Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Book 4

By Ovid

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Book 4

  • The Theban women take the death of Pentheus as a warning—and become even more devoted to the god Bacchus. In fact, all of them join his worshipers, except for the daughters of Minyas, a citizen of the town.
  • When the other women are off partying, Minyas's daughters stay home and weave. They do this because their favorite goddess is Minerva, the goddess of weaving. To pass the time, they decide to tell stories.
  • One of them begins to tell the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Here's how the story begins:
  • Pyramus and Thisbe lived in the city of ancient Babylon. In fact, they lived right next to each other. As they grew up, they slowly fell in love. Eventually, they decided they wanted to be married, but their parents forbade it. This just made them love each other more.
  • The two neighboring houses shared a wall. In this wall, there was a crack. Through this crack, the lovers would communicate. They longed to be able to join together, and wished that the wall did not separate them.
  • Finally, they decided to run away together. They would each slip out of their houses by night. Then, they would make their way separately to the tomb of a man named Ninus, outside the city. There, they would hide underneath a mulberry tree that grew beside the tomb.
  • Thisbe made it to the tomb first. But, while she was waiting, a lioness came by. The lioness had recently killed some oxen, and had a bloody snout. Thisbe ran away—and dropped her shawl in the process. After drinking from a stream, the lioness came over and started tearing up the shawl for no particular reason.
  • When Pyramus got there and saw the lioness, with her bloody jaws, chewing on Thisbe's shawl, he assumed the worst. Overcome with grief, he sat down beneath the mulberry tree and committed suicide by stabbing himself. His blood spurted all over the berries and sank down to the roots—the reason why the berries, which used to be white, now are red.
  • At this point, Thisbe came back to the tomb and found her lover bleeding to death. Pyramus looked up into her eyes, recognized her, and then died. Thisbe prayed that she and he would be given the same grave. Then, she stabbed herself to death with Pyramus's knife.
  • That's the end of the first daughter's story. Now another daughter, Leuconoe, starts telling a different tale.
  • Leuconoe says that, a long time ago, Venus, the goddess of love, was having an affair with Mars, the god of war.
  • When the Sun, who sees everything on earth, saw them in bed together, he quickly tattled on them to Vulcan, Venus's husband.
  • Vulcan didn't like this one bit. That said, being the god of craftsmanship (as well as the fire), he quickly went to work on a plan to trap them. In the end, he fashioned extremely thin wires made of gold—so thin that they were invisible to the naked eye.
  • They were also invisible to the naked lovers. So, when Venus and Mars got into bed together, Vulcan cinched the chains tightly around them, leaving them trapped. Then he invited all the other gods and goddesses into the room to witness their shame.
  • Vulcan's plan kind of backfired, however, when one of the gods (we aren't told who—got any guesses?) said, in front of everyone, that he wished he could be shamed in the same way!
  • After this incident, Venus decided to get revenge on the Sun for ratting her out.
  • She got revenge the way only she knew how—by making the Sun fall madly, painfully in love with a young woman named Leucothoe, the daughter of the King of Persia. (She is not to be confused with Leuconoe, the daughter of Minyas, who is telling this story.)
  • One night, when his duties were over, the Sun came down to earth, assuming the form of Eurynome, the mother of Leucothoe. In this disguise, he approached Leucothoe in her palace and told her he needed to speak to her in private. Once they were alone, he told her he has the hots for her (because he's the sun, get it?). Then he revealed his true form and they had sex. (It's unclear whether this was a rape or not—though modern standards would probably view it as such.)
  • After this incident, however, another girl, Clytie, one of the Sun's ex-girlfriends, decided to rat Leucothoe out, due to jealousy.
  • When Leucothoe's father found out that she was no longer a virgin, he commanded her to be buried alive.
  • When he got wind of this, the Sun shot rays of light down into the earth covering her grave, to blast out a breathing hole. But it was too late. Leucothoe was dead.
  • The Sun now entered a period of profound grief. Eventually, he spread divine nectar around the grave. Soon enough, a fragrant plant grew up out of it—Leucothoe in a new form.
  • As for Clytie, even though she had gotten revenge on her rival, she wasn't able to patch things up with the Sun. (He wouldn't have anything to do with her.) She started spending all day out side, not eating or drinking, staring at the sun. Eventually, she, too, turned into a plant—the flower known as the "heliotrope."
  • That's the end of Leuconoe's story. (Remember, don't confuse her with Leucothoe, the girl in the story.)
  • When she stops telling it, some of her sisters don't believe it. Others say, "Sure, why not? The true gods can do anything they want. But not stupid fake gods—like Bacchus."
  • The next to tell a story is Alcithoe. Here's how her story goes:
  • A long time ago, the god Hermes (a.k.a. Mercury, the messenger god, whom we've already met) had a child with the goddess Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus, goddess of love, whom we've also already met). Their child, whose looks were a blend of both parents, was named Hermaphroditus.
  • When Hermaphroditus was fifteen years old, he left his home on Mt. Ida and started traveling the world.
  • One day, he came to a pool of fresh, clear water. This pool was inhabited by a Naiad (water nymph) named Salmacis.
  • When Salmacis saw Hermaphroditus, she instantly developed a crush on him. Unfortunately, he rejected her advances.
  • Then, Hermaphroditus went swimming in the pool. Now that Salmacis saw her crush without any clothes on, she couldn't restrain herself. She stripped off her own clothes and dived into the pool.
  • Even though Hermaphroditus tried to resist, she wrapped herself around him and wouldn't let go. When he still wouldn't have sex with her, she prayed to the gods to join them together forever. Her wish was granted: in a flash, they fused into a single being, half male and half female—or both at the same time. Thus, Hermaphroditus became the first hermaphrodite.
  • That's the end of Alcithoe's story. When she is done telling it, the sisters go on with their weaving, still not participating in the festivities of Bacchus.
  • Then, however, the god strikes back. He turns the threads of the sisters' looms into grapevines – and then turns the sisters into bats.
  • After this incident, Bacchus becomes very famous. His aunt, Ino (the sister of Semele), is very pleased with all this—and with her husband, Athamas.
  • Juno, probably still mad that Jupiter got Semele pregnant, decides to inflict pain on Ino.
  • First, she heads down to the underworld. There, she meets the Furies—the goddesses of vengeance. She asks for their help to strike at Ino. Tisiphone, the head Fury, says, "No problem."
  • Tisiphone heads to Thebes, finds Athamas and Ino, and infects them with madness.
  • Now, Athamas calls for nets to trap a lioness and her cubs. What he doesn't know is that the lioness is really Ino and their two children, Learchus and Melicerta.
  • Athamas catches Learchus, swings him around his head, and smashes his skull on a rock.
  • Then Ino, who has also become insane, clutches Melicerta close to her, runs to the top of a tall cliff, and jumps into the sea.
  • Seeing this, Venus has pity on Ino. She asks Neptune, the god of the sea, to turn both Ino and Melicerta into sea-goddesses. Neptune agrees, and makes it happen.
  • Some Theban women, who had followed Ino to the top of the cliff, and who have no idea about her recent transformation into a goddess, start grieving and calling Juno unjust. Juno's reaction is basically, "So you like crying, huh? Well, I'll give you something to cry about." She turns some of the women into rocks, and others into sea birds.
  • After these misfortunes, Cadmus, the old King of Thebes, decides to leave the city—which holds too many painful memories.
  • Cadmus and his wife, Harmonia, start wandering the earth. After they've traveled for some time, Cadmus starts wondering if maybe he's being punished by the gods because he killed that big snake (back in Book 3). Maybe the snake was holy?
  • He prays to the gods, saying, "If I'm being punished for killing that snake, then, gods, turn me into a snake too!"
  • Be careful what you wish for. No sooner has he spoken these words, than Cadmus turns into a snake. In terror, Harmonia prays that she, too, can become a snake and join her husband. No sooner said than done. Then they slither off together.
  • At this point, there remains only one king, Acrisius, who does not believe that Bacchus is a god. Acrisius also doesn't believe that his grandson, Perseus, is really the son of Jupiter. (Perseus's mother, Acrisius's daughter Danae, was supposedly impregnated when Jupiter rained down on her as a shower of gold, as shown in this painting by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.)
  • Ovid tells us that Acrisius eventually changed his mind on both fronts.
  • Then Ovid zooms in on Perseus, who has traveling the earth with his winged sandals. (For more info on Perseus check out this link.)
  • One evening, Perseus comes to the garden of the Titan Atlas—who lives further west than anybody else. Atlas's garden contains the famous "Apples of the Hesperides"—golden apples growing on a golden tree with golden leaves.
  • Because Atlas has heard a prophecy that his apples would be stolen by a son of Jupiter, he refuses to let Perseus come in. In response, Perseus reaches into his rucksack and pulls out… the head of Medusa, which turns whoever looks at it to stone. (Perseus had earlier killed and decapitated Medusa.)
  • When Atlas sees Medusa's head, he is instantly turned into a giant mountain. That mountain, Ovid tells us, now supports the heavens.
  • Then Perseus leaves. Why didn't he steal the apples? That's because, as Ovid would have expected his readers to know, the Apples of Hesperides were stolen by a different son of Jupiter, Hercules.
  • (That said, Ovid's version does lead to something of a time-paradox, since, in most versions of the story, Hercules gets the apples by tricking Atlas into stealing them for him – which he couldn't very easily do if he had already been turned into a mountain. Do you think Ovid made a mistake here, or was he just planting a little joke for a learned reader—i.e., you—to appreciate?)
  • As Perseus is flapping his way along (with his winged sandals), he comes to the land of the Ethiopians. On the beach, he sees that the Ethiopian princess, Andromeda, has been chained to a rock by her father, King Cepheus, to placate the god Ammon.
  • (The back-story is that Andromeda's mother, Cassiope, had boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, a.k.a. sea-nymphs. When Cepheus, the Ethiopian king, asked the oracle of Ammon what he should do, the oracle said to chain his daughter to a rock by the sea.)
  • Perseus quickly flies down to help Andromeda. At first, he tries to engage her in chit-chat, without much success. Then, all of a sudden, a huge monster arises out of the deep. It is coming to eat Andromeda!
  • Now Perseus sees his chance. He calls out to Andromeda's parents, the King and Queen, and says that, if he kills the monster, they have to accept him as their son-in-law. They agree to his terms.
  • As you might expect, Perseus battles the monster and kills it.
  • During the celebrations that follow, Perseus puts the head of Medusa on the sand. So that it isn't damaged, he makes a bed of plants underneath it; then he puts the head face-down on top of it. As it turns out, the plants soak up the power of Medusa's eyes, and turn to stone. When Perseus throws them into the sea, they become the first coral.
  • Then Perseus makes sacrifices in honor of the major gods, and claims Andromeda as his wife. At the wedding feast, someone asks him to tell how he killed Medusa.
  • Perseus clears his throat and starts telling about his adventures. Here's what he says:
  • First, Perseus stole the eye of the Graeae—three weird witch-like women who only had a single eye that they passed between them like a hot potato. Just when it was changing hands, Perseus reached in and stole it.
  • Then he went to find Medusa and kill her. He had figured out a way to look at her without turning to stone: by looking at her reflection in his shield. With this stratagem, Perseus successfully killed and decapitated Medusa.
  • Where Medusa's blood landed on the ground, two creatures sprang up: Chrysaor and Pegasus. Ovid doesn't tell us anything about Chrysaor, though according to tradition he was either a giant or a winged boar. Pegasus was a winged horse.
  • That's the end of the first part of Perseus's story. Then he goes on to tell about his other crazy adventures. At some point, one of the guests at the banquet interrupts him, wanting to know why Medusa had snakes for hair.
  • Perseus says that Medusa used to be a very beautiful woman. Her most beautiful feature was her hair. In fact, her hair was so beautiful that it made Neptune, the god of the sea, inflamed with lust—to such an extent that he raped her in the temple of Minerva.
  • Minerva didn't like this one bit, and decided to punish Medusa. Thus, she turned Medusa's hair into serpents.
  • From that day on, Minerva has worn an image of Medusa across her breast.

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