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Metamorphoses | Book 11 | Summary

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Summary

Orpheus continues singing, charming not only animals but even rocks and trees with his music. Suddenly a furious band of women, the Maenads, approach him, shouting, "Look, there he is, / The man who scorns us!" They hurl rocks at him until they kill him, then rip his body to pieces in a frenzy with their bare hands. His head and his lyre float out to sea. Although the creatures he sang to mourn him, Orpheus is relieved to be reunited with Eurydice in the underworld.

As punishment Bacchus turns the Maenads into trees. Bacchus then deals with the kidnapping of Silenus, the man who raised him. King Midas rescues Silenus, and Bacchus grants the king the ability to turn whatever he touches into gold. Although Midas is initially pleased with his new talent, he soon finds it impossible, since even the food he touches turns to gold. At Midas's request, Bacchus changes him back to normal. Midas wanders into the woods, where he finds Pan and Apollo competing in a music contest. Everyone declares Apollo the winner except Midas. As an act of revenge Apollo curses Midas with the ears of a donkey.

Midas tries to keep his donkey ears a secret, hiding them under a turban. But the slave who cuts his hair sees them, and though he doesn't want to betray Midas he wants to tell someone. He digs a hole in the ground and whispers the secret into it, then refills the hole. But a bed of reeds begins to grow from it that betrays the secret when the wind rushes through them.

Apollo travels to find King Laomedon building the new city of Troy. Neptune and Apollo agree to construct a wall to protect the city, for a fee. But when the work is complete, King Laomedon refuses to pay them. Neptune gets revenge by flooding the city and demanding the king's daughter as a sacrifice. Laomedon promises to give Hercules horses if he will rescue Hesione. Hercules succeeds, but Laomedon backs out of the deal.

Jupiter sends Peleus to rape a sea goddess, Thetis, who transforms herself repeatedly into different animals to resist him. A sea god, Proteus, advises Peleus to tie her up while she is asleep. Peleus follows his advice and rapes her, impregnating her with Achilles. Now married to Thetis, Peleus is forced into exile for murdering his brother, Phocus. He finds refuge in the kingdom of King Ceyx, who tells Peleus the story of his brother Daedalion and Daedalion's daughter, Chione.

Chione gave birth to twins fathered by Apollo and Mercury, and she begins to boast of her status that she is superior to the goddess Diana. Enraged, Diana kills her, and Daedalion, driven mad with grief, jumps off a cliff. Apollo, pitying him, turns Daedalion into a hawk.

Peleus's servant interrupts to inform him that a giant wolf has begun to attack Peleus's people and livestock. Peleus believes this is payback from Phocus's mother, Psamathe, a sea nymph. Thetis manages to persuade Psamathe to stop the wolf by turning it to stone. Peleus leaves Ceyx's kingdom.

Ceyx decides to take a long journey to consult with an oracle, despite his wife Alcyone's premonition of doom about the trip. At sea his ship is destroyed in a storm. Ceyx, whose last thoughts are of his wife, drowns. Juno commands Sleep to send Alcyone a vision of Ceyx's death. He sends it through his son, Morpheus, the god of dreams. Alcyone finds Ceyx's body. They are both transformed into birds and fly away together.

An old man spots Ceyx and Alcyone flying as birds over the sea, and he notices another bird as well. He claims that this bird came from "royal stock." It is Aesacus, Hector's brother. Aesacus was in love with the nymph Hesperie and chased her. As she fled him a snake bit her. She dies in Aesacus's arms. Burdened with guilt, he flings himself off a cliff into the sea, but Tethys, a sea goddess, turns him into a bird.

Analysis

The structure of Book 11 is significant. It opens with Orpheus's violent death at the hands of the Maenads and his reunion with Eurydice. It closes with a story in which a nymph dies from a snakebite, echoing Eurydice's death by snakebite which opens Book 10, taking the reader full circle.

The myths of Book 11 also echo one another, and even some earlier myths in Metamorphoses, in surprising ways. Alcyone's grief is one of the rare moments in which Juno takes pity on a mortal woman. This may be because Alcyone and Ceyx have such a loving marriage. It certainly contrasts with Juno and Jupiter's, with its endless series of infidelities and revenge plots. In fact the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and Alcyone and Ceyx mirror each other. Both depict couples who long to remain together, even after death, but must be transformed in some way to do so. Orpheus goes all the way to the underworld to rescue Eurydice, then mourns her for years until they are reunited. Juno ensures that Alcyone sees Ceyx in a dream in order to bring her closure about his death. Their metamorphosis into birds is one of the sweeter transformations in Metamorphoses since the couple can still be together forever. Their story also echoes that of Philemon and Baucis, a deeply devoted couple who are turned into "two trees from one twin trunk" in Book 7 rather than be parted by death.

Book 11's myths focus on guilt in various forms. The Maenads are guilty of brutally killing and mutilating Orpheus. Orpheus is killed by the Maenads because they consider him guilty of not responding to their desires. King Laomedon is guilty of cheating Apollo, Neptune, and Hercules out of payments he owes them. Midas regrets his unfortunate wish to turn everything he touches to gold so much that he begs Mercury to reverse it. Unfortunately Midas is also guilty of insulting a god by when he questions choosing Apollo as the winner of a music contest against Pan. Peleus is guilty of raping Thetis and of killing his brother, Phocus. The second crime forces him into exile. Chione's hubris gets her killed by Diana, and Ceyx drowns, regretting that he didn't listen to his wife's premonition that he should stay at home with her. Aesacus is deeply remorseful after he pursues a nymph, Hesperie, who is then bitten by a snake and dies.

Not everyone handles guilt the same way in these myths. While some characters admit their guilt or express remorse, others remain stubbornly or stupidly unable to do so. The Maenads feel no guilt, for example, nor does King Laomedon. Midas seems so clueless about his own guilt that it makes sense that Apollo gives him donkey ears, and Chione thoughtlessly disrespects the gods. Peleus reacts only after he is on the receiving end of revenge: Phocis's mother, Psamathe, sends a wolf that destroys Peleus's cattle and kills some of his people, too. Realizing he's to blame, Phocus prays to Psamathe without success, and it is his wife, Thetis, who has to reach a truce with her. Ceyx and Aesacus, on the other hand, show heartfelt remorse and are transformed. These different treatments of guilt show how guilt and responsibility are as changeable as anything else in Metamorphoses.

The tale of King Midas is yet another famous instance of the lesson "be careful what you wish for," a kind of reverse punishment for mortals who believe they are being granted a gift that is actually a curse. It's telling that whenever a mortal seems to be gifted with godlike power, such as Phaethon's fatal chariot ride in Book 3, something goes awry. Mortals seem to believe that these gifts will elevate them to gods, yet they soon realize they can't dictate the terms of what they wish for properly or handle the reality. Mortals are still chained to their mortal bodies in a way that gods are not. King Midas fails to understand that if everything he touches turns to gold he can't eat or drink. His "Midas touch" is a fatal mistake.

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