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The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses


by Ovid

The Metamorphoses Book 8 Summary

  • The next morning, the weather is good, and Cephalus and company make it back to Athens.
  • In the meantime, however, King Minos is continuing his war against the cities of Greece. At the moment, he is besieging the city of Megara.
  • The king of Megara is a man named Nisus. Ovid tells us that his hair is all grey except for one purple tuft. Cool. Oh yeah, and this purple tuft also has the magical power of keeping his kingdom safe – so long as it's still on his head. Way cool. And…weird.
  • The king's daughter is named Scylla.
  • As the siege wears on, she spends her days watching the goings-on from the battlements. Over time, she develops a huge crush on Minos, the Cretan king. Uh-oh.
  • Scylla goes back and forth wondering what to do, but eventually decides that she has to be with him, come hell or high water. The only thing standing in her way is her father, Minos. She decides to sidestep his power – by taking his purple tuft of hair.
  • So, in the middle of the night, she sneaks into his room, and tears the purple tuft out by the roots. Then, she exits the fortress and goes to find Minos in the Cretan camp.
  • The thing is, Minos is a pretty stand-up guy – not the sort to look kindly on daughters who rip their fathers' magical purple hair out of their heads. He tells Scylla to scram. Then he conquers the city.
  • Once Minos has finished re-jigging the Megarian constitution, he sails away with his army.
  • When Scylla sees them sailing away, she freaks out, and starts shrieking about what a jerk he is. She also makes fun of him because of his weird personal history involving bulls.
  • First of all, in case you didn't know, Minos is the son of Jupiter and Europa – whom he abducted when he took the shape of a bull. Now, Scylla makes fun of him, saying it wasn't Jupiter disguised as a bull, but just a straight up bull that impregnated his mama. Ooh, burn!
  • Then, she makes fun of him because his wife, Pasiphae, had an affair with a bull and gave birth to a half-human, half-bull baby. (This baby was the Minotaur; we'll be coming back to him.)
  • Despite all these insults, however, Scylla is still madly in love with Minos. She dives into the sea, swims up to Minos's ship, and grips it fast. Just at that moment, however, her father Nisus, who had apparently turned into a hawk, swoops down and starts attacking her. Then she turns into a bird as well. And that's the end of that.
  • Then Minos gets home to Crete, and life seems to be going as usual…except for, you know, the fact that his wife's half-human, half-bull baby has been growing up into a half-human, half-bull teenager.
  • Minos realizes he's got to keep this monstrosity far away from the public eye. So he hires the inventor and architect Daedalus to build a maze underneath his palace. In this labyrinth, he incarcerates the Minotaur.
  • Then Minos starts to demand that the Athenians send him young boys and girls for the Minotaur to eat. They are supposed to send them every nine years.
  • This happens twice. But the third time around, Theseus is one of the Athenian youths. He kills the Minotaur with the help of Minos's daughter, Ariadne. You see, Ariadne gives Theseus a thread, which he unwinds as he makes his way through the maze. That way, once he kills the beast, he is able to find his way back out by following the thread.
  • Unfortunately for Ariadne, Theseus was a jerk. On their voyage back to Athens, he abandoned her on the island of Naxos. A little while later, however, the god Bacchus came along and hooked up with her. Then Bacchus transformed her into the constellation Corona Borealis (a.k.a. the Northern Crown).
  • Meanwhile, back in Crete, the inventor Daedalus is getting antsy. It turns out that he is being held by Minos as a prisoner, against his will.
  • Eventually, however, he figures that, even though Minos can prevent him from leaving by sea, he has no control over the air. And so Daedalus gathers up some feathers and sets to work building two sets of wings – one for himself, and one for his son, Icarus.
  • When the wings are built, Daedalus puts them on himself and his son. Before they set out, he gives Icarus a solemn warning: "Fly in the middle of the sky," he says, "Don't fly too high or the sun will melt the wax that hold your wings together. Don't fly too low, or the moisture of the waves will destroy them."
  • Then they fly off. At first everything seems to be going fine – but then Icarus gets cocky. He starts doing all kinds of crazy maneuvers, and flies way too high. The sun melts the wax of his wings and he plummets into the sea.
  • Daedalus swoops down, rescues the corpse (apparently without damaging his wings), and buries him on a nearby island. From that point on, the land is known as Icaria.
  • While Daedalus was burying his son, who should turn up but a meddlesome partridge.
  • As it happens, this bird used to be Daedalus's nephew, whom his sister had entrusted to his care. The kid was extremely clever; during his stay with Daedalus, he invented both the saw and the geometrical compass. But this display of smarts just made Daedalus jealous – so he picked the kid up and hurled him off the nearest battlements.
  • But Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, didn't like to see intelligence punished in that way, so she turned the boy into a bird before he hit the ground.
  • To this day, however, the partridge sticks close to the ground. It doesn't fly high because that just reminds it of its fall.
  • Nothing much seems to have happened between Daedalus and the partridge. When he was done, the inventor flew off to Sicily, where he was taken in by the local King Cocalus. Cocalus immediately whipped an army together; he was worried that King Minos might attack him if he knew Daedalus was there.
  • Meanwhile, in Athens, great festivals were going on in honor of Theseus, because he killed the Cretan Minotaur.
  • This also solidified Theseus's street cred throughout Greece. As a result, when the land of Calydon was being laid to waste by a rampaging boar, its local hero Meleager asked Theseus for help.
  • Here's why the boar was attacking Calydon.
  • It turns out that Oenus, the king of the region, had made harvest-time offerings to Ceres, Bacchus, and Minerva, and all the other gods. With one exception: Diana.
  • It was she, who, in revenge, sent the giant boar against the Calydonian countryside.
  • To fight against this intruder, Meleager rounds up a band of the roughest, toughest fighters in the land. These include: Castor and Pollux, Jason, Theseus and his close friend Pirithous, Phoenix (who plays a bit part in Homer's Iliad), Peleus, Nestor, and Atalanta, the famous huntress.
  • When Meleager sees Atalanta, he immediately falls in love with her. Still, he holds himself in check and doesn't make a move: they've got a job to do.
  • The band of hunters heads into the woods and encounters the boar. At first, things don't go so well; none of them can hit it with their spears, but it puts a number of them on the injured list.
  • Finally, however, Atalanta manages to hit it behind the ear. Meleager cheers her on.
  • The other men now feel ashamed that a woman has taken the honor of striking the boar. One of them, Ancaeus, recklessly attacks it at close quarters with an axe – but the boar disembowels him with its tusk. Ouch. The other warriors cast their spears recklessly, and miss.
  • But then Meleager succeeds in striking the boar with a spear, bringing it down. The other warriors cheer him on – if Meleager gets the credit, it will be less of an affront to their manhood. But Meleager insists that Atalanta share the credit. He even offers her the spoils.
  • Unfortunately, Meleager's two uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus, who were among the hunters, step in and say that he has no right to give these gifts to Atalanta. This sends Meleager into a rage – so he kills them. Yikes.
  • When the hunters are returning to the city, Althaea, Meleager's mother, is at first overjoyed to see that he has been victorious. Then she sees her dead brothers, and starts lamenting. She only stops lamenting when she learns who was responsible. Now is no time for tears: she wants revenge.
  • Here's how she plans to do it. As it turns out, when Meleager was born, the three Fates (goddesses of, well…fate) showed up. They put a log on the fire and said: "Your son will live as long as this log." Uh…right. Anyway, Althaea reacted quickly and snatched the log out of the fire. Now, however, she decides to burn it and kill her son.
  • And yet, she is torn between forgiving him and avenging her brothers. Eventually, she decides to throw the log over her shoulder into the flames, without looking at it. She also prays to the spirits of her dead brothers that she may join them in death soon after what she has done.
  • When the log begins to burn, Meleager, who is far away, begins to feel a burning sensation within him. At the moment the log crumbles to ash, he dies.
  • The death of its young hero sends the land of Calydon into deep despair. At the same time, Althaea kills herself by stabbing herself in the guts.
  • Meanwhile, Meleager's sisters are consumed with grief, and act out in quasi-incestuous, quasi-necrophiliac ways. For example, once his body has been cremated, they rub his ashes against their breasts. (That's pretty weird, right?) Then, when his body is buried, they hurl themselves onto his tomb and cover it with tears.
  • Seeing this, and deciding that her work is done, Diana turns the sisters of Meleager into hens. Go figure.
  • At the same time, Theseus is heading back to Athens. On his way, he comes to the River Achelous, which rains have turned into a raging torrent.
  • The river god speaks up at this point and tells Theseus not to bother trying to cross the stream – it's just too dangerous. Instead, he urges Theseus and his companions to stay in his house for the night.
  • Theseus decides this is a good idea, so he and his buddies enter the river's home. Once they are inside, nymphs appear and serve them a fancy meal.
  • After dinner, Theseus points to what looks like an island in the distance, beyond the river mouth. He asks Achelous to tell him about it. Achelous says that those are in fact five islands; they only look like one from this vantage point. He also says that the islands used to by five Naiads (sea-nymphs). Because these stuck-up ladies didn't invite him to a party once, he, Achelous, turned them into islands.
  • Then Achelous says that, beyond those five islands is another one. This island used to be a princess whom Achelous once loved. Loved so much that he…well, raped her. (Don't blame us: this is how Achelous tells it.)
  • When the girl's father found out, he felt so dishonored that he hurled her off a cliff. Achelous hurried to the rescue and prayed to Neptune, the god of the sea, for help. Neptune changed her into an island.
  • When Achelous is finished telling this story, however, Pirithous, Theseus's buddy, doesn't believe it. "Aw c'mon, Achelous," he says, "quit yanking my chain. We all know the gods aren't that powerful. They can't really change one thing into something else."
  • Everyone else is shocked to hear him say this. Then Lelex, the oldest among Theseus's group, starts telling a story to prove that the gods are powerful. Here's what Lelex says:
  • In the land of Phrygia, Lelex once saw two trees standing near each other: an oak and a linden. Lelex learned that a long time ago, the gods Jupiter and Mercury had visited that spot, disguised as mortals. They knocked on the doors of all the inhabitants there; everyone rejected them except for a poor, elderly couple: Baucis and her husband, Philemon.
  • Baucis and Philemon gave the gods a generous welcome, despite their poverty. In the middle of their supper, they noticed that the wine bowl was miraculously replenishing itself. Fearing the wrath of the gods, they prayed to be forgiven for their meager offerings.
  • All of this left Jupiter and Mercury deeply impressed. At the end of the supper, they revealed their true identities. Then they told Baucis and Philemon to follow them. Together they walked up to a hill outside of town. When they reached the top, Baucis and Philemon looked back – and saw that their entire town had been turned into a swamp. The only house saved was their own.
  • But then this house turned into a marble temple.
  • Now Jupiter asked Philemon what he most wanted. Philemon conferred with Baucis. Then, he spoke for both of them, telling the god that he and his wife wanted to be their priests. Also, they wanted to be together for the rest of their lives; when one of them died, they wanted the other to die also.
  • The gods granted this request. Baucis and Philemon lived out the rest of their days as priests in the temple. Then, one day, they both turned into trees – the oak and the linden Lelex saw in Phrygia.
  • That's the end of Lelex's story. Everyone is impressed.
  • Because Theseus wants to hear more stories about the gods, their host Achelous starts to spin out another tale. First he tells them about Proteus, the god of the sea (who makes an important guest appearance in Homer's Odyssey). What makes Proteus special is that he doesn't undergo just one change – he's constantly shape-shifting.
  • This reminds Achelous of another shape-shifter, the daughter of a guy called Erysichthon. Now Achelous starts telling about Erysichthon.
  • Now, this Erysichthon was one mean dude. He even went so far as to chop down an oak tree in a grove sacred to the goddess Ceres. But that wasn't the worst of it – it was how he did it that was truly atrocious.
  • You see, first he commanded his men to do it, but they refused. So he started chopping it down himself. When one of them tried to stop him by standing in front of the tree, Erysichthon just said, "Out of my way, you tree-hugger!" and chopped off his head.
  • Did we mention that blood started pouring out of the tree when he chopped it? Or that a voice cried out from within it saying, "I am the nymph who lives inside this tree; if you kill me, I foretell that you will die soon too!"? Well, both those things happened, but Erysichthon just kept chopping, until the tree came down. Timberrrrrrrrrrrrr! Ka-boom.
  • After this, the Dryads (forest nymphs) went to complain to Ceres. Ceres decided to punish Erysichthon, so she sent an Oread (mountain nymph) into Scythia to fetch Famine, the personification of Hunger. The Oread did as she was told, and in no time Famine had come to Greece and infected Erysichthon.
  • From that point on, Erysichthon was constantly hungry. He ate everything, ate himself out of house and home. He ate so much that he finally sold his daughter into slavery – just so he could pay for more food.
  • At her new home, Erysichthon's daughter prayed to Neptune, the god of the sea, who had taken her virginity, to save her. Neptune heard her prayer and gave her the form of a male fisherman. Then, when her master came by, she was all like, "Girl? I haven't seen any girl around here. I've just been focused on my fishing."
  • The master went away, perplexed. When he was gone, the girl turned back into her former form. She could transform her shape at will!
  • Then she went home to her father. For a man in Erysichthon's predicament, a shape-shifting daughter was a major asset. That's because he could sell her over and over again to different clients; she'd just take a different form every time: a horse, a bird, a deer; you name it.
  • Eventually, however, Erysichthon's hunger caught up with him – literally: he started eating his own flesh.
  • Then Achelous says: "But why am I going on about all these stories from the old days? I'm a shape-shifter too – sometimes I'm a snake, and sometimes a bull with fancy horns. Well, just one horn now." Then he takes off his wreath and shows a wound where one of his horns used to be.
  • Then he stops talking and moans.

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