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By the time Ovid sat down to write The Metamorphoses around the year 2 A.D., he had already established himself as one of Rome's most popular poets. Ovid's path to stardom paralleled that of many popular musicians, writers, and filmmakers today: He picked a genre—in his case, love poetry—and stuck to it, working at it and working at it until it was like putty in his hands. There's no question that the books Ovid wrote during this period are pretty amazing (we especially recommend the Heroides, a series of poems presented as letters from jilted mythological ladies to their deadbeat boyfriends and husbands). That said, they seem to have left him unsatisfied. What do you do with a handful of putty, anyway?
Something started to trouble Ovid. Even if he was top-of-the-heap as far as love poets were concerned, right beside him there was an even taller heap, with a different poet on top. This poet's name was Virgil, and the heap he sat on was called epic poetry. (If you want to know more about him, check out our Shmoop guide to the Aeneid.) "Arrrgh... that no good, stuck up Virgil," Ovid must have said to himself, "I'd love to show him a thing or two. But how? How?" Then he probably shouted, "I know: I'll write an epic of my own! But not just any old epic—no, this will be a new kind of epic. It won't be one long, boring story, but a collection of many little stories. And it'll be funny, too. I'll call it… Fifteen Books of Metamorphoses!" And with these words, he stuck that putty on the soles of his sandals, and started bouncing his way up the epic heap.
The great thing about Ovid's Metamorphoses is that it doesn't force you to "care" about it one way or the other. Think of anything you like doing—it could be sports or music, playing videogames, or collecting stamps. Now imagine that someone asks you, "Hey, why do you like doing X so much?" Chances are you won't have much of an answer for them—at least nothing better than "Uhh, I like to, that's why." Ovid's poem is like that. Its wild stories about transformations from one shape to another are so fun that your first reaction in reading it probably won't be to ask yourself weighty questions like "Hmm, I wonder what insights this ancient book offers into the structure of the cosmos, or the essence of existence, or the development of the human imagination?" It just so happens that Ovid's poem offers insights into all of these things—but you can think of the deeper levels as an added bonus.
Basically, the poem's answer lies in its central themes of Change, Transformations and Metamorphosis. For Ovid, the physical world is constantly changing, and so is human life (through birth and death, love, hatred, achievement, and failure). Most important, however, is Ovid's portrayal of the human imagination—not so much because of anything he says about it, but because of how he puts it into action. You'd be hard-pressed to find many other authors, ancient or modern, who are so bursting with ideas about how to tell a story. (Shakespeare is another.)
Because of Ovid's amazing skill as a poet, his versions of countless Greek and Roman myths have become the inspiration for generations of later artists in every medium. (Just check out our "Best of the Web" section, if you don't believe us.) What's ironic about this is that Ovid's treatment of these myths is anything but reverent; half the time you get the sense that he is playing around with the stories he inherited, or perhaps making up new stories as he goes along.
As a result, Ovid is really Western literature's great practical joker—the guy who tore all the pages out of an old encyclopedia and replaced them with entries written by himself. He may be pulling your leg, but at least you'll be in good company.
Theoi Greek Mythology
This website is as good as it gets for information on Greek and Roman gods and heroes online. Even though (as the name suggests) this is mainly geared toward Greek mythology, it will still give you essential background info for Ovid; plus, it tells you the Roman names of most of the characters it talks about it.
Ovid on Project Gutenberg
This website will give you links to translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses, as well as some of his other works.
Jason and the Argonauts, 1963
This classic from special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen takes a few liberties with the original story, but it sure is a lot of fun.
Clash of the Titans, 1981
Another Harryhausen masterpiece, this film tells the story of Perseus.
Medieval Translation of Ovid into English
This image documents part of Ovid's reception into English literature. It is a page from a printed (as opposed to manuscript) translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses into English. Can you make out what story this is from?
English Renaissance Printing of the Metamorphoses in Latin
The passage seen in this image comes from the very beginning of Book 1.
Animated Movie of Orpheus and Eurydice
Brought to you by folks at UC Berkeley. Enjoy!
Six Metamorphoses after Ovid by Benjamin Britten
The twentieth century English composer Benjamin Britten wrote a series of six "metamorphoses" for the solo oboe, based on Ovid's works. You can hear (and see) this piece being performed here.
Illustrations of Ovid in the Renaissance
This website, although a bit confusing to navigate, contains many interesting links to Renaissance illustrations of Ovid's works. What you do is scroll down until you can see, typically to the left of any given piece of text, little blue boxes with colors inside. Click on these. Then a new window should pop up with links to all of the illustrations in a particular renaissance edition of Ovid. It sounds trickier than it is; just monkey around a bit and you'll get the hang of it. It's pretty awesome once you do.
Actaeon and Diana
The hapless hunter Actaeon catches Diana and her nymphs in the nude – bad news for him! This imagining of the myth is by the Italian renaissance painter Titian.
The Rape of Europa
This unusual painting by the twentieth century Russian painter Valentin Serov depicts the moment when Jupiter, disguised as a bull, carries Europa away with him over the sea. Check out Serov's depiction of the bull's lustful backwards glance at his prey, an apt depiction of Jupiter's sleazy wiliness – or is it wily sleaziness?
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
This painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525 -1569), who lived in the Netherlands, depicts the death of Icarus from Book 8 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The details – a fisherman, a shepherd leaning on his staff, and a peasant plowing – are all taken from Ovid's account. But do you notice any difference between how they are depicted in the poem and in Brueghel's picture? What do you think about the fact that Icarus takes up such a small amount of the painting's total area? For some famous thoughts on this issue, check out the poem "Musée des Beaux-Arts" by the English poet W. H. Auden, which we've got linked in our "Trivia" section.
Orpheus in the Underworld
In this image, the Flemish (i.e., from modern Holland) renaissance painter Jan Brueghel the Elder depicts Orpheus making his way through the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife Eurydice. Didn't turn out so well. Clearly, the painter has used the story as an excuse to pack in lots of wacky images appropriate to the land of the dead.
Jupiter and Io
This (literally) steamy image shows Jupiter with Io, before, you know, he turned her into a cow. One interesting thing about this image is the way it transforms (metamorphoses, you might say) Ovid's original story to make it more dramatic. Ovid, in Book 1, just tells us that Jupiter whipped up a cloud to hide what he was doing with Io. Correggio, however, clearly thought it would be much more dramatic if Jupiter actually turned himself into a cloud; this gave him an excuse to paint the god as a weird, ethereal cloud being. We give Correggio props for improving on Ovid here. What do you think?
Oh, narcissistic Narcissus, always staring at your own reflection. This image is by the famous Italian renaissance painter Carravaggio.
The Abduction of Proserpine
This spooky image by the Flemish renaissance painter Rembrandt shows the moment when Pluto, the god of the Underworld, carries of Proserpine, daughter of Ceres, to be his bride.