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Metamorphoses | Book 6 | Summary

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Summary

Calliope's tales cause Minerva to think of the story of Arachne, a world-renowned weaver. Arachne is so proud she won't admit that Minerva, the goddess of art, taught her how to weave so skillfully. She suggests the goddess compete with her to see who is the better weaver. Minerva disguises herself as old woman who advises Arachne to give the goddess credit and be forgiven, but Arachne cruelly dismisses her. Minerva throws off her disguise, but Arachne shows no fear. Minerva and Arachne begin their weaving competition. Minerva weaves an image of the 12 gods on their thrones fighting over who will be the patron saint of Athens. As a warning to Arachne, she weaves in smaller scenes at the corners, of mortals who were punished by the gods for challenging them. Arachne weaves an image of the gods changing into animals in order to deceive and fool mortals. Minerva examines Arachne's work but can find no fault in its construction. Enraged, she tears up Arachne's tapestry and beats her. Arachne tries to hang herself. Minerva rescues her but tells her that she will regret that she survived. She transforms Arachne into a spider.

The news of Arachne's story spreads throughout Thebes. Niobe once knew Arachne but is unmoved by her cautionary tale. Manto, Tiresias's daughter, warns Theban women to worship Latona, the goddess of childbirth. Niobe is full of pride because she has had 14 children with her husband, Amphion. For this reason Niobe considers herself superior to Latona, who has borne only two children, her twins Apollo and Diana. Latona, outraged at Niobe's hubris, sends Apollo and Diana to punish her. They kill Niobe's seven sons. Amphion is so distraught he commits suicide, but Niobe's sense of superiority remains intact. In fact she tells Latona that even after the loss of half her children, she brags that she still has more than Latona does. Apollo and Diana return, this time killing Niobe's seven daughters. Niobe is turned to stone, but even as a statue she weeps. The tale of Niobe's fate spreads and causes mortals everywhere to worship the gods more devoutly and to retell older stories about the wrath of the divine.

One such story is about the Lycian peasants, who prevent Latona and her newborn twins from drinking water from a pond. The peasants threaten and insult her, and Latona curses them to live in the pond forever as frogs. The next story is about a satyr, Marsyas, who loses a pipe-playing contest to Apollo when he cheats by using Minerva's pipe. As punishment Apollo strips off the satyr's skin. When nymphs, satyrs, and others weep at the spectacle, their tears turn into a river named Marsyas.

The townsfolk talk of Amphion's death and blame his wife, Niobe, for her hubris. Only Pelops sheds tears for her and reveals that his left shoulder is made of ivory. After his father cut him up and fed him to the gods, they brought Pelops back to life and tried to put him back together, but Ceres had accidentally eaten his shoulder, so they made him one of ivory.

The stories return to the present. Tereus has liberated Athens from war and claimed Procne, King Pandion's daughter, as his bride. Yet from the start there are bad omens: some of the gods don't come to bless the wedding. Procne wants to see her sister, Philomela. Tereus sets sail for Athens to get her, but when he first lays eyes on Philomela, he is overcome with love and with lust. Pandion, unaware of what's happened, agrees to let Philomela return to Athens with Tereus. When they arrive Tereus drags Philomela, who is a virgin, to a cabin in the woods and rapes her. Philomela threatens to tell everyone what has happened, even if it causes her shame. Tereus is furious. He ties her up and draws his sword. Philomela hopes he will kill her, but he cuts out her tongue instead, then rapes her again. Tereus returns home and tells Procne that her sister is dead.

A year goes by and Philomela is still under guard as a hostage in the cabin. But she has a loom and uses it to weave the story of what happened to her. She asks a woman to take it to Procne, who reads it and is enraged. Procne uses the festival of Bacchus as an excuse to go into the forest, where she finds Philomela's hut, rescues her, and brings her back to the palace. Procne vows to do anything to get revenge on Tereus. She decides to kill their young son, Itys, cook him, and feed him to his unsuspecting father. When he asks where their son is, Procne replies that Tereus is eating him. Philomela runs in and throws Itys's bleeding head at him. As Tereus chases them from the palace, all of them change into birds.

Boreas, the wind god, is in love with Orithyia, a king's daughter. Boreas chooses to woo her with words rather than force her to be with him. His attempts fall flat, and so he wraps Orithyia up in his wings and flies away with her. She becomes his wife and gives birth to twins who grow up and sail away to seek the Golden Fleece.

Analysis

Book 6 focuses extensively, although not exclusively, on the role of art. Art plays many roles in Metamorphoses, many of which are on display in Book 6. In this book, art

  • demonstrates ingenuity and ambition. Arachne's weaving brings her fame, though she comes from a humble background.
  • links the world of the mortals to that of the immortals. Arachne's talent is truly a gift from the gods, specifically from Minerva, goddess of the arts, who was her "teacher."
  • acts in the form of stories as warnings to mortals to not disobey or try to compete with the gods.
  • is a survival tool. Philomela's creativity helps her survive in the face of terrible suffering: "There's a fund/Of talent in distress." The gods provide Pelops with an ivory shoulder.
  • reveals important truths. For example, Philomela uses weaving to communicate the terrible truth about her rape and mutilation, leading to her rescue by her sister, Procne.
  • is a form of metamorphosis. Each imaginatively detailed transformation that takes place in Ovid's poem acts as a miniature artwork in itself, a reminder of how one thing can be creatively changed into another.

Arachne's role as a powerful artist would be a genuine strength if she didn't suffer from hubris, a case of too much pride. In Metamorphoses art serves as a reminder that humans can't exist independently from the gods, nor should they try to compete with them. Minerva, the goddess of art, taught her the skills that helped Arachne become such a great artist. Arachne's first mistake is to act as if her talent is hers alone, free of divine intervention. In addition she wants to prove her superiority by having a competition with the gods in the form of a weaving contest. Like Narcissus, whose conceited behavior leads the gods to curse him to fall in love with himself, Arachne's punishment reflects her role as a weaver; she is transformed into a spider, an insect famous for its ability to weave webs.

Art in this case also demonstrates the ongoing tension between mortals and immortals. The tapestries woven by Minerva and Arachne depict very different perspectives of the lives of humans and gods. In this way Ovid shows how mortals and gods may use storytelling to justify themselves and advance their own agendas. Minerva's tapestry depicts the "twelve great gods" in all their power at the center. At the corners the goddess weaves small images of humans "who claimed the names of gods most high" and were transformed as punishment. Arachne weaves images of male gods tricking and raping mortal women. Treated separately the tapestries offer clashing points of view. Together both tapestries tell the truth: The gods are powerful and central figures; some humans do have a problem with hubris and must pay for it; some of the gods do deceive so that they can violate women. In this respect the tapestries are like Ovid's poem, which presents gods and mortals in a more balanced, three-dimensional way. Yes, mortals should respect the gods, but the gods are not beyond question. Does Minerva turn Arachne into a spider strictly for her hubris, or is she upset that she can't find anything wrong with Arachne's technique?

The story of Arachne, one of the most famous in Metamorphoses, focuses on art and art making, while the story of Niobe focuses on fertility. Like Arachne, Niobe suffers from a bad case of hubris and rashly challenges the gods. Niobe uses her fertility, which has blessed her with 14 children, to try to claim superiority over the goddess of childbirth, Latona. Niobe makes the mistake of playing a numbers game, assuming that she has "defeated" Latona simply by having more children. Like Arachne she fails to honor the very goddess she should praise. She also seems to forget that her children, unlike Latona's, are not gods: Latona sends her twins, Apollo and Diana, some of the most powerful of all the gods, to do vengeance, and they eventually slaughter all of Niobe's children.

Since mortals have so little power over their own lives in Metamorphoses, it's hard not to cheer at times for those who resist the gods, even if hubris is the reason. Arachne and Niobe's stories reveal the similarities that sometimes occur between gods and mortals: they can both be stubborn, rash, and wrong. Niobe and Arachne certainly make a big mistake when they challenge the gods with something to prove. But for the gods to acquiesce would mean having to admit that they may be wrong. And so the gods assert themselves by transforming one mortal into a spider and killing the other's children, in order to reinforce the difference in power between gods and humans. The punishments, as they so often do in Metamorphoses, seem very harsh, particularly in Niobe's case. Violent, horrific punishments are an essential tool of the gods. And this tactic works, causing "every man and woman, all of them [to dread] the goddess' wrath made manifest, and worshipped more devoutly the divine / Power." Arachne and Niobe are held up as examples to other mortals, showing once again that the gods wield the ultimate power.

Book 6 amps up the violence with some of the bloodiest and most extreme stories in the entire poem. While other characters are turned into streams or birds, Arachne becomes a spider. Niobe doesn't lose just one child—Latona kills all 14. Philomela is not only raped repeatedly, she is mutilated when Tereus cuts out her tongue. Even the shorter myths, such as the story of the satyr, Marsyas, are gruesome. After Apollo skins him alive, Ovid provides a graphic description of the satyr's flowing blood and twitching muscles. It's hard to beat the revenge against Tereus, however: His wife, Procne, kills their child and feeds it to him.

Readers by this point have grown accustomed to the horrifying, vengeful actions the gods take against mortals, but this story focuses on human-on-human violence. Procne's and Philomela's revenge on Tereus is one of the most haunting and powerful acts in the book. No gods appear to help in this terrible situation, and to see two mortal women take power and revenge into their own hands in such a graphic way is shocking as they resort to infanticide and cannibalism. Their revenge is also horrifying because it is cleverly constructed, focusing around the mouth. After cutting out Philomela's tongue, Tereus pays by eating his own child. In Book 6 creativity can be used to produce great works of art, but it can also produce stunningly inventive forms of violence, especially when revenge is the main motivation. In this way beauty and horror in Ovid's poem spring from the same source.

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