Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Revenge

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And then the goddess
unleashed her rage; she struck her Grecian rival
at once: she sent a Fury to harass
poor Io's eyes and mind; she pierced her breast
with an invisible, relentless goad;
she drove the frightened girl across the world –
a fugitive. (1.724-727)

This is passage is only one of many like it in Ovid's poem. The common theme is blaming the victim. Juno gets mad because her husband, Jupiter, has been sleeping with some other woman, and she takes it out on the poor girl. This is especially unfair because, in most cases, the girl isn't at fault – usually Jupiter comes onto her through deception, or by making use of his overbearing divine power. Revenge is not the same as justice.

Now it had come;
there was no reason to delay: in sum,
her rival, adding wound to wound, had borne
a boy, Arcas. As soon as Juno turned
her eyes and angry mind to this, she cried: "As if I had not had enough, this, too,
was needed: you, adulteress, bore this fruit –
a son; the wrong you've done me now is known
to all – the living proof of how my Jove
behaved! But, shameless, you shall pay; I'll take
from you the shape that gives both you and, too,
my husband such delight." (2.468-475)

The same could be said for this passage as for the previous one. Ovid explicitly tells us that Callisto tried to resist Jupiter as he raped her. How is this her fault? How is it her fault that she got pregnant? Juno doesn't care. She just wants to lash out at somebody, and Callisto is the easiest target.

Men heard his fate – and disagreed: some thought
Diana was too cruel, too unjust;
while others said her action, though severe,
was worthy of a virgin so austere.
Both sides brought suasive arguments to bear.
And only Juno neither blamed nor cleared
Diana: she was simply glad to hear
that now Agenor's house had met disaster.
The rage that Juno's rival had provoked
was aimed at all who shared Europa's blood. (3.253-259)

Once again, Ovid shows that justice and revenge are not the same thing – or, at least, that there is strong evidence that they aren't the same thing. Sure, there are some people that it was appropriate for Diana to turn Actaeon into a stag and have him killed by his own hounds, but others think she overreacted. It wasn't Actaeon's fault that he stumbled upon her and her nymphs when they were bathing. But she doesn't seem to care; he suffers anyway.

"But Clytie was jealous (for the Sun's
love of Leucothoe was more than warm).
Incensed, she told the world, and she informed
her rival's father: she defamed her name.
And in the face of his fair daughter's shame,
the king is cruel: though his daughter prays,
beseeching mercy, even as she claims –
her arms stretched to the Sun – that she was raped
against her will, he pays no heed, inflicts
a brutal burial in a deep ditch;
the sand heaped over her is heavy, thick." (4.234-240)

This sickening story follows the same theme as the others here. Revenge is enacted against someone who did nothing to deserve it, and so became a victim twice over. Maybe thrice over, since Leucothoe was the victim, first of the Sun-god, then of the jealous Clytie, and then of her own father, who killed her just to cover up his shame. There might have been some people in the ancient world who would have thought that Leucothoe's father, at least, was acting out of justice, by enforcing his patriarchal rights. Ovid doesn't agree with this: he says straight up that her father acted that way because he was "cruel."

It's true that when her son comes up to her
and greets her, as he throws his tiny arms
around her neck and, in his boyish way,
embraces her, she's moved, her wrath is tamed,
her eyes grow damp with tears she can't restrain.
But sensing that maternal love has swayed
her purpose, Procne turns aside her gaze
from Itys to her sister, thinking this:
"And why can he still speak endearingly,
while she is mute, her tongue cut out? If he
can call me mother, why can't she say 'sister'?" (6.625-633)

In these lines, we see how the desire for revenge can trump even the feelings of a mother for a son – though it is true that Procne only manages to achieve this through an act of will. The sufferings of Procne's son amount to "collateral damage"; he is an innocent victim in the revenge enacted by Procne against her husband for his brutal rape of her sister.

Althaea, grateful for the victory
of Meleager, her dear son, was bringing
gifts for the gods into the sanctuary;
she saw them carry in her brothers' bodies.
Althaea beat her breast; she filled the city
with sad laments; she changed her gilded dress
and now wore black. But when she learned who was
the author of their death, she left behind
her tears and mourned no more; her heart was bent
on vengeance. (8.445-450)

This passage is similar to the previous one. Here, once again, the desire to avenge a sibling trumps the love of a mother for her son. In this case, these two commitments come into conflict because it is Althaea's son, Meleager, who killed her brothers. He will pay the ultimate price.

But now the Thracian women – all had cast
the hides of beasts around their frenzied breasts –
down from a high hilltop, spied Orpheus
as he attuned his lyre and his sweet voice.
And one of these – hair streaming loose beneath
light winds – cried out: "He's there! The man who dares
to scorn us." Through the air she hurled her staff
against Apollo's poet; it was meant
to smash his singing mouth (11.3-8)

In this case, the Thracian women (Ovid really seems to have it in for the Thracians) take revenge on the singer Orpheus because he won't satisfy their sexual desires. Not that he would be under any obligation to do so in any case, but his death seems especially unfair since he is remaining chaste out of grief for his dead wife, Eurydice. (In Greek, Eurydice's name means "Wide-Justice"; does this emphasize the contrast between her and these flagrantly unjust Thracian femmes-fatales?)

"Why must I open bitter wounds that time
had hidden, if not healed? I now confess
my hatred of your father, my deep sense
of harm and hurt he caused me. By the gods,
his deeds were glorious, beyond belief!
I would prefer to cancel – if I could –
the merits and just praise that he received,
the fame the world proclaimed (I can't deny
the truth). But we don't praise Deiphobus
or Polydamas; nor do we extol
even great Hector – who would praise a foe?" (12.542-548)

Nestor's attempt to get revenge on Hercules, who killed his siblings, is a kind that Ovid can approve of. By refusing to praise someone, one enacts a kind of revenge against their memory – a power that a poet, especially, would relish. Still, Nestor remains sensible. Shortly after these lines, Nestor tells Tleptolemus, Hercules's son, that his beef is only with his father; his hatred remains within reasonable limits. Nestor's wise self-control stands in contrast to, say, Procne, who gets back at her husband by striking at his (and her) son.

[Apollo] can see,
amid that slaughter, Paris aiming shafts
from time to time against a crowd of Greeks.
Revealing his identity, Apollo
asks: "Why waste arrows killing common folk?
If you are so devoted to your Trojans,
then aim your shafts at Peleus' son: avenge
your slaughtered brothers." So Apollo said,
and then he pointed out just where Achilles
was felling many Trojans with his lance;
the god turned Paris' bow in that direction;
and when the shaft was shot, Apollo guided
the well-aimed arrow with his deadly hand. (12.598-606)

When Apollo wants Paris's help in killing Achilles, he wins him over by appealing to his desire for revenge.

Then – suddenly – she grips him; and she calls
upon the other Trojan women – all
her fellow captives – as she digs her nails
into his lying eyes; and she rips out
his eyeballs from their sockets (it is rage
that gives her strength). And then into the place
that once contained his eyes, she drives her hands,
soaked with his guilty blood: she plucks his flesh. (13.558-564)

Here, maternal love is the cause for violent action. Hecuba, the captured Trojan princess, takes extremely violent revenge on the Thracian King Polymestor because he killed her son, Polydorus, for his gold.

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