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Metamorphoses | Book 5 | Summary



At Perseus and Andromeda's wedding celebration, Phineus, Andromeda's former fiancé, challenges Perseus to a fight to avenge his "stolen bride." Phineus launches his spear at Perseus but misses. Perseus throws the spear back at him, but Phineus dodges the spear and another man is killed by mistake. Huge numbers of men attack Perseus. He kills them one after the other until there are piles of bodies. Finally Perseus uses Medusa's head to turn his attackers to stone. Phineus concedes defeat and begs Perseus for mercy. Perseus promises not to stab him, then turns him to stone with Medusa's head.

Minerva, content that Perseus is safe, leaves him and flies across the sea to visit the Muses on Mount Helicon, their home. One of the Muses tells Minerva that they are haunted by the memory of Pyreneus, who fooled them into thinking he revered them. He invites them into his home to find shelter from a storm but locks them inside. They are able to escape by changing into birds and flying away, but Pyreneus follows them up a mountain and tries to fly after them, leaping to his death.

Another Muse tells Minerva the story of nine nearby magpies. The birds were once nine sisters, who challenged the Muses to a storytelling competition, which would be judged by a group of nymphs. One sister sings of the great war in heaven, emphasizing the prowess of the giants over the gods. The Muses then share the stories told by Calliope, the muse of poetry, at the contest.

Pluto, the king of Hades, leaves the underworld to attend to some business on Earth. Venus asks her son Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart, causing him to fall in love so that Venus might gain power in the underworld. Cupid obeys his mother. Pluto sees Proserpine, Ceres and Jupiter's daughter, playing in a glade. He carries her away as she calls for her mother. Cyane, a water nymph, rises from her pool and tries to stop Pluto, but he opens an abyss to the underworld in the pool and plunges his chariot into it. Cyane is so distressed that her body dissolves into the pool.

Ceres frantically searches for her daughter. Cyane shows Ceres a sash Proserpine left behind. Ceres realizes what has happened. In her anguish, as goddess of agriculture she destroys crops far and wide but makes Sicily suffer in particular. Arethusa, another water nymph, begs Ceres to stop and tells her she witnessed Proserpine living in Hell. Ceres begs Jupiter to retrieve Proserpine from the underworld. Jupiter tries to convince Ceres that Pluto is not a bad prospect as a son-in-law since he must love Proserpine to have kidnapped her. Ceres is not convinced, and Jupiter reluctantly agrees to bring Proserpine back under the condition that she has not eaten any food in Hell—a rule established by the Fates. Proserpine has, in fact, eaten from a pomegranate in Hell, but Jupiter takes pity on her. He rules that she is allowed to spend half the year with her mother and half with her husband.

Ceres asks the nymph Arethusa why she fled and was turned into a sacred spring. Arethusa tells the story. One day Arethusa is swimming in a stream, when Alpheus, a river god, calls to her from underwater. Arethusa flees from him and calls out to Diana to save her. Diana traps her in a cloud, but Arethusa sweats and turns into water. Alpheus also transforms into water, trying to join her. But Diana splits them apart, and Arethusa becomes a sacred spring.

In the final story sung by Calliope, Ceres asks Triptolemus, an Athenian prince, to take seeds and scatter them in other lands to bring new crops. King Lyncus of Scythia tries to steal the seeds by murdering Triptolemus but fails. Ceres turns Lyncus into a lynx.

The nymphs unanimously declare the Muses the winners of the contest. The Muses punish their competitors by turning them into nine chattering magpies.


While Ovid uses some classic conventions of epic poetry, such as including tales of heroes who can perform superhuman feats, he also seems to mock these traditions at times or at least call them into question. The way Phineus's men launch themselves at him one after another until Perseus is walking over piles of bodies seems exaggerated and somewhat absurd. While he holds his own against the men for quite some time, it's significant that Perseus need not rely on his own strength or wit to win this battle but rather on a magical device, Medusa's head. In fact he could have saved a lot of trouble if he had used it to begin with. Anyone with Medusa's head as a weapon could easily destroy sea monsters and defeat an army of men. In this way Ovid calls Perseus's status as a hero into question.

Each of the nine Muses represents the arts or humanities in some way. Calliope, who tells the story of Proserpine, is the muse of poetry. The story of the Muses and their competition with the nine sisters shows how humans try to use art to equal or surpass the gods and do so at their peril. This motif will come up again throughout Metamorphoses, notably in Book 6, which tells the story of a showdown between Arachne, an expert weaver, and Minerva, whom she challenges to a weaving contest. From the gods' perspective, art is a way for humans to aspire to the realm of the gods but not to compete with it.

Gods and mortals often have a parent/child relationship, with the gods acting as disciplinarians over the unruly behavior of humans. The events that transpire in the story of Ceres, Proserpine, and Pluto show how power struggles erupt among the gods themselves. The gods do form a large family, with marital problems, sibling rivalries, and turf wars. Venus, for example, sets Apollo up to fall disastrously in love with Leucothoe in order to take revenge on him. Now Hades is her victim as she sets him up to fall for Proserpine so Venus can extend her territory into the underworld. In addition Ceres and Pluto are siblings, and each has the ear of their brother Jupiter, who has the final say in such disputes. The three of them are engaged in a delicate balance of power.

This myth also brings the issue of sexual violation into sharp focus, highlighting the way the male gods and female gods see the event differently. Juno takes out her frustrations directly on the women. Jupiter is, at most, hurt only indirectly by his wife's acts of vengeance. But in the case of the myth of Proserpine, female characters are outraged by her kidnapping and rape. Cyane, a water nymph, and thus a lower member of the gods' hierarchy, actually puts herself at risk when she tries to prevent the much more powerful Pluto from abducting Proserpine. She argues that it is betterfor a woman to be "wooed and won" rather than making a girl "frightened and forced." His response is to cut through Cyane's pool to escape with Proserpine to Hell, devastating Cyane.

Pluto and Jupiter try to convince Proserpine and Ceres to see Pluto's actions as advantageous by dangling the possibility of power as a bargaining chip to Proserpine: "Why not there too/Extend your mother's empire and your own?" His question highlights that to the gods, power is everything, and Pluto wants to remind Proserpine that their union could be to both her and her mother's benefit. Neither Pluto nor Jupiter sees things from Ceres's or Proserpine's perspectives. Jupiter is Proserpine's father, but, like Pluto and some of the other gods, he regularly takes mortal women by force. His argument is similar to Pluto's. Jupiter suggests to Ceres that the powerful Pluto would make an advantageous match for their daughter. Ceres rejects his argument, and Jupiter tries to solve the problem. In the end they are all constrained by the Fates' bizarre insistence that Proserpine can leave Hades only if she hasn't eaten any food there. Finally, trying to satisfy both sides Jupiter comes to a split decision that places his daughter in a permanent state of limbo: she makes a round-trip journey from Hell to Earth every six months. While this betters Proserpine's situation on the one hand, it fails to fix the problem on the other. The story portrays the outrage at the violation but offers no solution, ending in a compromise that satisfies no one.

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