Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Sex

By Ovid


He looks at Daphne's hair
as, unadorned, it hangs from her fair neck,
and says: "Just think, if she should comb her locks!"
He sees her lips and never tires of them;
her fingers, hands, and wrists are unsurpassed;
her arms—more than half-bare—cannot be matched;
whatever he can't see he can imagine;
he conjures it as even more inviting. (1.497–502)

These lines depict the moment when Apollo develops and overpowering crush on Daphne. In Ovid's day, just like today, nothing adds spice like leaving something to the imagination.

And as Jove came and went,
renewing that dear land, he saw a nymph,
a virgin of Arcadia, Callisto;
at once a flame erupted in his bones. (2.409–410)

If you've read our "In A Nutshell" section, you'll know that Ovid started out as a love poet. In Ancient Rome, one of the most common ways in which love poets described the passion of sexual desire was as a burning flame. Ovid's rival, Virgil, the other master of Latin epic, uses very similar imagery to this in Book 4 of his poem the Aeneid. There, he is describing the passion of the Carthaginian Queen Dido. If you haven't read Virgil's poem, you can learn more about it by looking at our Shmoop module.

When Echo saw
Narcissus roaming through the lonely fields,
she was inflamed with love, and—furtively—
she followed in his footsteps. As she drew
still closer, closer, so her longing grew
more keen, more hot—as sulphur, quick to burn,
smeared round a torch's top bursts into flame
when there are other fires close to it. (3.370–374)

This passage is very similar to the previous one in its depiction of sexual desire. What makes it a bit different is it goes into more detail about how this desire can increase or decrease. Here, Ovid is saying that being near to one another makes passion's flame burn brighter.

The sight was quite enough; the flame of love
had taken Tereus, as if one had set
afire ripe grain, dry leaves, or a haystack.
It's true she's fair, but he is also spurred
by venery, an inborn tribal urge.
The vice inflaming him is both is own
and that dark fire which burns in Thracian souls.
His impulse was to buy his way with her,
to bribe her closest friends or faithful nurse
and then, when he'd corrupted them, to tempt
the girl himself, though that might cost his kingdom;
or else to ravish her, and the defend
his rape by waging unrelenting war. (6.455–464)

One way of reading this passage would be to say that it shows the dark side of sexual desire. According to this interpretation, Tereus's overwhelming desire for what can't be had—his wife's sister—boils up to such a point that he violently rapes her. (For good measure, Ovid also throws in a racist interpretation of Tereus's crime, when he claims that Tereus was especially liable to these passions because he was a Thracian.) Today, however, many people think that rape is not necessarily motivated by sexual desire, but is more an act of aggression and domination. Could Ovid's story of Tereus also be interpreted in this way? Why would Ovid think there might be a "dark side" of sexual desire anyhow?

(Iphis to herself):
"Even now there's no
desire of mine that's been denied; the gods
have been benevolent—they've given me
as much as they could give; and what I want
is what my father and Ianthe want,
and what my future father-in-law wants.
It's nature, with more power than all of these,
that does not want it: my sole enemy
is nature! Now the longed-for moment nears,
my wedding day is close at hand: Ianthe
will soon be mine—but won't belong to me." (9.755–761)

These lines by Ovid show same-sex desire, when the female Iphis lusts for the female Ianthe. Things are a bit complicated, in this case, because Iphis has grown up disguised as a boy, and is currently engaged to marry Ianthe. (This is partly what she means when she says that "nature […] / does not want it"—nature is the one that has given her the wrong equipment for a conventional, opposite-sex marriage.) In the end, things work out for Iphis when Isis turns her into a boy, thus making marriage possible. All the same, this passage is notable for shedding light on the wide range of human sexuality.

[Pygmalion] is enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame. He often lifts his hand to try
his work, to see if it indeed is flesh
or ivory; he still will not admit
it is but ivory. He kisses it:
it seems to him that, in return, he's kissed.
He speaks to it, embraces it; at each
caress, the image seems to yield beneath
his fingers: and he is afraid he'll leave
some sign, some bruise. (10.252–258)

The story of Pygmalion—an artist who makes a statue, then falls in love with it, then marries it after the gods miraculously bring it to life—is easy to mine for images of stereotypical male sexual desire (focused on appearances, based on an unequal power dynamic, to some degree narcissistic, and so on). Still, though, Ovid displays some tact in handling the story. Even though Pygmalion is controlling, he is also worried for the statue's safety—as when he is afraid he will leave a bruise on its skin. Taking all of the relevant factors into consideration, do you think that the story of Pygmalion portrays sexual desire in a positive light or not?

This was the time when women, for nine nights,
shun union with their husbands; any touch
of man is banned. Cenchreis, the king's wife,
has joined the throng; she shares these secret rites.
When, in her wretched zeal, the old nurse finds
that Cinyras is drunk with wine, deprived,
without his lawful wife, she tells the king
that a young girl is now in love with him;
but she does not reveal the girl's true name—
the girl whose beauty she is quick to praise.
And when he wants to know the young girl's age,
she says, 'the same as Myrrha's.' When he tells
the nurse to fetch that girl, she runs to find
her Myrrha and, 'My dear, we've won,' she cries" (10.431–443)

The story of Cenchreis and his daughter Myrrha provides another case study in uncontrolled, destructive sexual desire. In this case, Cenchreis is so sex-crazed that he can't last the nine nights his wife is away; instead, he gets drunk and jumps at the first chance to hop into a bed with a girl his daughter's age. Later, when he finds out that it really is Myrrha, he tries to kill her. Sure, Myrrha might need some help, but Cenchreis should probably take a good look at his own overbearing desire.

(Venus, in Orpheus's song):
"I saw that I would have
to make them serve as an example: I
incited my own self against that pair.
One day, they chanced to pass before the shrine
that, to fulfill a vow that he had pledged,
Echion built: a temple for Cybele,
the Mother of the gods, a shrine that stood
concealed within the shadows of deep woods.
The pair had journeyed long; they needed rest;
and I ignited him: Hippomenes—
such is my power as a deity—
was struck with an indecent, sudden need
for Atalanta's body." (10.685–690)

These lines are yet another example in which sexual desire acts as a destructive force. This can be seen in the fact that Venus uses it to punish people she doesn't like. Here, she decides to get back at Hippomenes (who forgot to offer her sacrifices after she helped him score Atalanta as his wife) by giving him the uncontrollable urge to make love to Atalanta right there and then—which happens to be in the temple of Cybele, the earth-goddess. When Cybele finds out, she will be none too pleased.

Pomona feared the peasants' brutish ways,
fenced off her orchards, and avoided men—
she never let them in.
How hard they tried—
young Satyrs, with their dancing, leaping steps
and Paris, whose horns were garlanded with pines;
and he whose years were more than what he showed,
Silvanus; and Priapus, he whose scythes
and penis are a sight that terrifies
all thieves—they tried, but they did not succeed. (14.636–641)

We'll leave it up to you to find all the immature double-entendres Ovid has snuck into this passage. What we'd like to call attention to is something that already calls attention to itself: Priapus, "whose scythes / and penis are a sight that terrifies / all thieves." What the heck is that all about, you're probably wondering? What we've got here is an instance of sexuality portrayed in a positive light. The ancient Romans considered the male member a sign of fertility (makes sense), and, hence, as a sign of good luck. The god Priapus, who had the biggest male member in town (just do a Google image search on him and you'll see what we mean) was thus considered especially lucky. People would put a picture of him by the doors of their houses to ward off bringers of bad luck—like thieves.

(Vertumnus, disguised as an old woman):
"And, too, your tastes show similarities:
you tend your fruit with love, but is not he
the first to welcome what you offer—glad
to hold in his right hand your gifts of fruit?
But now he is not bent on what your trees
may bear; nor does he care for garden herbs,
however sweet the juice: what he pursues
is you alone—and nothing else will do.
Have mercy, he is burning; act as if
the plea that you are hearing from my lips
had come from his own self." (14.687–692)

Vertumnus, in attempting to pick up Pomona, brings out some of the usual tricks: sweet-talk about how they have common interests (plants), as well as, of course, asking her to relieve his burning sexual desire. What makes this especially sneaky is that he is in disguise—so that these words come off as impartial advice, instead of his own feelings.

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