiness, destruction often ensues. Cephalus' tragic history with Procris, for instance, suggests that jealousy and mistrust naturally dog even the most genuine lovers. Both Cephalus and Procris allow others to poison their trust of each other, leading to tragic jealousy. They love one another so much, it seems, that they cannot trust one another -- it's a paradox at the heart of desire. Their fear that their love is threatened is the true threat to their love.
Again, Ovid relishes stories within stories. In these sections, the stories are told by men rather than women, and the stories are intended merely to pass the time rather than to compete or rebel. Cephalus tells his stories both to explain the origin of his spear, and to illustrate a lesson for the princes. He tells them the sad story of his wife, and he clearly hopes they will consider the consequences of his actions and avoid making the same mistakes. The act of telling stories about one's own actions continues when Achelous tells Theseus how he lost his horn. Ovid thus illustrates the moral possibilities of, well, stories with morals. These two intend others to gain wisdom from their own past errors, even as they are just passing the time. Similarly, Ovid intends his telling of the foibles of gods and men to correct our errant human behaviors, even as it entertains us.
Finally, in these two books Ovid introduces several minor deities and one human being who take the concept of metamorphosis to a new level: they have the ability to change their own shape. Achelous can change into several different animals, as can Mestra, daughter of Erysichthon. Ovid emphasizes that the power to transform oneself is nowhere near as great as the power to transform others. Achelous power does not even allow him to best Hercules, who is not yet a god. Mestra's powers are used solely by her father, who essentially enslaves her in order to try and ease his overwhelming hunger. The gods and goddesses ultimate power comes from their ability to transform mortals into whatever they desire -- or, when they do transform themselves, to do so as a means to manipulate others. Ovid thus, again, emphasizes mortals' vulnerability to the whims of the gods.