Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

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


Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

The structure of Ovid's Metamorphoses is quite amazing: although he does not actually use an overarching frametale that organizes the entire poem, he often has "nested stories" where the character in one story begins to tell another story... and then a character in that story tells yet another story. In this case, Venus is telling stories to her lover Adonis - so when she says "perhaps you have heard of a girl who beat the fastest men at running," the "you" that Venus is speaking to is exactly her lover Adonis.

Atalanta makes a challenge for her suitors

Perhaps you have heard of a girl who beat the fastest men at running: that was no idle tale, she did win. Nor could you say whether her speed or her beauty was more deserving of high praise.

Enquiring of the god about a husband, the god replied: 'You don't need a husband, Atalanta: run from the necessity for a husband. Nevertheless, you will not escape, and, still living, you will not be yourself.'

Afraid of the god's oracle, she lived in the dark forests, unmarried, and fled from the crowd of insistent suitors, setting harsh conditions: 'I will not be won, till I am beaten in running. Compete in the foot-race with me. Wife and bed will be given as prizes to the swift, death to the tardy: let those be the rules.'

Hippomenes falls in love with Atalanta

Truly she was pitiless, but (such was the power of her beauty) a rash crowd of suitors came, despite the rules. Hippomenes had taken his seat as a spectator at the unjust contest, and said 'Who would try for a wife at such a risk?' condemning the young men for their excess of passion.

But when he saw her face and her unclothed body (one like mine, Adonis, or like yours if you were a woman), he was stunned. Stretching out his hands, he said: 'Forgive me, you, that I just blamed! I had not yet realised what the prize was you were after.'

Praising her, he falls in love with her, and hopes none of the youths run faster, afraid, through jealousy. 'But why, in this competition, is my luck left untested?' he says. The god himself favours the bold!'

While Hippomenes was debating with himself like this, the virgin girl sped by on winged feet. To the Aonian youth she flew like a Scythian arrow, yet it made him admire her beauty all the more. The race gave her a beauty of its own. The breeze blew the streaming feathers on her speeding sandals behind her, and her hair was thrown back from her ivory shoulders. Ribbons with embroidered edges fluttered at her knees, and a blush spread over the girlish whiteness of her body, just as when a red awning over a white courtyard stains it with borrowed shadows.

While the stranger was watching this, the last marker was passed, and the victorious Atalanta was crowned with a festive garland, while the losers, groaning, paid the penalty according to their bond.

Undeterred by the youths' fate, Hippomenes stepped forward and, fixing his gaze on the girl, said 'Why seek an easy win beating the lazy? Race me. If fortune makes me the master, it will be no shame for you to be outpaced by such a man as me, since Megareus of Onchestus is my father, and his grandfather was Neptune, so I am the great-grandson of the king of the ocean, and my courage is no less than my birth. Or if I am beaten, you will have a great and renowned name for defeating Hippomenes.'

Atalanta hesitates when she sees Hippomenes

As he spoke Schoeneus's daughter looked at him with a softening expression, uncertain whether she wanted to win or lose, and said to herself: 'What god, envious of handsome youths, wants to destroy this one and send him in search of marriage, at the risk of his own dear life? I am not worth that much, I think. Nor is it his beauty that moves me (yet I could be touched by that too) but that he is still only a boy. He does not move me himself: it is his youth. What if he does have courage, and a spirit unafraid of dying? What if he is fourth in line from the ruler of the seas? What if he does love, and thinks so much of marriage with me, that he would die, if a harsh fate denies me to him? While you can, stranger, leave this blood-soaked marrying. Wedding me is a cruel thing. No one will refuse to have you, and you may be chosen by a wiser girl. -

'Yet why this concern when so many have already died before you? Let him look out for himself! Let him perish, since he has not been warned off by the death of so many suitors, and shows himself tired of life. -

'Should he die, then, because he wants to live with me, and suffer an unjust death as the penalty for loving? My victory would not avoid incurring hatred. But it is not my fault! I wish you would desist, or if you are set on it, I wish you might be the faster! How the virginal expression of a boy clings to his face!

'O! Poor Hippomenes, I wish you had never seen me! You were so fitted to live. But if I were luckier, if the harsh fates did not prevent my marriage, you would be the one I would want to share my bed with.'

She spoke: and inexperienced, feeling the touch of desire for the first time, not knowing what she does, she loves and does not realise she loves.

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

  • what happened to the men who raced with Atalanta and lost?
  • how did Hippomenes happen to fall in love with Atalanta?
  • what did Atalanta think of Hippomenes?

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