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Metamorphoses | Book 3 | Summary



As soon as Europa ceases to fear him, Jupiter sheds his bull disguise. Meanwhile Europa's father sends her brother, Cadmus, to find her, but threatens him with exile if he fails. As a result, Cadmus rejects his father and his homeland. Instead he goes to Apollo's oracle, which tells him that a cow will guide him to a place where Cadmus should create a new city. Soon Cadmus finds a cow, who leads him to an ancient forest. Cadmus decides to build the city there.

When Cadmus's men go to collect water, they are attacked by a giant serpent who kills them all. Cadmus finds their bodies and attempts in vain to kill the serpent, although he wounds it and traps it against a tree. He hears a voice proclaim that he, too, will become a snake one day. Suddenly Minerva descends from the sky and instructs him to plough the soil and plant the serpent's teeth, "from which a future people should arise." Cadmus follows her instructions, and soon an army of men emerges from the ground. They battle each other until only five men remain, who strike a truce. With these friends Cadmus founds the city of Thebes, marries, and creates a dynasty.

Years later Cadmus's grandson, Actaeon, is hunting in the forest with friends. Actaeon wanders off and stumbles upon a forbidden sight: the goddess Diana being bathed by her nymphs in a sacred grove. Diana is furious and turns Actaeon into a stag. Suddenly his own hunting hounds attack him, and Actaeon dies.

Jupiter upsets Juno once again with the news that yet another woman, Semele, is pregnant by him. She vows revenge. Juno visits Semele's home disguised as her nurse, Beroe, and manipulates Semele into asking Jupiter to prove his love by embracing her during sex as he does Juno. When Jove fulfills her request, his divine power kills Semele. Jupiter snatches the baby out of her womb and sews it into his own thigh. The child born is Bacchus, who is nursed by Ino, his mother's sister, and brought up by nymphs.

Jupiter and Juno discuss whether men or women receive more pleasure from sex. They ask Tiresias if he knows the answer, since he was once transformed from a male to a female, then back again after seven years. Tiresias takes Jupiter's side in the matter and says that men enjoy sex more. Angered, Juno curses Tiresias with blindness, but to compensate Jupiter gives him the power to see into the future.

Tiresias's reputation as a prophet grows. A water nymph, Liriope, comes to ask him about the future of her son, Narcissus. Tiresias replies that her son will live a long life if "he shall himself not know." Narcissus grows into a handsome but conceited young man. Echo is a nymph who can only echo what others say. Attracted to Narcissus, she follows him but cannot speak to him. Finally she uses her echo to trick him into coming to her, but he shuns her. Narcissus mocks Echo, as he has mocked many others who desire him. A previous victim of Narcissus's ridicule prays to the gods for justice: "So may he love—and never win his love!" The gods grant this wish. Narcissus lies down to drink from a pool. Without realizing it he falls in love with his own reflection in the water. He becomes obsessed with his reflection. Narcissus soon realizes that he is in love with himself. Overcome with grief, he dies. In place of his body a flower grows. The narcissus flower still exists, and one of its varieties is known as the daffodil.

Pentheus, the king of Thebes, scorns Tiresias and the gods, especially the new god, Bacchus. Tiresias prophesizes that Pentheus must honor Bacchus or he will be ripped limb from limb. Soon Bacchus arrives in Thebes and is greeted by his reveling worshippers. Pentheus continues to insult the god. Pentheus's men bring him a man they seized named Acoetes, a sailor. While at sea he and his fellow sailors find a young boy who Acoetes is convinced is a god. The other sailors try to kidnap the boy, but Acoetes stops them. The boy turns out to be Bacchus. Acoetes protects Bacchus from further harm by the crew, and Bacchus turns them into dolphins. Only Acoetes remains and sails Bacchus to Naxos, where he joins his cult. Pentheus dismisses Acoetes's story and instructs his men to torture and kill him. They chain Acoetes in a cell, but the door flies open and his chains fall off. At the celebration for Bacchus, Pentheus is mistaken for a boar by his own mother and his aunt, Autonoe. They rip him limb from limb as a victory sacrifice to the god, fulfilling Tiresias's prophecy.


Ovid demonstrates the continuing power struggle between gods and mortals. Cadmus's story may act as a traditional mini-epic within the larger scope of Metamorphoses, with its focus on a hero, his extraordinary deeds, and the founding of a city. But while things turn out well for Cadmus, his descendants, such as Semele, Actaeon, and later Ino (in Book 4), are not so lucky. In this way Ovid undercuts the conventions of epic poetry by not ending on a high note, where a central hero triumphs, but he makes Cadmus's story the lead-in to a series of tragic metamorphoses in which humans upset the gods and pay the price.

Book 3's metamorphoses demonstrate some of the main reasons the gods punish mortals through transformation. Actaeon accidentally sees Diana bathing, which is forbidden. Tiresias doesn't give Juno the answer she wants to hear. Narcissus is selfish and unkind, and Pentheus disrespects Bacchus. Sometimes the gods punish mortals when the mortals are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than deliberately acting against the gods, as in Actaeon's case. At other times the gods punish mortals out of a childish fit of temper, as in Juno's punishment of Tiresias, or out of vengeance, as in Semele's case. But some mortals are punished for their genuinely bad behavior, like Narcissus and Pentheus. Hubris and disrespecting the gods are high on the list because they involve mortals' ignoring the line that divides them from immortals.

In these stories gods have all the power while mortals are at their mercy. Although this dynamic is supposed to improve mortals' behavior, the gods rarely offer them any kind of role model to look up to and imitate. Rather the gods rule with fear, threats, and intimidation, exploiting their violent tempers to keep mortals afraid. Even though the gods themselves experience emotions like anger, love, and grief, they can never fully understand the suffering and fear of mortals—they simply don't experience the same severe consequences for their actions.

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