Week 6: Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Book 10: Orpheus sings of Ganymede and of Hyacinthus

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

Orpheus now begins to sing songs which tell other stories, so we will now go into "stories within a story." The first story he sings is about Ganymede, the boy whom the god Jupiter loved. Then he sang about Hyacinthus, whom the god Phoebus Apollo loved. One day they were playing games with the discus, but a disaster occurred when Hyacinthus ran to fetch the discus after one of Apollo's throws: the earth hurled the discus back at Hyacinthus and it killed him.

Such was the grove of trees the poet gathered round him, and he sat in the midst of a crowd, of animals and birds. When he had tried a few chords, stroking the lyre with his thumb, and felt that the various notes were in tune, regardless of their pitch, he raised his voice to sing: 'Begin my song with Jupiter, Calliope, O Muse, my mother (all things bow to Jupiter's might)! I have often sung the power of Jove before: I have sung of the Giants, in an epic strain, and the victorious lightning bolts, hurled at the Phlegraean field. Now there is gentler work for the lyre, and I sing of boys loved by the gods, and girls stricken with forbidden fires, deserving punishment for their lust.

... ...... ...

The king of the gods once burned with love for Phrygian Ganymede, and to win him Jupiter chose to be something other than he was. Yet he did not deign to transform himself into any other bird, than that eagle, that could carry his lightning bolts. Straightaway, he beat the air with deceitful wings, and stole the Trojan boy, who still handles the mixing cups, and against Juno's will pours out Jove's nectar.

You too, Hyacinthus, of Amyclae, Phoebus would have placed in heaven, if sad fate had given him time to do so. Still, as it is, you are immortal, and whenever spring drives winter away, and Aries follows watery Pisces, you also rise, and flower in the green turf. My father, Phoebus, loved you above all others: and Delphi, at the centre of the world, lost its presiding deity, while the god frequented Eurotas, and Sparta without its walls, doing no honour to the zither or the bow. Forgetting his usual pursuits, he did not object to carrying the nets, handling the dogs, or travelling as a companion, over the rough mountain ridges, and by constant partnership feeding the flames.

Now, the sun was midway between the vanished and the future night, equally far from either extreme: they stripped off their clothes, and gleaming with the rich olive oil, they had rubbed themselves with, they began a contest with the broad discus. Phoebus went first, balancing it, and hurling it high into the air, scattering the clouds with its weight. Its mass took a long time to fall back to the hard ground, showing strength and skill combined. Immediately the Taenarian boy, without thinking, ran forward to pick up the disc, prompted by his eagerness to throw, but the solid earth threw it back, hitting you in the face, with the rebound, Hyacinthus.

The god is as white as the boy, and cradles the fallen body. Now he tries to revive you, now to staunch your dreadful wound, and now applies herbs to hold back your departing spirit. His arts are useless: the wound is incurable. Just as if, when someone, in a garden, breaks violets, stiff poppies, or the lilies, with their bristling yellow stamens, and, suddenly, they droop, bowing their weakened heads, unable to support themselves, and their tops gaze at the soil: so his dying head drops, and, with failing strength, the neck is overburdened, and sinks onto the shoulder.

'You slip away, Spartan, robbed of the flower of youth' Phoebus sighed, 'and I see my guilt, in your wound. You are my grief and my reproach: your death must be ascribed to my hand. I am the agent of your destruction. Yet, how was it my fault, unless taking part in a game can be called a fault, unless it can be called a fault to have loved you? If only I might die with you, and pay with my life! But since the laws of fate bind us, you shall always be with me, and cling to my remembering lips. My songs; the lyre my hand touches; will celebrate you. As a new-formed flower, you shall denote my woe, by your markings. And the time will come, when Ajax, bravest of heroes, will associate himself with this same flower, and be identified by its petals.

While the truthful mouth of Apollo uttered these words, look, the blood that had spilt on the ground staining the grass was no longer blood, and a flower sprang up, brighter than Tyrian dye, and took the shape of a lily, though it was purple in colour, where the other is silvery white. Not satisfied with this alone, Phoebus (he, indeed, was the giver of the honour) himself marked his grief on the petals, and the flower bore the letters AI AI, the letters of woe traced there. Nor was Sparta ashamed of producing Hyacinthus: his honour has lasted to this day, and by ancient custom the Hyacinthia is celebrated, at its annual return, by displaying the flower in procession.'


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

  • what form did Jupiter take in order to carry Ganymede up into heaven?
  • how was Hyacinthus killed?
  • what did the dead Hyacinthus turn into?

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