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Metamorphoses | Motifs



Although the gods themselves demonstrate hubris on occasion, such as Juno's often vicious revenge plots, they are quick to punish any mortal who shows too much pride. Many of the myths in Metamorphoses depict the hubris of mortals in some way, and their arrogance usually leads to disaster for them. The gods are particularly sensitive to those mortals who consider themselves equal or superior to them in some way. Both Arachne and Niobe, for example, face brutal punishments because they think they can compete with the gods and prove their superiority. They pay a heavy price: Minerva reduces Arachne to a spider, and the gods murder all 14 of Niobe's children. Through these and other myths in Metamorphoses Ovid reveals the prickly sensitivity of the gods about the importance of their own power, as well as the risk for humans who aspire to the divine.


Ovid uses the motif of art to comment on its vital importance to the expression of the emotions and stories of the characters in Metamorphoses, and of the variety of relationships humans can have to art, from the dangerous (the death of Daedalus's son Icarus is due to his father's invention of wax wings) to the sublime (Pygmalion's statue turns into the flesh-and-blood woman of his dreams). Art also creates wonder and delight: Orpheus, a gifted musician and poet, for example, is such a wonderful artist that he charms animals, trees, and stones.

The many transformations in the poem can also be seen as works of art, as humans and gods take on new and often startling forms. Art itself involves taking one kind of material (wool, ivory, words) and turning it into something else (a tapestry, a statue, a poem). In this way the motif of art in the poem acts as a reminder to the reader that Metamorphoses itself is a powerful work of art about the importance of art.


Violence permeates Metamorphoses, from the flood the gods send to wipe out humanity in Book 1 to the aftereffects of the decade-long Trojan War later in the poem. Characters in the myths appear accustomed to inhabiting an ever-changing world in which they must be prepared for violence to strike at any time. From rape to murder, both gods and mortals act with violence toward each other. At times Metamorphoses feels like a catalogue of sexual assaults, with gods and men raping mortal women in story after story. And the body count in the poem often feels endless, with its many stories of vengeful gods and warring humans.

Often violence is linked to the theme of power and revenge. The gods are quick to anger and often take violent vengeance against mortals. This may affect not only the target of their rage also but innocent bystanders. Some of these acts of vengeance are so violent they raise the question of whether they are out of proportion to the crime, such as the death of children who are simply guilty of being the offspring of the god's target. While the gods are the most mercurial in their tendency toward violence, some of the most grotesquely violent acts are committed by mortals, such as the sisters Philomela and Procne, who feed Procne's husband, Tereus, his son after he rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue.

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