Friday, March 4, 2016


Metamorphoses, by Ovid

I've been doing a readalong of this, sort of, with Cleo at Classical Carousel and o at Behold the Stars, before a more ambitious readalong of The Faerie Queene, which is set to start in April.  They have been much better at it, though, with weekly update posts discussing each book, whereas I just read the thing and didn't do anything else.  So you should check out their posts, because this is going to be on the minimal side in comparison.

I actually wasn't at all sure if I had read all of the Metamorphoses before, because I know I read at least some in college, but how much?  Who knows by now (not me).  I got out my old copy--which is a Penguin prose edition old enough to be priced at seven shillings and sixpence!--and found a note used as a bookmark, scribbled with phone numbers and arcane things.

There are fifteen books, each a nice length to read on its own.  They are not terribly separate, really; in each book, Ovid goes through several stories, transitioning through means of a storyteller or some event (he's really pretty good at it; you're in a new story before you notice), and several times the action is continued across books that divide right in the middle of the story, so it's not too clear what determined the division.  Maybe just the length of the original scrolls!

Ovid's massive poetical work is about just what it says: changes.  It's a collection of Greek myths (Romans come in at the end), all of which involve somebody being changed into something else.  Often they are just-so stories that tell the origin of a particular tree, flower, bird, pool, or river.  Sometimes they're about the gods' punishment to one person, changed into a rock or even a member of the opposite sex.  Most of the stories were already familiar to me, because they made it into D'Aulaires' Greek Myths or Hamilton's collection, but some few were too obscure or too risqué to be included!

I suppose this must be where most of these tales were preserved, really.  I don't know that we have other sources for the story of Narcissus, or Arachne, or Niobe.  How lucky we are that Ovid collected them.
Echo pining after Narcissus
I learned some fun things that I hadn't known before!  My favorite was the Myrmidons.  I had always wondered about Achilles' followers, the Myrmidons, and whether they had some connection with ants that I just hadn't heard about.  (Because, in Danish, ant is myre.)  And ha, I am vindicated.  The Myrmidons were transformed from ants into people at the prayer of a king who needed to repopulate his lands.  (Probably everybody knew that but me.)

This is an excellent choice for someone looking to start in classical literature; it's easy to read and very fun.

NB: I'm going to count this title for the Back to the Classics reading challenge--the banned or censored requirement.  Augustus Caesar was the first to ban Ovid's works for being immoral, and he was certainly not the last!  The Metamorphoses has been banned or bowdlerized many times over the centuries, right up through the 20th, and in fact just recently a few Columbia students objected to its depictions of rape, spurring some to demand trigger warnings or even removal.  Rape is a big feature of this book, as it certainly was in ancient Greece and Rome, but I was pleasantly surprised by Ovid's occasional sympathy for the victims.


o said...

I have to admit I'm a little jealous that you've finished! I'm literally just about to start my post for Books IX and X (I wrote the title then wandered off on to here!). I am enjoying them, but posting as I am doing is tough.

The Myrmidons myth was new to me so you're not alone :)

cleopatra said...

I'm impressed that you finished it so quickly! Thanks for reminding me about the banned book category; I'll put this read there too. I keep wondering about the theme .... change ...... I believe Ovid was exiled by Augustus right after he published this poem. He wrote that his exile was about poetry, so I wonder if it had to do with Metamorphoses and then I wonder what he might have done with this work that was so terrible. Of course, there's no answer but it's fun to think about.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I did, as it happens, know this about the Myrmidons! But I don't know that everybody knows it. I took a lot of Latin when I was in high school, and one of the events at LATIN CONVENTION was this thing called Certamen, which was a quiz game. And my pride was greatly wrapped up in knowing all the story-type answers (mythology and history), so. I knew the Myrmidons thing.

Jean said...


My high school barely had French; it most certainly did not have Latin. I can't believe people could take Latin in school!