Week 6: Ovid's Metamorphoses

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Book 10: The Death of Cyparissus

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 600 words.

Although Orpheus did not love women any more, he continue to sing his music, and even the trees gathered around him, in order to listen to his music. One of the trees that came to listen to Orpheus was the cypress tree, so Ovid then tells the story of Cyparissus, a boy who had a beautiful stag as a pet. Cyparissus accidentally killed the stag, and asked the god Apollo to make it possible for him to mourn forever... so he was turned into a cypress tree, which was associated with death and funerals.

Three times the sun had ended the year, in watery Pisces, and Orpheus had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him, or because he had sworn to do so. Yet, many felt a desire to be joined with the poet, and many grieved at rejection. Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering, this side of manhood.

There was a hill, and, on the hill, a wide area of level ground, turfed with fresh blades of grass: shade was absent there: but when the poet, born of the god, sounded the strings of his lyre, shade gathered there. Jupiter's Chaonian oak-tree came; and Phaethon's sisters, the Heliades, the poplars; the durmast oak with its deep foliage; the soft lime-tree; the beech; the virgin sweet-bay, laurel; the hazel, frail; the ash-tree, used for spears; the sweeping silver-fir: holm-oak, heavy with acorns; pleasant plane-tree; the many-coloured maple; with the river-haunting willow; lotus, water-lover; boxwood ever-verdant; the slender tamarisk; the myrtle, with, over and under its leaves, the two shades of green; and the blue-berried wild-bay, laurus tinus. You came, also, twining ivy, together with shooting vines; the vine-supporting elms; the flowering 'manna' ash; the spruce; the strawberry tree, weighed down with its red fruit; the pliant palms, the winner's prize; and you, the shaggy-topped pine tree, armed with needles, sacred to Cybele, mother of the gods, since Attis exchanged his human form for you, and hardened in your trunk.

Among the crowd came the cypress, formed like the cone-shaped meta, that marks the turning point in the race-course: once a boy, but now a tree: loved by the god who tunes the lyre, and strings the bow.

There was a giant stag, sacred to the nymphs that haunt the Carthaean country, which cast deep shadows, around its head, from his wide-branching antlers. The antlers shone with gold, and the gems of a jewelled collar, around his polished neck, hung down onto his shoulders. A bulla, a silver charm, fastened with small strips of leather, quivered on his forehead, and on either side of his hollow temples matching pearls of bronze gleamed from both ears. Free from fear, and forgetting his natural shyness, he used to visit people's houses, and offer his neck to be stroked by strangers' hands. Yet, above all others, he was dear to you, Cyparissus, loveliest of the Cean boys. You led the stag to fresh pastures, and the waters of the clear spring. Now you would weave diverse flowers through his horns, and then, astride his back like a horseman, delight in tugging his soft mouth one way or the other by means of a purple muzzle.

It was noon of a summer's day, when the curving claws of shore-loving Cancer were burning in the hot sun. Tired, the stag had settled its body on the grassy turf and was enjoying the cool of the woodland shade. The boy, without intention, transfixed it with his sharp spear, and when he saw it dying from the cruel wound, he wished to die himself. What was there Phoebus did not say, in solace, advising a moderate grief matching the cause! He only sighed, and begged, as the last gift of the gods, that he might mourn forever. Then, his blood discharged among endless tears, his limbs began to turn to a shade of green, and his hair that a moment ago hung over his pale forehead, became a bristling crown, and he stiffened to a graceful point gazing at the starry heavens. The god sighed for him, and said, sadly: 'I will mourn for you: you will mourn for others, and enter into sorrows'.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what did the trees do when Orpheus played his music?
  • what did Cyparissus's stag look like?
  • why did Cyparissus ask the god Apollo to make it possible for him to mourn forever?

Source: Ovid's Metamorphoses. English translation by A.S.Kline. 2000. "This work MAY be FREELY reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any NON-COMMERCIAL purpose." Website: Ovid and Others.

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