My soul would sing of metamorphoses. But since, o gods, you were the source of these bodies becoming other bodies, breathe your breath into my book of changes: may the song I sing be seamless as its way weaves from the world's beginning to our day. (1.1–4)
These are the opening words of the poem, and they provide a pretty straight-up description of what Ovid is about to tell us. What we find interesting here is the way Ovid weaves together the ideas of change and continuity: by hoping that he can sing a "seamless" song about change from the beginning of the world to the present day, he kind of suggests that change is itself a constant—an interesting paradox. (This idea will come up again at the end of the poem, in the speech of the philosopher Pythagoras.) What also stays constant is the gods, even though they undergo many weird transformations, as we will see.
One man seeks refuge on a hill, another rows in his curving boat where, just before, he'd plowed; one sails across his fields of grain or over the submerged roof of his villa; sometimes an anchor snags in a green meadow; sometimes a curving keel may graze the vines. Where grateful goats had grazed among the grass, the squat sea-lions sprawl. And undersea, the Nereids, amazed, stare hard at cities and homes and groves; through woodlands, dolphins roam; they bump against tall branches, knock and shake oak trees. (1.293–-303)
One of the interesting things in Ovid's poem is how he switches between describing transformations that could only come about by supernatural means (i.e., when a god turns somebody into a tree) and transformations that are natural. In this passage, from Book 1, Ovid describes the effects of a flood. Now, on the surface, this flood is supernatural in origin (it is caused by Neptune, god of the sea, who is carrying out the orders of Jupiter); on the other hand, even if this flood is much bigger and more impressive than an ordinary flood, is it really that far removed from reality? Can you think of other instances in Ovid's poem that seem to blur the distinction between natural and supernatural? Or is the supernatural sometimes just a metaphor for natural processes?
But as he wept, his voice grew faint, his hair was hid beneath white plumage, and his neck grew longer, stretching outward from his chest. A membrane knit together reddened fingers; wings wrapped around his sides; a pointed peak replaced his mouth. For Cycnus had become a swan – a strange new bird, who does not trust his wings to seek the sky of Jove, as if that bird recalled the cruel lightning bolt the god had hurled. And so the swan seeks out still pools and broad lakes; hating all that's fiery, he chooses water—fire's contrary. (2.367–380)
At many times in The Metamorphoses, Ovid tries to explain part of the world as it exists in his day by pointing to what it was before. In this case, Ovid tries to explain the behavior of swans, which don't like to fly very much and stay close to water. He says they do this because the first swan used to be a boy named Cycnus, who was traumatized when he saw the fiery death of his friend Phaethon. (Phaethon made the mistake of trying to drive the chariot belonging to his father, the Sun-god.) In this case, the original being (the boy) and the later creature (the swan) even share a name: "cycnus" was also the Latin word for swan. We still see this word in the English word "cygnet," which refers to a baby swan. Is the word's transformation into English just another metamorphosis? It is also interesting to consider that real swans undergo a metamorphosis from having brown feathers as cygnets to white feathers as adults.
And here, as Pentheus spies the sacred rites with his profaning eyes, the one who is the very first to sight Echion's son—just as she is the first to rush against him madly, and the first to hurl a thyrsus at him—is his mother. "Come, come, my sisters, both of you!" she shouts. "A giant boar is roaming on our slopes: I must tear him apart." Against him rush all that mad crowd, attacking from all sides (3.710–715)
As you're probably starting to notice, the only thing Ovid loves better than stories about transformation is transforming his definition of transformation. That sneak. Here he shows us a couple of new ways of thinking about it. First of all, you have the transformation of the women of Thebes into wild, raving monsters, once they become devotees of Bacchus. At the same time, you have the transformation of Pentheus into a boar—though of course, this only happens in the imagination of his mother. Unfortunately for Pentheus, the truth doesn't do him any good. Even though he isn't really a boar, the women treat him as one, and tear him limb from limb.
What happened then was most incredible: the wefts turned green; and all the hanging cloth began to sprout with boughs, as ivy does; a part became grapevines; where threads had been, now twining tendrils grew; along the warp, vine leaves began to sprout; the purple hue that had adorned rich fabrics passed into a purple hue that colored clustered grapes. (4.394–398)
This is another case where Ovid tries to show a connection between how something is now and how it was before. Here, he argues that the purple color of grapes comes from the purple dye of the daughters of Minyas's weaving, before it was transformed by the god Bacchus.
She gave herself to tears and then dissolved into the very pool of which she had— till now—been the presiding deity. You could have seen the softening of her limbs, the bones and nails that lost solidity. Her slender hairs, her fingers, legs, and feet— these were the first to join the waves. In fact, the slenderest parts can sooner turn into cool waters. Shoulders, back, and sides, and breasts were next to vanish in thin streams. At last, clear water flows through Cyane's weakened veins, and there is nothing left that one can grasp. (5.425–437)
We didn't want to give the impression that all of Ovid's descriptions of transformation have some deep, philosophical meaning. Some of them are just plain cool, like this account of a water nymph turning into water. Here, Ovid is clearly enjoying giving us the creeps.
That said, before she left, the goddess sprinkled the juices of the herbs of Hecate over Arachne; at that venom's touch, her hair and then her eyes and ears fell off and all her body sank. And at her sides, her slender fingers clung to her as legs. The rest is belly; but from this, Arachne spins out a thread; again, she practices her weaver's art, as once she fashioned webs. (6.139–145)
In the story of Arachne, Ovid combines the standard explain-the-present-by-the-past routine (lady who used to weave becomes a spider, etc.) with some grisly details thrown in for their own sake. Talking about her hair and eyes and ears falling off is excessive enough—but then telling us that her fingers reattached themselves and became spider legs? Did he have to go there? We're betting Ovid would probably say, "Nope. And that's exactly the point."
Meanwhile, whatever Vulcan could destroy, he did. Though Hercules' immortal part remained, he was unrecognizable; for nothing of his mother's image now was left; the traces that he kept were Jove's. Just as a serpent, when it sheds its skin casts off old age and is resplendent in its glittering scales and now, made new again, rejoices; so did the Tyrinthian, when he had put aside his mortal limbs, attain new power in his better part, for he began to seem more large, more tall— majestic, godly, grave and venerable. (9.262–270)
Ovid's description of how Hercules became a god is similar to other points in The Metamorphoses where humans acquire divine status. Typically, the idea is not that they are completely transformed, but rather that part of them (the mortal part) disappears, while another, immortal part remains and becomes dominant. We think that Ovid does a pretty good job of illustrating this with his nifty snake image. What's your take?
(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)
Here, once again, Ovid blends natural and supernatural types of transformation. The natural type of transformation is, of course, aging—but this comes about in a supernatural way, thanks to the gift Apollo promises the Sibyl. Like the Flood passage from Book 1 (see above), here it almost seems like Ovid is just using the supernatural elements of his story to bring ordinary, natural processes into clearer focus. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, can you think of other passages in The Metamorphoses where Ovid does something similar?
(Pythagoras): "I add: in all this world, no thing can keep its form. For all things flow; all things are born to change their shapes. And time itself is like a river, flowing on an endless course. Witness: no stream and no swift moment can relent; they must forever flow; just as wave follows wave, and every wave is pressed, and also presses on the wave ahead; so, too, must moments always be renewed. What was is now no more; and what was not has come to be; renewal is the lot of time." (15.177–185)
In the final section of his poem, Ovid brings the wheel of his thinking full circle (see the first quotation from this section, above). If you've been taught the Pythagorean Theorem in math class, you might also be experiencing a sense of repetition: He turns up again in your literature class. Don't worry too much about it; basically, Ovid just wants Pythagoras to put a fancy spin on transformation, presenting it as the most natural thing in the world. Which worldview do you think Ovid, in his heart of hearts, supports more: the view in Book 1, where the supernatural gods are responsible for all changes, or that of Pythagoras, who attributes it to more scientific causes?