Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Themes

By Ovid

  • Transformation

    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.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Does Ovid portray transformation as mostly natural or supernatural?
    2. Why do you think Ovid wanted to write an entire book about transformation anyway?
    3. What motivates the gods to take on the particular shapes they do?
    4. Why are there so many stories of transformation into plants?

    Chew on This

    Ovid portrays transformation as just as natural as it is supernatural.

    Ovid uses transformation as a metaphor for poetic invention.

  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. Which form of love do you think Ovid thinks is more lasting: romantic love or familial love?
    2. In the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, do you think that Ovid approves of the lovers' actions, or does their fate serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of love?
    3. In Book II, when Apollo learns that his girlfriend Coronis is cheating on him, he flies into a murderous rage. Does this story serve as a warning about love, or do Apollo's actions show that he never loved Coronis in the first place?
    4. Ovid clearly thinks that love and sex aren't always found together. Overall, do you think Ovid thinks sex and love are complementary, or is there a conflict between the two?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Sex

    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.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why do you think Ovid keeps describing sexual desire as a burning flame?
    2. Does Ovid portray one gender as being more interested in sex, or are they both about equal?
    3. Ovid's poem contains a disturbing amount of sexual violence. Does he condone this behavior?
    4. Does Ovid portray human sexuality and animal (or "natural") sexuality as the same or fundamentally different?

    Chew on This

    Ovid portrays uncontrolled sexuality as dangerous.

    Ovid portrays men and women as equally susceptible to sexual desire.

  • Man and the Natural World

    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.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why does Ovid emphasize the fact that humans were made from mud that still had a heavenly component?
    2. Does Ovid portray modern (for him) life as connected in any way with the Golden Age, or are they fundamentally different?
    3. Does Ovid think human technological development is good or bad? Or is it somewhere in between?
    4. What does Ovid think are the essential differences between humans and animals? Does he even think there are such differences?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Memory and the Past

    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.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Does Ovid think it is possible to have accurate knowledge of the past? Or is human memory inherently unreliable?
    2. Does Ovid portray the past as offering lessons about the future?
    3. Why is Ovid so interested in the origins of words?
    4. At the very end of the poem, Ovid expresses confidence that he will live forever, because people will remember him by his poems. Is this confidence consistent with Ovid's portrayal of memory elsewhere in his work?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    "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.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Who does Ovid think are more foolish: gods or humans? Or are they just about the same?
    2. What does Ovid portray as the main cause or causes of foolishness?
    3. Does Ovid think some people are just plain foolish, or is it more that certain situations bring out the fool in people?
    4. Are people smarter now, or do the foolish acts Ovid portrays still ring true today?

    Chew on This

    Ovid portrays gods and mortals as equally foolish.

    Ovid thinks foolishness is avoidable.

  • Revenge

    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.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Does Ovid usually portray revenge as justified or unjustified?
    2. Are the acts of revenge in Ovid's poem typically proportionate to the crime, or are they excessive?
    3. What does Ovid portray as the main motivations of revenge?
    4. According to Ovid, does revenge solve anything?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Gender

    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.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do Ovid's stories about transformations from one sex to another challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes?
    2. On the whole, does Ovid support or criticize patriarchal values?
    3. How would you characterize Ovid's views on homosexuality?
    4. Does Ovid portray gender roles as caused more by nature or by nurture?

    Chew on This

    Ovid is critical of excessive patriarchal authority.

    Ovid is more sympathetic to female characters than male characters.

  • Science

    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.

    Questions About Science

    1. Do you think Ovid believes in the myths he retells?
    2. Why do you think Ovid chose to combine scientific and mythological elements in his account of the creation of the universe?
    3. In Book 15, the philosopher and scientist Pythagoras makes some remarks critical of poets. In light of this, do you think Ovid agrees with him, or does Ovid think his views are ridiculous? What, if anything, do you think Ovid would have done differently in his poem if he had written it from the standpoint of modern scientific knowledge?

    Chew on This

    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

    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?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Who is the least pious character in Ovid's poem?
    2. Does Ovid portray the gods as deserving of respect, or can they simply command respect because they are so powerful?
    3. If you could be a devotee of one god from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which god would it be, and why?
    4. Gods sometimes appear in human form as a way of testing mortals. Is this fundamentally about testing their attitudes towards the gods, or is it a way of seeing how they treat each other?

    Chew on This

    In the world Ovid portrays, humans worship the gods more out of fear than love.

    Ovid portrays the gods as unjust.