Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Foolishness and Folly

By Ovid

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Foolishness and Folly

Then Phoebus set aside the dazzling rays
that wreathed his head; he had his son draw near
and said, embracing him: "I have no cause
to say you are not mine; Clymene's words
about your birth are true. To set you free
of any doubts, ask what you will of me:
whatever gift you want, you shall receive.
And may the pool of Styx on which gods swear,
the pool my eyes have never seen, now be
the witness of my promise." Just as soon
as Phoebus' words were done, young Phaethon asked
to have his father's chariot – for one day,
to guide its wingèd horses on their way. (2.40-48)

Here we see two kinds of folly. The first is when the Sun-god promises to give his son anything he asks for. The second is Phaethon's reckless request to drive the chariot of the Sun.

Such were the words of Juno. They persuade
the girl, who did not know what fate awaits
a mortal woman caught in the embrace
of Jove when all his powers are arrayed.
And so, when Jove comes down to her, the girl
asks him to grant one gift to her – although
she does not name that gift. And Jove replied:
"Whatever you may want, I'll not refuse.
And to assure you that my pledge is true,
I swear it by the sacred Styx, an oath
that calls upon a godhead so supreme
that all the deities must stand in fear
before the flow of that torrential stream." (3.287-291)

The situation here closely parallels that of Phaethon and his father the Sun-god. Here, as well, we have two acts of folly.

So many futile kisses did he waste
on the deceptive pool! How often had
he clasped the neck he saw but could not grasp
within the water, where his arms plunged deep!
He knows not what he sees, but what he sees
invites him. Even as the pool deceives
his eyes, it tempts them with delights. But why
o foolish boy, do you persist? Why try
to grip an image? He does not exist –
the one you love and long for. (3.427-433)

This one's kind of a no-brainer. In the sense that, if you fall in love with your own reflection in a pool of water, and keep looking at it until you die, you probably have no brain. This is Foolishness and Folly with two capital F's.

Though Cadmus tried to sway
his grandson, as did Athamas and all
his family, no council could dissuade
the mind of Pentheus. They can't stay his rage;
their calls for calm don't check him – they abet
the force they would repress: so have I seen
a torrent – there where nothing curbed its courage –
flow rather peacefully – no rage, no roar;
but where it had been dammed – where giant stones
and tree trunks blocked its path – it boiled and foamed;
resistance only made its fury grow. (III.564-571)

Some people just won't listen to reason. This is part of the problem with Pentheus. Like so many other victims of folly in Ovid's poem, Pentheus will pay the ultimate price.

Now Eryx scorned that pair;
he cried: "It's lack of courage, not the power
of Gorgon, that has made you stiff; let us
lay low this youth and his enchanted arms!"
He started his attack; the earth held fast
his feet; and he was halted, motionless –
a rock, the image of a man in armor. (5.195-199)

Uhh, if you had just seen all your buddies turned to stone by the head of Medusa (a.k.a. the Gorgon), don't you think you'd have little more respect for the guy (Perseus) who was wielding it. Not if you're Eryx, you wouldn't. Foolishness and Medusa heads don't mix. Eryx will pay for it.

Arachne scowled; abrupt, aggrieved, morose,
she dropped her threads; and though she kept her hand
from striking out, her rage was clear – it showed
upon Arachne's face as she replied
to Pallas (who was still disguised): "Old age
has addled you; your wits are gone; too long
a life has left you anile, stale, undone.
Your drivel might appeal to your dear-daughter-
in-law, if you have one, or else your daughter,
if you have one. As for advice, I can
advise myself. And lest you think your warning
changed anything, be sure of this: I am
still sure of what I said before. Your goddess –
why doesn't she come here? Why not accept
my challenge?" (6.34-42)

Arachne sure is a piece of work. OK, so it's most obviously stupid to challenge a goddess to any sort of competition (in this case, a weaving contest), and it's even more foolish to actually enter into that competition (as Arachne does in the passage that follows). But that isn't all. We at Shmoop think it's just plain rude to talk to anybody the way Arachne does, especially when that person appears to be a helpless old lady. Somebody should have taught her some manners before her foolishness got the better of her.

[Medea] said: "Why do you hesitate? Act now!
Take up these swords and drain the old blood out,
that I may fill his veins with vibrant blood.
Your father's life and youth depend on you.
If you have filial love for him, the prove
your hopes are more than empty gestures: do
this service for your father; let your blades
expel the rot and rid him of foul age!"
Spurred by the witch's words, each girl was keen
to be most pious through impiety –
most pure by rushing to impurity.
And yet no daughter dared to watch as she
brought down her blade: all turned their eyes away;
backs turned, they hacked; their savage strokes were blind. (7.332-342)

To us modern readers, the daughters of Pelias may seem exceptionally foolish. On the other hand, even today, there is no shortage of people who will seek out bizarre or dangerous medical treatments in the hopes it will give them health and long life.

How often my petitions were repelled;
how often she replied: 'I save myself
for one alone; wherever he may be,
it's he who'll share my joy!' Could any man
whose mind was not awry have failed to see
in that, firm proof of her fidelity?
But I was still not satisfied. I kept
insisting (harming only my own self);
for just one night, I promised countless wealth;
and then I added gift on gift – until
I forced her to the point where she might fall. (7.734-740)

This story is told by Cephalus, who explains the destruction caused by his obsessive fear that his wife was unfaithful to him. Here, Ovid might me making a subtle point based on the character's name. That's because "Cephalus" means "head," and his folly is a type that intellectuals are especially prone to: unable to take anything at face value, he keeps pressing onward and onward and onward until he reaches…not the truth, but the state of affairs that his own aggressiveness has brought about. Because Ovid is one of the most intellectual ancient writers, this story of Cephalus may be interpreted as one of the first in a long Western tradition of intellectual self-criticism, going all the way to Shakespeare's Hamlet and beyond.

And Bacchus, glad to see his teacher safe,
rewarded Midas so: the god would give
to Midas anything that he might wish
(a gift both flattering and – if one picks
unwisely – perilous). The king made this
sad choice: "Do grant that anything that is
touched by my body turns to yellow gold."
That prayer was granted by the god, and so
Bacchus discharged the fatal debt he owed. (11.100-104)

Haven't we seen this one before? Maybe we should just make a public service announcement. Gods: don't promise mortals you'll give anything they wish for. Mortals: don't then ask for some ridiculous gift that will bring harm to you and everyone around you. Sheesh. Let's just move on to the next example.

(The Sibyl:)
"[Apollo] said: "Now, just
express your wish – and that, Cumaean virgin,
will be the gift I give.' I gathered up
a little heap of dust and, holding that,
I asked that I be granted years to match
the number of those grains; but I forgot
to ask that I stay young through all that span –
I was a fool. Yet even then he would
have given me that, too – unending youth –
if I had yielded to him. I did not. […]
The day will come when this long life
will leave me shriveled; worn away by age,
my limbs will shrink to trifles; no one then
will dream that I'd been loved – and pleased a god." (14.135-142, 147-150)

No! Weren't you listening? We just said: don't promise to give mortals anything they wish for. They can't handle it. They don't have the foresight to see all the possible consequences. Oh well. The Sibyl foolishly wishes for eternal life, but also foolishly forgets to wish for eternal youth. What happens to the Sibyl here parallels the ancient Greek myth of Tithonos; you can read about that here.

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