Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Book 3

By Ovid

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Book 3

  • When Jupiter arrives at Crete, still carrying the princess Europa, he abandons his bull shape and turns back into himself.
  • At the same time, King Agenor, whose daughter had just been carried off, sends Cadmus, his son, to bring her back.
  • Cadmus wanders over the entire world, but doesn't see any sign of his missing sister.
  • Eventually, realizing his search is futile, but knowing he can't go home, he asks the oracle of Apollo what he should do.
  • The oracle tells Cadmus to keep an eye out for a heifer (female cow) standing alone, one that has never pulled a plow. He should follow this heifer, and wherever she stops to rest, that's where he should found a settlement. He is instructed to call the region Boeotia. (The name "Boeotia," an actual region in Greece, sounds like the Latin word for cow, "bos." This word is related to the English word "bovine.")
  • When Cadmus leaves the shrine, sure enough, he sees a heifer matching that description walking by.
  • He follows the heifer and, after some time, it starts bellowing and lies down in the grass. Cadmus knows this was the spot.
  • At this point, the appropriate thing to do is offer a sacrifice to Jupiter. For this, however, he would need some fresh spring water. Accordingly, he sends his men out into the forest to get some.
  • Unfortunately, in the cave where they go to get their water, there lurks a giant snake, sacred to the god Mars. He kills all of Cadmus's men.
  • By the time noon rolls around, Cadmus is wondering where all his men went. Finally, he goes in search of them. When he gets to the cave, a grisly scene confronts him.
  • Cadmus battles the snake and eventually kills it, pinning it with his spear against an oak tree.
  • While Cadmus is staring at the snake, however, he suddenly hears a voice call out, "What do you think you're staring at? Don't you know that you'll be a snake too one day?"
  • Then, all of sudden, the goddess Minerva appears. She tells him to plow the ground and plant the snake's teeth in the furrows.
  • He does as he's commanded. When he's done, the snake's teeth germinate into a race of warriors who rise out of the soil. For apparent reason, these warriors all start killing each other, until only five are left. These five then make peace with each other.
  • Now Ovid tells us that Cadmus ended up having a pretty sweet life—beautiful wife, nice kids, and so on. But, he reminds us, don't consider a man happy until he's dead. He tells us that, in Cadmus's case, the trouble started when his grandson, Actaeon, was turned into a stag.
  • Now we flash forward a bunch of years to see what in the world Ovid is talking about.
  • On the day in question, young Actaeon and his buddies are out hunting in the forest. They kill lots of animals, and the ground is stained with blood. Nice.
  • Nearby, there is a valley containing a cave. In this cave, there is a spring, where Diana and her nymphs like to bathe.
  • It just so happens that Diana had picked this day to go there with her nymphs.
  • It also just so happens that Actaeon wanders into this cave just when Diana and the nymphs are all splashing around in their birthday suits.
  • When he walks in, they are shocked, and all crowd around Diana to hide her. Then, Diana splashes water on Actaeon.
  • At that instant, he transforms into a stag (male deer). He races out of the cave.
  • Now it isn't long before his own hunting dogs pick up his scent—though of course they don't know who he is.
  • Soon enough, the hounds catch up to him and start mauling him.
  • Actaeon's friends wonder where he is. They are sorry he is missing the action, and cheer on the dogs. Eventually, Actaeon dies from his wounds.
  • When Juno hears about this, she's glad. She's pleased so long as a descendent of King Agenor—the father of Europa, whom Jupiter carried away—is suffering. (Remember: Agenor's son was Cadmus; Cadmus's grandson was Actaeon.)
  • But then Juno gets another piece of bad news. It turns out that Jupiter has been fooling around with yet another mortal babe—the Theban princess Semele. The unfortunate girl is already sporting a baby-bump.
  • Juno considers punishing her husband for this, but decides to take out her wrath on Semele instead.
  • She goes down to Thebes, disguising herself in the shape of Semele's nurse, Beroe. In this shape, she asks Semele how she really knows that it was Jupiter who got her pregnant. She says that, when Jupiter sleeps with Juno, he appears in all his divine glory. She convinces Semele to demand equal treatment.
  • Poor Semele. The next time Jupiter visits him, she asks him to grant her a gift. He swears a solemn oath by the River Styx that he will grant whatever she wishes. She repeats what Juno told her—that he make love to her the way he would the queen of the gods. Jupiter doesn't want to comply, but he is bound by his oath—he does as he's told, and Semele is incinerated.
  • Ovid tells us that her unborn child is later extracted from her womb and implanted in Jupiter's thigh. When the time rolls around, that's where it's born from. This child ends up being Bacchus, the god of wine. Weird.
  • In any case, a short time later, Jupiter is up on Mt. Olympus chilling out with his wife, Juno. Maybe it was Semele's request reminding him of his love life with Juno, or maybe it was just the nectar he was downing. Whatever the cause, Jupiter now tries to get Juno to admit that women enjoy sex more than men.
  • Juno doesn't agree. They decide to ask a man named Tiresias, because he has been both a man and a woman.
  • Here's what happened: One day, Tiresias was walking in the forest, and he saw two snakes getting it on. For some reason, he whacked them with his stick. Immediately afterwards, he was transformed into a woman.
  • Eight years later, Tiresias came upon the same two snakes, and whacked them again. This time, he—or rather, she?—was transformed back into a man.
  • Anyhow, when Tiresias shows up, he sides with Jupiter: women enjoy sex more. So now you know.
  • But Juno doesn't agree with this verdict. In anger at Tiresias, she strikes him blind.
  • Jupiter, to make things a bit better, gives him the gift of prophecy in compensation.
  • As time passes, Tiresias gains a reputation for his future-telling abilities.
  • So, when the nymph Liriope is raped by the river-god Cephisus, she turns to Tiresias to find out the fate of her new child.
  • Tiresias answers (in Mandelbaum's translation), "Yes, if he never knows himself." No one can figure out what the heck he means.
  • Sixteen years later, her child, whose name is Narcissus, has matured into a handsome young man, beloved by both sexes. But he will have nothing to do with anyone.
  • One day, when he is out chasing a deer in the forest, he meets the nymph Echo. Echo can only repeat what other people say, and can never initiate a conversation.
  • Now Ovid tells us why Echo was like that.
  • It turns out that Echo used to act as the wing-nymph for the other nymphs who were getting it on with Jupiter. Every time Juno came along looking for her husband, Echo would stand in her way and engage in conversation—thus giving her friend and Jupiter time to make themselves scarce.
  • When Juno figured out what was going one, she deprived Echo of the ability to speak—except for "echoing" (get it?) the last words that other people say.
  • OK, so far so good. Now let's get back to the main story. Echo sees Narcissus roaming through the woods and instantly starts burning with desire for him. Because she can't initiate conversation, she has to wait for him to make the first move.
  • Time passes. Then, one day, Narcissus is out wandering again in the woods. Somehow, he gets separated from his friends. Worried, he calls out (in Mandelbaum's translation), "Is anyone nearby?"
  • To this, Echo replies, "Nearby." Then Narcissus says, "Come! Come!" But then Echo replies, "Come! Come!" Finally, Narcissus says, "Let's meet." And she replies, "Let's meet."
  • At that moment, Echo runs out to meet him. But Narcissus, when he sees her, wants nothing to do with her, and runs away.
  • Echo, full of grief, begins to waste away. Soon, nothing is left but her voice.
  • Narcissus, meanwhile, keeps going about his business, making every fall in love with him, and then rejecting them.
  • Finally, one of those rejected by Narcissus—a young man—prays that Narcissus himself will feel the pain he inflicted on others.
  • One day, while wandering in the forest (he sure likes to do this a lot), he comes to a pool of still water. He kneels to take a drink.
  • Then, all of a sudden, he sees his own reflection—and falls in love with it. He becomes fixated on the image in the pool, and spends long hours gazing at it, not even bothering to eat or drink.
  • Eventually, he figures out that it's his own image, but he doesn't care: He's too much in love. Instead, he just keeps lying there moping. Echo, nearby, echoes each of his groans.
  • Soon enough, Narcissus dies. His spirit goes down to Hades, where it keeps staring at its own reflection in a pool of water. His body turns in to the flower narcissus.
  • Sad as this story is, it definitely increases Tiresias's reputation as a seer.
  • The only person who doesn't respect Tiresias is Pentheus, prince of Thebes, who makes fun of him for being blind. In response, Tiresias prophesies that Pentheus will be killed for disrespecting the god Bacchus.
  • Shortly afterward, the god Bacchus comes to town. All the women of the town instantly sign themselves up as frantic devotees of the god, participating in wild, chaotic festivities.
  • Pentheus doesn't like this one bit. He orders his men to go capture Bacchus and bring him back in chains. His grandfather, Cadmus, and others try to dissuade him, but that just makes him even more eager.
  • So, his men go off, and come back a short time later with a prisoner—but not Bacchus. Instead, the captive claims to be called Acoetes. Acoetes now tells his own story.
  • Acoetes says that he is a sailor, the son of a poor fisherman. One day, when he and his men landed on the coast of Chios, they found a young boy on the shore and took him captive.
  • Something told Acoetes that the boy was a god in disguise. He prayed to the boy to forgive them for capturing him. But then the other sailors started laughing, and told Acoetes to knock it off. Acoetes tried and failed to get them to see reason.
  • After the boy—who was in fact the god Bacchus—told them he wanted to be dropped off at the island Naxos, the crew tried to convince Acoetes, who was manning the tiller, to sail the other way.
  • Eventually, however, Bacchus got tired of leading everyone along and revealed his true identity. Then, he made the ship stand still in midsea and wreathed all its masts with grapevines. At the same time, he transformed all of the crewmen into dolphins—all that is, except for Acoetes.
  • That's the end of Acoetes's story. The moral? Respect Bacchus.
  • But Pentheus isn't impressed. Instead, he orders his men to cart Acoetes off to a dungeon and torture him to death. What he doesn't know is that, once they get there, the doors mysteriously burst open and the chains slip off Acoetes—letting him escape.
  • But Pentheus's most ignorant act comes next: He climbs up the mountain to see what the women are doing in their crazy parties in honor of Bacchus.
  • When he gets there, his mother, Agave, catches sight of him. Unfortunately, she has been driven into a frenzy—and she mistakes him for a wild boar.
  • Agave leads the other women in a charge against her son. When they catch him, they tear him limb from limb. Agave deals the death blow—when she wrenches his head off.

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