Metamorphoses | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses | Symbols


Oracles and Prophecies

Many characters in Metamorphoses consult oracles. Doing so was a common practice in ancient Rome. A person, usually a priest or priestess of one of the gods, acted as the mouthpiece through which a god conveys a prophecy, a prediction about the future. Oracles and prophecies symbolize the dependence of humans on the gods by using the oracles to ask for divine guidance. Cadmus and Aeneas both visit oracles to discover where to establish new kingdoms. When the Romans want to stop a plague in their city in Book 15, they consult the oracle at Delos, which tells them to find Phoebus's son Aesculapius, the god of healing. They do as the prophecy tells them, and Aesculapius helps wipe out the plague.

Oracles and prophecies also symbolize obedience to the gods because they serve as warnings, often cautioning mortals to obey the gods or else: Tiresias tells Pentheus in Book 3 to worship Bacchus or risk being "torn to pieces." Pentheus doesn't listen and gets ripped apart limb from limb by his own mother and aunt. Oracles and prophecies are not up for negotiation or revision because recipients don't agree with what they say. In this way oracles and prophecies are also symbolic reminders of the power of fate because they forecast predetermined events, which neither mortals nor immortals can change.


A lyre is a small harp that was prevalent in ancient Greece and the musical instrument favored by Apollo, the god of music; by Calliope, the muse of poetry; and by their son, Orpheus. Poets would often strum the strings of a lyre while reciting their verse, and in Metamorphoses Calliope and Orpheus each play the lyre as they share wonderful myths. For example, Calliope accompanies "her voice with sweeping strings" to tell one of the most famous myths in Metamorphoses, the rape of Proserpine. Orpheus plucks his lyre as he tells a series of myths about love, grief, and art after the loss of his wife, Eurydice. In this way the lyre is symbolic of the power of poetry to transform the world into a powerful, compelling, and poetic narrative.


A tapestry is usually a large, square cloth woven of wool that depicts an image or set of images. In Ovid's time tapestries would often portray scenes from myths of gods and mortals. In Metamorphoses tapestries play a central role in two of its most famous myths. In both cases the weaving of tapestries is an important way for the characters to convey their points of view. Minerva and Arachne weave competing tapestries that portray opposing points of view on the relationship of the gods and mortals. In the second myth Philomela is able to communicate to her sister that she has been raped by weaving the information into a tapestry. Tapestries are also a reminder that Ovid's Metamorphoses is itself a kind of tapestry in which he weaves together dozens of myths to form a vivid, ever-changing picture of change itself.

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