Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Book 6

By Ovid

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Book 6

  • That's the end of the story the Muses told Minerva. (In case you forgot, the last book ended in the middle of a story about how the Muses beat the Pierides in a singing contest.)
  • The moral Minerva takes from the story is that it's important for gods to punish mortals who don't respect them. First on her agenda is bringing some vengeance down on Arachne; Minerva had heard rumors that Arachne claimed to be better than her at weaving.
  • Ovid tells us that Arachne came from the land of Lydia; this is in modern Turkey, though he doesn't tell us that part.
  • She is from a humble background, but has won great fame by her knitting—so much fame that she boasts that she could beat Minerva in a weaving contest. Hence Minerva's motivation to knock some sense into her.
  • Minerva first appears at Arachne's house in the shape of an old woman. In this disguise, she tells Arachne to mend her ways, and honor the goddess. But Arachne just repeats her boasting. At that moment, Minerva reveals her true form and says, "Bring it on."
  • While the others present all bow down to Minerva, Arachne remains defiant. (She does blush a little.) Very well: let the weaving contest commence!
  • Minerva weaves an image of the contest between herself and Neptune over who would be the patron god of Athens. She won this contest, of course. (In Greek, Minerva's name is Athena, so you can see the connection.) In the corners of her cloth, she weaves images of gods punishing uppity mortals. Hmm… might there be a message in these images?
  • As for Arachne, her tapestry shows scenes of Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo, Bacchus, and Saturn seducing various ladies. (Hmm… she doesn't really show the gods in a good light, does she?)
  • When Arachne is finished, everyone—even Minerva—agrees that her work is flawless. Minerva loses it, and tears Arachne's work to shreds. Then she whacks her on the head with her shuttle. Out of shame, Arachne then hangs herself.
  • Seeing her hanging there, Minerva takes pity on her and lets her live—but turns her into the world's first spider.
  • Meanwhile, in Thebes, a childhood acquaintance of Arachne is also running into trouble with the gods. This is Niobe, who is incredibly proud of her children—seven sons and seven daughters.
  • One day, when the other citizens of her city are worshipping Latona, the mother of Apollo and Diana, Niobe interrupts them and says that they should worship her, Niobe, instead. That's because she is also descended from gods, but has more children.
  • When Latona gets wind of this, she immediately tells her children, Apollo and Diana, so they can avenge her honor.
  • No sooner said than done: Apollo and Diana, who are both excellent archers, swoop down to the city of Thebes and shoot all of Niobe's sons dead.
  • When the sons' father, Amphion, learns of this, he kills himself. But Niobe remains defiant: through her tears, she boasts that she still has seven daughters to be proud of. Bad move. Arrows start raining down, and soon six of the daughters are dead, too.
  • Now Niobe's starting to get worried—she prays that the gods spare her last daughter at least. No such luck. Another arrow whizzes by and strikes her daughter dead.
  • At this point, Niobe starts weeping uncontrollably. She weeps for so long, in the same position, that she slowly turns to stone. Then, a strong wind comes, picks her up, and deposits her on top of Mount Sipylus, in modern Turkey, where she came from. To this day, Ovid tells us, she remains there as a rock with water streaming out of it.
  • After what happened to Niobe, the Thebans go on worshiping Latona, with even more devotion than before.
  • Then, one of the Thebans remembers a past occasion when their people suffered for not honoring Latona. Here's how his story goes:
  • The Theban says that, when he was younger, his father once gave him the task of driving his flock of cattle. He did as his father said, and took with him a Lycian (a native of Lycia, in modern Turkey) as a guide.
  • As the Theban and the Lycian were making their way through the countryside, they came upon a lake with an altar rising out of its waters.
  • The Lycian explained what it meant. He said that, a long time ago, when the goddess Latona was pregnant with Apollo and Diana, Juno drove her in exile over the face of the earth. Any guesses why? Yup, you got it. Jupiter was the father.
  • Eventually, she gave birth to the twins on the Greek island of Delos – but then had to keep wandering.
  • After some time, she came to the lake where they now stood. Latona was dying of thirst and she came forward to drink from the water. For some reason, however, the local inhabitants wouldn't let her drink from it; they even stirred up the lake's muddy floor to make the water dirty. In response to this rudeness, Latona turned the lot of them into frogs.
  • That's the end of the Theban's retelling of the Lycian's story.
  • Hearing it reminds one of the other Thebans about a story he once heard about a god punishing a mortal. This time, it was Marsyas, the flute-player (or, "flautist," for the band geeks among you).
  • Marsyas entered a flute-playing contest with Apollo and lost. Then, to add insult to injury—well, really the other way around—Apollo skinned him alive. Needless to say, Marsyas wasn't alive much longer.
  • After this story is done, another Theban, Pelops, the brother of Niobe, steps forward to tell his own story. "You think those guys had it bad?" he says, "Check out this!" At that, he sweeps aside his cloak to reveal that he has… an ivory shoulder.
  • It turns out that, when Pelops was a kid, his father chopped him up into bits; when the gods put him back together again, they couldn't find the shoulder (did they check under the sofa cushions?), so they just made him a new one out of ivory. Sweet.
  • In the wake of these horrible occurrences in Thebes, cities from all over Greece send their condolences. Only one city doesn't—Athens. That's because it's too busy fighting off an attack by barbarians.
  • But then who should come to the rescue but Tereus, the dashing prince of Thrace, who fights the barbarians off. Because of Tereus's heroism, the king of Athens—a man named Pandion—offers him his daughter, Procne, in marriage.
  • Unfortunately, the wedding is doomed from the start. Why? Because they didn't hire the right wedding planner.
  • That's right, instead of Juno, Hymen, and the Graces—your standard divinities of marriage—they got the Furies to stage-manage the festivities. Bad move. Let's see how things turn out.
  • At first, things went OK, and the couple soon produced a child. Five years pass. Then, one day, Procne asks her husband if they can go back to her hometown to pick up her sister, Philomela, whom she is dying to see.
  • Tereus says, "Sure thing," and in no time he outfits a ship and sail to Athens to pick her up.
  • When they get there, everything goes well, and Tereus gets a warm welcoming from his father-in-law, King Pandion. But the real warmth comes from another quarter: As soon as Tereus sees Philomela, his sister-in-law, he becomes inflamed with the fires of lust.
  • He makes his speech to Philomela, inviting her to visit them in Thrace. She is only too happy to accept; her father grants permission. So, the next day, they sail off. Before they go, Pandion makes Tereus promise to send Philomela back home soon.
  • Then they sail off. When they reach Thrace, Tereus drags Philomela off to a hut in the woods. There, he ties her up and rapes her. Full of anger and shame, Philomela swears that she will tell everyone what Tereus has done. To prevent this from happening, he cuts out her tongue.
  • Then Tereus goes home, has the audacity to look his wife in the eye and tell her that Philomela died along the way.
  • A year passes. Philomela remains in captivity in the woods, guarded by Tereus's henchmen, and unable to speak. But there just happens to be a loom in her room. She uses it to weave a tapestry of symbols explaining what happened to her. Then she gives the tapestry to a serving-woman, who takes it to Procne.
  • Procne is shocked by what she sees, and immediately begins plotting revenge. But she doesn't do anything immediately. Instead, she waits until the feast of Bacchus rolls around. Then, when she is wandering in the woods with that god's other female worshipers, she passes by the hut where Philomela is being held, and rescues her. She dresses her up in the clothing of a worshiper and sneaks her back into the palace.
  • Now Procne thinks it's time for her revenge. She contemplates many means of doing it, but finally decides to take her anger out on Itys, her son with Tereus.
  • Despite her maternal affection for him, Procne carries Itys off to the woods. There, she and Philomela hack him to death with knives.
  • Then, Procne takes what's left of Itys home, cooks him, and serves him as dinner to Tereus, who is none the wiser.
  • After the dinner—which Tereus enjoys very much—he asks where his son is. Then Philomela walks in, covered in blood, and throws Itys's head in Tereus's face.
  • Tereus is understandably shocked; when he gets his wits back, it is only to grab his sword and run after Procne and Philomela, intending to kill them. Before he can, however, Procne and Philomela turn into birds and fly away. Then, Tereus turns into a bird as well—the hoopoe—but doesn't catch them.
  • Grieving over these events, the Athenian King Pandion dies before his time.
  • Pandion's son, Erectheus, becomes the new king. Erectheus has eight kids: four sons and four daughters.
  • One of Erectheus's daughters is named Procris. She marries a guy named Cephalus. (We'll meet him again in Book 7.)
  • Another of Erectheus's daughters, Orithyia, is courted by Boreas, the god of the north wind. Or rather, Boreas would have courted her if he weren't forbidden to come near her – all because he hails from Thrace (Get it? "Hails," because he's the north wind?), the same northern region as the wicked Tereus.
  • Finally, Boreas says to himself, "What am I doing waiting around like a chump? I should use violence, my forte!"
  • Then, Boreas swoops down in a dark cloud, snatches up Orithyia, and carries her off.
  • Things actually seem to have worked out OK for Orithyia and Boreas. Ovid tells us that they made a home together in the north, had twin sons: Zetes and Calais.
  • Ovid tells us that these boys had their mother's looks—until, at puberty, they each grew wings like their father.
  • He says that, when they became men, they took part of the expedition of the Argo—the first ship built by humans—to recover the golden fleece. What's that all about? Well, you'll just have to wait until Book 7…

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