Week 6: Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Background Reading

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have TWO PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Ovid and the Metamorphoses
  2. Characters You Will Meet

Ovid and the Metamorphoses

Ovid is absolutely one of the most fascinating and delightful writers of ancient Rome. He was born in 43 BCE, just as the Roman empire of the Caesars was beginning to take shape (Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BCE, a year before Ovid was born). When Ovid died in 18 CE, Tiberius was the Caesar reigning in Rome.

Ovid had been trained as a lawyer, which was a very typical career choice for a noble Roman citizen, but instead he gave up law for poetry. He enjoyed enormous success in Rome, and his poetry was extremely popular. He wrote in a wide variety of poetic genres, such as:

erotic poetry: the Amores tell the story of his adventures with his girlfriend Corinna (who may or may not have been a real person)

didactic poetry: Ovid wrote an Art of Love and then he wrote a follow-up for the lovelorn, Remedies for Love

dramatic poetry: Ovid wrote a tragedy about Medea, but no copy of the play survived

aetiological poetry: Ovid wrote a fascinating long poem called the Fasti, which describes the Roman religious calendar day by day, explaining the origin of all the religious festivals, temples, and rituals

epistolary poetry: Ovid wrote a series of letters in verse called the Heroines which consists of letters written by heroines to their heroes (Ariadne to Theseus, etc.)

epic poetry: Ovid's Metamorphoses is a twisting and turning epic poem, 15 books long, which provides a compendium of Greek and Latin mythology

Finally, Ovid also wrote a series of "exile" poems called the Tristia (Sad Things) and the Ex Ponto, or poems "From the Black Sea" (modern-day Romania) which was where Ovid died in exile. No one really knows why Ovid was exiled, but all of a sudden in the year 8 CE he was banished by the Emperor Augustus and had to leave Rome, never to return. Presumably his exile had something to do with the scandals connected to the Emperor's daughter Julia, although it is impossible to know for sure. Ovid never explains why he was exiled, and no clear explanation is provided by the Roman historians who chronicled the reigns of the Caesars.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of the most important sources for our knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. Ovid based his work on earlier Greek poetry, but much of that Greek poetry has been lost. Ovid is often our only source for these ancient stories. The title, Metamorphoses, is itself a Greek word, meaning Transformations. Each of the stories in the poem concludes with some kind of transformation: Niobe is turned to stone, Myrrha is turned into a tree, Atalanta and Hippomenes are turned into lions, etc.

In the readings for this week, you will see how Ovid's idea to organize the stories around tales of "transformations" is connected to the religious teachings of Pythagoras, an important Greek religious leader who preached a doctrine called "metempsychosis," or the reincarnation of souls. According to Pythagoras, the spirit moved from form to form, being reincarnated over and over again. As a result, Pythagoras was a strict vegetarian (you did not want to accidentally end up eating one of your ancestors) and he even rejected the sacrifice of animals to the gods in religious ceremonies. Although Ovid himself was not a follower of the Pythagorean religion, Ovid's description of Pythagoras in the Metamorphoses is an important source for our knowledge of this ancient religion.

Reading the Metamorphoses as Frametale

One of the most interesting features of the Metamorphoses is how Ovid uses frametales to organize his material. Although it is not as structured as the Indian Hitopadesa that you read last week, Ovid does tell stories within stories within stories, allowing characters inside one story to become the narrator of another story. You will see a great example of this when Ovid tells the story of the singer Orpheus, who tells the story of Adonis and Venus, who tells the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes: a story, within a story, within a story.

Ovid also uses a technique called ecphrasis in order to tell stories in the form of artwork. In his poetry, Ovid might describe a painting or other work of art, which depicts a story. The result is a story (in the form of a painting) inside a story (in the form of a poem). You will see two different examples of this, when women characters weave their stories into cloth.

Finally, Ovid also uses a variety of techniques to link stories in a chain, with one story leading to another story, which leads to another story, and so on. You could call this a "chain tale" rather than a "frame tale." Genealogy is one way to tell a series of stories, where one generation leads to the next generation. You will see an example of this where the story of Cinyras and Myrrha, then leads to the story of their son, Adonis, and his love affair with the goddess Venus. Ovid will also tell a series of stories about the same character, even though the episodes are otherwise unrelated. This week, for example, you will read the story of how Niobe insulted the goddess Latona and was punished, and then you will read a story about the foolish Lycians who treated Latona badly and who were also punished.

  1. Ovid and the Metamorphoses
  2. Characters You Will Meet

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM