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Metamorphoses | Book 12 | Summary



Priam, the king of Troy, mourns for his son Aesacus. Paris, Aesacus's brother, is missing from the funeral rites. He has run away with Helen, whom he stole from her husband, Menelaus, a Greek. The Greeks prepare to march on Troy to reclaim her. On their way to Troy they encounter a difficult storm that blocks their way. One of them sees an omen that causes him to believe that the Greeks will win against Troy but that the coming war will last for 10 years. The soldiers offer a sacrifice to Diana to stop the storm, with Agamemnon offering up his daughter Iphigenia. Diana takes pity on the girl and replaces her with a deer. She quiets the storm, and the Greeks approach Troy.

Rumor warns the Trojans that the Greeks are drawing near, and they prepare for battle. Achilles and Cycnus fight, but Achilles can't wound him because, as the son of Neptune, Cycnus is invulnerable to any weapon. Achilles tries to beat and strangle him instead, but Neptune turns Cycnus into a swan. The two armies finally call a truce and share stories.

Nestor, king of Pylos, tells the story of Caenis, who is raped by Neptune. The god takes pity on her and agrees to grant her one wish. She asks to be changed into a man so she can never be raped again. Neptune grants her wish, and she becomes Caeneus, a male warrior. Caeneus attends the wedding celebration of Pirithous and Hippodame. A Centaur, Eurytus, drags Hippodame off to rape her, and other Centaurs grab women as well. Theseus kills Eurytus, and a bloody battle erupts between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. During the fight a Centaur attacks Caeneus, ridiculing him for having once been female, but he finds he cannot wound him. The other Centaurs try to crush Caeneus to death under a giant pile of trees instead. Nobody knows what happens to Caeneus, but Nestor claims he was transformed into a bird.

Hercules's son Tleopolemus complains that Nestor hasn't mentioned Hercules and his amazing feats. Nestor answers that he "hated" Hercules for destroying his home and killing his brothers. Nestor then tells a new story. The narrative jumps forward to the final days of the Trojan War. Neptune and Apollo attempt to scheme against Achilles, who killed Neptune's son, Cycnus, years before. Apollo convinces Paris to take revenge on Achilles since Achilles also killed Paris's brother, Hector. Apollo helps Paris aim at Achilles, and Paris shoots him successfully with his arrows, killing him. Ajax and Ulysses begin to argue over who will inherit Achilles's armor.


Ovid's focus on the Trojan War shifts Metamorphoses in a new direction. Book 12 is heavily influenced by Homer's Illiad, whose subject is also the Trojan War. Metamorphoses shares some characters with the Illiad, too, including Achilles, Paris, Priam, and Hecuba. The two poems part ways there, however. Homer's epic portrays war as an occasion for brave and noble deeds by great warriors, but there's not much that is heroic or noble in the stories Ovid includes in Book 12. Ovid recognizes that war and violence bring serious destruction, but he does not seem convinced that it makes anyone powerful or heroic. It makes sense that many of the stories in Book 12 are told during a truce between the Greek and Trojan armies, when no one is fighting. The other great Roman poet, Virgil, whose Aeneid is another important source for Ovid's reinterpretation of epic heroism, also questions some of the classic Homeric assumptions about the glory of war.

Achilles, the heroic warrior who is the protagonist of the Illiad, doesn't look very heroic or noble as he fights Cycnus. Cycnus can't be wounded, which presents a dilemma for a warrior like Achilles, whose reputation depends on his ability to fight and kill his opponents. He finally resorts to strangling Cycnus, but he doesn't even get to finish the job before Cycnus is turned into a swan and escapes. Homer doesn't include Achilles's death in the Illiad, although it is prophesied that Paris will kill him. In Metamorphoses Paris is simply wandering around the battlefield killing people randomly when Apollo talks him into killing Achilles, then helps him point his arrow the right way to do it. Rather than dying heroically in combat, Achilles is taken out by a much weaker man who is being manipulated by the gods. It is not a noble way for a hero of the Trojan War to die.

Likewise, instead of seeing a big battle with lots of heroic action, we get the cartoonlike, ultraviolent battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs at a drunken wedding reception. As in many epic poems there is a blow-by-blow account of the fight that should highlight the heroic deeds of some of its participants. But the brawl between the Lapiths and the Centaurs goes on so long, it is hard to care who wins in the end. In previous sections of the poem, Ovid uses his poetic skill to show the beauties and horrors of each transformation using vibrant imagery. Here Ovid's descriptions of wounds are so over the top they, and not the noble deeds of warriors, become the main attraction. Brains and teeth fly, bones are crushed, and eyeballs are gouged in what becomes less a battle than a wild spectacle. The descriptions throughout are graphic: "[The spear] broke his ribs / And hung there quivering in the box of bones"; "the shattered skull / Collapsed and settled in a pool of brains."

Caenis's story being told among a group of warriors is significant, and Ovid again questions the limitations of power but in a more sympathetic way. Caenis's new power as Caeneus, a man and a warrior, gives her agency and protection that being a woman cannot, and it is a tragic irony that the one who gives her this power is the god who rapes her, Neptune. Her plea to Neptune is striking: "This wrong you've done me needs an enormous wish— / Put pain like that beyond my power. Grant me / To cease to be a woman—everything / That gift will be to me." She knows the only way to protect herself in this world is to be a man. The warriors who listen to the story clearly have respect for Caeneus as a male soldier. Yet even as a man she cannot outrun her past and is tormented by the Centaurs for it as they bury Caeneus under a crushing pile of trees. Even though Caenis is given more power as Caeneus, she can't escape her past as a woman. Transformation does not guarantee safety or the ability to avoid pain, no more than war guarantees triumph or glory.

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