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Metamorphoses | Book 2 | Summary



Phaethon journeys to beg the Sun, Apollo, to validate that he is Phaethon's father. He asks Apollo to give him his chariot for a day to prove it. Apollo hesitates, claiming that Phaethon is not experienced enough to drive the chariot—not even the other gods know how to do it. He begs him to ask for anything else, but Phaethon won't back down. Apollo advises Phaethon on how to steer the chariot. As the horses bound away, Phaethon is dazed with fear and loses control of the chariot, which drops out of the sky and scorches mountains and cities below. Earth pleads with the gods to do something, and Jupiter strikes Phaethon from the chariot with a thunderbolt, killing him. Apollo is overwhelmed with grief and threatens to shroud the world in darkness to punish Jupiter, but the gods convince him not to. Clymene, Phaethon's mother, searches for and finds Phaethon's bones. Phaethon's sisters, the daughters of the Sun, mourn at his tomb. In their grief they turn into trees.

Jupiter works to restore the damage done to Earth. There he falls in love with the nymph Callisto, a favorite of the goddess Diana. He assumes Diana's form to trick Callisto, then rapes her. When the real Diana discovers what has occurred, she banishes Callisto from her woods. Juno discovers Jupiter's betrayal and seeks her revenge when the nymph gives birth to a baby boy, Arcas. Juno confronts Callisto and curses her by changing her into a bear. Years later Arcas is hunting in the woods and almost kills a bear, not realizing it is his mother. Jupiter saves Callisto and Arcas and "set[s] them in the sky as neighbouring stars," which infuriates Juno.

The next myth tells how the raven was transformed from silver-white to black. The raven plans to reveal to Apollo how his favorite girl, Coronis, has been unfaithful to the god. A crow warns the raven to reconsider. The crow was once a princess. When the god Neptune tried to rape her, Minerva turned her into a crow. The crow told Minerva about a mortal, Aglauros, who disobeyed her by looking in a box after Minerva forbade it. In response the goddess banished the crow. The raven disregards the crow's warning and tells Apollo about Coronis's infidelity. The infuriated god shoots and kills Coronis with an arrow but regrets his action immediately when he discovers she was pregnant with his child. Apollo punishes the raven by turning him black. Coronis dies, but the god rescues his unborn child, a son, from Coronis's womb and carries him to the cave of Chiron, a Centaur.

Chiron cares for the child. Chiron's daughter, Ocyrhoe, delivers a prophecy about the boy: He will become "a healer of all the world." She also predicts that he will die and come back to life again. She tells her father, however, that Chiron will be bitten by a snake and the wound will be so painful that he will give up his immortality and face death in order to stop the pain. She laments that she can see the future in this way. The Fates prevent her from saying anything further by turning her into a horse.

Chiron attempts to invoke Apollo's oracle of Delphi to find out more about Ocyrhoe's prophecy. But Apollo is no help; he is distracted by playing at being a shepherd. When Apollo loses sight of his flock, Mercury, ever the trickster, hides the sheep in the woods but is seen by an old man, Battus. Mercury tries to persuade Battus not to say anything, bribing him with a cow. Battus says he will keep quiet, but when Mercury returns in disguise to test his honesty, Battus betrays the secret. To punish him Mercury turns the old man to stone.

Mercury watches virgins carrying vessels to Minerva's sacred shrine. He is struck by one named Herse and descends to Earth to meet her. He asks Herse's sister, Aglauros, to introduce him, but she insists on "a golden fortune for her services." Minerva recalls that the crow she banished is the same one who tattled about Aglauros. Minerva asks Envy to infect Aglauros, who becomes insufferably envious of Herse. Mercury turns Aglauros to stone when she blocks Herse's door so he can't get in. Jupiter summons Mercury in a secret plot to help him acquire a new love interest, Europa. Jupiter turns himself into a bull to fool Europa into going with him and carries her off.


It's important to note that the transformations in Book 2 don't happen spontaneously; they are almost always set into motion through the will of the gods. Like the metamorphoses in Book 1, some transformations are acts of vengeance, while others are used to protect mortals, such as when Jupiter turns Arcas and Callisto into constellations to keep them safe from Juno. However, it remains significant that many of the unjust actions in the poem spring from the gods, such as Juno's jealous punishment of Callisto.

There are as many clever variations on vengeance and violence in Ovid's work as on love. Not only is Callisto turned into a bear, she is almost killed by her own son, Arcas, who doesn't realize the bear he is hunting is his own mother. This particularly ingenious but twisted form of revenge pits a child against a parent without the child's knowledge. The gods often demonstrate a terrible gift for extreme cruelty, a kind of art form in itself.

In addition to the gods' exacting revenge when the mood strikes them, male gods spontaneously rape unsuspecting mortal women against their will. Being raped by a god often results in pregnancy, too. Several characters in the Metamorphoses, such as Arcas, are born of rape by a god. This highlights an important element of the gods' behavior: Though they might be powerful, they can hardly be called just within the confines of their power when they often behave as cold-blooded avengers and rapists. Even though Jupiter eventually rescues Callisto from her fate as a bear, it's difficult to give him much credit since he is the one who caused the problem in the first place by raping her and setting off Juno's rage.

Many epic poets use their tales to provide moral lessons and codes of behavior to their readers. A transformation can serve as a cautionary tale, such as when the crow warns the raven that "my punishment might well warn birds to watch / Their tongues and take no risks." Ovid is also concerned with the repercussions of transformation; tragedy and transformation often go hand in hand in these stories. "Be careful what you wish for" seems to be an important lesson that the gods and mortals are doomed to repeat. Humans never seem to absorb the lesson that disrespecting the gods by being dishonest or trying to outwit them is a big mistake, even when the evidence clearly says otherwise. Aglauros offends not one but two gods with her dishonesty and manipulations. Such actions are a form of hubris, of not respecting the superior position of gods to humans.

Phaethon's story also points out the ways in which one person's metamorphosis causes a chain reaction resulting in additional transformations. Phaethon's recklessness is so disastrous it endangers the entire Earth. His death affects his mother and his sisters, who are so grief stricken that they change into trees. Book 2 establishes hubris as another cause of metamorphoses, but grief can cause characters to transform, too.

Ovid's poetic skill is apparent in his poetic imagery, which is effective whether the scene is one of horror or beauty. The descriptions of Earth burning as Phaethon loses control of the Sun's chariot are terrifying: "The scalding clouds / Steam; the parched fields crack deep ... / And every summit flames." Mercury's flight above the Earth ("The winged god ... / circled overhead /Like a swift kite ... / wheeled his sweeping course / In circle after circle through the air") is full of wonder. This reflects the epic tradition of setting poems in spectacular, often otherworldly locations. But throughout Metamorphoses Ovid's vivid descriptions of characters, settings, and especially the many transformations are also reminders of the power of art, which transforms language through imagination to create a completely realized world, in this case one that encompasses gods and humans. Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare all benefit from Ovid's influence to create such realized worlds in their works.

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