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Metamorphoses | Quotes

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1.

Of bodies changed to other forms I sing; / You Gods, who have yourselves wrought every change.


Narrator, Book 1

Ovid opens his epic with this invocation to the gods, which also describes the nature of the tales he is about to tell: they are myths of transformation, of bodies changing from one form to another. Here he points out that it is the gods who cause these transformations.

2.

Golden was that first age which unconstrained, / With heart and soul, obedient to no law, / Gave honour to good faith and righteousness.


Narrator, Book 1

The narrator walks the reader through the four Ages of Mankind and notes that the first age, or Golden Age, was the best, because humans were so virtuous they did not need laws. Instead they were governed by good faith and the knowledge of how to do what was right. This state of affairs does not last. As they pass from the Golden Age to the Bronze Age, humans become increasingly warlike and violent. Many of the myths in Ovid's poem deal with mortals who succeed or fail to practice "good faith and righteousness" toward the gods or other mortals.

3.

My punishment might well warn birds to watch / Their tongues and take no risks.


Crow, Book 2

In this myth a crow warns a raven about how Minerva punished him for telling her that Aglauros had opened a box against Minerva's wishes. Many of the myths serve as similar cautionary tales.

4.

My arts ... have brought/Heaven's wrath upon me. Would I'd never known the future!


Ocyrhoe, Book 2

Ocyrhoe delivers a prophecy to her father, the Centaur Chiron, about his death. Her prediction is unsettling to them both. She laments and curses her gift, since to know the future is not necessarily to see a happy outcome. She recognizes that her father will suffer, and it pains her. Prophecies in Metamorphoses, whether they predict positive or negative outcomes, are a reminder of the presence of fate and its power to dictate the lives of gods and mortals. Ocyrhoe's prophecy cannot prevent her father's painful demise, hence her wish that she had "never known the future." It is the fates who change her into a horse for telling her father more than he should know.

5.

Oh, now I know for sure / The image is my own; it's for myself / I burn with love.


Narcissus, Book 3

Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, which dooms him. He finds himself at an emotional dead end, and takes his own life when he realizes he'll never be able to love anyone else. Narcissus's predicament is a punishment by the gods for being conceited about his beauty and mocking his admirers as inferior.

6.

Her prayer found gods to hear; both bodies merged / In one, both blended in one form and face.


Narrator, Book 4

Salmacis, a water nymph, falls in love with Hermaphroditus, who comes to swim in her "magic pool." After he rejects her she asks the gods to join their bodies together as one body, so they can never be separated again. The gods grant her wish and they become "one body then that neither seemed and both," because it is both genders and neither at the same time. Salmacis may get her wish, but Hermaphroditus feels "weakened" by the transformation because he is no longer fully male, suggesting a less-than-romantic outcome, at least from his perspective. Ovid often plays with gender in thought-provoking ways in the poem, with characters like Tiresias, who changes from male to female and back, or Caenis, who asks to become male to avoid being raped by the gods.

7.

The banquet suddenly /Transformed to tumult, like a quiet sea / That winds in fury rouse to raging waves.


Narrator, Book 5

This moment depicts a scene during the wedding banquet for Perseus and Andromeda. Andromeda's former fiancé Phineus challenges Perseus, whose men attack him, causing a "tumult" in the form of a bloody brawl. Here Ovid's choice of words for his simile provides a vivid image of how quickly the atmosphere changes from celebratory to violent. This, in turn, mirrors the many sudden shifts of emotion—lust, love, anger, grief—that occur in Metamorphoses, and reinforces Ovid's belief that the world is in a state of constant flux.

8.

My wretchedness /Still gives me more than you your happiness: / After so many deaths I triumph still!


Niobe, Book 6

The gods are sensitive to any sense of contempt from mortals. Competing with the gods is a game humans will likely lose. Niobe is proud of her ability to give birth to a large number of children. She assumes she is superior to the goddess of childbirth herself, Latona, who only has a set of twins. Here Niobe flaunts her disrespect for the gods even after Latona murders half of Niobe's children as punishment for her hubris. Whether Niobe is being defiant or is simply unable to let go of her feeling of superiority is hard to say, but the cost is one of the highest in Metamorphoses: her remaining seven children are also slaughtered. This seems severe even by the gods' standards, and may make readers question whether the punishment fits the crime.

9.

I see ... the thing I do; / It's love not ignorance leads me astray.


Medea, Book 7

Here Medea considers her feelings for Jason after he asks her to help him and to marry him. She is torn as she knows it means betraying her father, yet she also loves Jason and doesn't want to lose him. Her tears signify her impending sense of loss. She will certainly lose at least one person she loves, and she can't remain ignorant of that fact. In this way Medea shows an unusual level of self-awareness.

10.

Some Power is open to a penitent; / For sure her final prayer found gods to hear.


Myrrha, Book 10

The gods may punish brutally but they can also be merciful. Cursed by one of the Furies to fall in love with her own father, Cinyras, Myrrha tricks him into having sex with her without his knowledge and flees from home after he discovers her deception. Pregnant and alone, she regrets her actions and asks the gods for mercy. While many of the transformations of mortals in the poem are the result of divine wrath, the gods often step in to help mortals who are in pain. Myrrha is changed into a tree from which her baby, the beautiful but ill-fated Adonis, is born.

11.

Orpheus sang his minstrel's songs and charmed / The rocks and woods and creatures of the wild.


Narrator, Book 11

Here Ovid comments on the power of poetry and music. Orpheus is such a gifted artist that even rocks and trees respond to his songs, along with animals. In this way Ovid demonstrates how poetry and music have the ability to capture the minds of listeners and draw them to immerse themselves in art.

12.

Put pain like that beyond my power. Grant me / To cease to be a woman—everything / That gift will be to me.


Caeneus, Book 12

Caenis offers this plea to Neptune after he rapes her, then grants her one wish. A powerful moment in the epic, Caenis asks Neptune to turn her into a man so she can never be raped again. Many of the female mortals throughout the epic deal with similar assaults and have little recourse or agency. Neptune grants Caenis her wish, and she becomes Caeneus, a male warrior. But even her transformation does not ensure her ultimate safety: the Centaurs remember Caeneus was once female and attempt to kill him during the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths at a wedding banquet. Throughout Metamorphoses Ovid focuses on the inescapable risks of being female in an often unjust world.

13.

[Bacchus] brought help, if help it can be called / In some strange way to lose one's nature.


Anius, Book 13

Bacchus transforms the daughters of King Anius, who have been kidnapped by Agamemnon and turned into white doves. Their transformation, like many others in the poem, frees them from a bad situation. However, Anius makes an important point. Bacchus does not send the daughters home in their human form but turns them into completely different creatures. Anius speculates that, even when the purpose of the transformation is to save someone from a terrible fate, there is a cost: that person's "nature is lost," because they have become something else.

14.

There is no death—no death, but only change / And innovation.


Pythagoras, Book 15

Here Pythagoras expounds philosophically on the main concern of the epic: transformation. It's significant that Ovid closes the book with a commentary on death, a topic that gods and mortals alike have found so alluring and mystifying, and he reassures them that change and innovation (or creativity, the introduction of new forms) are the only constants in life. Death "is but to cease to be the same." Metamorphoses itself, with its seemingly endless chain of one being turning into another, embodies this idea.

15.

Now stands my task accomplished, such a work / As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword / Nor the devouring ages can destroy.


Narrator, Book 15

Ovid ends his epic with this epilogue and states his belief that the tales he has set down will endure for eternity. This reinforces one of the most important motifs in the poem—the power of art itself. The reader recognizes the truth of his statement. Thousands of years later the myths in Metamorphoses continue to be read.

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