Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Book 11

By Ovid

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Book 11

  • That's the end of Orpheus's song. Just then, up come some Bacchantes, crazed female followers of the god Bacchus. Enraged that Orpheus wouldn't sleep with him, they kill him in brutal fashion.
  • Orpheus's head and lyre fall into the River Hebrus. As they float down its waters, the lyre keeps playing notes and the tongue keeps singing. Meanwhile, Orpheus's spirit is rejoined with that of Eurydice in the Underworld and they live—not the right word, we know—happily ever after.
  • Even though it was his groupies that did it, Bacchus is still mightily miffed that the Bacchantes killed Orpheus. In punishment, he turns them into oak trees.
  • Then Bacchus goes off into the land of Thrace, where he decrees some serious party time. But somebody is missing from the festivities! Where's Silenus, the elderly woodland god?
  • Don't worry, Ovid has the answer. Apparently, some farmers found Silenus stumbling around drunk, and did the only sensible thing: They tied him up and took him to see the local king, whose name was Midas. Let's see what happens.
  • As it happens, Midas is an old friend of Silenus. When he recognizes him, he decrees ten days of festivities in celebration of their reunion.
  • Back-to-back partying gets old fast, however; at the end of the ten days, Midas takes Silenus back to Bacchus.
  • Bacchus is so happy to have his friend back that he tells Midas he will grant him a wish. What does Midas choose? That everything he touches will turn to gold.
  • Even though he knows better, Bacchus grants the wish. Then Midas goes merrily on his way, touching various things and turning them to gold.
  • Things turn bad, though, that night, when Midas tries to eat dinner, and all of the food turns to gold in his mouth. Not cool. Eventually, the king sees the error of his ways, and prays to Bacchus to take the gift back.
  • Bacchus listens to Midas, and takes away his cursed power. "But," he tells him, "you still have to wash off your sin. Follow the river Pactolus to its source; when you get there, bathe in the spring." Midas does as he's told. Ovid tells us that, to this day, the Pactolus river turns up gold deposits on its shore; clearly it acquired this ability from Midas.
  • After these incidents, Midas decides he doesn't want wealth anymore; instead, he takes to wandering in the wilderness, and honoring the god Pan.
  • One day, as he's wandering upon Mount Tmolus, he happens upon a flute-playing contest: Pan versus Apollo. At the end of the contest, Tmolus (who is also the judge of the concert) decrees that Apollo is the winner.
  • But Midas disagrees. He pipes up that the rightful winner should have been Pan. This makes Apollo seriously angry. In revenge against what he perceives to be Midas's horrible taste in music, he turns his ears into donkey-ears; everything else about him remains unchanged.
  • Midas is seriously embarrassed by his new donkey-ears, so he starts wearing a turban to cover them. His secret is safe from everyone until, one day, he has to get a haircut—thus revealing his secret to the barber.
  • The barber realizes that he'd been in serious trouble if he told anyone... but you know how it is with secrets: If you don't tell someone, you think you might explode. Under the circumstances, the barber does the only sensible thing: he goes to a deserted area, digs a hole in the ground, and whispers the secret into it. Then he covers up the hole. Done.
  • As time passes, however, a bunch of reeds grows up out of the grave. As the wind blows through them, they whisper King Midas's secret to the world.
  • Meanwhile, satisfied with his revenge, Apollo flies off to Troy…or rather, to the empty site that will be Troy.
  • There he sees King Laomedon building walls for the new city. He's having a hard time of it: mortals can only do so much. So Apollo makes a deal with Laomedon: He and Neptune, the god of the sea, will build the walls for him. When they are done, they are to be paid in gold.
  • When the walls are finished, however, Laomedon says, "Gold? What gold? Contract? What contract? Who are you, anyway? Get lost!"
  • In anger at this, Neptune raises up huge waves and floods the countryside of Troy. Then he demands that Laomedon's daughter, Hesione, be offered as food for a sea-monster. As it turns out, however, Hercules rescues her at the last minute.
  • After saving the princess, Hercules asks the Trojans to give him some horses they promised. The Trojans refuse. Furious, Hercules makes war against the Trojans.
  • One of Hercules's allies in this war is a fellow called Peleus. Peleus is famous because he's a mortal who married an immortal—the sea goddess Thetis.
  • Here's how that came about. Some time before, Proteus, another sea-god, had prophesied that Thetis would give birth to a son who would be more powerful than his father.
  • Jupiter, as it so happened, had a crush on Thetis, but when he heard that, he was like "Uh-oh, no way." He was the one who convinced Peleus to make a move on her.
  • Peleus tracks Thetis to a cave where she hangs out. He tries to sweet-talk her, but she refuses. Then he tries to overpower her physically, but she's a shape-shifter—she turns into a number of different forms, last but not least a tiger.
  • Frustrated, Peleus goes out of the cave and prays to Proteus for help. Proteus tells him, "Wait until Thetis is asleep; then, tie her up. Once she's tied up, she'll start shape-shifting. Just hold on tight and don't give in. Eventually she'll surrender."
  • Peleus does as he's told. Things go just as Proteus had predicted. Finally, Thetis offers herself to Peleus. Soon, she is pregnant with their son: Achilles.
  • After this, things start going pretty well for Peleus... until he accidentally kills his half brother, Phocus, and gets banished from his homeland.
  • At this point, Peleus decides to hightail it to the land of Trachin, where a guy called Ceyx, the son of Lucifer (i.e., the morning star, not Satan) is king. The thing is, when he gets there, he finds Ceyx in mourning his own lost brother.
  • Peleus approaches him and asks for help. He tells the whole truth about who he is and where he comes from—except for the whole brother-killing bit. Ceyx tells him he can have everything he wants; then, he bursts out crying.
  • When Peleus asks Ceyx why he's crying, here's what he tells him:
  • Apparently, Ceyx's brother was a guy named Daedalion. He was also the son of Lucifer (the morning star). Whereas Ceyx was a nice guy, however, Daedalion was a total jerk, who loved nothing better than war.
  • Daedalion had a daughter, named Chione. Chione was only fourteen years old, but already a thousand men had asked for her hand in marriage. Then, one day, the gods Apollo and Mercury both caught sight of her and instantly fell in love.
  • Apollo decided to wait until nightfall before putting the moves on Chione. But Mercury, the god of trickery, couldn't resist. He made her fall asleep and then had his way with her. Later that night, Apollo snuck into her room disguised as an old woman, and did the same thing Mercury had done.
  • Nine months later, Chione gave birth to twin sons: Autolycus and Phillamon. Autolycus was Mercury's son and Phillamon was Apollo's. Autolycus became a trickster, and Phillamon became a musician.
  • Unfortunately, all this glory just went to Chione's head; she started claiming that she was more beautiful than the goddess Diana. Whether or not this was true, Diana was certainly more powerful. She shot an arrow through Chione's tongue, and the poor girl bled to death.
  • After this, Daedalion became maddened with grief. He ran to the top of a cliff and jumped off, intending to kill himself. But, before he could hit the ground, Apollo transformed him into a hawk. This is the end of Ceyx's story explaining why he's feeling in the dumps.
  • Just when he finishes telling it, however, a man named Onetor (the cowherd who takes care of Peleus's cattle) runs into the throne-room shouting that something terrible has happened. Peleus and Ceyx ask him to explain what the matter is. Here's what the cowherd says:
  • At noon, he was driving his cattle along the beach. On the beach was a temple devoted to the gods of the sea. Nearby was a swamp. Out of this swamp burst a wolf, which ravaged the herd and killed many of the other herdsmen.
  • The cowherd winds up his story by asking for help in killing the wolf. Peleus reflects that this wolf must have been sent by the sea-nymph Psamathe, as punishment for his killing of his brother Phocus. (Psamathe was Phocus's mother.)
  • Ceyx orders his men to get read; just then, however, Ceyx's wife runs in and begs him not to put himself in danger by joining the hunt.
  • Now Peleus speaks up, telling her not to worry; he can deal with the wolf simply by praying to Psamathe. As it turns out, Psamathe doesn't listen to his prayer; Thetis, however, hears it, and convinces Psamathe to forgive Peleus. Then Psamathe turns the wolf to stone.
  • After this, Peleus continues wandering the earth. Eventually he comes to the land of Magnesia, where the local king performs the necessary rituals to cleanse him completely of the sin of killing his brother.
  • In the meantime, King Ceyx, who's still pretty shaken up about everything that's been going on, decides to visit an oracle to ask for advice. Because the oracle of Delphi is being besieged by the evil King Phorbas, Ceyx decides to go to the far-away oracle of Clarus instead.
  • When his wife Alcyone finds out, however, she is very upset. She warns him about the dangers of sea-travel (she would know; her father is Aiolos, king of the winds). Is visiting the oracle really worth risking his life? Finally, she says: "Go if you must... but take me too!"
  • Ceyx refuses to do that, but promises that he'll be back in two months. Alcyone grudgingly agrees – though she's still worried for him.
  • Unfortunately, Ceyx and his men aren't long at sea when they are completely enveloped by a terrible storm. Mountainous waves crash upon the ship and splinter it into pieces. Clinging to a piece of wreckage, Ceyx spends his last breath calling out to Alcyone, praying that his body will wash ashore so she can bury him. Then another wave crashes down upon him, killing him.
  • Back at the ranch, Alcyone has no idea of her husband's fate. Every day, she prays to Juno to keep him safe. Finally, Juno decides she'd better break the news to her. She gets Iris, messenger of the gods, to tell Sleep, the god of.. sleep, to send Alcyone a dream revealing the truth.
  • Sleep sends his son Morpheus, who can assume various shapes in people's dreams, to Alcyone. He appears to her in the form of Ceyx, pale from death and drenched with water. He tells her that he (Ceyx) is dead, and that she should stop praying for his safety.
  • Then Alcyone wakes up, terribly distraught. She begins tearing at her hair in grief, saying she doesn't want to live any longer.
  • At dawn, she goes down to the shore. When she gets there, she sees a body floating on the water. She realizes that it is Ceyx! Quickly, she flies over to him. Flies? Yup. At that moment, Alcyone turned into a kingfisher.
  • Then the gods turn Ceyx into a kingfisher too, and bring him back to life in that form. He and Alcyone live happily together after, as birds.
  • One day, as the two birds are flying over the sea, they are spotted by an old man. Then another bird catches his eye. It is a merganser, a different type of waterfowl. He knows a story about this one.
  • He says that this bird used to be Aesacus, the half-brother of Hector, the great Trojan warrior.
  • This Aesacus character was not your average Trojan: He was anti-social, and preferred to live in the wilderness. He was also madly in love—with Hesperie, a nymph.
  • One day, as he was chasing her, she was bitten by a snake, and died. Lamenting what he had caused, Aesacus decided to die too.
  • He went up to a cliff and dived into the sea. But Thetis didn't want him to die; she changed him into a bird—the merganser. But he still didn't want to live; that's why, to this day, this bird always dives underwater. This is the end of the old man's story.

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