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Metamorphoses | Plot Summary

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Summary

Book 1

The Metamorphoses encompasses dozens of myths arranged in a series of 15 books. Book 1 opens with an invocation to the gods and continues with the story of the creation of the world. The narrator describes the four Ages of Mankind that came after creation, as humans became increasingly violent and irreverent toward the gods. Jupiter tells the story of Lycaon, who doubted Jupiter's divinity and was turned into a wolf. Dissatisfied with the mortals' behavior, the gods unleash a flood. Only Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, remain to repopulate the Earth by throwing stones, which assume human form.

To get revenge on Apollo for ridiculing him, Cupid makes him fall in love with Daphne but makes Daphne unable to love Apollo. As Apollo chases her through the forest, Daphne begs her father, the river god Peneus, for help and he turns her into a laurel tree. Elsewhere Jupiter falls in love with a different mortal, Io, and his wife, Juno, becomes jealous. Jupiter turns Io into a cow to hide her. Juno asks for the cow and sets a monster, Argus, to guard it, but Mercury kills him at Jupiter's command. Jupiter appeases Juno, and Io returns to her human form. Phaethon's mother, Clymene, tells him that Apollo, the Sun, is his father.

Book 2

Phaethon yearns to be recognized by his father, Apollo, the Sun, and goes to see him. Phaethon convinces Apollo to let him drive his sun chariot across the sky as proof of his birth. Apollo reluctantly agrees. Phaethon loses control of the chariot, scorching the Earth, and Jupiter is forced to shoot him down. In the next myth Jupiter falls in love with the nymph Callisto, whom Juno turns into a bear as punishment. Years later, Callisto's son Arcas comes across a bear while hunting in the woods, not realizing it is Callisto. Before he can kill her Jupiter makes them both constellations.

In the next tale, a raven and a crow trade stories. The crow alienated Minerva after tattling on a mortal, Aglauros, who disobeyed her. He warns the raven not to do the same, but the raven tells Apollo that his lover, Coronis, has been unfaithful. Apollo kills the pregnant Coronis but rescues his unborn child, leaving him in Chiron's care. To punish the raven Apollo turns him from white to black. Chiron's daughter arrives to see her father and delivers a prophecy about both the child, who will become the healer of the world, and Chiron, who will have to give up his immortality. A story follows about Battus, a mortal who deceives Mercury and is turned to stone. In the next tale Mercury is attracted to Herse, but her sister Aglauros refuses to help him see Herse. Minerva remembers what the crow said about Aglauros's disobedience and asks Envy to curse the girl with envy. Mercury turns Aglauros to stone. Jupiter, dressed as a bull, tricks Europa and carries her away.

Book 3

Cadmus is sent by his father to find his sister, Europa, whom Jupiter kidnapped. A prophet tells Cadmus to follow a cow, who will lead him to a place to start a city. He fights a giant serpent and hears a voice tell him he will become a snake. Minerva instructs him to scatter the serpent's teeth, and from these teeth men emerge from the soil. They battle each other, and the five survivors establish the peaceful city of Thebes, ruled by Cadmus. Years later Cadmus's grandson Actaeon hunts in the woods and accidentally sees the goddess Diana bathing. She turns him into a stag, and his hunting dogs devour him. Elsewhere Juno tricks Semele, who is pregnant with Jupiter's son, Bacchus, into asking Jupiter to embrace her as he does Juno, but she is a mortal and his intensity kills her. Jupiter snatches the baby out of her womb and sews it into his own thigh, later giving birth to Bacchus.

Jupiter and Juno ask Tiresias—who has been both male and female due to an enchantment—whether a man or a woman gets more pleasure from sex. He says men enjoy sex more. Juno is furious and blinds him, but Jupiter takes pity on him and gives him the gift of prophecy. In the next story a nymph, Echo, distracts Juno while Jupiter carries on his love affairs, so Juno punishes Echo by making her repeat what others say to her. Echo falls in love with a conceited boy named Narcissus, but he rejects and mocks her. As a punishment for his vanity, the gods cause him to fall in love with his reflection. He dies from grief and is transformed into the Narcissus flower. In another myth Pentheus is killed by his mother and his aunt, who mistake him for a wild boar, when he disrespects the new god Bacchus.

Book 4

The daughters of Minyas also refuse to worship Bacchus and sit inside weaving. They tell the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, two doomed lovers who try to run away together but end up dead. Another story involves the Sun getting in trouble with Venus for gossiping about her affair with Mars. Venus punishes him by making him fall helplessly in love with Leucothoe, whose father kills her after Apollo rapes her. The final story told is about the goddess Salmacis, who falls in love with Hermaphroditus and asks the gods to make their bodies one. The daughters of Minyas finish their tales, and Bacchus punishes them by transforming them into bats.

Juno plots against Bacchus's aunt, Ino, and sends the Furies to curse her and her husband with madness. Ino's husband kills one of their two infant sons. Ino tries to jump off a cliff with the other, but Venus intercedes, and they become gods. Cadmus leaves Thebes in distress, and he and his wife decide to become snakes. Elsewhere Jupiter's son Perseus flies to Atlas's kingdom. Atlas tells him to leave because of a prophecy, but Perseus uses Medusa's head, which turns whoever looks at it to stone, to change Atlas into a mountain. Perseus later comes across Andromeda tied to an ocean cliff as an offering to a sea monster, and in exchange for her hand in marriage he kills the monster.

Book 5

Andromeda's enraged former fiancé, Phineus, interrupts her and Theseus's wedding banquet to fight Perseus. After killing hundreds of men single-handedly, Perseus uses Medusa's head to turn Phineus and the survivors to stone. Meanwhile Minerva visits the Muses, who were challenged to a storytelling contest by nine mortal sisters. Calliope shares her competition stories. The first is about Proserpine, who is abducted by Dis and taken to the underworld. Her mother pleads with Jupiter for her return. Jupiter agrees, as long as Proserpine does not eat any food in Hades. Proserpine eats pomegranate seeds and can't leave. Jupiter strikes a deal that she can live with her mother half of the year and with her husband the other half. The next tale is about how Diana turns Arethusa, a nymph, into a sacred spring so she can escape the advances of Alpheus, a river god. In the final story Ceres turns a king into a lynx after he tries to murder her messenger who brings sacred seeds. The Muses win the contest and turn their nine opponents into magpies.

Book 6

Arachne is a mortal whose weaving skills rival Minerva's. Angered by Arachne's impiety, Minerva disguises herself as an old woman and visits Arachne. Arachne challenges Minerva to a weaving duel. Minerva reveals herself and they weave tapestries. Arachne's tapestry is flawless. Minerva beats up Arachne, who then tries to kill herself. Minerva turns her into a spider. Another woman, Niobe, also disrespects the gods, bragging that she has more children than Latona, the goddess of childbirth. Latona kills Niobe's children and curses Niobe to weep from a mountaintop, where she turns to stone.

In the next story Tereus marries Procne, who misses her sister Philomela. Tereus sails to bring Philomela back but falls in love with her, holding her hostage in a hut and raping her. He cuts out her tongue so that she can't tell anyone. Philomela secretly weaves a tapestry depicting what happened and sends it to Procne, who rescues her. She takes revenge by killing her and her husband's son, Itys, then feeds the child to his unsuspecting father. As Tereus chases them, he and the sisters turn into birds. In a short final tale Boreas, a wind god, woos Orithyia with words but decides to abduct her instead, so he grabs her and flies away.

Book 7

Jason arrives in Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. Medea, the king's daughter, falls in love with him. He says he will marry her if she helps him. Skilled in magic, she helps Jason perform three great challenges to win the Golden Fleece. After he asks her to restore his father, Aeson's, youth, she tricks the daughters of Aeson's rival, Pelias, into killing their father. Years later after discovering Jason has a new wife, she kills the children she had with Jason. Medea shows up in yet another story in which she tries to trick Theseus's father into poisoning him.

King Aeacus tells of a plague that struck his city, Aegina. He wakes from a dream to find his city repopulated by Myrmidons, ants transformed into people by Jupiter. Cephalus tells the story of how he killed his wife, Procris, by mistake when she came to spy on him after hearing a mistaken rumor about his infidelity.

Book 8

While Minos is fighting in the city of Alcathous, the king's daughter Scylla falls in love with him. She steals a magic lock of hair to give Minos and confesses her love. He rejects her. She tries to follow him as he leaves the city, only to be attacked by her father in the form of a bird of prey. Falling from his claws, she is changed into a bird. In the next story, in Crete Minos gets Daedalus, an artist and inventor, to build a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, his monstrous brother. Daedalus later builds wax wings for him and his son, Icarus, so that they can fly away. But when Icarus gets too close to the sun, his wings melt and he dies. In a related story from years earlier, Daedalus murders his nephew, Perdix, because he is jealous of the boy's artistic talent, and Minerva changes Perdix into a partridge. Men in a village in Sicily attempt to slay a giant boar sent by Diana after their king neglects to pay tribute. The men fail to wound the boar; then a young woman shows up and wounds it. Meleager finally kills it, then has to defend the young woman against the jealous men. In the process he kills his two uncles. Meleager's mother, Althaea, takes revenge by burning a log that causes Meleager to burn also, killing him.

Theseus and his men listen to stories told by Achelous, a river god of nymphs turned into islands because they neglected the gods. Another man tells the story of Baucis and Philemon, a poor couple who provide hospitality to two strangers, not realizing they are Jupiter and Mercury, who reward their wish to die together in old age. The final story is about Erysichthon, a man who is cursed with insatiable hunger after he cuts down one of Ceres's sacred oak trees. He burns through his money and sells his daughter into slavery, ultimately eating himself alive.

Book 9

Achelous tells the story of Hercules and his wife. They are tricked by a Centaur, Nessus, who tries to rape Deianira. Hercules wounds him, and as he dies Nessus gives Deianira a poisoned shirt, claiming it is a love charm. She gives it to Hercules, and it nearly kills him until Jupiter turns him into a god. The story of Hercules's birth follows, told by his mother, Alcmena. Juno tries to take revenge on Alcmena by enlisting Lucina, a goddess of childbirth, to kill her during labor. A servant, Galanthis, helps Alcmena by tricking Lucina so Alcmena can give birth. Lucina transforms Galanthis into a weasel. In the next story a woman, Dryope, mistakenly picks a lotus flower, not realizing the plant was once a nymph. Dryope is changed into a tree.

Hercules's nephew has his youth restored by Hebe, a goddess. The gods grumble that they want to do the same for the mortals they love, but Jupiter reminds them they cannot revise fate. In the next story Byblis falls in love with her twin brother, Caunus. She is rejected, dissolves in her own tears, and becomes a stream. In the story that follows, Ligdus tells his pregnant wife, Telethusa, that he hopes their baby dies if it is a girl. Telethusa gives birth to a daughter, Iphis, then convinces her husband the baby is a boy and raises her as a male. Iphis falls in love with another girl, Ianthe. Iphis asks the gods to turn her into a male, and on her wedding day, Iphis becomes a man.

Book 10

On Orpheus and Eurydice's wedding day, Eurydice is killed by a snake. Orpheus journeys to the underworld to beg for her return. Pluto allows this but warns that if Orpheus looks back at her on their ascent to Earth she will have to return to the underworld. Orpheus agrees, but he looks back, and Eurydice vanishes. Three years later he plays his lyre and sings stories. These include a series of songs about the love of Jupiter and Apollo for beautiful adolescent boys: Cyparissus, who kills his pet stag accidentally, is so sad that Apollo turns him into a cypress tree; Ganymede, whom Jupiter loves and abducts to be his attendant on Mount Olympus; and Hyacinth, who dies accidentally after throwing a discus with Apollo, who transforms him into a flower.

In the next story the Propoetides offend Venus. She turns them into the first prostitutes, who then turn into stones. Orpheus then sings of Pygmalion. The sculptor carves a woman out of ivory after he rejects real women due to their immorality. His creation is so lovely that he falls in love with it. After he asks Venus to give him a wife like his statue, she brings the statue to life, and Pygmalion marries this new woman. The story shifts to Pygmalion's granddaughter, Myrrha, who is cursed by the Furies to fall in love with her own father, Cinyras. Myrrha tricks him into having sex with her by hiding her identity. She becomes pregnant. Cinyras tries to kill her, but the gods transform her into a tree, from which Adonis is born. Cupid mistakenly strikes Venus with one of his arrows, and she falls in love with Adonis, who is killed while hunting. From his blood she creates the Anemone flower.

Book 11

The Maenads stone Orpheus to death, then rip his body apart. He joins Eurydice in the underworld. Bacchus turns the Maenads into trees. In the next story Bacchus bestows King Midas with the golden touch for helping him: everything Midas touches now turns to gold. This soon becomes a curse, and Bacchus reverses it. Midas attends a music contest between Pan and Apollo but disagrees with the results when Apollo wins. Apollo gives Midas donkey ears. In the next tale King Laomedon of Troy makes deals with Neptune and Apollo, and with Hercules, then breaks them all.

In a new story Peleus is helped by Proteus to rape Thetis, who becomes pregnant with Achilles. Peleus is forced into exile after murdering his brother, Phocus. He visits King Ceyx, who tells him the story of his brother Daedalion. Daedalion throws himself off a cliff after Diana kills his daughter Chione for being arrogant about her twins, fathered by Apollo and Mercury; he then becomes a bird. Peleus discovers that a giant wolf is attacking livestock in his homeland, an act of revenge by Phocus's mother, Psamathe, but Thetis helps them reach a truce. Ceyx decides to take a long journey to consult an oracle. His wife, Alcyone, has a bad premonition about the journey and begs him not to go, but he does. A storm destroys his ship and he drowns. Juno ensures that Alcyone sees a vision confirming his death. She later finds his body washed ashore. Both are turned into birds and continue to live together. In Book 11's final story, Aesacus falls in love with a nymph, Hesperie. As she flees him, a snake kills her. Wracked with guilt he throws himself off a cliff, but Tethys turns him into a sea bird.

Book 12

Paris steals Helen from Menelaus, king of Sparta; the Greeks march to reclaim her, but a storm stops them. They sacrifice a girl to Diana to stop the storm. Rumour warns Paris that the Greek army is approaching, and the battle begins. Achilles fights Cycnus, but Cycnus can't be wounded. Achilles strangles Cycnus, but Neptune turns him into a swan so he can escape. The armies call a truce and share stories. Nestor tells about how Neptune rapes a woman named Caenis and grants her wish to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again. She becomes Caeneus, a male warrior. Caeneus attends a wedding celebration at which the Centaurs and the Lapiths get into a drunken, bloody brawl. The Centaurs remember that Caeneus used to be female and try to kill him, but no one knows how it ends. Nestor tells another tale. Neptune takes revenge on Achilles by having Apollo appear at the battle during the Trojan War. He helps Paris kill Achilles with an arrow. Ajax and Ulysses argue over which of them should get Achilles's armor.

Book 13

A council names Ulysses the winner of Achilles's armor. Ajax kills himself in shame. Troy falls, and the Greeks take the Trojan women as slaves. Hecuba, the queen of Troy, loses her last two surviving children: Polyxena dies as a sacrifice to the ghost of Achilles; Polydorus is murdered by his greedy brother-in-law, Polymestor. Hecuba gouges out Polymestor's eyes and is turned into a dog. In the next story a flock of birds, the Memnonides, arises from the ashes of Memnon's funeral pyre. The story of Aeneas resumes. He visits King Anius who tells the story of the abduction of his daughters, who were turned into birds to escape. Oracles help Aeneas go to Sicily to establish a new kingdom. In the next story jealous Polyphemus kills Galatea's lover, Acis, who is turned into a river god. In the final story Glaucus, a sea god, falls in love with Scylla, who rejects him. He goes to Circe for advice.

Book 14

Glaucus tells Circe of his unrequited love for Scylla. Circe offers herself to him but is rejected. Jealous, Circe turns Scylla into a monster made of raging dogs. Circe also loves Ulysses, and Scylla attacks his men. Meanwhile, Aeneas visits Cumae to ask the sibyl how he might visit Avernus to see the spirit of his father, Anchises. The sibyl tells Aeneas of how Apollo granted her wish to live for centuries. She ages because she forgot to ask to remain young. Two of Ulysses's men share stories of their adventures. Achaemenides was rescued from Polyphemus's island by the Trojans. Macareus, along with Ulysses's other men, was turned into a pig by Circe but later released from the spell. In the next story the marriage of King Picus and Canens is destroyed when Circe turns him into a woodpecker after he rejects her advances, and Canens dissolves into thin air. Aeneas's story resumes. In Latium war erupts between Aeneas and Turnus over who will marry the king's daughter. Turnus burns Aeneas's ships, but the gods turn them into nymphs. Aeneas becomes a god and his son takes over the kingdom. The next story tells of Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, and his attempt to woo a nymph, Pomona, in disguise; and the story of Iphis, a man treated cruelly by a rejecting woman. Years later Romulus unites the warring Sabines and Romans and Rome is founded. The gods deify Romulus and his wife, Hersilia.

Book 15

Rome elects a new ruler, Numa, who travels to enrich his knowledge. Pythagoras, a philosopher, tells him about how change is the underlying principle of all things in the universe. Numa returns to Rome where he rules peacefully until his death. To comfort his wife Hippolytus tells the story of how he died and was brought back to life. Egeria continues to mourn and becomes a spring. Another story follows: Cipus finds he has grown horns and hears a prophecy that he will rule Rome. He warns the Roman people of the prophecy and is rewarded with a farm. A plague descends on Rome, and its citizens beg the Greeks to send Aesculapius to help. In the form of a giant serpent, he stops the plague. In Rome Venus notices that plots are being formed against Julius Caesar, but Jupiter tells her not to intercede and that Augustus, Caesar's son, will take power. In the poem's epilogue Ovid claims eternal fame.
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