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Metamorphoses | Book 1 | Summary

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Summary

Ovid opens his poem by following the traditions of epic poetry: He begins Metamorphoses with an invocation to the gods, who have "wrought every change." He prepares to tell a "continuous song" from the world's beginning to his present time. When the world was created it came from Chaos, "a raw and undivided mass," without living creatures of any kind. But then an unnamed god, the "world's Creator," splits the land from the sea, creates the sky and elements, and rounds them into a sphere. From this sphere rivers, lakes, and shores arise, as well as plains, valleys, and mountains. After creating the weather the Creator makes "the home of gods and goddesses" and populates Earth with living creatures. Humans are created last, "perhaps from seed divine," since they are "holier" and "of a loftier mind" than the other creatures.

The four Ages of Man begins, with the first age being called "Golden": due to the "good faith and righteousness" of mortals, laws are not required to control human behavior. Earth is still bountiful with resources, and no wars have yet been fought. But when the god Saturn dies, his son Jupiter rules Earth and a decline begins. The next age is dubbed "Silver," being somewhat inferior to gold. The seasons start to change, causing hardships for mankind. The Bronze Age arrives, signaling a further decline: war is now a greater possibility, although the world remains free of "wickedness." Finally comes the Iron Age, which brings evil, fraud, deceit, treachery, violence, and greed. Wars are fought, and blood is spilled.

The gods meet to discuss the situation. Jupiter tells them about how he walked Earth disguised in human form. He was horrified by what he found. He recalls Lycaon, a man who ridiculed Jupiter's divinity, planned to murder him as he slept, and tried to feed the god human flesh. The gods ponder whether to punish humankind but also wonder what the world would be like without them: Who would worship the gods then? Jupiter promises to replace humanity with "a new race."

The gods decide to send a flood, which wipes out almost all living creatures. Only one man, Deucalion, survives, along with his wife, Pyrrha. Jupiter takes pity on them and halts the flood because they are virtuous, "innocent worshippers" of the gods. Deucalion realizes that he and Pyrrha must repopulate Earth, and they pray to the gods for guidance. The goddess Themis advises them to "cast behind you your great mother's bones." Confused, Deucalion and Pyrrha finally understand that they must throw stones, or the bones of Mother Earth, over their shoulders. They are shocked when the stones take human form. Earth then creates all other life forms, some old, some new.

The story of Apollo and Daphne begins with Cupid's spiteful wrath toward Apollo, who belittles him. Cupid shoots Apollo with an arrow that causes Apollo to fall in love, but he also shoots an innocent bystander, Daphne, with an arrow that causes her to resist love. As a result when Apollo falls in love with Daphne, she flees from him every time he approaches her. As Apollo chases her through the woods, Daphne prays for help from her father, Peneus, a river god. He turns her into a laurel tree. Apollo claims the laurel as his personal symbol.

Meanwhile, Jupiter is attracted to Io, the daughter of a river god, Inachus, and hides her in a forest to have her all to himself. His wife, Juno, senses that something is wrong and comes to Earth, but Jupiter disguises Io as a cow. Juno knows the truth, but admires the cow and begs to keep her as a gift. She gives the cow to Argus to watch, because he has a hundred eyes. One day Io spells out her name on the banks of her father's river to identify herself. Inachus realizes what she has become and mourns for her. Desperate, Jupiter commands Mercury to kill Argus.

Mercury, disguised as a shepherd, appears to Argus. Mercury tells him the story of the nymph Syrinx. One day Pan chases her, and she flees from him to a river, where she begs her fellow water nymphs to help her. They transform her into tall marsh reeds. Pan sighs over his loss, and his sigh stirs the reeds into making a musical sound. Entranced, Pan weaves together the reeds to make panpipes, a musical instrument that becomes the god's symbol.

Argus falls asleep listening to the story, and Mercury kills him. Juno is furious, but Jupiter is finally able to appease her, and Io changes back into her human form. She gives birth to a son by Jupiter named Epaphus, who befriends Phaethon. Phaethon's mother, Clymene, tells him his father is the Sun, but Epaphus doesn't believe it. Phaethon determines to prove him wrong.

Analysis

Ovid states his aim for Metamorphoses in the very first line: "Of bodies changed to other forms I tell; / You Gods, who have yourselves wrought every change, / Inspire my enterprise." This line establishes one of the main themes of the poem, transformation, and links it to the gods.

Countless bodies of mortals and gods change shape over the course of the poem, but only the gods have the power to make these transformations happen. Mortals may pray to the gods for transformation but have little recourse otherwise. Ovid's invocation to the gods also reminds readers of the connection between creativity and divinity, as Ovid asks the gods to "inspire," or strengthen, the creative force of his poetry, in which words are transformed into art. The description of an unnamed god who creates the world through a series of transformations also demonstrates how change is the underlying source from which everything springs. Not all change is good: the four Ages of Mankind show that change can mean decline or even downfall.

By providing a backdrop of how the world was created, Ovid also allows the reader to understand the relationship of gods and mortals. It's significant that Ovid points out that "man was made, perhaps from seed divine," in order to show the powerful connection between gods and mortals and why the gods take such interest in the lives of humans. Many of the myths in Metamorphoses are based on the tensions that arise as gods and humans attempt to coexist. It is always clear, however, who has more power, and the gods don't hesitate to exert control, especially if they feel humans have shown disrespect or otherwise behaved badly. The flood sent to wipe out all living creatures occurs, for example, because Jupiter has visited Earth and does not like the way humans question the gods.

The story of Apollo and Daphne is one of the most famous in Metamorphoses. It demonstrates many of the elements that recur in the poem's other tales of transformation. The story arises from a petty feud between Cupid and Apollo and perfectly illustrates the theme of power and revenge. Cupid's arrows change Apollo and Daphne, making Apollo love Daphne but Daphne resist Apollo. Here transformation is the end product of a sadistic plot by a vengeful Cupid. But the story also shows how transformation can be an act of mercy and provide an escape from a terrible situation. In Daphne's case being changed into a laurel tree is merciful because it saves her from Apollo's clutches. He may entwine the leaves of the laurel tree around his lyre, but Daphne will never be his lover.

The story of Io tells of a different kind of revenge: Juno's against a woman pursued by Jupiter, a recurring motif throughout Metamorphoses that pits the female goddess against her many mortal female rivals for her husband's affection. That Io is not to blame for Jupiter's attentions is of no consequence to Juno, who often punishes the women for the actions of her husband, forgetting that most of them are his victims rather than his willing partners.

Io's story also includes a frame tale, a story told within a larger story. In this case it is the story of Syrinx and Pan, which Mercury tells to get Argus to fall asleep so he can kill him. Artifacts such as musical instruments, tapestries, and even armor are important symbols throughout Metamorphoses. They are reminders of the ingenuity of gods and mortals and of the prevalence of metamorphosis, of taking one thing (such as reeds in Mercury's story) and turning it into something else (a musical instrument). Storytelling joins the theme of transformation and the motif of art. Each myth is a work of art within the larger work of art that is Metamorphoses.

These stories often depict the gods as brutal and rash, taking what they want from mortals without their consent and punishing them for reasons beyond their control. Daphne is targeted by Cupid not because she has offended him as Apollo does but because she happens to be nearby, so he pulls her into his revenge plot. The gods create a flood to cleanse Earth of all living things because humans have acted badly, but they themselves commit acts that can be considered immoral, including rape and murder. Ovid repeatedly emphasizes the gods as merciless and, at the same time, silly in their rash behavior. In this he seems to follow Virgil, who likewise stresses the fallibility of the gods, in contrast to Homeric epic, which presents a more reverent attitude toward the Greek gods.

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