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Ovid asks the gods for help in singing a song about metamorphoses, starting at the beginning of the world, and then carrying through to the present day.
Then Ovid starts telling us about the beginning of the world.
In the beginning, everything was a total mess. Then some god (we aren't told who) came along and put everything in order.
He let fire, the lightest element, shoot up to its natural place at the furthest reaches of the universe. Below fire came air, a slightly heavier element.
Below that was where he put all the heavy elements – dirt, rocks, and so on. All this stuff collected at the center of the universe. (That's right, for Ovid the earth is the center of the universe.) Then he let water flow all over it.
Now that he had gotten everything on the right shelves, so to speak, it was time to put them in order.
He did some fancy decorating, made the mountains and fields, organized the different regions of the earth and sky, and sent all the different winds to their individual stations.
Now the stars thought it was safe to come out, so they did.
Then the god made animals to inhabit all the different regions of the world.
Then Ovid lets us pick what comes next – sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure story. He says that human beings definitely came next, but he isn't sure whether they were made by the same god who made everything, or instead by Prometheus, son of Iapetus.
He spends more time telling us the version where Prometheus gets the credit. According to Ovid, Prometheus made humans from a mixture of mud and rainwater. That might not sound too nice – except that the mud had only recently been part of the sky, and so it still had some fancy heavenly seeds in it. Oh yeah, and he made man in the shape of the gods.
The first age of human existence was the Age of Gold. At this time, life truly was a bowl of cherries – and strawberries, arbutus fruit, blackberries, and acorns, yes, acorns. Humans ate all of this stuff back then without having to work for it. They didn't even have to plough their fields to get wheat. Plus there was no war or strife of any kind and the steams were full of milk and honey. Sweet.
But then Saturn, the god who has in charge of the world at the time, got kicked out by Jupiter, who made himself the new king of the gods.
This kicked off the Age of Silver. The new administration brought in some changes, notably the four seasons. Since the world was now cold for half the year, humans started living in houses for the first time. They also started plowing the earth to get wheat.
Next came the Age of Bronze. It was a bit rougher than the Age of Silver, but not as bad as the Age of Iron.
Guess which age comes next? Yup, the Age of Iron. Now all hell breaks loose, with people killing each other left right and center. They also start chopping down trees to make ships and mining the earth for silver and gold. Those precious metals just give them another excuse to keep killing each other left, right, and center.
In the midst of all this chaos, Astraea, the goddess of justice, leaves the earth.
Then the Giants rose up in a war against Jupiter and piled Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa in an attempt to reach up to Olympus.
Jupiter knocked the stack of mountains over and also knocked the Giants out cold.
Then the Earth soaked up the blood of the Giants and made a new race in their image – that of humans. But wait, didn't we just hear that Prometheus (or possibly the god who created the world) made humans in the image of gods? What gives, Ovid?
Jupiter isn't pleased when he sees this; he calls the other gods together to discuss it.
He tells them that he plans to kill all the humans – apparently because he means to protect all the demigods like Nymphs, Satyrs, and Fauns that still live on earth.
He asks, "How can they be safe if Lycaon could pull such a trick on me, the king of the gods?"
But wait, who's Lycaon? The other gods don't know either. Now Jupiter explains it.
He had heard rumors about what jerks humans had turned out to be, and went down to earth, in disguise, just to see. Sure enough, he got treated terribly everywhere he went.
Finally, when he came to the land of Arcadia, he revealed himself as a god. This time, of course, all the Arcadians started worshipping him.
All of the Arcadians, that is, except for their tyrant, Lycaon.
Lycaon didn't believe that Jupiter was a god, but he decided to test him anyway. He planned to murder Jupiter in his sleep, to test out if he was immortal or not. Also, in secret – or so he thought – he killed an emissary from a neighboring tribe, butchered him, and served him to Jupiter for supper.
In response to this outrage, Jupiter got outraged. He flattened Lycaon's palace with a thunderbolt, and then drove Lycaon out into the wild. There, Lycaon was changed into a wolf. From now on, his savagery will be purely spent on ravaging sheep.
That is the end of Jupiter's story. He concludes by saying he wishes he had destroyed many more of the humans' houses than just the palace of Lycaon.
The other gods approve of Jupiter's decision to bring justice to bear against the ingrate humans, but they aren't so keen on the idea of wiping all the humans off the face of the planet. Where would they get sacrifices from, for one thing?
Their reservations don't end up mattering much in the end. Jupiter at first considers scorching the earth with fire, but then decides to flood it instead.
In addition to the water coming down from the heavens, he also enlists the help of his brother, Neptune, the god of the sea, who passes the message along to his subordinates – the river gods. Working together, these guys drown the entire world.
The entire world, that is, except for two people – Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha. When Jupiter sees these two cowering on top of a mountain peak, he remembers how they were both always pious towards the gods. He calls off the waters, to spare their lives.
The sea-god Triton blows his conch-shell, the signal for all of the waters retreat. The waters pull back, and the world is revealed again.
At this point, after they both pray to various gods, Deucalion turns to Pyrrha and says, "Wow. This totally sucks."
It turns out that Deucalion's dad is Prometheus; he says that he wishes he had daddy's power to craft some more humans.
They go to the shrine of the goddess Themis and ask her what to do.
Themis tells them to veil their heads, loosen their belts, and walk around throwing "the bones / of the great mother" over their shoulders.
At first, Pyrrha freaks out, because she doesn't want to throw her mother's bones around.
But then Deucalion says he's figured out what the goddess was saying: "The great mother is the earth; her bones are rocks. We should walk around throwing rocks over our shoulders."
They figure they have nothing to lose, so they do just that.
Sure enough, wherever a rock lands, it changes into a person. The rocks that Deucalion throws turn into men, and those that Pyrrha throws turn into women.
Then the other animals are formed from the moist ground, warmed by the blazing sun.
Some of the creatures that the earth created had existed before the flood, but some were new. Among the new ones was the horrible Python.
The god Apollo, also known as Phoebus, didn't like the look of this varmint, and so he shot him the death with arrows. To commemorate this event, he instituted the Pythian athletic contests.
Pleased as punch with his victory, Apollo runs into Cupid, the god of sexual desire, who is stringing his own bow.
Apollo tells Cupid to stick to inflaming people with his torch, and leave shooting arrows to him.
Cupid says, "No way, man," and flutters off to Mount Parnassus. There, he draws two arrows from his quiver: one, made of gold, has a sharp tip. It kindles desire. The other, made of lead, has a blunt tip; whomever it strikes will reject all love.
Cupid shoots Apollo with the golden arrow, and shoots the nymph Daphne with the leaden one.
The result? Apollo totally gets the hots for Daphne, whereas she swears to remain a virgin forever.
One day, Apollo starts chasing Daphne, begging her to stop running and give herself to him. He tries the old, "I'm a god, you know" pick-up line, but it doesn't work.
Just when Apollo is about to catch her, however, Daphne prays to her father, the river god Peneus for help.
Help is granted. All of a sudden, Daphne stops running and turns into…an olive tree. Yep. (If this is a little hard to picture, you might want to check out this sculpture by the Italian renaissance sculptor Bernini; we're giving you pictures from multiple angles so you can take in the full awesomeness.)
But Apollo doesn't stop loving her. In fact, he tells her (in Mandelbaum's translation), "since / you cannot be my wife, you'll be my tree." With that, he swears to wear olive leaves in his hair, and on his lyre and his quiver. He also institutes the tradition of Roman generals wearing olive wreaths to celebrate their victories.
Daphne the laurel tree nods her branches in agreement.
Meanwhile, in the valley of Tempe in mainland Greece, the various river gods are gathering around Peneus, Daphne's father. They don't know whether the console him for his loss or comfort him for the new honor Daphne has won.
One river god isn't present: Inachus, who is worried sick about his daughter, Io. She hasn't come home, and she hasn't called, texted, emailed, twittered, or sent a message by passenger pigeon (the original twitter).
Now Ovid tells us what Inachus doesn't know. Apparently, Jupiter caught sight of her as she was wandering through the countryside.
He tried to convince her to sleep with him in the woods, but she kept on walking. In response, he veiled the land with a cloud of mist…and then raped her.
Up in the heavens, Juno, queen of the gods, and Jupiter's wife, noticed that a large tract of land down on the ground was covered with clouds. She suspected that her husband is up to no good.
But Jupiter saw her coming. Just before Juno dispersed the clouds, Jupiter turned Io into a white heifer (female cow).
After making some chit-chat about what a nice cow Jupiter had, Juno asked to keep it as a pet.
In his mind, Jupiter went back and forth over whether he should do it or not, but eventually he decided to give her over. He was worried that, if he made too big a fuss about it, Juno would realize that Io wasn't really a cow.
In the end, he decided to give Io up.
But Juno still suspected something was up; she entrusted Io to the crazy giant Argus, who had a hundred eyes. When he slept, he would only close two eyes and use all the rest for watching.
Argus let Io graze by day, but at night he locked her up. To put it in the simplest terms, Io's life pretty much sucked from this point on.
Eventually, in her wanderings, she reached the river of Inachus, her father. She started hanging around there, but he didn't know who she was.
Speaking of not knowing things, it also seems that Ovid has now caught us up on the back-story, because what's happening now seems to be after the meeting of the river gods that Inachus missed. Are you with us on this? OK, agreed: back-story's over.
One day, Io succeeds in revealing her identity by scratching words in the dirt with her hoof.
Now her dad is majorly depressed – this is worse than anything he could have imagined. He says that he would kill himself – except that, as an immortal, he can't.
Then the tearful reunion is cut short by Argus, who drives Io away to other pastures.
Eventually, however, Jupiter decides that enough is enough. He sends Mercury, the messenger god, down to earth. His mission? Kill Argus.
Mercury, disguised as a shepherd, finds Argus. He walks by, playing panpipes, and Argus is so enchanted by the music that he asks him to sit down.
It turns out that panpipes were only recently invented. Argus asks Mercury to tell him how they came into existence.
Mercury clears his throat and begins. He explains how, in the land of Arcadia, there lived a nymph named Syrinx, who looked very similar to the huntress goddess, Diana. Like Diana, she had taken a vow of chastity.
One day, as Syrinx was going about her business, she was spotted by Pan – the weird half-goat god of the Greeks.
At this point, Mercury stops telling his story. Instead, Ovid steps in and tells what he would have told Argus but didn't.
Ovid explains that Pan chased Syrinx until she came to the banks of a river. There, she asked the water nymphs for help. They changed her into a bunch of reeds.
When Pan picked up the reeds, his sighs made them vibrate, and he decided to turn them into a musical instrument – the panpipe, which, in ancient Greece and Rome, was known as a "syrinx," after the name of the unfortunate nymph. (Our modern word "syringe" – also a hollow tube, if you think about it – comes from the same word.)
That's the end of Ovid's story. Mercury would have told it, except that he noticed that Argus – who apparently thought stories about nymphs turning into musical instruments were boring – had just shut his hundred eyes.
Seeing his opportunity, Mercury first strikes Argus with his wand, which causes sleep (better safe than sorry); then, with a sword curved like a scythe, he cuts his head off.
When Juno sees what happened to her henchman, she takes his hundred eyes and puts them onto the tail-feathers of her favorite bird – the peacock.
Then she sends one the Furies down to torment Io.
The Fury chases Io all over the place, until she eventually comes to the Nile. There, Io lifts up her nose to the heavens and moos for help.
Jupiter hears her and begs Juno to relent, telling her that he won't have anything more to do with Io. (Note that he doesn't say he won't ever cheat again with women other than Io.)
Juno accepts and lets Io change back into a human. She regains her old form completely, except she preserves the striking whiteness of the cow. Ovid tells us that, in his own time, Io is celebrated as the goddess Isis.
Io ends up having a son, Epaphus. (Jupiter is suspected as the father.)
Epaphus is the same age as Phaethon, the son of the god of the Sun.
Before we move on to tell you what happened to Phaethon, however, we have to take a break to bring you an Urgent Mythological Update!
So what mythological misconception (or, "mythconception," as they're known in the biz) are we busting today? The idea that Apollo and the Sun-god are the same guy. The truth? They're not. OK, OK, it's a little more complicated – there were different traditions floating around in ancient times, and some people did say that Apollo was the god of the sun, which is why modern readers tend to blur them together.
But this is missing the point. The point is, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, they are two different guys: Apollo is the god of poetry and healing and prophecy and archery, and all that nifty stuff. The Sun-god is a guy called "Sol." Because "Sol" is just the Latin word for "sun," we at Shmoop (following the translator Allen Mandelbaum) will just refer to him as the "Sun."
Now, there's just one catch. To be sneaky, Ovid will sometimes use the name "Phoebus" to refer to both Apollo and the Sun. This might make you think they're the same guy – but that's not the idea. The root meaning of "Phoebus" is "radiant," a word that could obviously apply to the sun, as well as to a fancy-shmancy divinity like Apollo.
To keep things simple, here on Shmoop, we will use the name "Phoebus" to refer only to Apollo; whenever the Sun-god comes up, we will just call him "Sun." That said, when you're reading Ovid's poem and you come across the name "Phoebus," you should pay attention to the context to see which god is being referred to.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.
Having the Sun as your father definitely sets you apart from other kids your age; perhaps inevitably, Phaethon starts boasting that he's better than Epaphus, along "my dad can beat up your dad" lines.
But Epaphus tells him that his mom lied to him, and somebody else was his dad. (This is a double insult, since it also implies that his mom was sleeping around.)
Phaethon doesn't like that one bit and runs crying home to his mom, whose name is Clymene.
He demands that she prove to him that the Sun was his father.
Clymene, eager to defend her honor, reaches her hands up to the sky and swears that the Sun was Phaethon's father. Then she tells him that he can go visit his dad's palace – it isn't far from where they are.
Phaethon says, "Hot diggity!" and sets out. After crossing Ethiopia and India, sure enough, he gets there in no time.