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Metamorphoses | Context


Epic Poetry

Metamorphoses falls under the category of epic poetry, but it is not a true epic: Ovid follows some characteristics of the genre while putting his own spin on others. In many instances Ovid actually mocks some of the traditions of epic poems.

The poet takes many of his cues from previous Greek and Roman epic poems, including Homer's Iliad— which focuses on the role of the great warrior Achilles during the Trojan War—and The Odyssey, which follows the adventures of Ulysses, a hero whose legendary cunning aids him during a long, eventful voyage home. Another influence is The Aeneid, written by Virgil, the most important Roman poet of Ovid's time. Named after its hero, the poem follows the adventures of Aeneas, the founder of Rome.

Traditionally an epic poem is a lengthy narrative written in heightened, or poetic, language. It usually focuses on the story of one hero's adventures as he overcomes tremendous challenges by performing brave and miraculous feats of strength or ingenuity. The settings of epic poems are often sweeping, spanning countries, like Greece, as well as mythical locations, such as Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. An epic poem usually begins with the invocation to the Muse, a goddess whom the poet asks to inspire his work with greatness. Epic poems also contain long lists, or catalogues, of great warriors, for example, to add to the overall sense of heroic grandeur. Epic similes, or extended comparisons, which highlight courageous or noble sentiments or actions, have a similar effect.

Ovid imitates many of these conventions. He structures Metamorphoses as a long poem over the course of 15 books and composed it in dactylic hexameter verse, the meter, or rhythm, favored for epic poems. He opens the poem with an invocation to the Muse. The poem's settings range from real-life locations such as Greece, Troy, and ancient Rome, as well as mythic locations such as the home of the Sun and Hades, the home of the dead. Many of the myths and characters in Metamorphoses also appear in Homer's and Virgil's works.

However, Ovid also makes light of epic poetry traditions or otherwise adapts them for his own purposes. For example, Ovid stitches together dozens of myths within the overarching theme of metamorphosis, or transformation, so there is no central hero to admire. In fact there are so many myths with so many characters it is hard to keep track of them all, and most seem deeply flawed rather than heroic. The catalogues that appear are not of heroic deeds but of the names of someone's hunting dogs or lists of dead warriors who die in foolish brawls. The many transformations, in which characters become trees or birds, are described in lengthy, intricate poetic detail. This is not to further any kind of heroic ideal, and they often make the gods themselves look foolish or temperamental.

Ancient Politics

Ovid came of age under the rule of the Roman emperor Augustus. Augustus was a great-nephew of Julius Caesar. Augustus's rule came at the end of an era that had seen many conflicts and wars. As a result Augustus was constantly on guard against possible invasions and worked to create a sense of political and economic stability for his people. Part of his plan was to restore Rome's moral "purity": Augustus was quick to condemn any cultural influence that he deemed as inviting sexual promiscuity or loose morals. This strategy was meant to enforce loyalty to the Roman state. In Ovid's work Amores he criticizes the emperor's laws attempting to legislate love and sex. It's possible that Ovid's many other influential works on love and lust may have offended Augustus, possibly contributing to Ovid's exile by the emperor in 8 CE.

The Trojan War plays an important role in Metamorphoses. No one is sure whether the versions of the Trojan War discussed in works with which Ovid would have been familiar, such as Homer's Illiad, are based on real historical events or not. The war started when a Trojan prince, Paris, abducted the wife of a Greek, Menelaus. The Greeks retaliated by marching against Troy and finally won the war 10 years later. They sacked Troy, burning it to the ground and abducting its women as slaves.


Ovid often uses multiple names to refer to the same god. Jupiter is the king of the gods, for example, but Ovid sometimes refers to him as Jove. Apollo, the sun god, is also identified as the Sun, or as Phoebus.

In Greek and Roman mythology humans are mortal and will die, in contrast to the gods, who have eternal life. The gods also have extensive and extraordinary powers, giving them the ability to change their own forms and those of humans. Rather than acting as exemplary role models, the gods demonstrate a wide range of behaviors and emotions, often mirroring those of humans. While capable of behaving nobly and sympathetically, the gods often act in rash, contradictory, and even objectionable ways. Humans are subject to the will of the gods, whether just or not. The resulting tension between gods and mortals fuels much of Greek and Roman mythology.

Despite the way the gods' behavior mirrors that of mortals, the hierarchy, or division of power, between the two groups is clear. Humans are expected to follow the proper rites in worshiping the gods and to know their place. Woe to the human who offends the gods, who are quick to take offense and respond with terrible vengeance. Metamorphoses features one tale after the next of mortals such as Arachne, Pentheus, and Erysichthon, who face frightening penalties for displeasing a deity. Defenseless, innocent humans are also at the mercy of the gods' whims. Jupiter, Neptune, and Apollo, for example, all feel free to rape mortal women at will with little or no regard for their victims.

Most of the gods are somehow related, as siblings or offspring. Together they form a somewhat dysfunctional extended family led by Jupiter, the king of the gods, and his wife and sister, Juno. There is also a secondary level of minor gods that includes sea or river gods. Still other lower-level deities exist on Earth, such as nymphs who inhabit and act as protective spirits of woods, ponds, and streams. Many gods and goddesses have children, sometimes with other immortals. Apollo and Diana are twins, fathered by Jupiter with Latona, the goddess of childbirth. Orpheus is the son of Apollo and Calliope, the muse of poetry. The gods have children with mortals, too; they are often the product of the rape of mortal women by the gods. Bacchus, the god of wine, for example, is Jupiter's son with Semele, a human.

While there is no question that the gods wield more power than mortals do, the lives of mortals and immortals in mythology are strongly intertwined, as Ovid's poem repeatedly illustrates. Mortals must show respect for the gods by recognizing their divine authority over humans. Mortals also consult oracles, which involve people, often priests or priestesses, through whom a god, such as Apollo, would offer a prophecy of some kind. The gods, in turn, directly affect the lives of mortals. They take human form to disguise themselves and visit Earth, where they lust after or fall in love with humans, with whom they sire offspring. They may express sympathy or grief over the fate of a particular mortal and step in to help. Finally the gods wield the power of transformation, as well as life and death, over mortals. The one thing that is bigger than all the gods, however, is fate, which, even with all their divine powers, they cannot control.


In the centuries since it was written, Metamorphoses has become one of the most influential works in literary history. Italian poet Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1321), for example, is a tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, in which numerous characters in each location share their stories, many of which are variations on the myths in Metamorphoses. Dante in particular was influenced by and even obsessed by Ovid's ingenious transformations because they go beyond the human realm, which is what Dante sought to portray, particularly in Paradiso but throughout the whole Divine Comedy. England's Chaucer imitated its structure as a series of interconnected stories and characters in his late 12th-century work The Canterbury Tales, which is made up largely of the stories told by a group of pilgrims going to Canterbury as they participate in a storytelling contest.

Shakespeare also mined the myths of Metamorphoses in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as sources for many of his plays. The doomed love of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in its entirety dramatized as a play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream and likely influenced Romeo and Juliet's tragic love story. Shakespeare creates his own variations on the tragic tale of Philomela in Titus Andronicus, and on the transformation of a statue into a flesh-and-blood woman from the Pygmalion myth for his play The Winter's Tale.

Reading Metamorphoses

Ovid's poem has some recurring features that readers should watch out for:

  • Metamorphoses has an overarching structure that begins with the creation of the world and ends with the rise to power of Augustus in Rome. Within this structure the myths do not form a conventional plot line that threads through the entire poem, but function more as a collection of stories that echo each other's themes.
  • Many of the characters in Metamorphoses, especially the gods, recur across separate myths in the poem. Some myths are freestanding, but Ovid often uses the relationship of the gods and mortals who inhabit these mythologies to link one myth to the next. Bacchus, for example, like many of the gods, pops in and out of various myths.
  • Myths may be told within other myths. A story may be moving along when a character interrupts to tell yet another story, such as the story of Pan and Syrinx told by the god Mercury, which is embedded within the story of Io. This structure is called a frame narrative.
  • Some characters in Metamorphoses come from established Greek and Roman mythology, others from epic poems by other authors with whom Ovid was familiar (Ulysses, Achilles, Aeneas), and still others from real life (Augustus).
  • Readers may experience myth overload and find it increasingly difficult to keep track of different myths and the hundreds of characters that appear in the poem. This is a deliberate effect on Ovid's part. The poet wants to establish the sensation for the reader of a world that is interwoven, constantly in motion, and always subject to change.
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