Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Book 15

By Ovid

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Book 15

  • Now that Romulus is gone, the Romans need a new king. They pick a guy called Numa Pompilius.
  • Numa is like, "That's cool; I mean, I know the laws of the city and all. But I need to bone up on the laws of nature." So he goes on a journey.
  • Numa goes to the town of Crotona, a Greek city in Italy where Hercules once stayed.
  • Once he gets there, Numa goes to the local tourist bureau (i.e., some old guy) and asks for information about the town.
  • The old man is only too happy to oblige. He tells Numa that, after capturing the cattle of Geryon, Hercules passed by that area. After setting his cattle to graze, the hero was hosted by a guy called Croton.
  • As he left the house, Hercules predicted that, after two generations, a new city would rise in that place.
  • Two generations passed. Then, in the city of Argos, in Greece, a guy named Myscelus was born. Myscelus grew up, and became very popular. One night, however, Hercules appeared to Myscelus in his sleep and told him that he had to leave his native land. "Go find the River Aesar," he said, "and if you don't, I'll kick your butt."
  • When Myscelus woke up, he was very confused. "Even if that really was Hercules," he thought, "I've got a problem." The problem is, you see, that there was a law in Argos prohibiting any of its citizens from traveling abroad.
  • So what did Myscelus do? He did nothing. But then the next night, Hercules appeared in his dream again, and gave him the same message. When he woke up this time, Myscelus said, "What the hey? I might as well."
  • When word of what he was doing spread through the town, however, the citizens became enraged. He was called before a court and tried on the charge of breaking the city's laws.
  • Here's how the trial worked: Each citizen was given two stones, one white and one black. At the end of the trial, they reached a verdict by dropping stones into an urn: a black stone if they wanted to condemn the defendant, a white one if they wanted to acquit. Then, at the end, they would decide the verdict by counting up the stones.
  • Just before the votes were cast, Myscelus prayed to Hercules. Good thing he did; even though every single stone placed into the urn was black, when they shook it out, they had all magically become white.
  • They let Myscelus go. After giving thanks to Hercules, he sailed off. Eventually, he found the River Aesar, in Italy, and built a city there, just as Hercules told him to, on the burial mound of Croton. Then, he named the city in the dead guy's honor: Crotona.
  • That's the story that the old man tells Numa. Now Ovid adds another story, in his own voice.
  • This story is about one of Crotona's most famous residents: the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras.
  • Among his many accomplishments, Pythagoras was also (according to Ovid) the first person to argue in favor if vegetarianism. Now, Ovid lets us tune in and listen to a lecture on this topic by the famous philosopher. Let's see what the guy has to say:
  • "Don't eat animals," he begins. "The earth offers plenty of other stuff to eat; why do you have to kill something so that you can live?
  • In the Golden Age, people didn't kill animals to eat them. But then, some sleaze-bag started to do so, and the trend caught on. They also started sacrificing animals—a disgusting practice. Mortals! Stop this madness immediately!
  • But listen up: I'm going to tell you the secrets of the universe. First off, life after death: the Underworld, the River Styx, and so on? Forget about it. That's poetic fluff. When you die, your body dies with you—but your soul lives on! In fact, in a past life, I was a guy called Euphorbus, a Trojan warrior; I was killed by the Greek King Menelaus!
  • That's right. Reincarnation is real folks, deal with it. That's why you shouldn't eat animals—heck, that bacon you're wolfing down could be your great uncle Charlie!
  • Anyway, now that I've got your attention, I might as well tell you some other cool secrets of the universe. How's this for starters: Everything is, like, always changing, man. Nothing ever stays the same. Whoa. Far out.
  • For example, the sun changes color based on how high it is in the sky, and the moon changes with the months. We all know how the seasons change; people change too, as they grow up and grow old.
  • But that isn't all. Even the elements change. As you know, there are four elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Earth melts into Water, Water evaporates into Air, and Air becomes purified into Fire—the highest level in existence. But then Fire can turn back into Air, Air turns back into Water, which rains on the earth and becomes mud, i.e., Earth.
  • With all this change going on, you could say that nothing is permanent—except the sum total of everything. But everything contained within that totality is very unstable.
  • Think about it: Even geography changes. You can find seashells inland and anchors on mountaintops. Floods have destroyed mountains. Places that used to be islands are now part of the mainland, and vice versa. Also, water comes in many different guises. Some is good to drink, and some sure isn't.
  • Personally, I think it makes most sense to think of the whole world as one big living being.
  • Now, I've heard some crazy stories about people in the far north—the Hyperboreans. I've heard that some men up there jump into a pool of water nine times and come out as birds. I don't believe that. I've also heard that the women of Scythians grow feathers.
  • But, let's just stick to facts we can all observe. We all know that when animals rot, smaller animals appear out of their carcasses.
  • All kinds of animals come from the strangest places: butterflies come from small worms, frogs come from spawn in mud and don't have legs at first, bear cubs are born shapeless, bees come from larvae, the peacock comes from an egg, and some people say that when a human body rots in the grave its spinal cord turns into a snake.
  • Like, seriously, there are weird changes going on everywhere. Think about the phoenix, which is reborn every five hundred years; or the hyena, which can change sex from male to female; or the chameleon, which eats air and changes color; or the lynx, whose bodily fluids turn to stone, or coral, which is a plant underwater, but hardens when exposed to air.
  • Human societies also undergo such changes. Many cities that once were great now are in ruins. But now I hear there's a new kid on the block: Rome! A long time ago, when Aeneas was leaving Troy, he received a prophecy from Helenus, the Trojan soothsayer. Helenus told him that Rome would become awesome and conquer the world.
  • But back to the point: Everything is changing, even we are changing. But inside of each of us is something eternal: the soul. So don't go around killing other creatures. It just isn't right. The exception is if an animal tries to kill you; then you're within your rights to kill it, in self-defense. But even then, don't eat its body. Eat food that doesn't require violence."
  • That's the end of Pythagoras's speech. Numa thinks it's pretty nifty, and we at Shmoop do, too. Now satisfied that he understands the laws of nature, he goes back to rule over Rome. He also marries a nymph, Egeria.
  • Numa teaches the Romans how to be peaceful (before him they knew only war), and the people love him very much. When he dies, the whole city mourns. Egeria goes to live in the woods.
  • In the woods, she is approached by many nymphs, who try to get her to stop weeping. She also meets Hippolytus, the son of Theseus. Hippolytus tells her a story to explain how he ended up in the woods:
  • Hippolytus says that his troubles started when his stepmother, Phaedra, tried to get him to sleep with her. When he refused, she told Theseus, her husband, that Hippolytus had been sexually harassing her. Theseus believed her and banished Hippolytus from his kingdom.
  • While Hippolytus was riding in his chariot on his way to Corinth, suddenly a huge wave rose up out of the sea and swept towards him. Riding the crest of the wave was a giant bull.
  • Hippolytus tried to maneuver his chariot to escape it, but then his chariot broke a wheel and he was hurled through the air. His body was shattered to smithereens, and he died.
  • Even though he went down to the Underworld, however, Hippolytus was miraculously saved by the healing arts of Aesculapius, the son of Apollo.
  • Then, Diana helped find him a new home on earth. So that no one would recognize him, she changed his body, making him old and withered, and also gave him a new name, Virbius. Now, Hippolytus explains, he lives in the woods as Virbius, a minor god.
  • The point of Hippolytus's story was supposed to be, "Hey, Egeria, things are tough all over. Get over your grief." But that didn't work. Egeria kept weeping for Numa; eventually, Diana stepped in and turned her into a spring.
  • Hippolytus is very surprised at this turn of events. In fact, Ovid tells us he's just as surprised as some Etruscan farmer once was when he saw a clod of earth in his field turn into a human being and start spouting prophecies. (We think that must have been pretty surprising.) Clod-boy's name turned out to be Tages.
  • But wait—Ovid isn't finished. He also tells us that Hippolytus is as surprised as Romulus was when, one day, he saw a spear he had stuck into the ground taking root and becoming a living plant.
  • But there's even more! Ovid also tells us that Hippolytus is as surprised as a fellow named Cipus was when, one day, he looked into a pool of water and saw that he had grown horns on his head. Here's what happened:
  • At the time when this antler incident happened, Cipus was coming back to Rome from fighting in a war. When he first caught sight of his unsightly reflection, he couldn't believe his eyes. But then he touched his forehead and realized, sure enough, the horns were there.
  • Not knowing what to do, Cipus went to consult a soothsayer. After some initial dilly-dallying, the soothsayer tells him: "You must go to Rome and become their king."
  • Cipus says, "Uh, OK." And off he goes.
  • When he got to Rome, however, he suddenly didn't feel right about the whole thing. Why would he, Cipus, want to be king of Rome? (This was in the era after Rome had kicked out its kings and was starting out as a republic. Kings at this time were regarded as bad news.)
  • So what did Cipus do? First, he wound wreaths around his head to hide his horns. Then, he called all of the Romans to assembly, outside the city.
  • Once they were assembled, Cipus gave a speech, telling them that somebody among them would rule over them as king if they didn't banish him. He said that they would know who this person was because he would have horns.
  • The people were very impressed by this speech, and started murmuring to each other, wondering who it could be.
  • Finally, Cipus whipped the wreaths off his head, revealing his horns. "It is me!" he shouted.
  • In response to this, the Roman people did, indeed, forbid Cipus from entering the city. But they also recognized the good he had done by turning himself in. As a reward, they gave him as much land outside the city as he could drive his plow around in a single day. They also sculpted horns on the gate into the city, to commemorate Cipus.
  • Now Ovid asks the Muses to tell him how the god Aesculapius got so popular in Rome. Here's what the Muses tell him:
  • A long time ago, there was a horrible plague in Rome. Delegates from the people were sent to the oracle of Apollo in Delphi to ask him what to do.
  • Apollo told them: "You guys could've saved yourselves a trip. You don't need me, you need my son, Aesculapius, and he's close to your home."
  • When the delegates reported back to the Roman Senate, the senators said, "Oh yeah, we forgot about that guy. Isn't he hanging out in the Greek city of Epidaurus at the moment?"
  • Sure enough, the Romans sent another set of delegates to Epidaurus, where they asked the local elders if they could borrow their god. (By this they meant the statue of the god.)
  • The Epidaurians started fiercely debating this. Their debate lasted all day and into the night, without coming to any conclusion. In the meantime, the Roman delegation went to sleep.
  • In one of the delegates' dreams, the god Aesculapius himself appeared and spoke: "Hey, I'm coming with you guys. But here's the catch: I'm going to change myself into a snake."
  • The next morning, the Epidaurians, who still hadn't reached a decision, went to the sanctuary to ask the god for a sign. Immediately, the sculpted serpent—part of the statue of the god—came to life. It hissed, and increased in size. Everybody was suitably impressed, and the Romans took the snake home with them in their ship.
  • The snake picked out an island in the middle of the Tiber: That became the Romans' temple to Aesculapius.
  • Next Ovid compares Aesculapius with Julius Caesar. He says, "Aesculapius thinks he's so cool, but he's a foreigner. Julius Caesar is a 100% local god. That makes him more awesome."
  • But Ovid isn't done sucking up to the Caesars yet. Now he throws in some words of praise for his own boss, Augustus: "But, you see, the most truly, stupendously, unbelievably amazing thing Julius Caesar did was being the father of Augustus Caesar!" (The fact that he was only Augustus's adoptive father doesn't factor into Ovid's account.)
  • After that interlude, Ovid tells us how Julius Caesar became a god. Wait, Julius Caesar became a god? "Oh yes, he did," says Ovid. Here's how, according to him:
  • When the goddess Venus learns that people are plotting to kill Julius Caesar, she asks all the other gods if they could make him a god. But their response is simply, "Naaah."
  • Right before the day of the assassination, there are horrible omens in Rome, like raining blood and the dead walking the streets, and such. Realizing that Caesar's death is imminent, Venus considers hiding him in a cloud of mist.
  • But then Jupiter stops her, saying, "What, you think you can stop fate or something? Hey, I've been to the house of the Fates and I've read their books. I know everything that's going to happen. Julius Caesar has to die so Augustus Caesar can become emperor and conquer the entire world."
  • Then Jupiter tells Venus to go and take Caesar's soul out of his murdered body and turn it into a star. That's exactly what she does.
  • But then Ovid tells us that Augustus is going to be even more awesome than his father. He prays to all the gods that Augustus will have a long life—longer than his own—before he becomes a god.
  • Ovid concludes the poem by announcing that his own life will have no conclusion. Because he has completed his poem, he will be higher than the stars. Even though his body may die, he will still live on as long as people keep reciting the poem.

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