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Metamorphoses | Book 10 | Summary

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Summary

Orpheus and Eurydice are married, but moments later she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus descends to Hades, where he begs Pluto and Persephone to allow him to bring her back; otherwise he will die and join her there. Pluto allows him to retrieve Eurydice, under the condition that Orpheus may not look back at her until they reach the world of the living. As Orpheus and Eurydice approach "the edge of the bright world," Orpheus becomes worried and can't help but look back at Eurydice, and so she disappears. Orpheus sits on the banks of the river Styx for seven days, grieving, then leaves. He returns to Earth. Three years pass and many women "burn with passion" for Orpheus, but he rejects them all, likely still pining for Eurydice. Orpheus plays his lyre in an empty field. His music causes trees to rise up around him.

Orpheus sings a series of songs about the love of Jupiter and Apollo for beautiful adolescent boys: Cyparissus, Ganymede, and Hyacinthus. Cyparissus is a boy who kills his pet stag by mistake. He is inconsolable and asks the gods to let him mourn forever. Apollo changes him into a cypress tree. In the next story Orpheus sings of how Jove fell in love with the young boy Ganymede. Jove transforms himself into a powerful bird and sweeps Ganymede away to the heavens, where he now acts as Jove's attendant. Orpheus then sings of how Apollo fell in love with a young boy, Hyacinthus. One day he and Apollo were throwing a discus, but it hit Hyacinthus. Apollo tries to revive him, but Hyacinthus dies. Guilt stricken, Apollo transforms the boy into a flower that is still known as the hyacinth.

Orpheus sings of the Propoetides of Amathus, who have horns on their heads. They sacrifice the blood of visitors to their city on Jove's altar. Their human sacrifices enrage Venus, who considers them "wicked rites." She transforms the Propoetides into bulls, but they deny Venus's divinity. She then makes them the first prostitutes, and they eventually turn to stones.

Orpheus then sings of Pygmalion, an artist. Dissatisfied with the immoral sexuality of real women, he decides to sculpt a pure, ideal woman out of ivory. His statue is so beautiful that he falls in love with it, then prays to Venus to send him a real woman who is as perfect and beautiful. The goddess hears his prayers and feels sympathetic, so she brings the statue to life, Pygmalion marries her, and they have a child together, Paphos.

One of the Furies curses Paphos's granddaughter Myrrha to fall in love with Cinyras, her own father. Myrrha argues to herself that incest occurs in nature and even in some other cultures, but she "was not born there." She is in so much anguish that she tries to kill herself. Her nurse stops her before she can go through with it and urges her to tell her what is bothering her. Myrrha tells her the truth. The nurse decides to help Myrrha seduce her father, unbeknownst to him—he believes another woman is in his bed. He and Myrrha sleep together and she becomes pregnant. When Cinyras finds out, he tries to kill Myrrha, but she escapes. The gods finally transform her into a tree, from which her son Adonis is born.

Adonis grows up to become a beautiful man. Venus falls in love with him after Cupid mistakenly pricks her with one of his love arrows. Adonis loves to hunt, and Venus worries about his safety among wild animals. She tells him the cautionary tale of Atalanta, who tried to avoid marriage by insisting that if someone wanted to marry her, he would have to beat her in a race. Atalanta is a very fast runner, and everyone loses who races against her, until Hippomenes asks Venus for help. She gives him three golden apples to distract Atalanta during the race, and Hippomenes wins. He is so overcome with joy, however, that he forgets to thank Venus for her help. Angered, Venus tricks him and Atalanta into desecrating a sacred temple by making love in it, then turns them into lions. After hearing the story, Adonis leaves to hunt, is mauled by a boar, and dies. Grief stricken, Venus transforms him into a flower.

Analysis

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most famous in Metamorphoses because of how tragically close Orpheus comes to bringing Eurydice back to life. His temptation to look back at her to make sure she is safe is heartbreaking, as is his imploring to "reweave ... / the fate unwound too fast / Of my Eurydice." With this request Orpheus signals his respect for the gods that they do, in fact, hold the ultimate key to each mortal's fate and that they can at times be convinced to undo something if the whim strikes them. Unfortunately there is always a catch.

Orpheus's lyre is a symbol of his connection to poetry and music and to the god Apollo, who is the god of music. Orpheus is so gifted that he makes trees rise around him as he plays in an open field. In this way Orpheus becomes a metaphor for the creative, metamorphic power of art and of the link between art, beauty, and the living creatures of the world at large. Art can also provide a way to come to terms with loss. Despite the passage of time Orpheus still misses Eurydice, and most of his songs are about love lost to death.

The songs he sings about Cyparissus, Ganymede, and Hyacinth are about gods and their love for beautiful youths. Only Ganymede, kidnapped by Jupiter, survives. Cyparissus and Hyacinth, loved by Apollo, both die yet remain immortal by becoming a cypress and flower. While tragic, these songs provide a way to transform grief through artistic expression. The story of Pygmalion takes the connection between art and life to a whole new level. It is another tale in which a god decrees a transformation out of pity. In this case Venus is so struck by Pygmalion's yearning for a woman like his statue that she makes his art flesh and blood. Marriage and the birth of a daughter follows. In this way Venus allows the perfection of art to become part of real life through love. The fact that Orpheus sings this story makes it particularly touching, since his art can't bring back the woman he loves.

On the other hand, Pygmalion's story seems creepy. No real woman is good enough for Pygmalion, so he has to carve his own, then have her come to life. The story raises the question of whether it is fair to rule out actual human beings in favor of a bloodless ideal. Orpheus himself has rejected the love of any real woman for three years, suggesting another parallel between Pygmalion and Orpheus. In fact a distaste for women hovers over Book 11 in general. The stories of the Propoetides and of Myrrha feature women who act immorally. Myrrha, for example, tricks her own father into having sex with her. When Atalanta tries to take control of her destiny by demanding her suitors beat her in a race, Venus helps a man trick her so she is forced to marry him, putting an end to Atalanta's plan.

Scholars have noted this distaste, which is not because Orpheus celebrates homosexual love, which was an accepted practice in the ancient world, but because he seems to have a relentless agenda to punish and defame women in general in this book. Even Venus is tainted, as she falls in love with the offspring of Myrrha's incestuous union with her father. Also the story Venus tells to warn Adonis reflects badly on her because it's about disobedience to her, not the dangers of hunting. This book is another instance of the importance of the frame narrative, where Ovid uses stories to comment on the narrator. Here Orpheus's avoidance and bitterness are too powerful to ignore, as he avoids confronting his own failure to protect his wife and, instead, tells stories about women getting punished.

After Pygmalion's happy ending, things go downhill for his descendants. Cadmus also experienced this phenomenon as his descendants repeatedly faced the vengeance of the gods in Book 3. Happiness is possible but does not last long in Metamorphoses. The story of Cinyras and Myrrha, Pygmalion's son and granddaughter, continues the disturbing trend of forbidden love, previously seen in Book 9 in the story of Byblis, who fell in love with her twin brother Caunus. Byblis's love remains unrequited, but Myrrha, cursed by one of the Furies, takes incest to the next level, tricking her father into having sex with her. She then has his child, Adonis. Her story is the reverse of Pygmalion's, which also portrays a kind of forbidden love (of the artist for his creation). He gets to marry and have children with his statue after it becomes flesh and blood. Myrrha gets to sleep with her own father, who "created" her, leading to terrible tragedy.

Myrrha is yet another mortal who is turned into a tree because she has no other recourse. The tendency of characters, particularly women, to transform into trees in Metamorphoses is usually an indication that the world is too unsafe for them in some way. To become a tree is to be rooted in earth against further interference or wrongdoing as well as a means to prevent suffering.

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