Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Religion

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"I'd heard about this age of infamy;
and hoping to disprove such tidings, I
descended from Olympus' heights; I went
from land to land, a god in human guise.
Just now, it would be useless to describe
each sacrilege I found, upon all sides:
the truth was far, far worse than what I'd heard.
And I had crossed Mount Maenala's dread slopes,
home of wild beasts; I passed Cyllene's peak
and chill Lycaeus' pine grove. So I reached
the region and the uninviting home
of the Arcadian tyrant. Dusk had fallen,
and night was soon to follow. I'd made known
I was a god, and an Arcadian crowd
began to worship me. At first Lycaon
just sneered at all their pious prayers, but then
he said: 'I mean to test him; let us see
if he, beyond all doubt – infallibly –
is god or man.'" (1.211-223)

In this passage, Jupiter descends to earth to see what the mortals are up to – and doesn't like what he sees. The icing on the cake is when a guy called Lycaon refuses to believe that he is a god, even after he's explicitly told them he is. Evidently, religious doubt is as old as religion itself.

And here (the only place the flood had spared)
Deucalion and his wife, in their small skiff,
had landed. First, they prayed unto the nymphs
of the Corycian cave, the mountain gods,
and Themis – she, the goddess who foretells
the future, in those early days, was still
the keeper of the Delphic oracle.
One could not point to any better man,
a man with deeper love for justice, than
Deucalion; and of all women, none
matched Pyrrha in devotion to the gods. (1.316-323)

In Ovid's poem, good things come to those who pray to the gods (usually). This is certainly the case for Deucalion and Pyrrha, the only two humans to be spared when a giant flood washes over the earth.

Now Io, with the goddess' rage appeased,
regains the form she had before: she sheds
the rough hairs on her body, and her horns
recede; her round eyes shrink, her mouth retracts,
her arms and hands appear again; and each
of Io's hoofs is changed into five nails.
There's no trace of the heifer that is left,
except the lovely whiteness of her flesh.
Content that just two feet now meet her needs,
the nymph stands up but hesitates to speak
for fear that, like a heifer, she will low;
then, timidly, she once again employs
the power of speech she had – for so long – lost.
And now she is a celebrated goddess,
revered by crowds clothed in white linen: Isis. (1.738-747)

In this passage, Ovid portrays the origin of the goddess Isis. Isis was an Egyptian goddess who also became wildly popular at Rome. She was typically depicted with horns, and cow imagery was also associated with her. Even if this true, however, it does also seem like Ovid could be poking fun at the goddess a bit, by depicting her as starting life off as a cow. What do you think?

"O child, grow strong! You are to be
the healer of the world: how often shall
your skills save mortal bodies' life and health!
And you shall have the right to resurrect
the dead, a gift that Jove will then resent;
and when you've done this once (though he's your own
grandfather), he will hurl his thunderbolt
to thwart your doing it again; and you,
a god, shall then become a bloodless corpse;
but from a corpse you shall be changed once more
into a god: the fate you've known before
is to repeat itself." (2.642-648)

Ocyrhoe is here talking to Aesculapius, the mortal who became the god of healing. (He will come back for a longer appearance in Book 15.) Like the story of Io/Isis from the previous quotation, this passage shows that the boundaries between mortals and immortals were sometimes a bit hazy. Of course, some extraordinary transformation would be necessary for this boundary to be crossed – more fuel for Ovid's poetic fire, of course.

The grateful Cadmus'
lips kissed this foreign land – so did he greet
these fields he'd never seen before, these peaks.
But then, for the libations to complete
the sacrifice he now would offer Jove,
he needed living water from a spring:
and this he sent his servingmen to seek. (3.24-27)

Here, once again, we see a mortal acting with appropriate reverence towards the gods. Unfortunately, Cadmus's case shows that even piety won't keep you clear of trouble. Shortly after this, Cadmus is forced to face down a massive serpent.

foresee the day – and it is soon to come –
when Bacchus Liber, son of Semele,
shall come. If you don't worship that new god,
you will be torn into a thousand parts –
your scattered limbs tossed round about; your blood
will foul the woods and stain your mother and
your mother's sisters. This will come to pass.
You will not honor the new god; and then
you will complain that, in my blindness, I
saw far too well." (3.519-525)

Maybe the best way to think about the benefits of piety is as follows: if you do worship the gods, you still might come to a bad end. On the other hand, if you don't worship the gods, you're definitely in for trouble. This can be seen from the prediction Tiresias makes to Pentheus, the Prince of Thebes.

Meanwhile the aged couple noticed this:
the wine bowl, which had served so many cups,
seemed to replenish its own self, fill up
again, again with welling wine. Dismayed –
this sight was unbelievable – afraid,
both Baucis and the old Philemon prayed
with hands – palms up – to heaven, begging pardon
for food so meager, and so scant a welcome.
Then they got set to kill their only goose,
the guardian of their poor patch of land –
they planned to serve it to their godly guests. (8.679-685)

The aged couple Baucis and Philemon provide a classic example of extreme piety – for which they receive an extraordinary reward. Baucis and Philemon's extreme piety is seen in their incredible generosity towards visitors to their home. (Hospitality was considered a religious duty in the ancient world, and the laws of hospitality were watched over by Jupiter.) Even though, in their poverty, they have barely anything, nonetheless, they offer what they have. Then, they pray to the gods for forgiveness for offering so little. As a result, Jupiter and Mercury – for this is who their guests really are – reward them by making them keepers of their temple; then, they let them die together and turn into a pair of trees.

This work of war, this battle, in its wake
was followed by a truce of many days:
both sides laid down their arms – no clash, no fray,
a time for rest. And while keen sentinels
stood guard around the trenches of the Greeks,
the festive day grew close: a solemn feast.
Achilles, victor over Cycnus, seeks
to placate Pallas with the heifer he
is offering to her. He sets the meat
in slabs on the warm altar; once the fragrance
in which the gods take such delight has risen
to heaven – for the rite, the rods receive
the innards – men can banquet on the rest. (12.146-154)

If you've read Homer's Iliad, which centers on Achilles, you'll know that the Greek warrior can be a pretty bad guy. (If you haven't read it, check out our Shmoop guide for more info.) Here, though, we see that even this meathead has a gentler side to him. This is shown by his piety.

Aeneas talked to his Cumaean guide:
"Although I do not know if you're indeed
a goddess, or are simply one most dear
unto the gods, for me you'll always be
a deity: and I shall always be
most grateful; for you have permitted me
descent to death's domain, and once I'd seen
death's self, you granted me a safe return:
in recompense, when I am back again
beneath the open sky, I shall erect
a shrine for you and offer fragrant incense."
Then, turning back to him, the prophetess
sighed deeply and replied: "I am no goddess;
mere mortals do not merit sacred incense." (14.122-131)

Here we see two characters acting piously, though at cross-purposes. For Aeneas, it is reasonable to assume that the Sibyl is a goddess. I mean, who else but a goddess would take you to the Underworld and back, right? But in fact, she isn't a goddess, and her response to Aeneas – "Don't worship me, I'm just a lowly mortal"– is the pious one.

O you, gods
who were Aeneas' comrades, you who saved
the Trojan from the sword and from the flames;
and you, the native gods of Latium;
as well as you who fathered Rome, Quirinus;
you, Mars, invincible Quirinus' father;
you, Vesta, who maintain a sacred place
among the tutelary gods of Caesar;
you, Phoebus, joined to Vesta as a god
who watches over Caesar's house; and Jove,
who have your shrine atop Tarpeia's rock;
and all you other gods to be invoked –
most properly – by one who is a poet:
I beg you to delay beyond my death
that day on which Augustus, having left
the world he governs, will ascend on high
and there, from heaven – one no longer present
on earth – will hear the prayers addressed to him. (15.861-870)

These words, very near the end of the poem, shows Ovid exercising his own piety. Or then again, maybe it's just an exercise in kissing up. We mean, come on, praying to the gods to make your boss (Augustus) live longer than you do, and then saying that he's going to become a god too. Oh well, the joke's on him, because then at the very end of the poem, Ovid says that his poetic fame will be higher than the stars, which kind of sounds like he's saying he's going to be even better than the gods. Maybe Ovid isn't so pious after all. What's your take?

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