OK, so the poem is called The Metamorphoses; it doesn't take a genius to figure out that "Transformation" is going to be the most important theme. That said, you might be surprised by the wide range of transformations that happen in Ovid's book. The most obvious, of course, are the physical transformations, in which a living being or material object acquires a new form. This often happens through supernatural means, such as—to take one example out of very, very many—when the nymph Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree. That said, Ovid also includes a range of other types of transformations, including changes in human culture (such as in the changing meanings of words) or in the natural world (such as through floods, or when a creature goes through a unique life-cycle). Ovid's most basic point, which he puts in the mouth of the philosopher Pythagoras, is that the only constant in the universe is change. In light of this, it makes sense that his own definition of "transformation" keeps transforming.
Ovid portrays transformation as just as natural as it is supernatural.
Ovid uses transformation as a metaphor for poetic invention.
For the most part, Ovid portrays love in a highly positive way, as something natural that arises on its own between two people. One of the typical signs of love in The Metamorphoses is when the two lovers can't stand to be apart from each other; thus Deucalion and Pyrrha, as well as Baucis and Philemon, each express the wish to die if their partner dies. Pyramus and Thisbe take this to an extreme extent when a misunderstanding makes them each commit suicide (their situation is kind of a precursor to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet). Even though Pyramus and Thisbe are otherwise portrayed as normal, loving people, their story hints at a darker side of love that Ovid also explores. This can be seen in the extreme possessiveness that makes Apollo kill his girlfriend Coronis after she cheats on him, or when Medea considers killing Jason because she is disturbed about falling in love with him.
Ovid portrays love as fragile, because it is always threatened by jealousy, possessiveness, and the human tendency to change one's mind.
Ovid portrays true love as giving people the strength to endure any adversity.
By breaking up "Love" and "Sex" into two distinct Themes, we're not saying that Ovid thinks they don't mix (even though, if you read through the poem, there are surprisingly few couples who enjoy an active sex life and a healthy, loving relationship). What we are saying is that Ovid sees them as distinct experiences: couples can be deeply in love (like Deucalion and Pyrrha, or the elderly Baucis and Philemon) without us hearing a peep about their sex life, and people can be consumed by sexual desire without feeling the slightest tinge of human emotion for the other person. This points to the dangerous side of sex that appears repeatedly in The Metamorphoses. All too often, the uncontrolled sexual desire of Ovid's characters (usually, but not always gods) can make them pursue partners aggressively, often through rape. Even when sexual desire is not negative in this way, it is still represented as an overpowering force.
Ovid portrays uncontrolled sexuality as dangerous.
Ovid portrays men and women as equally susceptible to sexual desire.
From the beginning of The Metamorphoses, Ovid portrays humans as having a special relationship with the natural world. This is because they are made in the image of the gods, out of mud that still preserves traces of heavenly "seeds" from when the universe was still mixed together. In the early years, the Golden Age, humans lived in perfect harmony with nature, and did not have to work for their food. As time passed, however, they became dependent on working the land, and on trading with each other. As a result, they developed technologies like ships, began employing currency, and making war on each other. That said, even though humans are now separated from nature, they still appeal to nature to account for their own actions, as when Myrrha claims (falsely) that animals practice incest as a way of justifying her desire for her own father. Towards the end of The Metamorphoses, Ovid makes the philosopher Pythagoras encourage humans to regain some features of Golden Age existence; in particular, he urges them to become vegetarians, so that they do not need to commit violence against nature in order to live.
Ovid thinks that people should become closer to nature.
Ovid thinks that people often claim to be "getting closer to nature" as an excuse for their own actions.
In ancient Greece and Rome, there was a very popular form of literature called aetiology. (This same word is used in modern medicine, where it is more often spelled "etiology.") This word comes from the Greek word aitia, which means – get this – both "cause" and "blame." You can see how it can have these two meanings if you imagine aetiology as about finding out whodunit: you want to find out who the cause of some action was, and you might want to blame them too. Many of the transformations in Ovid's Metamorphoses could be interpreted in terms of aetiology. This is because, in many cases, Ovid tells a story about how something became the way it is today by pointing to its past. For example, he says that the island of Icaria got its name because it was near where Icarus fatally crashed into the water. Because of its interest in aetiology, Ovid's poem is profoundly interested in memory and the past.
Ovid thinks the conflicting stories told by humans make true knowledge about the past impossible.
Ovid is more interested in telling a good story than in telling the truth about the past.
"Lord, what fools these mortals be!" These words, spoken by Puck to Oberon in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, would apply to many episodes in The Metamorphoses. The only problem is that his gods aren't much better. Time and time again, Ovid portrays a particular situation: a god promises to give a mortal anything they wish for. Then the mortal wishes for something ridiculous and extravagant that ends up destroying him or her and, often, others as well. At other times, humans are duped by their belief in newfangled medical treatments (the daughters of Pelias), or by the desire to appear tough in front of their friends (Eryx). Do these situations sound familiar? There's no doubt about it: stupidity springs eternal.
Ovid portrays gods and mortals as equally foolish.
Ovid thinks foolishness is avoidable.
Revenge may well be "a dish best served cold" (as the movie Kill Bill! would put it). However, it rarely is. Revenge and justice are far from the same thing, and most of the acts of vengeance in Ovid's poem take place on the spur of the moment and are completely unfair. The most unfair type of revenge is also the most common. This usually happens when Jupiter rapes a mortal woman; then, because his wife Juno is angry about what's happened, she typically imposes horrible punishments on the victims of the rape, instead of confronting her husband. Even when the targets of revenge seem justified (say, Tereus) there is often collateral damage (say, Tereus's son). All in all, revenge in The Metamorphoses is a messy business.
In The Metamorphoses, revenge is typically the reaction of people who are otherwise powerless.
Most of the characters who seek vengeance in The Metamorphoses are women. This reflects the fact that women in Ovid's world are usually victims to begin with.
What would a book about the infinite variety and fluidity of the universe be without some gender-bending? It wouldn't be Ovid's Metamorphoses, that's for sure. Some of the poet's explorations of gender involve characters who have either mixed gender (like Hermaphroditus), or switch from one gender to the other (like Caenis who becomes Caenus, or Iphis who preserves her own gender-neutral name). At the same time, there are also more ambiguous characters, like Atalanta, who is interested in sports and hunting, but who otherwise fits female gender stereotypes, or Achilles, whose disguise as a girl can't conceal his stereotypically male interest in weapons. Whichever way you slice it, Ovid's poem has plenty to keep a modern gender-theorist theorizing into the wee hours of the morning.
Ovid is critical of excessive patriarchal authority.
Ovid is more sympathetic to female characters than male characters.
Today, many scholars view Ovid as a "remythologizer," who took existing scientific and historical theories and sort of added the gods back into them. If this is true, however, it still means Ovid had to have extensive knowledge of the scientific theories of his day; otherwise, how could he deliberately modify them? The intersection of scientific and mythological theories can be seen at many points in The Metamorphoses, most notably in the passage about the creation of the universe from Book 1. Here, Ovid compromises by depicting an unnamed "god" who helps out in the creation process, while at the same time giving an account of the four elements (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth) in keeping with the scientific theories of his day. Especially striking is the lengthy speech Ovid gives to the philosopher Pythagoras in Book 15. This speech provides a scientific or philosophical basis for the entire theme of Transformation; it, more than any other moment in the work, shows Ovid's deep familiarity with the science of his era.
Ovid agrees with Pythagoras and thinks that his own myths are fictional.
Ovid's myths cannot be interpreted as metaphors for physical processes. Thus, they are fundamentally unscientific.
Religion in The Metamorphoses is not a very complicated affair. Basically, in the worldview Ovid depicts, the relationship between mortals and the gods goes as follows: the mortals respect the gods, give them offerings and prayers, and so on. In return, the gods (a) don't utterly destroy mortals, and (b) might actually help them out. If the mortals disrespect the gods, they're in for a world of pain – just look at what happened to Arachne and Marsyas, who challenged gods to weaving and musical contests, or to Hippomenes, who forgot to thank Venus for winning him his wife. Note that at the beginning we said "the worldview Ovid depicts"; this does not mean that these practices were necessarily his own. There's always the possibility that Ovid's own views might have been closer to the philosophical and scientific perspective of Pythagoras, as articulated in Book 15. What do you think?
In the world Ovid portrays, humans worship the gods more out of fear than love.
Ovid portrays the gods as unjust.