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Metamorphoses | Book 4 | Summary



Like Pentheus in Book 3, the three daughters of Minyas question Bacchus's legitimacy and refuse to worship him. Priests warn that people will face Bacchus's wrath if they don't participate in rites to the god, but the three sisters stay home, weave, and tell each other tales.

Alcithoe begins with the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, who live next door to each other and fall in love, but their fathers forbid them to marry. They are able to speak to each other through a chink in the wall and decide that they will meet at night and elope. Thisbe walks to the appointed place, but when she sees a lion with bloody jaws she flees, dropping her shawl. The lion grabs the shawl and then leaves the bloodstained garment behind. When Pyramus arrives he sees the beast's footprints and the bloody shawl and thinks Thisbe has been killed. Overcome with grief, he stabs himself. Thisbe returns to find him on the brink of death. She throws herself on his sword. They die.

Leuconoe tells the next tale, of the Sun in love. She notes that the Sun, synonymous with the god Apollo, is the first to see all things and therefore saw Venus's adultery with Mars, the god of war. Apollo tells Venus's husband, Vulcan, of the affair, and Vulcan concocts a plan to catch the pair in the act in front of the other gods. His plan succeeds, and Venus is embarrassed when the other gods see her and Mars together. She vows to punish Apollo and causes him to fall helplessly in love with Leucothoe.

Apollo, disguised as Leucothoe's mother, Eurynome, goes to visit Leucothoe in her chambers. He suddenly reveals himself and rapes her. Clytie, a nymph who is in love with Apollo, discovers what happened. She tells everyone the story in order to shame Leucothoe and make sure the woman's father, Orchamus, hears about it. He buries his daughter alive as punishment. Though Apollo attempts to save her, she dies, and the god transforms her into a "shrub of frankincense." Clytie, mourning for Apollo's love, changes into a flower.

Alcithoe tells the tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Salmacis is a nymph who lives in a magic pool, and Hermaphroditus is the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. One day Hermaphroditus stumbles upon the pool. When Salmacis spies him, she is smitten and asks to be his bride. He rebuffs her, and she retreats but hides and watches him swim. Finally she dives in the water and tries to kiss him. He tries to fight her off, but she attaches herself to him and prays to the gods that they never be parted. Their bodies are fused together to become one body that is both male and female rather than one or the other.

After telling these tales Minyas's daughters continue to ridicule Bacchus. They are shocked to see the tapestry they weave grow "leaves of ivy, part became a vine," a symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine. Bacchus turns the women into bats.

Bacchus's aunt Ino proudly relays this story throughout Thebes. Juno loathes Bacchus because he is Semele's child by Jupiter. She descends to the underworld to visit the "Sisters of the Night," also known as the Furies, who are goddesses of vengeance. Ino has a husband, Athamas, with whom she has two infant sons, Learchus and Melicerta. Juno asks the Furies to punish Ino and Athamas. One of them, Tisiphone, poisons them with a "broth of madness." Athamas goes insane, killing Learchus, and Ino attempts to throw herself off a cliff with Melicerta. Neptune takes pity on Ino and transforms her and her sons into gods, at Venus's request. Ino's attendants rail against Juno for her unjust treatment of Ino. Juno is angered and vows to make them "the best memorials of my cruelty!" She transforms them into birds.

Cadmus leaves Thebes, feeling haunted by the terrible events his descendants have experienced. In Illyria with his wife, he recalls founding Thebes by scattering the serpent's teeth and says he wishes to be a snake himself. Suddenly he changes into one. His wife begs the gods to turn her into a snake, too, and they comply.

Meanwhile Jupiter's son Perseus lands in the realm of Atlas, who "surpassed all men in giant size," and asks for rest and lodging. But Atlas recalls that an oracle once predicted that a son of Jupiter would spoil the bounty of Atlas's kingdom, so he tells Perseus to leave. Perseus shows Atlas Medusa's head, which turns Atlas into a mountain. Riding the wind, Perseus flies over "unnumbered nations" and spots Andromeda, who has been chained to a rock by Jupiter for her mother's sins. He falls in love with her and asks her parents for her hand in marriage, provided that he is able to free her from captivity. Perseus defeats the sea monster that guards Andromeda. He and Andromeda marry.

At their wedding banquet Perseus tells of how he came to have Medusa's "snake-tressed head." In the land of the Gorgons, he saw the many men and beasts who had been turned to stone by looking at Medusa's face. Perseus was able to cut off Medusa's head by looking at her reflection in his shield as she slept. Perseus then tells how Medusa's hair was transformed into snakes. Medusa was once famed for her beauty, particularly her hair. One day Poseidon raped her in Minerva's shrine, and Minerva transformed Medusa's hair into snakes as punishment.


Love and all its madness, longing, and frustration take center stage in these stories. Each instance of love is thwarted by circumstances beyond anyone's control, such as Pyramus and Thisbe's forbidden romance, which is destroyed by miscommunication and misinterpretation. The tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus demonstrates that neither of them wins anything by being bound together in a single body other than being a memorable narrative device. Even powerful gods suffer from doomed romance; despite his power, Apollo is unable to save Leucothoe, the one person he loves, and he grieves for her.

In Book 4 the gods also show that they can really hold a grudge, as the wrath against Cadmus's entire family line, begun in Book 3, continues here. The world of Metamorphoses is one in which the bloodlines of the gods and humans are intertwined in a complicated family tree. Juno claims Ino has shown contempt for her because Ino expresses pride in her nephew, Bacchus. But Juno's wrath is really a by-product of her anger with Jupiter for his constant indiscretions. In this case Ino hasn't even been involved with Jupiter herself, but she is Bacchus's aunt, and Bacchus is, in turn, the love child of Jupiter and Semele, Cadmus's daughter. For this reason not Ino but "Cadmus's house"—all of his descendants—are on the receiving end of Juno's wrath. Although the reader may sympathize at times with the reasons behind Juno's jealousy, her vengeance in this case seems unusually cruel and harsh, resulting in madness and death—including the death of an infant, Ino's son Learchus. Cadmus, who founded the city of Thebes in triumph, now leaves it, feeling "as if that city's fortune, not his own,/Were crushing him." The epic hero who founded Thebes decides he'd be happier as a snake.

Book 4 is an example of how Ovid uses the frame narrative to comment on the storytellers. The daughters of Minyas tell stories in which the gods are embarrassed (Venus caught with Mars) or are hurt in love (Apollo) or are unhelpful (Salmacis and Hermaphroditus) in part because the daughters scorn the gods. The daughters choose stories that justify their impiety (which may well be justified) but then are punished by Bacchus for it. The situational irony is caused by the gap between the daughters' piety and their fate.

Ovid explores the subject of gender through a number of lenses in the poem. The fiery marriage of Jupiter and Juno, the chastity of virgin goddesses Minerva and Diana, and the many rapes between male gods and female mortals are all ways of considering the meaning of gender. In some cases Ovid plays with transforming or switching genders entirely, a highly imaginative form of transformation. The tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus continues a trend in Metamorphoses that began in Book 3 with Tiresias, who changed from a man to a woman and back. In Salmacis and Hermaphroditus's case, the rejected nymph asks the gods to never let them spend a day apart. She gets her wish, but Hermaphroditus now feels "weakened" by being "half woman." How Salmacis feels about being half man is never revealed. Hermaphroditus's name is the basis for the term hermaphrodite in English, which refers to a plant or animal that has both female and male genitals.

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