Metamorphoses Summary and Analysis of Book XI - Book XII


While Orpheus sings, a group of women arrive who claim that he has scorned them. They tear him to pieces in a Bacchic frenzy. The birds and beasts, who loved to hear him sing, mourn Orpheus. Meanwhile, Orpheus himself is quite happy, because he joins his Eurydice in the afterlife. Bacchus punishes his Maenads for killing Orpheus, who sung about his attributes, and transforms them into oak trees. Bacchus then returns to his home, only to find that his foster-father Silenus has been captured by the Phrygians and brought to King Midas, who, a follower of Bacchus himself, returns Silenus. As a reward, Bacchus offers to grant King Midas one wish, and Midas wishes that whatever he touches will turn to gold. At first overjoyed, King Midas realizes the foolish nature of his wish when he can no longer eat or drink. Bacchus undoes the wish, telling him to wash himself in a certain river, and Midas lives out his days an ascetic follower of Pan. Even then he finds trouble: one day Pan challenges Phoebus Apollo to a music contest - his pipes against Apollo's lyre. Tmolus, the mountain god, is the judge, and he declares Apollo the winner; only Midas dares to raise his voice and object. In response Apollo transforms Midas' ears into those of an ass. Embarrassed, Midas covers his ears with a turban, but the man who cuts his hair discovers the transformation. This man tries to keep the secret, but finally must whisper it into a hole in the ground. The truth soon spreads around the world.

Apollo witnesses the construction of a new city, Troy, in the land of King Laomedon. Apollo and Neptune construct great walls for the city in return for payment, but after the walls are built the king claims that he never promised tribute. Neptune floods the city and demands the sacrifice of the princess Hesione, whom Hercules rescues. Laomedon then refuses Hercules payment too. Hercules then seizes the city and marries Hesione to his companion Telamon. We learn of a prophesy that Thetis, a sea-goddess, will bear a son greater than his father, which stops Jove from sleeping with her despite his desire to do so. Instead, Jove orders Telamon's brother, Peleus, to marry Thetis. Thetis refuses Peleus and flees him, taking the shapes of many creatures. At Proteus' advice, Peleus waits until Thetis is asleep and binds her with cords, refusing to release her until she resumes her natural shape. Thus Thetis is conquered. Soon after, she bears Peleus a son, Achilles.

Peleus must leave his family after he kills his brother Phocus and is banished. He goes to Trachin, a land ruled by Ceyx, and seeks sanctuary under false pretenses. Ceyx welcomes him, though he is melancholy about his brother Daedalion's sufferings. Daedalion had a beautiful daughter, Chione, whom Apollo and Mercury both fell in love with and impregnated, one after the other. She bore twins -- a son by each god --Autolycus by Mercury and Philammon by Phoebus. Chione, full of pride, dared to compare herself favorably to the goddess Diana, and in response Diana shot an arrow through Chione's tongue, both silencing and killing her. Daedalion went mad with grief and tried to throw himself from a tower. The gods saved his life by turning him into a hawk.

As Ceyx finishes his story, Onetor, one of Peleus's men, brings the news that a wolf is attacking Pelus' cattle and men. Peleus realizes that the wolf has been sent by Psamathe, Phocus's bereaved mother, and prays to Thetis to obtain Psamathe's forgiveness. Peleus moves again to Magnesia, where King Acastus pardons him. Now, Ceyx decides to consult the oracles of Apollo at Claros. His wife Alcyone portends doom for this journey, but Ceyx insists on going. While at sea, a tempest destroys the ship; Ceyx clings to a piece of driftwood and prays that his body will be carried back to his wife. Meanwhile, Alcyone waits for her husband, praying at the temples of many gods and goddesses, but especially Juno. When Juno can no longer stand to see her pray in vain, she sends Alcyone a dream of her husband to explain his death. Morpheus appears to Alcyone with the face and body of Ceyx and reveals the drowning. Alcyone awakens and immediately grieves with desperation. That morning she finds Ceyx' body on her shores. As she travels toward it she changes into a bird, and when she kisses the dead body Ceyx becomes a bird as well. Thus they continue their love as halcyons.

We learn of another bird transformation: Hector's brother Aesacus changed into a thin bird with long slender legs. He fell in love with Hesperie, the River Cebren's daughter, who was killed by a serpent's bite while he pursued her. Mad with grief, he threw himself from a cliff, and Tethys chose to save him by transforming him into a bird. He acquired his enlongated shape because he continued to attempt suicide, diving off the cliffs; this repetition stretched his form. Aesacus' father Priam and his brothers mourn him, unaware that he lives on as a bird. Paris fails to mourn him because he is busy stealing Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and fleeing with her to Troy. Meanwhile, the Greeks form an army to win Helen back. They run into wayward winds at Boeotia and must sacrifice a virgin to appease Diana. After much persuasion, Agamemnon agrees to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, whom Diana may or may not have substituted with a calf. The winds subside and the Greeks continue toward Troy.

Rumour, who lives at the center of the world, spreads news to Troy that the Greeks are approaching; thus begins the famous Trojan War. Achilles, Greece's champion, tries to kill Cycnus with a spear but cannot because Cycnus is Neptune's son. His weapons prove useless, yet Achilles persists, finally strangling Cycnus until Neptune transforms his son into a bird rather than see him die. After this, the armies agree to a long truce, during which the generals of the Greek army tell stories of other battles and other warriors.

Nestor declares that Caenis was just as durable as Cycnus, and changed sexes to boot. Caenis was once the loveliest virgin in Thessaly, but resisted marriage; finally Neptune raped her and afterwards granted her a wish. She wished to be changed into a man so that she could never be raped again. Neptune obeyed, also making Caenis invulnerable to weapons. Nestor continues, relating that he and Caenis attended the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodame. They stupidly invited centaurs, one of whom, named Eurytus, tried to carry off the bride, and the rest of whom attacked the other women. Theseus killed Eurytus with a mixing bowl to the face, and thus a great fight began between centaurs and men with the wedding mise-en-scene as makeshift weapons. Latreus the centaur taunted Caenis, alluding to his past femininity, but couldn't kill him. Caenis killed Latreus, prompting Monychus and the other centaurs to bury Caenis beneath a mountain of boulders and tree-trunks. Some say Caenis' body was crushed down to Tartarus; others say that he was transformed into a small brown bird and flew away. As Nestor finishes his story, Tlepolemus reminds the old man that his father, Hercules, killed many of the centaurs. Nestor declares that he will never praise Hercules because that hero destroyed his house and murdered his brothers.

Meanwhile, Neptune plots Achilles' death as revenge for Cycnus' defeat. Ten years later, Neptune convinces Apollo that Achilles should die; Apollo arranges that one of Paris' arrows, which the spoiled prince is arcing half-heartedly at the Greek line, strikes Achilles in his only vulnerable spot, his heel. Achilles lies dead, and Ajax and Ulysses both strive to inherit his sacred armor.


The story of King Midas is one of the most famous tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses. While worthy of inclusion merely for its comic consequences, this story also emphasizes that human beings cannot handle miraculous powers. Midas is the latest in a series of characters throughout the poem who foolishly attempt to behave in god-like ways. Phaethon wished to drive the chariot, the sibyl at Cumae wished for a immortality, and now King Midas wishes that everything he touches will become gold. People want nothing more than to become gods, yet god-like attributes inevitably emphasize their mortal status. Phaethon lacks the strength to hold a god's place, Cumae ages despite living forever, and Midas cannot nourish himself, which mortals must do. Only those who accept their inferior place and leave the miracles to the immortals find happiness in Metamorphoses.

The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is one of the saddest in the poem. Once again, this story emphasizes the fragility of human life. Despite Alcyone's strange premonition, she cannot prevent the death of her husband. All Juno can do to help Alcyone is tell her the truth -- her husband is dead. While this story emphasizes the brief nature of human life compared to the eternity of the gods, it is also one of the few stories that emphasizes the possibility of human love with is strong and enduring, even perfect. The merit of their love is honored by their transformation into birds.

Ovid also embarks on one of the strangest sections of the poem when he turns to the scenes of war. In describing war and violence with such detail -- so different than the other sections of the poem, which treat complex, plot-heavy stories with brevity and elegance -- Ovid deliberately enters into the tradition of epic poetry beginning with Homer and continuing with Virgil. Metamorphoses is his epic, and so he approaches the classic epic story, The Trojan War, in the classic epic style, blood and guts a-plenty. Still, Ovid's individual style shines through, especially with the tragic story of Caenis. In this tale, all of Ovid's greatest poetic instincts are displayed. The tale begins with the injustice of the gods, who rape a virgin yet again, and with a moving wish that speaks across thousands of years, that she be changed to a man to avoid this injustice ever happening again. Caenis, despite her transformation, cannot escape her past as a woman, and is tormented and eventually buried by the centaurs, the ultimate representatives of patriarchal rape. Thus Ovid captures a paradox: though Caenis changed sexes to avoid rape, her change itself offends the unjust world and leads to an even more miserable fate, buried alive. In his inimitable way, Ovid combines meditations on change, gender, power and immortality with a sensitivity to injustice.

Book XI also serves as a transition to the final section of the poem, which is more concerned with a historical explanation of the founding of Rome, and, ultimately, the glorification of the Emperor Augustus. In some ways, Ovid is already beginning to make Augustus the central focus of the poem. Augustus oversaw the greatest period of peace and prosperity in Roman history, and by emphasizing the horrors of war, Ovid also emphasizes the wonders of peace.

Furthermore, these books demonstrate the importance of storytelling in the Roman world. During their truce, the Greek generals tell stories of other battles and great warriors. These stories both excite the men to greater triumphs and caution them against overconfidence. Nestor's story has interesting parallels to the Trojan War. The fight is instigated by a centaur's attempt to run off with the bride, and the Trojan War was instigated by Paris running off with Helen, Menelaus's bride. At this fight Caeneis is killed, despite that face that he was also under Neptune's protection and was never supposed to be able to fall to a sword. Overall, Nestor's message seems to be that in war, death is everywhere. Even when you seem most protected, it is constantly trying to find you.