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Ovid’s Metamorpheses

June 10, 2007

In Ovid’s poem the Metamorphoses, as the name implies, the author’s major theme is one of transformation. What links most of these stories together is the concept of one thing turning into something else. Women change into sorrow-filled trees. One age transforms from Gold, then to Silver, and then transforms into the Bronze. Each age being denser and more base than the previous.

Men fed on loot and lust; the guest feared the host;
Neighbor looked warily with smiles at neighbor;
And fathers had good reason to distrust
Their eager sons-in-law. If brothers loved
Each other, the sight was rare, and watchful
Husbands prayed for death of wives; stepmothers
Made poison a dessert at dinner—sons
Counted the hours that led to fathers’ graves (34-35).

Then Jove, fearing for his position in creation as man clamored towards his order, sent a mighty flood that transformed the world into a new beginning. “Since I have said it: all shall pay the toll of early death—and earth an early fall (37).

In these stories one is repeatedly shown that in the cycle of things, trauma leads to transformation. Nothing just ends or is destroyed, but is transformed. That is the element that carries each narrative forward. The story of the new world is transformed into the story of Daphne and Apollo.

In the story where Apollo pursues Daphne, the woman is ultimately transformed into the laurel tree through her father’s protection. Cupid avenging himself on Apollo creates two arrows. One he strikes on Apollo waking in him physical desire for Daphne, and the other is used on Daphne to cause her to be repelled by Apollo’s advances. With this cupid sets the stage for the trauma as Daphne flees across the world seeking refuge from Apollo until finally she cries out:

To save your daughter, cover with green earth
This body I wear too well, and as she spoke
A soaring drowsiness possessed her; growing
In earth she stood, white thighs embraced by climbing
Bark, her white arms branches, her fair head swaying
In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed
In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green
Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel (46).

With this image Daphne is transformed into the laurel tree, and the laurel tree is transformed into the symbol of royalty as Apollo dons the laurel bough crown in memory of his love for Daphne.

Repeating this motif is the story of Io being transformed into the white cow by Jove to hide her from his jealous wife Juno. One image that appeals to me from this is that of Jove and Io hiding their tryst under a lone cloud that inadvertently attracts the attention of Jove’s wife Juno.

As Io fell Juno looked down at Argos
And from clear skies witnessed a single cloud
Bring midnight into noon. Something was wrong;
The cloud was neither fog nor river mist,
But of an origin that could have been divine,
A cause that made her think of Jove, his habits
Of deception, his craftiness, which well
She knew even before this hour. She glanced
Through heaven and he was gone. “Either,” she said,
“My mind’s at fault, or I am betrayed,” and slipping
Out of the aether dropped to earth where she dismissed
The clouds. But thoughtful Jove felt the arrival
Of Juno’s spirit in the air, and changed the girl
Into a milk-white cow (even as cow the child
Was beautiful) and Juno gazing at her
Half admitted the creature’s charms (48).

I like the idea that even in Io’s transformed state, her beauty and charm is still apparent. In each of these stories trauma leads to physical transformation that then leads into the next story.

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