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Metamorphoses | Book 9 | Summary



Achelous tells the story of a girl named Deianira whom he once wooed. Hercules was also pursuing her and tried to dazzle her family with the fact that Jupiter would be her father-in-law. Achelous scoffs at Hercules, telling him that it is no honor to be the product of his mother's sin with a god. They fight. Achelous, who can change form, becomes a snake, then a bull. But Hercules breaks off one of the bull's horns, wounding Achelous's forehead, and wins the fight. Naiads then fill the horn with fruits and flowers to create the horn of plenty.

Hercules departs for home with Deianira, his new bride, but is blocked by a rushing river. Nessus, a Centaur, appears and promises to help Deianira cross safely after Hercules swims to the other side. But once he reaches the shore, his wife cries out that Nessus wants to rape her. Hercules shoots Nessus with a poisoned arrow. Before he dies Nessus gives Deianira his shirt, which is soaked in his poisoned blood, but he tells her it is a talisman, or charm, to kindle love. Years later Deianira hears a rumor that Hercules is in love with another woman. She has a servant, Lichas, take Nessus's cloak to her husband in hopes of fortifying his love for her. When Hercules puts it on, it poisons him. He suspects Lichas and throws him into the sea, where Lichas changes into a rock. In agony from the poison, Hercules throws himself on a fire but is rescued by Jupiter, who turns him into a god.

Alcmena tells Iole, who is pregnant by Hercules's son, the story of Hercules's own birth. Alcmena, pregnant by Jupiter, spent seven days in labor, calling upon the gods of childbirth to aid her. The goddess Lucina came but had been bribed by Juno to kill Alcmena by extending the labor. One of Alcmena's maids, Galanthis, realizes what Juno has done. She lies and tells Lucina that the baby has been born. Lucina loses her concentration, and Alcmena is able to deliver Hercules. Lucina transforms Galanthis into a weasel.

Iole then tells the story of her sister Dryope, who was assaulted by Apollo but was still able to marry a man named Andraemon and have a child. One day she brought her infant son to a lake and picked some blooms from a lotus plant for him. She didn't realize that the plant was once a nymph who had been transformed into a lotus. Dryope apologizes and tries to flee but finds she is rooted to the ground, transformed into a tree. She begs Iole and Andraemon to take care of her son and bring him to visit her.

Hercules's nephew Iolaus appears, surprising Alcmena and Iole because his youth has been restored by the goddess Hebe. The goddess Themis foretells that a woman named Callirhoe will ask the gods to let her children advance from infancy to manhood more quickly so they can avenge their father's enemies in a civil war in Thebes. Although this is a very rare event, the gods begin to grumble that they also want the power to restore youth to others. Jupiter intervenes to remind them that he has no power to restore anyone's youth nor do they; it is a gift beyond his control. If he could, he would long ago have restored the youth of people whom he loves. No one can conquer fate, not even the gods.

The story of Byblis is introduced. Byblis fell in love with her twin brother. She is tortured by her feelings and wishes she and Caunus were not siblings. She points out to herself that gods have loved and married their sisters but admits that the gods make their own laws. If she and her brother can't be together romantically, then she wishes that she could simply love him like a sister. But she decides to confess her love to him in a letter and has a servant deliver it. He reports back that her brother threw the letter away in a rage. Still she pursues Caunus romantically until he flees the city to escape her. Byblis follows, roaming the country in search of him. Eventually she sheds so many tears that she turns into a spring.

A strange event occurs in Crete, when Ligdus's wife Telethusa is due to give birth. Ligdus prays that the baby will be a boy, for if it is a girl she must die. Telethusa begs him to reconsider, but he refuses. In a dream the goddess Isis visits her and tells her to forget her husband's orders and to raise the child. Telethusa gives birth to a girl but pretends she is a boy called Iphis. Iphis is raised as male. When Iphis turns 13, her father finds her a prospective bride, Ianthe. The two are in love, but Iphis dreads that Ianthe will find out that Iphis is actually female. Telethusa prays to Isis the day before the wedding, and the goddess turns Iphis into a male. Iphis and Ianthe marry.


Book 9 includes stories that often highlight clever twists and trickery. In the case of Hercules the stories also act as yet another variation on the theme of power and revenge. On the one hand Hercules is able to defeat Achelous with his main power: his mighty physical strength. On the other Hercules is brought down by a diabolical, twisted revenge plot hatched by Nessus. The story of Hercules's birth also centers on power and revenge that are linked to trickery. Juno uses her divine power to try to take revenge on Hercules's mother, Alcmena, by having Lucina draw out Hercules's birth to hurt Alcmena. Galanthis tricks the goddess, however, foiling her and Juno's plot.

The relationship of power, revenge, and trickery, however, is not clear cut in these stories. Hercules and Juno are both powerful, but their power is not absolute. It is vulnerable to being undone by the cleverness of others. Trickery can be used as revenge or to undo revenge (Galanthis and Juno), depending on the circumstances. It can also be used to cause death, as in Nessus's plot, or to foster life, as in the birth of Hercules. The final result of trickery is not always certain: Because of Nessus's plot, Hercules may suffer and die, but he also becomes a god, undercutting Nessus's revenge. Galanthis, on the other hand, is turned into a weasel by Juno, who ultimately is able to exact revenge from Galanthis.

A different kind of twist occurs in the stories of Byblis and Caunus as well as Iphis and Ianthe. In Metamorphoses Ovid sometimes seems to be attempting to portray every kind of doomed love possible. This section of the poem handles some of the darker sides of love, lust, and forbidden attraction, particularly with the story of Byblis's incestuous love for her twin brother, Caunus. Incest was forbidden in Roman society but was considered not a separate issue, but as one of numerous ways that one could violate chastity, or purity. Gods are not subject to such laws, and when humans seek to do what they do, it's a sign of transgression. Byblis raises an interesting point when she ponders why it is such a sin for her to love her brother when the gods marry each other all the time (Jupiter and Juno are siblings, for example). She attempts to remind herself that "the gods above / Are laws unto themselves. Why try to fit / the different rules of heaven to modes of men?" Her question raises an important point: It seems unfair for mortals to have to abide by laws that the gods don't. Nonetheless, they have to, as Byblis admits, while the gods have more freedom to define their own terms. She doesn't try to manipulate reality at all through trickery but confesses the truth of her love to her brother. Her tale ends badly, with her brother estranged from her.

In Iphis's case, a trick has helped her survive her father's threat to kill any female children by his wife, Telethusa. After her mother passes Iphis off all her life as a boy, they fear that her identity will be revealed when she marries her true love, Ianthe, who is female. The gods provide a convenient twist when they grant Iphis's wish to become an actual male. In this way the trick becomes reality but only because Iphis and Ianthe's relationship is a conventional one.

In contrasting these two stories of love, Ovid also asks the reader to consider what the "right" way to love somebody is versus the "wrong" way, but he seems sympathetic to Byblis's and Ianthe's situations. Both situations involve serious limitations: Byblis loves her own brother. Iphis has to pretend she's male because if her father discovers the truth he will kill her, but also because she feels that love between two females is unnatural. Byblis's case comes to a tragic end. Iphis's problem can only be solved by supernatural means involving a complete change of gender, although it is one she asks for. Hers is the rare transformation by a god that seems to make a mortal happier in the end. It is not tied to a reward or punishment but to the gods' sympathy for her situation. The gods do not give Byblis a way out. Throughout Ovid's poem, sometimes the gods step in to help and sometimes they don't. In this respect the gods are as changeable as anything else.

The story of the restoration of Iolaus's youth reveals an interesting moment between the gods, who bicker about why they are all not "allowed to grant such gifts." Up until this point the reader and the mortals likely assume that the gods have the ultimate power and say over all things, with their ability to transform mortals into anything they want. But Jupiter chimes in to remind them that "you yourselves, yes, me myself / (If that may give you comfort) fate controls." Perhaps Byblis was not entirely correct about gods making their own laws. Fate is a larger design at play, a design that even the gods have no knowledge of or control over, despite the fact that they appear to have free will.

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