Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

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


Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

Now we move to another story and a completely different type of metamorphosis, or transformation. Ovid tells the story of one of Jupiter's many love affairs: this time the king of the gods has fallen in love with Callisto, a woman who is devoted to the virgin goddess Diana. You might be surprised as how the scheming Jupiter manages to seduce the innocent Callisto!

The god Jupiter falls in love with the nymph Callisto

Often, as Jupiter came and went, he would stop short at the sight of Callisto, a girl from Nonacris, feeling the fire take in the very marrow of his bones. She was not one to spin soft wool or play with her hair. A clasp fastened her tunic, and a white ribbon held back her loose tresses. Dressed like this, with a spear or a bow in her hand, she was one of Diana's companions. No nymph who roamed Maenalus was dearer to Trivia, goddess of the crossways, than she, Callisto, was.

But no favour lasts long.

The sun was high, just past the zenith, when she entered a grove that had been untouched through the years. Here she took her quiver from her shoulder, unstrung her curved bow, and lay down on the grass, her head resting on her painted quiver. Jupiter, seeing her there weary and unprotected, said 'Here, surely, my wife will not see my cunning, or if she does find out, it is, oh it is, worth a quarrel!

Quickly he took on the face and dress of Diana, and said 'Oh, girl who follows me, where in my domains have you been hunting?'

The virgin girl got up from the turf replying 'Greetings, goddess greater than Jupiter: I say it even though he himself hears it.'

He did hear, and laughed, happy to be judged greater than himself, and gave her kisses unrestrainedly, and not those that virgins give.

When she started to say which woods she had hunted he embraced and prevented her and not without committing a crime. Face to face with him, as far as a woman could, (I wish you had seen her, Juno: you would have been kinder to her) she fought him, but how could a girl win, and who is more powerful than Jove?

Victorious, Jupiter made for the furthest reaches of the sky: while to Callisto the grove was odious and the wood seemed knowing. As she retraced her steps she almost forgot her quiver and its arrows, and the bow she had left hanging.

Callisto, pregnant by Jupiter, goes back to Diana

Behold how Diana, with her band of huntresses, approaching from the heights of Maenalus, magnificent from the kill, spies her there, and seeing her calls out. At the shout she runs, afraid at first in case it is Jupiter disguised, but when she sees the other nymphs come forward, she realises there is no trickery and joins their number.

Alas! How hard it is not to show one's guilt in one's face! She can scarcely lift her eyes from the ground, not as she used to be, wedded to her goddess's side or first of the whole company, but is silent and by her blushing shows signs of her shame at being attacked. Even if she were not herself virgin, Diana could sense her guilt in a thousand ways. They say all the nymphs could feel it.

Nine crescent moons had since grown full when the goddess faint from the chase in her brother's hot sunlight found a cool grove out of which a murmuring stream ran, winding over fine sand. She loved the place and tested the water with her foot. Pleased with this too she said 'Any witness is far away, let's bathe our bodies naked in the flowing water.'

The Arcadian girl blushed: all of them took off their clothes: one of them tried to delay: hesitantly the tunic was removed and there her shame was revealed with her naked body. Terrified she tried to conceal her swollen belly. Diana cried 'Go, far away from here: do not pollute the sacred fountain!' and the Moon-goddess commanded her to leave her band of followers.

Juno punishes Callisto

Juno, the great Thunderer's wife had known about all this for a long time and had held back her severe punishment until the proper time. Now there was no reason to wait. The girl had given birth to a boy, Arcas, and that in itself enraged Juno.

When she turned her angry eyes and mind to thought of him she cried out 'Nothing more was needed, you adulteress, than your fertility, and your marking the insult to me by giving birth, making public my Jupiter's crime. You'll not carry this off safely. Now, insolent girl, I will take that shape away from you, that pleased you and my husband so much!'

At this she clutched her in front by the hair of her forehead and pulled her face forwards onto the ground. Callisto stretched out her arms for mercy: those arms began to bristle with coarse black hairs: her hands arched over and changed into curved claws to serve as feet: and her face, that Jupiter had once praised, was disfigured by gaping jaws: and so that her prayers and words of entreaty might not attract him, her power of speech was taken from her. An angry, threatening growl, harsh and terrifying, came from her throat.

Still her former feelings remained intact though she was now a bear. She showed her misery in continual groaning, raising such hands as she had left to the starry sky, feeling, though she could not speak it, Jupiter's indifference.

Ah, how often she wandered near the house and fields that had once been her home, not daring to sleep in the lonely woods! Ah, how often she was driven among the rocks by the baying hounds, and the huntress fled in fear from the hunters! Often she hid at the sight of wild beasts forgetting what she was, and though a bear she shuddered at the sight of other bears on the mountains and feared the wolves, though her father Lycaon ran with them.

Arcas meets his mother in the form of a bear

And now Arcas, grandson of Lycaon, had reached his fifteenth year ignorant of his parentage. While he was hunting wild animals, while he was finding suitable glades and penning up the Erymanthian groves with woven nets, he came across his mother, who stood still at sight of Arcas and appeared to know him. He shrank back from those unmoving eyes gazing at him so fixedly, uncertain what made him afraid, and when she quickly came nearer he was about to pierce her chest with his lethal spear.

All-powerful Jupiter restrained him and in the same moment removed them and the possibility of that wrong, and together, caught up through the void on the winds, he set them in the heavens and made them similar constellations, the Great and Little Bear.

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

  • who raped Callisto and made her pregnant?
  • who punished Callisto by turning her into a bear?
  • what happened when Arcas was about to shoot his mother the bear?

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