Metamorphoses Summary and Analysis of Book IX - Book X


Achelous agrees to tell the story of how he lost one of his horns, an injury that limited his ability to change shapes, saying that he once fell in love with a woman, Deianira, and approached her father as a suitor. Hercules also sought Deianira's hand. Each suitor plead his case, and after Achelous spoke, Hercules became angry and attacked him. Unable to overcome Hercules, Achelous tried transforming into a snake and then into a bull. Hercules ripped one of the horns from Achelous' head during the struggle. Remembering his disgrace, Achelous hides his head as Theseus and the others depart.

Ovid tells us that Nessus the Centaur loses more than just a horn for Deianira. When Hercules and his bride, newly wedded, are on their way to his home, they come to a flooded river. Hercules doesn't know how to carry Deianira across. Nessus arrives and offers to ferry her over on his back, but then tries to steal Deianira as Hercules swims across the river. Seeing this attempt, Hercules kills Nessus with a poisoned arrow. As he dies, Nessus gives his shirt to Deianira as a gift, soaked though it is in his poisoned blood. Years later, Deianira hears that Hercules loves another woman, Iole, and sends Nessus' shirt to Hercules, believing that it contains the power to revive fading love. Hercules puts the poison-soaked shirt on, causing him such pain that he ripped his own flesh off his bones in an attempt to remove the shirt. Hercules catches up with Lichas, the servant who delivered the shirt for Deianira, and hurls him from the mountaintop, then finally escapes the pain by burning the moral portion of his body away on a funeral pyre. Jove carries him up into the sky.

Meanwhile we turn to Alcmena, Hercules' mother, and Iole. Iole has married Hercules' son, Hyllus, and is pregnant, so Alcmena is reminded of her own pregnancy with Hercules. Because Jove had impregnated her, Juno was terribly jealous and ordered Lucina, the goddess of childbirth, to make her die in giving birth. She labored for seven days and nights while Lucina prolonged her pain. Finally, Lucina was distracted by a maid, Galanthis, who noticed the goddess and lied in prayer, claiming that the child had been born. This distracts Lucina long enough to allow the birth. In her anger, Lucina turns Galanthis into a weasel. Iole then tells the story of her half-sister, Dryope, who was turned into a tree after she inadvertently picked flowers from a tree that was actually a nymph.

As Iole finishes this story, Hercules' nephew Iolaus, who had been dead, appears before her and Alcmena, explaining that he has been restored by Hebe. We learn that other dead people are prophesied to be restored as well during the ongoing civil war in Thebes. The gods, hearing this prophesy, complain that their loved ones cannot be revived, but Jove explains that such resurrections are fated and cannot be influenced, even by him. As a demonstration, he shows them all of those whom Jove loves, who will nonetheless fade and die.

We turn to the story of Byblis and Caunus, the twins of Cyanee. Byblis realizes as she grows up that she is passionately in love with her brother, Caunus, while knowing how wrong this passion is. She indulges in dreams the feelings she hides during her waking hours, meanwhile deploring the fact that gods may marry their own family while mortals may not. Finally she confesses her feelings to her brother in a letter. Caunus casts the letter away as soon as he follows its drift, enraged. Byblis, shaken by Caunus' display of hate, decides that she must carry through even so, and pursues her brother. He escapes to the land of Caria; in an attempt to follow, Byblis collapses in the woods, where she is discovered by the Lelegeian nymphs. They try and fail to help her and she becomes an ever-weeping fountain.

Elsewhere in Crete, Ligdus tells his pregnant wife that if she gives birth to a girl, it must be killed. Though saddened, Telethusa is prepared to carry out his wish until Isis visits her in her dreams. The goddesss tells her to raise the child regardless of its gender. When Telethusa gives birth to a girl, she disguises it as a boy. Ligdus androgenously names the child Iphis. Thirteen years later Iphis is bethrothed to the beautiful Ianthe; they love one another, a state that causes Iphis great grief as Ianthe thinks she is a man. Telethusa delays the marriage as long as possible and finally prays to Isis, who transforms Inathe from woman to man.

We turn to another wedding, that of Orpheus and Eurydice, which Hymen does not bless. Soon after the wedding, Eurydice is killed by a snakebite. Orpheus' despair is such that he visits the underworld to appeal to Pluto. He charms Dis and Proserpine with his lute and Pluto releases Eurydice under the condition that she follow Orpheus out of the Underworld on foot and that he never turn around to see if she's actually there. Just as Orpheus is almost out of the Underworld, he can't bear the suspense and turns to catch a glimpse of Eurydice; she's instantly carried back to the Underworld. Orpheus never loves another woman, turning instead to young boys.

One of Orpheus' beloved boys was changed to a cypress tree. The boy's name was Cyparissus. He loved a beautiful tame stag that he accidentally killed with a spear. In his grief he was turned to a cypress. Orpheus visits the tree and sings of how Jove fell in love with Ganymede and, disguised as an eagle, stole him away from Juno. Orpheus sings too of Hyacinthus, the boy lover of Phoebus, who was accidentally killed by a discus thrown by the god. At Phoebus Apollo's wish, in the place where Hyacinthus spilled his blood, a new flower sprung up - the Hyacinthia. Next he sings of the city of Amathus, inhabited by the Propoetides, divinity-deniers who were turned into flints, and also home to the Cerastae, horned murderers whom Venus turned into bulls. Orpheus turns to Pygmalian, who carved a perfect woman out of ivory and fell in love with his creation. On Venus's feast day he prayed to her and as a sign of her favor she transformed the statue into a real woman. Their son, Paphos was born nine months later.

Now Orpheus begins to tell the story of Cinyras, Paphos's son. One of the furies breathes on Myrrha, Cinyras's daughter, and infects her with an unnatural love for her father. Though she knows it to be wrong, she desires Cinyras so much that she attempts suicide rather than live with her pain. Just before she can hang herself, her nurse stops her and convinces Myrrha to confess her incestuous desire. The nurse decides to help Myrrha by convincing Cinyras to allow a young girl into his bed. He sleeps with Myrrha, ignorant of her identity, and she conceives a child. Discovering his lover's identity, Cinyras tries to murder Myrrha but she flees. Myrrha wanders until the gods take pity and transform her into a myrrh tree.

Myrrha's child, Adonis, remains inside of her, and Lucina magically splits the tree when he is ready to be born. Raised by nymphs, Adonis is extremely beautiful. One day, Cupid accidentally scratches his mother with an arrow, and she falls desperately in love with Adonis. Venus attends Adonis constantly, fearing for his safety because he loves to hunt wild beasts. Venus tells Adonis why she fears them, beginning with the story of Atalanta, a swift-footed girl who, dreading marriage, insisted that anyone who wanted to marry her beat her in a footrace first, accepting death if they lose. Many race and lose, until Hippomenes, grandson of Neptune, falls desperately in love with her. He seeks Venus' aid in winning the race, and Venus agrees to assist him using golden apples. Atalanta cannot but choose to chase after these apples. So during the race Hippomenes throws them, one after another, far away from the track. Though Atalanta is astonishingly fast, this buys Hippomenes enough time to win the race. However, Hippomenes forgets to sacrifices to Venus in thanks and in return Venus imbues him with an overwhelming desire to make love in a sacred temple. Juno turns them into lions because of the desecration. Thus Venus fears that wild beasts may be after revenge on her.

Venus departs and Adonis, heedless of her warning, hunts a boar. The boar turns on him and gores his groin. As he's dying, Venus weeps over his body and promises that each year his death will be commemorated. She transforms him into a flower whose beauty can be enjoyed only briefly: the anemone.


These books of the poem deal widely and broadly with doomed affairs -- emphasizing especially unusual attractions such as incest. The two books are roughly organized around two disappointed lovers -- Achelous and Orpheus -- though both books stray from their original storylines. The affairs are tragic and notable: Apollo accidentally kills Hyacinthus; Deianira accidentally poisons Hercules; Caunus falls in love with her own brother; Myrrh falls in love with her father; Orpheus loses Eurydice and turns to loving young boys; Venus loves Adonis; Hippomenes loves Atalanta. All these affairs are doomed, doomed, doomed -- with a few notable exceptions, such as Pygmalion. The often meandering and loose organization of this section, indeed, mirrors the wild play of desire that the stories capture within.

Book Nine begins as a kind of reassurance for Achelous that, though he lost Deianira and a horn, and thus had his dignity bruised, many others have suffered worse for love. Hercules certainly does not end well, and surely he is not so unlucky as Byblis and Caunus. The only happy story Achelous tells concerns the gender transformation of Iphis; even this story was careening toward misery until that miraculous change, suggesting wryly that only impossible divine interventions are capable of making love work. Meanwhile, Orpheus sings out of mourning for his lost wife: this his songs tell primarily of loss. Venus loses Adonis, Myrrha is doomed to rejection when her father discovers who she is. He to tells one happy story, that of Pygmalion and Galatea. Once again, this story suggests that only impossible divine favors can bring happiness in love.

Not only are the stories in these books overwhelmingly tragic, they also largely deal with unconventional attractions. We have two stories of incest -- Myrrha and her father and Byblis and Caunus -- and stories of same-sex attraction -- Orpheus' love for boys and Iphis and Ianthe's love. Alongside frequent accounts of sex with animals -- whether because a god has taken on an animal's appearance or, as in the case of Minos' wife, because a human has simply fallen in love with an animal -- these examples emphasize the indeterminacy of desire. Ancient Romans obviously did not follow our modern conceptions of love and marriage. They did not have labels like "homosexual," for example. One may be sexually attracted to whomever; that doesn't define one's existence. More importantly, Ovid gives us such a wide range of attractions to highlight the bacchanalian whirl of desire -- no one is safe from Cupid's power, not even Dis, nor Venus herself. As Carson McCullers wrote in another tale of tragic Eros, "The Ballad of the Sad Café": "A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp." For Metamorphoses, you could replace "a most mediocre person" with "anything at all." And it's this chaotic inception of desire that leads, inevitably, to tragedy.

These two books also provide fodder for considering the purpose of the transformations in Metamorphoses. We might be inclined to ask why people are changed into the things they become? Often the change has an explanation, such as Adonis' metamorphosis into a briefly-blooming flower, but other times the connection is murkier. Why do some become birds, others flowers? And moreover why are transformations described as an improvement of a person's condition at one point and as punishment at another? Is there justice in the chaos of transformation, or is another kind of order at work?

The lack of consistency in transformation as punishment or reward suggests that the ancient Roman sense of guilt and innocence as well as punishment and reward varies greatly from our own. First, let us examine transformation as a reward. When Adonis is transformed into a flower, it is not for his benefit. He is dead, and little thought is paid to his comfort or pleasure. There is no sense that those in the afterlife need to be comforted; rather, it is those left behind who are the true victims. Venus turns Adonis into a flower so that she can take some pleasure in her memory of him. Iphis's transformation from woman to man can certainly be viewed as a reward, for it brings Iphis great happiness. But, it is not clear that Iphis has done anything to deserve a reward. He is transformed out of divine grace, and his happiness merely gilds the glory of the goddess who transformed him. Similarly, Pygmalion's stone woman is transformed, because her perfection honors Venus. Pygmalion's worship of the female form, and his devotion to an ideal of love, also honor the goddess. She rewards his piety by granting his wish, but she does so because she wishes to, not because Pygmalion "deserves" it. No one deserves the favor of the gods. It is granted just as arbitrarily as their punishments.

Myrrha's transformation is an interesting case, because her unnatural desires would certainly attract the anger of the gods, but her despair would also attract their pity. In transforming Myrrha into a tree, the gods and goddesses seem to suggest that there is no other way out for her, she has gone to far down her path to simply flee to another land. Hippomenes' and Atalanta's punishment is more clear cut. They forget to honor Venus for her help in bringing them together, and she has them transformed into lions. Whether or not this is a punishment for them is not entirely relevant. Like turning someone into a flower after his death, Venus transforms the couple primarily so that others will not think they can forget about her. Their transformation is a sign of her power. Ultimately, transformation is always an act of power, whether it is the power to ease grief or the power to threaten.