Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Flood

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 750 words.

Ovid begins the Metamorphoses with a story of how the world was created. And then, much like in the story of Noah or the story of Uta-Napishtim, the supreme god becomes angry at his creation - and decides to destroy it in a great flood.

Jupiter decides to destroy mankind because of their wicked behavior

When [Jupiter] had spoken, some of the gods encouraged Jupiter's anger, shouting their approval of his words, while others consented silently. They were all saddened though at this destruction of the human species, and questioned what the future of the world would be free of humanity. Who would honour their altars with incense? Did he mean to surrender the world to the ravages of wild creatures?

In answer the king of the gods calmed their anxiety, the rest would be his concern, and he promised them a people different from the first, of a marvellous creation. Now he was ready to hurl his lightning-bolts at the whole world but feared that the sacred heavens might burst into flame from the fires below, and burn to the furthest pole: and he remembered that a time was fated to come when sea and land, and the untouched courts of the skies would ignite, and the troubled mass of the world be besieged by fire. So he set aside the weapons the Cyclopes forged, and resolved on a different punishment, to send down rain from the whole sky and drown humanity beneath the waves.

Jupiter sends the flood

Straight away he shut up the north winds in Aeolus's caves, with the gales that disperse the gathering clouds, and let loose the south wind, he who flies with dripping wings, his terrible aspect shrouded in pitch-black darkness. His beard is heavy with rain, water streams from his grey hair, mists wreathe his forehead, and his feathers and the folds of his robes distil the dew. When he crushes the hanging clouds in his outstretched hand there is a crash, and the dense vapours pour down rain from heaven. Iris, Juno's messenger, dressed in the colours of the rainbow, gathers water and feeds it back to the clouds. The cornfields are flattened and saddening the farmers, the crops, the object of their prayers, are ruined, and the long year's labour wasted.

Jupiter's anger is not satisfied with only his own aerial waters: his brother the sea-god helps him, with the ocean waves. He calls the rivers to council, and when they have entered their ruler's house, says 'Now is not the time for long speeches! Exert all your strength. That is what is needed. Throw open your doors, drain the dams, and loose the reins of all your streams!' Those are his commands.

The rivers return and uncurb their fountains' mouths, and race an unbridled course to the sea. Neptune himself strikes the ground with his trident, so that it trembles, and with that blow opens up channels for the waters. Overflowing, the rivers rush across the open plains, sweeping away at the same time not just orchards, flocks, houses and human beings, but sacred temples and their contents. Any building that has stood firm, surviving the great disaster undamaged, still has its roof drowned by the highest waves, and its towers buried below the flood. And now the land and sea are not distinct, all is the sea, the sea without a shore.

There one man escapes to a hilltop, while another seated in his rowing boat pulls the oars over places where lately he was ploughing. One man sails over his cornfields or over the roof of his drowned farmhouse, while another man fishes in the topmost branches of an elm. Sometimes, by chance, an anchor embeds itself in a green meadow, or the curved boats graze the tops of vineyards. Where lately lean goats browsed, shapeless seals play. The Nereids are astonished to see woodlands, houses and whole towns under the water.

There are dolphins in the trees: disturbing the upper branches and stirring the oak-trees as they brush against them. Wolves swim among the sheep, and the waves carry tigers and tawny lions. The boar has no use for his powerful tusks, the deer for its quick legs, both are swept away together, and the circling bird, after a long search for a place to land, falls on tired wings into the water. The sea in unchecked freedom has buried the hills, and fresh waves beat against the mountaintops. The waters wash away most living things, and those the sea spares, lacking food, are defeated by slow starvation.

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

  • Why did the other gods want Jupiter to spare the human race?
  • Why did Jupiter decide to send a flood instead of a fire?
  • What other god helped Jupiter to flood the land with water?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Ovid's Metamorphoses (2000). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. 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 12:52 PM