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Metamorphoses | Book 8 | Summary

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Summary

Cephalus and his men arrive in Athens. Elsewhere, Nisus reigns in Alcathous, which is at war with King Minos of Crete. Nisus has a lock of hair that acts as a magic charm to protect his kingdom. Scylla, Nisus's daughter, watches from a palace tower as the war unfolds below. She sees Minos in battle and falls in love with him but laments that he is her family's foe. Hoping to end the war quickly and win Minos's love, she plots to help Minos by stealing her father's lock of purple hair and the keys to the city's gate. She brings them to Minos, confesses her love, and offers herself and her father's kingdom to him. Minos is horrified and tells her she is being disgraceful, then leaves Alcathous abruptly. Scylla realizes she has no one else to turn to now that she has betrayed her father. She swims after Minos's ship. Her father appears, disguised as a bird of prey, and seizes and attacks her. Scylla falls from the stern of Minos's ship and is transformed into a bird.

Minos reaches the isle of Crete. He needs to find a way to hide his brother, the Minotaur, who is half-man, half-bull. Minos imprisons Daedalus, a brilliant inventor, who constructs a labyrinth to conceal the monster. To escape from Crete, Daedalus decides to build a pair of wings to fly away and fashions them out of wax and feathers. He makes a second pair for his son, Icarus, telling him to "take care ... / To fly a middle course" and not venture too close to the sun or to the waves. As he and Icarus take flight, mortals watching from below mistake them for gods. Daedalus tries to guide his son, but Icarus flies too high, and the sun melts his wings. He falls into the sea and dies. As Daedalus lays Icarus to rest, a partridge appears. This bird was once Daedalus's nephew, Perdix. He had apprenticed with Daedalus years before. Daedalus grew jealous that Perdix's talent surpassed his and hurled him off a cliff. Pallas intervened, transforming Perdix into a bird that cannot fly for fear of falling.

Daedalus goes to Sicily. The king, Oeneus, performs rites to the gods but leaves out Diana. She sends a giant boar to attack animals and crops, and people begin to flee. Meleager arrives with a band of men to hunt the boar. He falls in love with a young woman he sees in passing. Meleager and his men attack the boar. They can't even hit it with their spears, but the young woman Meleager saw earlier appears and wounds the boar. The men feel embarrassed that a female has overshadowed them. They continue trying to kill the boar unsuccessfully. Meleager is finally able to kill it. He gives credit to the young woman, giving her the boar's skin and head as trophies. The men are jealous and threaten to take them from her, but Meleager kills anyone who threatens her, including his two uncles.

Meleager's mother, Althaea, discovers that he has killed his uncles, who were her brothers, and vows to avenge them. She takes out a log that was prophesied to have the same life span as Meleager. She hesitates, then burns it. At the same moment Meleager begins to feel a burning sensation, and he soon dies. Meleager's father dies of grief, and Althaea, haunted by what she's done, kills herself.

Meanwhile Theseus and his men take shelter and rest by a river. Achelous, the river's god, tells them a tale of nymphs whom he transformed into nearby islands after they neglected to pay tribute to him. He also tells the story of Perimele, a nymph thrown to her death by her father, Hippodamas, after she lost her virginity to Achelous. The river god begs Neptune to transform her, and she also becomes an island. One of Theseus's men scoffs at the story, claiming that the gods don't have the ability to "chop and change / The shapes of things." The other men disagree. One of them, Lelex, tells another story of the gods and their ability to cause metamorphoses.

Jove and Mercury visit a small town disguised as mortals, but no one will offer them hospitality. Finally Baucis and Philemon invite them to their humble cottage and, despite their poverty, give them food and drink. The couple begins to notice that the wine bowl refills itself all on its own, and Jove and Mercury reveal their true identities. They take the couple up a nearby mountain and show them that the gods have flooded and destroyed the town for lacking hospitality. But Jove and Mercury turn the couple's cottage into a temple and ask them what they most desire. Philemon asks that they become priests to guard the shrine and that they be allowed to die together when the time comes. Years later they are both transformed into two trees that grow from a single trunk.

Achelous reminds Theseus that some people are able to change shape at will. One such person was Erysichthon's daughter. Erysichthon spurns the gods. He chops down a sacred oak tree in Ceres's grove, despite the warning of the nymph who inhabits it that he will be punished. The nymph's sisters, the Dryads, pray to Ceres to punish him. Ceres asks Hunger to help her by cursing Erysichthon to be constantly hungry but unable to satisfy himself. Erysichthon eats everything, ruining his wealth, then sells his daughter into slavery. She begs the sea to save her, and when her master comes looking for her Neptune turns her into a man. Her father realizes she is able to change shape and abuses her new skill in order to sell her as different animals. Eventually, still unable to satisfy his hunger, Erysichthon devours himself.

Analysis

Some stories in this section can be easily paired because they share similar plots or themes, such as Arachne and Niobe's stories in Book 6, both about women who challenge the gods with their productivity. Book 8 focuses on varieties of hunger: hunger for love (Scylla), hunger for power (the boar hunters; Daedalus), and hunger for vengeance (Althaea). The protagonist of the final story in the book, Erysichthon, is punished for disrespecting the gods by suffering from hunger he can never satisfy. In contrast the story of Baucis and Philemon ends happily only because the couple, who are poor but hospitable, serve every bit of food they have to two guests to satisfy their hunger, not realizing they are Jupiter and Mercury in disguise. The gods reward them by granting their wish to die at the same time.

The hunger for love is a defining force in the stories of Scylla and Althaea. Like Medea in Book 7, Scylla is a character who is tortured over her love for Minos, which will cause her to betray her own father. Althaea is another woman who finds herself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to love, in her case a mother's love for her child. She hesitates and, similar to Medea, debates the merits of causing Meleager's death when he is her only son. By having Althaea and Medea speak their thoughts out loud in long soliloquies, Ovid is opening up a bigger gap between gods and mortals in that mortals are able to rationalize, weigh, and ponder the consequences of their actions, while gods do not. Althaea laments that her "vengeance is [her] guilt," knowing that even if she avenges her brothers she will bear the burden of guilt for causing the death of her son. The gods, on the other hand, act without thinking, usually in response to anger or jealousy. While mortals are able to balance their decisions with deliberation, however, they still don't always choose what they know to be the right path, which makes their regret all the sharper. In addition the paths they choose often frustrate and even destroy their attempts to fulfill their love.

Daedalus is a major figure in two stories. The story of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the most famous stories in Metamorphoses. Daedalus is so skilled that his work raises him above the human world by allowing him and his son Icarus to fly, a power only possessed by the gods. Daedalus tries to practice caution by advising Icarus to "fly the middle course," to practice moderation in order to protect himself. Surprisingly the gods do not step in to cause Icarus's death. He either disregards or misunderstands his father's instructions. But the story does point out that even for the most clever of artists, like Daedalus, art is ultimately outside human control. Art, itself the result of a process of transforming materials into something new, can cause dangerous results that can't always be prevented, even if one tries one's best to prepare for them. Creativity, which can push mortals closer to the gods, comes with inherent risks. Perhaps the gods don't kill Icarus because they don't need to; his father's invention does their job for them. The first story takes on an even darker tone when the second, the tale of Perdix, reveals that Daedalus was so envious of his nephew Perdix's artistic talents that he threw him off a cliff. Like Icarus, Perdix dies as a result of a fall. Daedalus's hunger to rise to the top with his talent has led to two similar deaths.

The final two stories in Book 8 offer some interesting contrasts: The first myth is about abundance, the second about endless hunger; the first is about how the gods reward piety and reverence, and the second is about how the gods punish disrespect for the divine. The first story tells of a married couple, Philemon and Baucis, who are humble and kind, reverent to the gods, and loving to each other. They may be poor, but their marriage overflows with love, and they offer hospitality to visitors despite their poverty. The second story details the violent disrespect of Erysichthon for the gods, who punish him by making him so hungry that after he consumes everything around him he eats his own flesh. His lack of respect for the gods curses him with hunger he can never satisfy.

While Ovid's work has a central narrator who tells stories, narrators appear within the stories to tell additional myths, such as the multiple stories told by Calliope in Book 6. Achelous, a river god, tells two stories in Book 8 to Theseus and his men, one about nymphs who disrespect the gods and are changed into islands, and the second about a nymph he loved whom he asks to be transformed by Neptune rather than die. When one of the listeners questions the god's ability to cause these transformations, two more stories are told. Narratives, like the many transformations in the poem, multiply. In fact Achelous's storytelling actually spills over into Book 9, in which he tells of how he wrestled with Hercules.

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