Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is many things: several stories, some bleak, some uplifting, ranging from the creation of the world to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. Yet in its most fundamental form, his epic love poem of many stories reveals deep truths in its poetic proclamations of the transformative power, and spirit, of love.
Ovid was one of the great poets of antiquity, standing alongside Virgil and Horace as part of the trio of immortal Latin poets of Augustan Rome that wrote about the intensity of the passions. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a grand poetic epic—yes, epic—of the transformation of history and truth into poetry. As he concludes: “Wherever through the lands beneath her sway / The might of Rome extends, my words shall be / Upon the lips of men. If truth at all / Is stablished by poetic prophecy / My fame shall live to all eternity.” But deep within the collection of stories that serve as the pulsating heart of Ovid’s finest accomplishment, there is a sparkling truth that his prophetic poetry reveals: divinization, metamorphosis, by love. The fame which permits Ovid to live for all eternity is through his being a prophetic poet of the power of love.
By the medieval period, Ovid was studied as a canonical writer and one of the pillars of what we now call classical education. Ovid’s sensualism and violence were allegorized under a new Christian regime. Ovid’s devotion to love was approved under the revelation of the Christian truth concerning love’s transformative power, love being the highest good in life. The naturalistic overtures in the Metamorphoses were regarded as the shortcomings of the pre-Christian world; his writings on violence (and lust) were taught as examples of what proper love is not, and how various acts of impiety lead to negative consequences (as they do throughout the poem). Although Ovid was baptized into Christianity, and therefore bequeathed to the rest of the world, he was not without his detractors (most prominently, and especially, the English Puritans) then as he still is now.
The length of Ovid’s epic poem, from the creation of the world to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, includes many myths and stories; some bleak, some uplifting. I wish to treat three of the stories contained therein to highlight one of those truths “stablished by poetic prophecy.” The stories of Perseus and Andromeda, Pygmalion and the Statue, and Acis and Galatea undoubtedly reveal the power of love, and our metamorphosis by it.
One of the issues of understanding the pagan world and psyche is the dark cosmos they inhabited. Chaos is the oldest of the gods in Ovid’s account; not too dissimilar from Hesiod’s cosmos of strife, rage, and war. Humans were often the “puppets of the gods,” and the fated objects of divine lust, rape, and control. Pious fatalism was often the best one could hope to achieve. Yet in the midst of this often dark and violent cosmos of thunderbolts and skullduggery, these three stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses shine brighter than the sun, and give a great deal of hope to humans.
The Metamorphoses opens with the usual act of invoking the gods or muses: “Of bodies changed to other forms I tell; / You Gods, who have yourselves wrought ever change / Inspire my enterprise and lead my lay / In one continuous song from nature’s first / Remote beginnings to our modern times.” By describing creation to us, we are made witness to the dark and chaotic cosmos. “No sun as yet poured light upon the world, / No waxing moon her crescent filled anew, / Nor in the ambient air yet hung the earth, / Self-balanced, equipoised, nor Ocean’s arms / Embraced the long far margin of the land . . . Cold essence fought with hot, and moist with dry, / And hard with soft and light with things of weight.” Ovid’s creation account, with Chaos as the “one, well named” god, begins with chaos and emerges through strife. The chaos of the cosmos is tamed by hard labor and energy, toil, and sweat; in other words, strife begets strife, and is only countered by an alternative form of strife (the arduous strife of work, laborem).
Although creation is not the product of love, the stories contained in Ovid’s Metamorphoses often deal with love, or lust (or often both), and capture the essence of the human struggle and condition, the struggle in which humans hope for their own divinization and salvation through love. We are exposed, then, to two competing outlooks as to how to transform ourselves: through struggling strife or through the tenderness of love. The creation myth might be through hard conflictual labor, but by the poem’s end Ovid achieves a very subtle and radical transformation in understanding the spirit of the cosmos.
The story of Perseus and Andromeda is a tale of faith, hope, and love triumphant. There is much darkness that clouds the grand story. Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother, is a vain and haughty woman who endangers her beautiful, virgin daughter by tempting Andromeda to exude vanity and claim that she is more beautiful than the naiads. Challenging the divine hierarchy in such a way, Neptune (Poseidon) is enraged and enchains Andromeda to be eaten by the sea-monster Cetus. Medusa, the gorgon whom Perseus slays, was also a vain woman—a feminine Narcissus—enraptured by her own beautiful hair. Seducing Neptune, she consummated their sexual lust in the virgin temple of Minerva (Athena). This outrages Minerva and causes her to turn Medusa’s beloved prize into a nest of disgusting and repulsive snakes. Phineus, Andromeda’s original prospective husband, loves not her charm and feminine mystique, but the political utility that she brings—Phineus’ lust for political power is the basis of his relationship with Andromeda.
Despite all the skullduggery, vanity, and impiety that are interwoven into the tale, it is important to note that all of those who are metamorphosized are sinners deserving punishment. Medusa must be killed for, alongside her vanity, her violation of a divine temple. Atlas must equally be turned to stone for his impious affront against Jupiter. Phineus must be slain for his lust for powerful and political ambitions which wreak havoc during a wedding banquet. Though these transformations are due to just punishment for sin, the metamorphosis of Perseus and Andromeda is what the story principally concerns itself with.
Perseus is the son of Jove and therefore a demi-god, a sort of godman who is part human and part divine. While he is an instrument of divine judgment against sinners, he is also transformed through his deeds of heroic love and faith to the gods. It is, after all, his fides, his faith, that allows him to overcome all the monsters and obstacles that stand in his way.
Minerva has instructed Perseus how to defeat Medusa. Do not look into her eyes, the goddess implores the hero-son, before giving him a shield to protect himself. Coming upon a sleeping Medusa, Perseus uses the shield—rather than his naked eyes—to line up the culling blow. After decapitating the gorgon, he places the head in a pouch to keep himself, and others, safe from her tremendous powers which remain even after death.
As he soars overhead on Pegasus, he comes across the innocent and beautiful Cassiopeia enchained on the rocks. As Ovid makes clear, her innocence and purity demand saving, “There, innocent, by Jove’s unjust decree / Condemned to suffer for her mother’s tongue, / Andromeda was pinioned on a rock.” Because Andromeda is free from any affront, any sin, she cannot be punished.
But what causes Perseus to rescue her? It is evident that Andromeda is not deserving of the fate of being eaten by Cetus, but it is not her innocence that is the instrument of her deliverance as much as it is Perseus’ love upon seeing her. “When Perseus saw her, had a wafting breeze / Not stirred her hair, her eyes not overflowed / With trembling tears, he had imagined her / A marble statue. Love, before he knew, / Kindled; he gazed entranced; and overcome / By loveliness so exquisite, so rare, / Almost forgot to hover in the air.” It is love that delivers Andromeda from her enchainment. Moreover, and equally important, it is sight of her face, rather than her body, that allows Perseus to recognize her as human.
The face is the seat of the soul and subjectivity. The human face brings liveliness and personality to the lifeless, soulless, material world. It is not incidental, then, that it is the face which reveals Andromeda’s beauty and personality. After turning Cetus into stone, Perseus asks for the fair girl’s name, “Reveal, I beg, your name and this land’s name.” That Perseus asks for her name indicates his interest in her subjectivity, and not just her carnal beauty (though this is certainly included with her subjectivity and soulfulness).
In rescuing her, Andromeda becomes Perseus’ bride-to-be. Love, here, consummates itself in marriage. The two begin telling their stories to each other, thereby enlarging their lives through the intertwining of the stories that define their persons.
Returning home, and grateful for Andromeda’s deliverance, Cepheus and Cassiopeia arrange for their daughter’s marriage to Perseus. The wedding banquet is disrupted by Phineus, a “rash ringleader of war.” Phineus, as we’ve mentioned, was the original promised suitor of Andromeda. However, his interest in Andromeda was moved for purely political reasons; he never loved her, and doesn’t love her as Perseus does. This is revealed in Cepheus’ rebuke, “Is this / Your thanks for such great service? This the dower / You pay for her life saved? / It was not Perseus / Who took her from you, if you want the truth: / It was the Nereids and Neptune’s wrath, / It was the horned Ammon, it was the sea-monster / Who came to feast upon my flesh and blood / You lost her then, then when her death was sure, / Unless her death indeed is what you want / And mean my grief to ease your cruel heart.” With or without her breathing soul by his side, Phineus could claim his legitimacy to power through his betrothal to Andromeda—it mattered not if she lived or died on that rock.
Lust, specifically the lust for power, brings chaos to the political realm. After all, it is in a palace and a social environ that this part of the tale takes place. Love brings serene harmony to politics. The many lords and ladies, bards and citizens, that attend the wedding, enjoy the fruits of love in marriage. This is disturbed, as Ovid’s recounting of the story entails, through the lust for power and the ambition that comes with it. Love, nevertheless, triumphs. In the maelstrom of battle, Phineus and his band of marauding warriors are defeated. Perseus turns them into stone.
After defeating Phineus, Perseus and Andromeda seal their love for each other in a bountiful and fertile marriage. Perseus and Andromeda wed; their marriage brings forth many children. The metamorphosis of Perseus and Andromeda is through love. In the midst of sin and darkness, chaos and war, love emerged triumphant and brought forth the greatest transformation of all: the bonding of two flesh as one in marriage.
One of the most charming, if not peculiar, stories contained in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the tale of Pygmalion and his statue. Pygmalion is a sculptor, and a damned good sculptor. What he creates is almost life-like, the closest stone, marble, and ivory can be to living flesh and blood.
When we are introduced to Pygmalion, he is suffering from loneliness, and general resentment to the female sex. “Pygmalion had seen these women spend / Their days in wickedness, and horrified / At all the countless vices nature gives / To womankind lived celibate and long / Lacked the companionship of married love.” We can infer from the introduction to Pygmalion’s plight that he had been spurned by love and was aghast at the degenerate morals of the people, women especially, around him. With his love spurned, Pygmalion descends into a celibate and lonely isolation where he crafts female statues as a coping mechanism for his plight.
During his plight, he crafts a statue so beautiful and life-like that it almost appears to be alive, “Meanwhile he carved his snow-white ivory / With marvelous triumphant artistry / And gave it perfect shape, more beautiful / Than ever woman born. His masterwork / Fired him with love. It seemed to be alive, / Its face to be a real girl’s face.” Beauty’s face lit a fire deep inside the cool and tempered heart of Pygmalion, and he raced to the festival of Venus to say prayers.
Pygmalion’s admiration of beauty, the power of beauty, literally brought new life to him. Beauty also pushes him to Venus to offer up pious prayers: “Vouchsafe / O Gods, if all things you can grant, my bride / Shall be . . . The living likeness of my ivory girl.” It might be easy to condemn Pygmalion as a young boy going through puberty, but that misses the gentle introduction where his prior love seems to have been spurned, leading him into the pit of despair and loneliness that he is in. Nay, rather than mock Pygmalion for his flurry of passion, we should understand how the new life in Pygmalion came to be: love discovered and mediated through beauty.
Moreover, Pygmalion is a pious man. His prayers to Venus serve as a testament to his piety. Because Pygmalion is pious, his prayer shall be granted.
After saying his prayers, Pygmalion rushes home and grasps the statue once more. In a dazzling display of rhetorical and linguistic skill, Ovid describes the scene:
incumbensque toro dedit oscula visa tepere est;
admovet os iterum, manibus quoque pectora temptat:
temptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore
subsidit digitis ceditque.
(Where she lay he kissed her, and she seemed warm to the touch,
so kissing her again and caressing her breasts,
the ivory grew soft in his fingers
and its hardness vanished into flesh.)
As the statue transformed to warm living flesh and blood, “She [became] alive!” With the statue now a woman, Pygmalion “poured his thanks to Venus, and, at last / His lips pressed real lips, and she, his girl, / Felt every kiss, and blushed, and shyly raised / Her eyes to his and saw the world and him. / The goddess graced the union she had made, / And when nine times the crescent moon had filled / Her silver orb an infant girl was born.”
This short and admittedly amusing story is one of the most powerful and deep in the Metamorphoses. The story of Pygmalion communicates how beauty and love bring life to a cold and lonely world. Beauty and love resurrect Pygmalion, if you will, and leads to a marriage with the ultimate life-giving event as its culmination: childbirth. Pygmalion’s salvation, and the humanization of a cold, empty statue (representative of the cold, empty, loveless matter) is through the life-giving power of beauty and love. Beauty and love go together; if beauty is to save the world, then this also entails that love will save the world—just as it did Pygmalion and Galatea.
Galatea became the traditional naming of Pygmalion’s statue, though Ovid leaves the statue-turned-beautiful-“snow-white”-woman unnamed. The story of Acis and Galatea is another one of the great love stories contained in Ovid’s epic. By now it should be apparent that many of the stories that Ovid tells are tales of love. While Acis and Galatea is a far more somber story, we still get a foretaste of divinization in Acis’ rebirth into a god.
The tragic love story of Acis and Galatea is sandwiched between the Pilgrimage of Aeneas; it begins an aside of stories that provide basic contextual background to the places that Aeneas and the pilgrimaging Trojans venture. Our story begins with Scylla combing Galatea’s hair before inquiring why she continues to turn down various suitors. Galatea explains by talking of the memory of her love with Acis, “He was sixteen, the down upon his cheek / Scare yet a beard, and he was beautiful. / He was my love, but I was Cyclops’ love, / Who wooed me endlessly and, if you ask / Whether my hate for him or love for Acis / Was stronger in my heart, I could not tell.” The ending of the story, however, reveals that her love for Acis was more powerful than her hatred of Polyphemus.
Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclops, is the undeniable villain of the story. The shepherd giant is described as a vile and monstrous creature, as most shepherds were—indicative of the Roman (and Greek) distrust of nomadic peoples (known as “the barbarians”). Polyphemus is also described as a lustful giant and maniac; he has coursing through his veins a “wild urge to kill” and a “lust for blood.” Polyphemus is no beautiful, handsome, and tender suitor as is Acis.
The love of Acis and Galatea is one of rich and deep purity. Acis and Galatea are gentle and honest lovers who embrace one another in their subjectivity; unlike many tales where the love of mortal and divine is usually the lust of the divine to control the mortal, there is no indication that Galatea lusted to control Acis as Circe or Calypso did to Odysseus or Zeus to Ganymede. Instead, the love between Acis and Galatea is pure; they share their joys and personalities with each other, which enrages Polyphemus.
The lament of Polyphemus could have been the episode of redemption for the giant, but, instead, turns into the catalyst for his rage. “I’ll gauge his living guts, I’ll rend his limbs / And strew them in the fields and in the sea,” the vicious cyclops screams. Chancing upon them as a predator waiting to ambush, Polyphemus’ coldness comes to the fore when he says “I see you; now I shall make sure / That loving fond embrace shall be your last.” Polyphemus springs upon them like a lion. The attack startles Galatea, who dives into the sea, and causes Acis to run up the mountainside.
In despair, Acis calls out, “Help, Galatea! Father, mother, help!” All to no avail. Polyphemus continues to chase the young man until he crushes him with a rock. Polyphemus retreats back to his blood-soaked cave a murderer. But the gods, the fates, take pity on Galatea and Acis. As Galatea recounts, “But I (it was all the Fates permitted me) / Caused Acis to assume ancestral powers.” Acis is subsequently resurrected as a divine river spirit: “Acis there himself / Changed to a river-god; and still the same / His waters keep that legendary name.”
Acis overcomes death because of love. As his blood spills out over the countryside, his blood is transformed into a divine river spirit, precisely because he loved and was beloved. Furthermore, the memory of love is the driving spirit of the story. In a rare instance of first person-third person blurring, this particular story is told from the persona of Galatea rather than the poet Ovid. The memory of love, we realize, is what prevents Galatea from taking on new suitors. The memory of love is what also ensures Acis’ immortality. Acis’ love for Galatea, and her receptivity to that love, is the unbreakable bond that brought Acis back from the grave—in the form of a river god—and keeps Galatea forever his despite the many suitors now pursuing Galatea.
The story of Galatea and Acis, while somber and dark, reminds us that love conquers death. Though Acis is killed by Polyphemus, he is resurrected, if you will, and takes on a new (divine) form. The only reason why Acis takes on a new form is because of the love he shared with Galatea; without love, Acis would have remained sinking into the ground—for dust he was and to dust he would have returned, if not for the salvific power of love. Additionally, the story communicates the power of love through memory. Love does not die with the mangling and rotting of the body. Love endures forever in the blessed realm of memory. The memory of love ensures that love never dies. A certain bishop of Hippo would later have much to say on this topic.
It is true that there is extensive violence throughout the Metamorphoses (consider the extensiveness of violence in two of the stories we have just sampled). In part, this is the reality of Ovid’s understanding of the world. Love and violence often did go together (and do go together). This too is a great achievement of Ovid because he lays bare the gratuity and violence that accompanied his world. He doesn’t hide the fact that sex and violence are widespread. Nevertheless, Ovid also reveals how love, sweet and tender, caressing, love, breaks through in this bleak and violent cosmos. There are stories of transformation that lead to shock and revulsion and stories of transformation that lead to ecstatic endearment and tears. The stories of metamorphosis by love, especially that tender and compassionate love, are the tales that stick.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is many things. In its most fundamental form, Ovid’s epic love poem of many stories reveals deep truths in its poetic proclamations of the transformative power, and spirit, of love. The truth revealed by Ovid’s grand love epic is how love transforms us, love renews us, and love constitutes the pulsating heart of life. Despite all the chaos and flux we deal with, despite all the violence and objection, despite all the cruelty and even death, love remains the one constancy of the cosmos standing alongside all the various manifestations of strife. Love manages to creep into the cosmos that was, as the creation myth retells, not the product of love, but chaotic strife. Thus, Ovid achieves the poetic metamorphosis of the creation story; he transforms the cosmos of chaos and strife into a cosmos of love with the possibility, however brief, of serenity in love even if it is engulfed in the darkness of violence and bloodshed.
The Metamorphoses does not offer anything new by detailing a cosmos in a state of perpetual flux, strife, and change. Heraclitus and Lucretius had already posited this notion. What Ovid’s Metamorphoses does offer as new in comparison to prevailing Greek and Roman views of the world is how love is the one constant in this cosmos of flux and violence. Love, as we have seen, brings life into a world of death and sin; love, tied with beauty, renews the world; love endures even after death, and is the spirit of transformation over the grave. When Pythagoras speaks of the constancy of the soul in Book XV, Ovid reveals his understanding of the soul as the constancy of the love which permeates the poem.
To integrate Pythagoras and Ovid, as I think this is the message of the Metamorphoses, Love is the same forever, but adopts new migrations in ever-varying forms. The “pilgrim souls” that Pythagoras speaks of are nothing less than loving souls on a pilgrimage of love through the cosmos, being tossed about and torn in its chaos and violence. When Ovid concludes the poem with the word vivam, “I shall live,” he lives eternally through the love he prophesied about—for he was a pilgrim soul hoping to be transformed by love. No fire can destroy, no sword can cut, no age can forget, the truth that love is the constant guiding spirit of the cosmos, no matter how much darkness, violence, and bloodshed surrounds it.
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The featured image is “Pygmalion Praying Venus to Animate His Statue” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.