Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō or Ovid to most of us, a Roman poet, and the author of Metamorphoses, one of the great pieces of western literature that have been translated hundreds of times since its creation in the 8th century.
Metamorphoses by Ovid
Metamorphoses, which means Books of Transformations, details the history of the world from its creation all the way until the death of Julius Caesar. In between, there are around 250 myths, based on the theme of Metamorphosis being transformed into something else.
Many of these myths are very similar to their Greek counterparts and others have slight changes.
Today we will be looking at 5 stories, some of which are well known and others less so. As with all these stories I will mention then Roman names of the deities but for the most part to make it easier for everyone including myself I’ll be referring to them by the Greek names.
The Tragic Tale of Calisto
The first story is the tragic tale of Callisto. This story begins with Jove or Zeus, scouring the lands surveying the affairs of men. In the woods, his attention is caught by a beautiful huntress, Calisto the daughter of King Lycaon.
Callisto is described as a warrior of Diana, which means she was a devout follower of Artemis or part of the cult of Artemis.
The values of this cult were nature, hunting and chaste given Artemis was a virgin goddess.
When Callisto found a place to rest in the forest, she put down her bow and her spear. Assuming his wife Juno or Hera would never find out of this prank as Ovid refers to it, Zeus appeared to Calisto, but not as himself. Instead, he took the form of Artemis.
When Callisto saw her queen before her, she elated, “Hail my Queen” “Greater than Jove I say thou Jove should hear.”
Normally, Zeus would take great offence to a statement like this but in this case, he was very pleased that he chose the right form to seduce Callisto. When Zeus made his advances, his true appearance was revealed to Callisto, and she tried to fend him off but was unsuccessful.
Once he was done, he retired to the heavens, leaving Callisto to wonder the forest distraught at having broken her vow of chastity.
Zeus’ plan to have this affair disguised as Artemis was unsuccessful as Hera has watched the entire thing. Wandering through the forest, Callisto came across Artemis once again, though this time she was hesitant, was this another of Zeus’s tricks.
Followed by her nymphs and other followers, Callisto recognised her patron Goddess. She was invited to bathe in one of Artemis’ secret springs known for their purity. When they reached the spring and nymphs and confirmed there were no prying eyes, they undressed and entered the water.
The only one not to enter was Callisto who could no longer hide her look of shame, when she was stripped her secret was revealed. Gazing upon the shape of her body, they could tell she was pregnant, “Begone!” Diana cried “You shall not stain My stream!”
Callisto, pregnant with Zeus’ child was exiled from Artemis’ cult and everything she valued and worked for was taken from her. This was only the beginning of her punishment, sadly.
Hera who had observed everything was waiting for the perfect time to take her revenge and that time was now. When she saw Callisto had given birth to a boy, that was the final straw. She grabbed Callisto by the hair and flung her to the ground. Callisto begged for mercy, but these prayers fell on deaf ears.
She held out her arms and Hera laughed as those arms were covered in thick fur, her nails began to grow, the lips that Zeus lusted for became a hideous jaw. Her transformation into a bear was now complete. The only part of her that remained human was her heart, so she could feel her pain and heartbreak.
When she wandered through the woods it was now Callisto who was being hunted. She would experience the horror of the hunt as opposed to the thrill that she once so dearly enjoyed.
Sixteen years later, she came face to face with a young hunter she recognised, her son Arcas. When she called to him, he saw nothing but a bear growling at him. Arcas took his javelin and just before he unknowingly killed his mother, Zeus would intervene. He placed them both in the sky as constellations—Ursa Major and Minor.
Other versions end with Callisto being killed by Artemis or her own son.
Although there isn’t too much to be happy about in this story, at least it ends with mother and son being reunited.
The Tragic Story of Arachne
In the kingdom of Lydia, the muses sang a beautiful song of a young weaver known as Arachne. Her mother had passed away, and her father, Idmon of Colophon was known for his distinct purple dye.
Despite her humble upbringing, Arachne’s work was known in all the surrounding kingdoms. The muses themselves would leave their home just to watch Arachne work. One would assume that she was trained by Pallas herself, but Arachne denied this claiming that her skill was her own.
Pallas, in this case, refers to Athena and we know was the patron goddess of weaving and craft. This denial of Athena was enough hubris for her to visit Arachne.
“Let her contend with me. Should I lose, there’s no forfeit that I would not pay.” Athena transformed herself into an old woman and travelled to meet this remarkable weaver. When she found her, she gave some advice, to be humble and ask for her harsh words against the gods to be pardoned.
Arachne’s response was both arrogant and provoking. “You’re too old, your brain has gone. You’ve lived too long; your years have done for you. Talk to your daughters, talk to your sons’ wives! Don’t think your words have any weight. My advice is all I need. Why doesn’t Pallas come by herself? Why should she hesitate to match herself with me?”
Having given Arachne the chance to apologise, this response is the final straw for Athena. She threw away her disguise and reveals herself. The surrounding nymphs and women knelt for their patron goddess. And so, they agreed to a contest to see whose skills were superior.
Athena created a piece that showed the Olympians in all their glory. Arachne’s picture consisted of the same gods, but she detailed what she believed to be their flaws. If Athena’s piece painted the gods in a positive light, Arachne’s was most certainly negative displaying the hubris that resulted in this contest, to begin with.
Inspecting Arachne’s work Athena could find no fault, the tapestry had been woven to perfection; however, its content was a crime against the heavens.
Athena tore up the tapestry, took the wooden shuttle she had used during the contest and struck Arachne on the forehead. After the fourth strike, Arachne could take the punishment no longer. She placed a noose around her neck, but as she hung, Athena caught and raised her,
“Live. Yes, live but hang, you wicked girl, and know you’ll rue the future too: that penalty your kin shall pay to all prosperity!”
Athena sprinkled her with the drugs of Hecate. Her hair began to fall out, her nose and ears followed. Her head shrunk along with the rest of her body. Instead of arms and legs, there were eight long fingers by her sides. From her belly came a fine-spun thread. Like a spider, Arachne was still able to weave her web, forever pursuing the former skills she once possessed but always falling short.
In some versions of this story, Arachne is somewhat of a sympathetic character, but in Ovid’s story she is unlikely at best and it’s very hard to argue her punishment wasn’t justified.
The Story of Pygmalion and Galatea
Pygmalion was a king in Cyprus as well as a renowned sculptor. His experiences with women were negative enough for him to take a vow of celibacy. He still yearned for the companionship of married love, but he distracted himself with his work.
He worked on a sculpture made of white ivory in the shape of a woman he thought to be perfect and more beautiful than any woman he had seen before. The more time he spent around the sculpture, the more fell in love with his creation.
The sculpture was so life-like he eventually could no longer distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. He would talk to it, caress the sculpture, and even dress her as if she was real.
The festival of Venus or Aphrodite was a very big occasion in Cyprus and when it came, Pygmalion saw an opportunity. He made several offerings to Aphrodite at her altar. Afraid to discuss his secret out loud, he silently wished for a bride just like his ivory woman.
When he returned home his prayers were answered. The goddess of love had transformed his ivory statue into a real woman. Pygmalion finally had the love and companionship he craved as weird as his methods were.
Pygmalion’s sculpture is never named by Ovid, but in the years that followed this sculpture turned women is referred to as Galatea.
The Story of Daedalus and Icarus
From their tower, the boy could only imagine what it was like to be outside, Daedalus felt a greater sorrow for his son whose childhood had been taken from him. He understood why Minos had imprisoned him, for the role he played in aiding Theseus to slay the minotaur but poor Icarus did not deserve to share in his father’s punishment.
The tower was surrounded by water on all sides, “Minos may own all else; he does not own the air.” Daedalus gathered rows of feathers and arranged them smallest first followed by the larger ones. He used reeds to create a shape that would immediate a bird’s wings and held everything together with wax — Daedalus had created two pairs of wings for Icarus and him to escape Minos’ tower.
When Icarus realised what his father had created, he was overjoyed. Fitting the wings Daedalus instructed his son. “Take care,” He said, “To fly a middle course, lest if you sink too low the waves may weight your feathers, if too high, the heat may burn them. Fly halfway between the two and do not watch the stars. Set your course where I shall lead.”
As he inspected Icarus’ wings one final time, he feared the worst. He kissed his son and jumped from the tower leading the way. Icarus followed his father closely but eventually, he was distracted by the stars and flew too close to the sun. The wax started to melt, and the wings begin to fall apart, Daedalus could only watch helplessly as his son plummeted to his death.
He buried his son on a nearby island and that portion of the sea would forever bear Icarus’ name.
Read the full story of Icarus and Daedalus here: Icarus in Greek Mythology — The Story of Icarus and Daedalus.
The Tale of Battus and Mercury
Our last tale goes by the name of Mercury and Battus, the story of the theft of Apollo’s cattle by Hermes.
The story begins with Apollo in his field relaxing and playing music. Noticing him not paying attention, Hermes snuck into the meadow and stole all of the cattle, hiding them in the forest.
There was only one witness to this crime, an elderly man known as Battus.
Hermes approached the man, “My good friend, whoever you are, If anyone enquires about this herd, say you’ve not seen them; and to thank you for that service take a cow for your reward”
And so, Hermes gave the man a cow. the man replied saying, “That stone over there will tell sooner than I” pointing at a stone in the distance.
And so, having successfully bribed the only person to witness the crime, Hermes disappeared into the woods.
Hermes, however, was no fool. He returned to test the old man’s word. He appeared with a completely different voice and build, “Good fellow, help me; if you’ve seen some cattle hereabouts, speak up, they’re stolen; and you shall have a cow and a bull, a pair.”
This was double the reward Hermes offered and as predicted the old man replied. “There, on yon hill, they’ll be” the old man pointed to exactly where Hermes had taken the cattle.
Hermes nodded and laughed, “You rogue, so you betray me to myself, me to myself, I say.” As the man previously stated that stone would sooner tell his secret, Hermes saw the humour in transforming the man into a stone. A stone that would be called Tell-Tale. A reminder for all those to see, the consequence of treachery.
And that concludes our look at some of the stories from Ovid’s metamorphoses. If you’d like to see a second volume with 5 more stories, then let me know your thoughts.