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Metamorphoses | Book 7 | Summary

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Summary

Jason and his men, the Argonauts, visit King Aeetes of Colchis to win the Golden Fleece, a piece of golden wool that belonged to a winged ram given to one of Jason's ancestors by Jupiter. However, the king demands "fearful terms and monstrous toils" in order for him to succeed. Medea, the king's daughter, falls in love with Jason and knows the danger he will face. Medea is torn between loyalty to her father and the urge to help Jason. She decides not to betray her father, but when she sees Jason again he promises to marry her if she helps him, and she agrees. Medea gives Jason magic herbs to help him complete the tasks. The next day everyone flocks to a sacred field to watch Jason confront a herd of fierce bulls who snort fire. He walks among them unharmed and tames them so they can plow a field in which he sows serpent's teeth. An army of soldiers springs from the soil, prepared to slay Jason. But Medea casts a spell on them, and instead they turn against each other. Finally Jason charms a dragon to sleep, again with the help of the magic herbs. He wins the Golden Fleece and sails home to Greece with Medea.

On his return Jason finds that his father, Aeson, is close to death. Jason asks Medea if he can sacrifice years from his own life to extend the life of his father. Medea tells him that this is forbidden, but she can try to restore "your father's years long gone." She performs a ritual that takes nine days and nine nights, culminating in replacing Aeson's blood with a magic elixir. He grows younger by 40 years. Medea then goes to see Pelias, Aeson's brother and his rival. He has also grown old, and his daughters ask Medea to make him younger as she did for Aeson. She tricks them into thinking they have to stab him as part of the rejuvenation ritual, then delivers the final blow herself. After discovering that Jason has a new wife, Medea goes to Athens and kills her. She then kills her own children by Jason.

Theseus comes to Athens, where he meets King Aegeus. Neither is aware that Theseus is Aegeus's son. Medea tricks Aegeus into serving Theseus poison. But Aegeus recognizes his family crest on Theseus's sword and knocks the cup out of his hand. Medea flees.

Meanwhile Minos, king of Crete, threatens war against Athens. He begs Aeacus, king of Aegina, to help him. Aeacus declines and tells of a plague that recently struck his city. So many people died that he begged Jove to replenish his kingdom or kill him. Aeacus dreams that Jupiter creates a new population for the city by changing ants into humans. When he wakes up to find the dream is true, he dubs these new people the Myrmidons.

When one of Aeacus's sons, Phocus, asks him about the javelin, or spear, he carries, Cephalus, an Athenian prince, tells him a story. One day the goddess of dawn, Aurora, carries him off while he is hunting, but he tells her he is happily married. Aurora lets him go but warns him that he will regret it. Cephalus worries that her prophecy means that his wife, Procris, will be unfaithful. He decides to test his wife's loyalty. Aurora changes his features so Procris won't recognize him; then he relentlessly seduces Procris until, exhausted, she finally gives in. Cephalus reveals his identity and shames her. She runs away, and Cephalus deeply regrets his trick. Soon the couple makes amends and resumes their happy marriage. Procris gives Cephalus a javelin as a gift. Years later someone overhears Cephalus in the forest speaking to the breeze and mistakenly thinks he is seducing a nymph. They tell Procris, who goes to spy on him. Thinking he hears a wild animal as she approaches, Cephalus accidentally shoots her with the javelin she gave him and kills her.

Analysis

At times the many myths of Metamorphoses begin to blend together, as one story of transformation follows another, and the reader may be overwhelmed trying to sort it all out. Which characters offended which gods and why? What transformations occurred as a result? Rather than trying to deliberately frustrate the reader, Ovid is pointing out how metamorphosis, or change, is all around. If these changes seem to happen to everyone in the poem, it's because Ovid believes change is the bedrock of existence. Ovid will revisit this idea in Book 15, when Pythagoras lists the many forms of change that define the universe.

In Book 7 Ovid relies on a well-established character from Greek literature, Medea, to consider the question of moral ambivalence: uncertain or contradictory choices or points of view. Medea is one of the few characters in Metamorphoses who is a central figure in her own series of stories. In this respect she is similar to Perseus, or later Aeneas, and while her story has its own epic sweep as she rides dragons through the cosmos she is neither male nor an epic hero in the traditional sense. Jason would have seemed the more obvious choice for that role, but he quickly becomes a secondary character. This is Medea's story, and she is a morally complex character who offers a new way to look at the theme of power and revenge in the poem.

Medea is often in an in-between state. She never undergoes a transformation herself but can manipulate events through magic, restoring youth to Jason's father, for example. This special power places her in an interesting position between the world of mortals and immortals. Medea is also the first mortal character to carefully consider her actions in an extended way, as she debates with herself the merits of helping Jason versus betraying her father. Unlike the gods who rarely if ever reflect on their actions, Medea tries to understand her motivations and navigate the emotions behind them through a long soliloquy, or monologue, in which she ponders her circumstances.

Medea is understandably ambivalent. If she helps Jason, she hurts her father. If she is loyal to her father, she loses Jason. First she decides to side with her father, then changes her mind when she sees Jason again. In the stories that follow Medea continues to swing from one extreme to the other, first using her gifts to restore youth for Aeson, then cutting short the life of Aeson's brother, Pelias. Medea's differing actions show her to be someone who can aid others but also be deceptive, cunning, and murderous.

The story of Cephalus and Procris echoes earlier stories, such as that of Pyramus and Thisbe, in which mere misunderstanding ruins love. Rarely does love work out as planned in Metamorphoses, and often those who seem the happiest are the most doomed to suffer. Contemporary readers can still relate to these kinds of misunderstandings that can warp relationships: a missed communication, a rumor of infidelity, a hint of jealousy. Instead of trusting each other Cephalus and Procris feel ambivalent about their love. The irony of Cephalus and Procris's story is situational: there is a gap between what each character expects to happen and what actually does. Neither had anything to worry about—both were faithful—but each allowed themselves to be poisoned by doubt, which is their undoing.

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