Metamorphoses Themes

Love and Transformation

Love is most often described as the true driving force behind the transformations in Metamorphoses. Ovid's view of love is quite different than our popular conception today; as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out in The Allegory of Love (1936), our current, predominantly romantic notions of love were "invented" in the Middle Ages. For Ovid, love was more often viewed as a dangerous, destabilizing force than a positive one. Ovid demonstrates that love has power over everyone -- mortals and gods alike. No one can avoid its effects, or resist the danger and misery to which love often drives us. Even The God of Death, Pluto, is moved by love. Love overwhelms reason and morality: a person in love might be desperately drawn to a brother, a father, or even a bull.

The transformations in Metamorphoses often follow from the pursuits or the effects spurred on by love. The power of love to metamorphosize can be as quotidian as pregnancy -- women's shapes and roles change as a result of being impregnated, a common result of a love relationship -- and as fantastic as bestial transformation. Jove takes on the shape of a bull, in his rape of Europa, in order to fulfill his desire; Apollo changes into his beloved's sister in order to access her. Moreover, those pursued by love-mad gods also transform themselves in an effort to escape unwanted attentions; perhaps the most famous of these transformations is the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel tree when Apollo pursues her. Love creates changes in lover and loved alike.

In addition to the abstract claim the love affects change, Ovid may have emphasized the role of love in metamorphosis for political reasons. During the reign of Augustus, Ovid's emperor, major attempts were made to regulate morality by creating legal and illegal forms of love. In order to combat low marriage rates and birth rates in the upper classes, laws were passed to encourage marriage, encourage legitimate heirs and discouraging love outside of marriage; adultery could be punished with exile from Rome. These laws suggested the destructive force of unfocused, adulterous love -- a kind of love often depicted negatively in Metamorphoses. Ovid's representations of love certainly convey its power to damage lives and societies, and so may abet the political temper of Augustan. However, his stories also suggest the futility of controlling erotic impulse; Ovid may well have intended to criticize Augustan's attempt to regulate love.


Ovid's multiple examples of the dangers of hubris fit into the common critical view of the Metamorphoses as a "mock epic." The major Greek and Roman epics all contained the theme that hubris -- that is, overly prideful behavior -- is a fatal flaw which leads to a character's downfall. Hubris always attracts the notice and punishment of the gods, who disdain all human beings who attempt to compare themselves to divinity. At the same time, hubris is a natural flaw in humans, especially in a society which values heroic, overpowering displays of talent and strength.

Ovid's characters display hubris in a variety of ways. Some, especially women, tend to actively challenge the gods and goddesses to defend their prowess. Arachne is punished for her hubristic challenge by being transformed into a spider. Niobe is punished with the violent death of all of her children and is then changed into a statue. Other characters display hubris in ignoring their mortality. Achilles angers Neptune by killing his son, Cycnus, and Apollo punishes this effrontery by arranging for Achilles to die in humiliation at the hands of Paris.

Hubris is the theme which counteracts the theme of love as the universal equalizer. On the one hand, Ovid shows that gods and mortals are not so different from each other: they both fall in love, with often disasterous and dissapointing results. On the other hand, with the theme of hubris, Ovid reminds his readers that when humans take their similarity to the gods too far they are punished.


"Metamorphoses" means "tranformations" and there are many, many kinds of transformations throughout the poem. Indeed, nearly everything in the story is in a process of changing. Chaos is transformed into the universe, rivers and springs are created from nothing, islands break off from the land, people change into plants and animals, gods change their shape, people are transformed by love and by hate. Yet, so often these transformations seem tangential, irrelevant to the main point, or included merely for comic effect.

One possible conclusion is that the title and theme are merely a device, a semi-successful way of tying a group of very disparate stories together. Another, more satisfying, conclusion is that Ovid expands the metaphor of transformation in a way that encompasses the poem as a whole. Many of the stories that do not contain specific elements of transformation are taken from Roman history, and thus fit into the idea of the transformation of Rome and the Roman people. The contstant shifting between the large and the small view forces the reader to transform one's focus.

Ultimately, the inclusion of Pythagoras's philosophical views at the end of the poem provides the best explication of the meaning of transformation in the poem. Pythagoras tells his students that everything is constantly changing. Elements change into other elements. Land masses are created and destroyed. Power shifts between cities and peoples. Once you start to look for change, it is impossible to see anything else -- indeed, change rather than constancy comes to define existence itself.

Loyalty and Betrayal

Loyalty was an one of the most important characteristics of good character in Ovid's age. Cities needed to be able to rely on one another in times of war, for without networks of friendly cities, no one would ever have been at peace. Consequently, betrayal was one of the most harshly punished of Roman crimes. When Scylla betrays her father King Nissus, King Minos will have nothing to do with her. She is completely unworthy of love, because of the degrading action she committed. Even love, which can explain so much bad behavior, is not a justification for betraying your family and your country. Similarly, Medea casts herself in the role of the villain when she betrays her father and helps Jason get the golden fleece. Ovid intends the reader to consider Medea to be a corrupt person; her eventual tragic fate follows from this initial betrayal of her home.


Fate plays a major role in Metamorphoses, as Ovid embraces the idea that life is like a story which has already been written. People cannot escape their destiny; thus when Tiresias prophecies that Narcissus will live a long time unless he discovers himself, he is proven correct. Similarly, when Cassandra foresees the fall of Troy, she is unable to stop it from happening, despite her great desire to do so.

Fate is a concept which both supports and undermines the power of the gods. One the one hand, mortals pray to the gods both to know their fate, and to learn of any possible way of escaping it. At the same time, the gods themselves cannot alter fate, they can only forsee it. When the gods became angry because Hebe could not restore youth to their loved ones, Jove reminded them that he could not alter the fate of a mortal's life span. The gods have a longer view of Fate, but it exerts a force on them as well.

The presence of and belief in the preordained nature of life also lead to a fatalistic attitude in Roman society. When Deucalion and Pyrrha see the world end around them, they know that this destruction is fated, and that therefore it is futile to resist it. When Venus rages against the death of Caesar, Jove reminds her that she cannot alter his fate, but that good things are fated for Rome as well.


In many ways the Metamorphoses is about the origin of things. First, it begins with the creation of the universe and of man. Throughout the poem, Ovid points out when transformations result in the invention of new animals, plants, and even musical instruments. Apollo wears a laurel wreath in his hair, because the laurel came into being when Daphne was transformed. The crow's feathers are black, rather than white, because he told Apollo of Coronis's betrayal.

Like the Aeneid, the poem also explains the origin of Italy, albeit much more briefly. Though there is no concrete evidence for or against it, one can certainly imagine the Metamorphoses as a teaching tool for Roman children. By hearing it or reading it, they would learn important stories that explain their world. Furthermore, they would learn about their glorious emperor and his ancestors, an important component of any poem supported by the government.

The Role of Art

Throughout Metamorphoses, Ovid introduces stories within stories. Whether a singing competition between the Muses and nine sisters, the weaving competition between Arachne and Diana, or the nighttime amusement of Greek generals during the Trojan War, Ovid represents people telling stories and repeating myths within the larger context of his own myth-telling. People use these stories to illustrate points, communicate warnings, persuade, amuse and impress. By filling his poem with examples of the usefulness and importance of art, Ovid offers support for the importance of artists and writers in society.