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Section I: Divine Comedy

Books 1-2

After the prologue concerning the creation and flood, Ovid begins a series of tales loosely linked by their shared interest in divine seductions. This section could also be called “Gods in Love” while acknowledging these deities show very little true love toward the unwilling objects of their affection.

Apollo and Daphne: The earlier serious tone of the prologue, depicting the “majestic dignity” of gods’ punishing the wicked and preserving the righteous after the flood, makes Apollo’s love plight seem comic in contrast. The god acts like a lovesick teenager on Valentine’s Day, his desperation merely humorous.

Ovid adds several ironic touches. Having just slain the monstrous Python with his arrows, the master archer becomes the victim of Cupid’s darts. The god of healing can’t heal himself of love’s wound. Note Ovid describes the god’s passion as “burning,” consuming him, a common metaphor throughout the rest of the work. Apollo, the divine voice of prophecy at Delphi, is “fooled by his own oracles.” He claims not to pursue her as a foe, but Ovid makes the comparison clear; Apollo is the hound after the rabbit.

In this early story the victim of the god’s lust escapes by metamorphosis. As Ovid’s poem continues, the unwilling women will not always be so fortunate. This early comic approach to divine seduction takes on a more serious tone in later stories which focus on the brutality of the gods.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2.1.230), Helena mocks the reluctant Demetrius whom she pursues for love: “Run when you will, the story shall be changed: Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase.”

Seen on the right, Bernini’s magnificent rendition of this tale captures the moment of transformation (1625). Daphne responds in astonishment as her fingers become branches and her toes root into the ground.

Also read this modern poem about Daphne and Apollo by Ross Cohen.

Jove and Io: In the next story, Jove himself appears as the henpecked husband caught with another woman, making the gods look even more ludicrous. To hide his infidelity from Juno, he engulfs Io in the form of a mist (see the painting below by Corregio, 1531). Ironically, this covering only makes Juno more suspicious of what might be going on behind the clouds. Neither does his transformation of Io into a cow fool his wife.

In these stories Ovid demeans both Jove and Apollo as symbols of order and stability, gods who give way to Eros and the dangerous flux of desire. Even the gods fall victim to uncontrollable passions which endangers those around them. This becomes a major theme in Section III and IV: the power of passion and unconscious forces outside one’s control to destabilize the social and moral order.

Notice how Jove promises to protect Io, whereas he represents the major threat to her safety.

In the tragedy Prometheus Bound attributed to Aeschylus, the Titan foretells of Io’s descendants. In five generations the fifty daughters of Danaus will be forced to marry their cousins, the fifty sons of Aegyptus (the subject of another trilogy by Aeschylus, and mentioned briefly by Ovid in book 4). The sisters make a pact to kill their husbands on their wedding night, but Hypermestra loves her husband and spares him. Ovid wrote a love letter of Hypermestra’s defending her actions in Heroides 14. From their union a few generations later will come two heroes, Perseus, then much later, Heracles who will rescue Prometheus by killing the eagle tormenting him.

In order to kill the monstrous Argus who never closes all his eyes, Mercury puts him to sleep by telling a story, another tale of a female victim of divine lust. “Argus’ boredom [with this story] is a grim reminder that male violence against women is an everyday occurrence, not worth staying awake for” (Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid, 2005,  30). Modern critics debate whether Ovid shows any sympathy for these unfortunate women he so often depicts. Sometimes Ovid reverses the plot and allows a spurned woman to take revenge on a male lover, as in the case of Circe and Picus (book 14).

Milton describes the heavenly cherubim as “spangled with eyes more numerous than those of Argus and more wakeful than to drowse” (Paradise Lost 11.131). Note how this story gives the origin of the peacock’s tail, a bird often associated with Juno in art.

Frequently in the Metamorphoses when characters tell stories, listeners who don’t pay attention to the tales are punished: Argus falls asleep and loses his head (a subtle hint to Ovid’s readers to pay attention?), the raven turns black for ignoring the crow’s cautionary tale about tattling on the gods (book 2), Pentheus fatally dismisses Acoetes’ report about Bacchus’ powers (book 3), Perseus’ attackers don’t believe his story of Medusa’s head until too late (book 5).

The final instance of a divine affair between gods and mortal women is recorded at the end of this book, but only as an introduction to the product of that affair, Phaethon, son of the Sun, whose dramatic narrative picks up in book 2. As children will do, Jove and Io’s son Epaphus questions Phaethon’s divine parentage, prompting him to seek proof.




In earlier Greek mythology, Helios is the sun-god in the Odyssey, and Phaethon (meaning “bright”) is one of Dawn’s chariot horses; see also Euripides’ Medea whose last-minute rescue is on Helios’ chariot. In other traditions, Phoebus Apollo is equated with the sun-god (fragment from Euripides’ Phaethon, Parmenides and Orphic religion) but apparently this attribution of Apollo as the Sun was not prominent until the Hellenistic-Roman period.

This sketch of Phaethon’s fall is by Michelangelo (1532).

The names of the Sun’s horses could be translated as Blaze, Dawn, Fire, and Flame.

Rashly Phoebus swears by the river Styx to give his son any wish. Even the gods cannot go back on such an oath. He pleads with Phaethon to change his request, saying that his desperate fear for his son’s life is proof enough that Apollo is truly his father, but the young boy, excited about the adventure, refuses to listen. If Flood was brought about by human wickedness (Lycaon), Fire results from divine folly, when Phoebus makes a promise before knowing his son’s request.

Ovid is the first to credit Vulcan with major artistic works for the Sun, creating his palace doors and fiery chariot, perhaps explaining the Sun god’s gratitude in returning the favor, telling Vulcan of the affair of his wife Venus with Mars (Book 4).

Just before Phaethon takes his fatal ride, Ovid mentions Lucifer, “last to leave the heavens.” Lucifer means “light-bearer” and refers to the morning star, the planet Venus. In Christian lore, Lucifer became another name for Satan, but only by a misreading of Isaiah 14:12, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” In context, this passage compares the king of Babylon to the morning star, without any suggested reference to the fall of an angelic Satan from heaven (as depicted in Paradise Lost).

Ovid includes several playful anachronisms throughout his poem as when Phaethon frightens the bear constellation before its creation in the next story (the transformation of Callisto). Likewise, in book four, Atlas is described as a mountain before Perseus turns him into one. Ovid plays several such games with his readers.

Ovid mentions that the Xanthus river will burn a second time, alluding to the Iliad book 21 when Achilles defeats the river by fire.

Jove appears unaware or unconcerned about Earth’s plight until she brings it to his attention, but even then he acts only after realizing his own interests are threatened.

One earlier version of this myth portrays the great flood putting out Phaethon’s fires. Connecting the flood with Lycaon may have been Ovid’s contribution to personify evil humanity.

The early Christians sometimes associated Christ with the sun god. In the 3rd century Clement of Alexandria wrote: “For the Sun of Righteousness, who drives His chariot over all, pervades equally all humanity, like His Father, who makes His sun to rise on all men” (Exhortation to the Heathen 11). One of the earliest depictions of Christ (2nd century), found in the tombs under St. Peter’s basilica, shows Christ riding the chariot of the sun.

Plato mentions the fall of Phaethon in Timaeus 22c .

Several times Shakespeare alludes to this story:

Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds
Towards Phoebus’ lodging; such a waggoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.          Romeo & Juliet 3.2.1-4

Why, Phaethon, for thou art Merop’s son
Wilt thou aspire to guide the heavenly car
And with thy daring folly burn the world?     Two Gentlemen 3.1.152-4

O Phoebus, hadst thou never given consent
That Phaethon should cheque thy fiery steeds,
Thy burning car never had scorch’d the earth!      3 Henry VI 2.6.11-16

Below is a painting of “The Gates of Dawn” by Herbert Draper (1900) which Ovid mentions Aurora opening prior to Phaethon’s fatal ride.

Further exploits of gods and women

Jove and Callisto: After the exciting drama of Phaethon (the longest story in the entire work), we return to an earlier theme: Jove’s seduction of Callisto (in the original Latin text, she is never named, but her story was well known). Somehow this daughter of Lycaon survived the flood; in an earlier version of the myth, her rape was the reason for Lycaon’s rebellion against the gods. Jove comes to her appearing as Diana, “lust disguised as the symbol of chastity” (Simpson). An innocent victim, whose pristine surroundings mirror her virginal state, is abused in turn by three gods, Jove, Diana, and Juno. Callisto’s narrow escape from her son foreshadows Actaeon’s fate (book 3), who’s not so lucky. Afterward Juno’s jealousy is still not satisfied, as she imagines Callisto has benefited from her metamorphosis into a constellation (it’s doubtful that Callisto would agree). In the Latin text here, Ovid refers to Juno, identified by her peacocks, as “Saturnia” daughter of Saturn. In this story we begin to see the gods’ vengeance turning progressively more cruel, as the tone of the poem becomes more serious in Section II.

Stories by the raven and the crow:

The crow attempts to warn the raven about tattling to the gods, as they often repay such storytelling with an unwanted transformation. The crow was punished for angering Minerva with her tale of Herse and Aglauros. Ovid omits some of the details. One day Vulcan attempted to rape Minerva, spilling his semen on her leg which she wiped off and threw to the ground. From this seed sprang Erichthonius, one of the legendary kings of Athens whose name means “trouble from the earth.” Ovid describes him as “a boy without a mother.”

Minerva wanted to raise the child in secret so she placed him in a box and gave it to Herse and Aglaurus (daughters of Cecrops, another king of Athens), warning them never to open it. Of course, their curiosity got the better of them and they did (and the crow tattled on them). They found the child who had a snake wrapped around him (another version says he was half-snake). They were so frightened that they threw themselves off the Acropolis (a detail which Ovid ignores; see Apollodorus 3.14.6). We get more of the story of Herse and Aglauros later in the book.

Erichthonius’ symbol was the snake which was depicted next to the statue of Athena in the Parthenon (photo from the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee). His son Pandion was the father of Procne and Philomela featured in book 6.

The raven chooses to ignore the crow’s advice and reports to Apollo about Coronis’ affair, for which he is rewarded with black wings. Notice how the gods lack true human emotion. After killing his beloved Coronis, Apollo cannot weep (likewise, Artemis could not weep for Hippolytus in the play by Euripides). However, Apollo saves his unborn son Aesculapius (see below).

In the midst of these myths, Ovid takes a moment to record a bit of legendary history. At the start of the Raven’s story, he says he was once whiter than “the geese whose latter-day descendants cried out and saved Rome’s capitol.” In 390 BCE a flock of geese living on the Capitoline Hill in Rome alerted citizens who were hiding there to the night-time approach of enemy Gauls.

Chiron and Ocyrhoe: Apollo’s son and Chiron’s foster son is Aesculapius, the famous healer, “savior of the world.” Ocyrhoe prophesies of Aesculapius’ ability to raise the dead and his own eventual death for displeasing the gods. In Ovid’s Fasti (6.733), he explains how Pluto and the Fate Clotho objected to his interfering with death, their proper domain. They convince Jupiter to strike him down with his lightning bolt, but Apollo intervenes and his son becomes a god. In book 15 Aesculapius brings Hippolytus back to life and saves Rome from a plague.

Chiron was an immortal centaur (son of Jove) struck by Heracles’ poison arrow, but couldn’t die; later he took the punishment of Prometheus onto himself, willing to descend to Hades in his place (Apollodorus 2.5.4).

Mercury is the son of Jupiter and Maia, daughter of the Titan Atlas. According to the Homeric Hymn, Mercury grew to adulthood on the day he was born, and stole Apollo’s cattle that evening (Ovid moves this theft to later). Mercury offered Apollo his lyre made from a tortoise shell to make up for stealing his cattle. In return Apollo gave Mercury the caduceus, the staff entwined with two snakes and topped with wings. In modern times the caduceus has mistakenly become a symbol for medicine, being confused with the rod of Aesculapius the healer which has only one snake and no wings.

Ovid uses an interesting literary device in these two stories of Mercury, where a god turns a human’s own words against him. Battus vows, “That stone will talk before I do,” but when he tells Mercury’s secret, he is turned to stone himself. Likewise, Aglaurus swears, “I will not move from this doorway,” and she does not.

These are examples of a god reinterpreting a mortal’s words with fateful results, called kledonomancy or divinatory wordplay. A kledon in Greek means a casual comment overheard by someone making an important decision, taking this comment for an omen as if the gods were using the speaker’s words to other effect (notes from Garth Tissol, The Face of Nature, 1997). Three classical examples:

  • In the Odyssey 18.112, one of the wicked suitors of Penelope tells the disguised Odysseus, “Stranger, may the gods grant you your heart’s desire.” Unknown to him, he was wishing for his own death when Odysseus took his revenge on the suitors.
  • Cicero (On Divination 2.84) tells of the general Marcus Crassus who should have heard an omen in the cry of a Caunian fig-seller who called out in the market “Cauneas, Cauneas!” According to Cicero, this really meant (in Latin) “cave ne eas” = “beware of going,” a warning not to sail on the fatal Parthian expedition. The gods sent a warning that he did not heed.
  • Augustine (Confessions 8.12), struggling with his soul concerning faith in Christ, heard a child saying “Take up and read” which lead him to pick up the scriptures and read the apostle Paul, which caused him to be converted.

When Mercury falls in love with Herse, Ovid describes the Panathenaia, the great city festival of Athens depicted on the Parthenon frieze and the Porch of the Maidens on the Acropolis, a very ancient rite, alluded to in Iliad 6.86.

Mercury, usually Jove’s messenger, now stands in his place as potential seducer. “Up to now the god has been only killer, thief, and sadistic transformer; now he follows his father’s noble example as lecher” (Anderson).

Enjoy the colorful description of the House of Envy, and compare it to the House of Sleep (book 11) and the House of Rumor (book 12). In each case Ovid uses personification to bring the quality to life.

Europa and the bull: Once again Ovid leaves a main character unnamed, assuming his readers will know. It’s odd that this very famous story (she names a continent) leads nowhere; we expect it to pick up in the next book (just as  Phaethon’s tale slid from book 1 to 2), but instead Ovid focuses on her brother Cadmus in book 3.

From this unusual union with Jove, Europa becomes the mother of Minos, king of Crete (see book 8). She is also a sixth-generation descendant of Jove and Io (book 1). At right is a painting of Europa found in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, preserved under volcanic ash. Europa is depicted on the central door of St. Peter’s basilica by Filarete (1445), a typical Renaissance mixture of pagan and Christian images (see below).

In Much Ado about Nothing, Claudio teases the love-sick Benedict: “Tush, fear not, man; we’ll tip thy horns with gold, And all Europa shall rejoice at thee, As once Europa did at lusty Jove, When he would play the noble beast in love” (5.4.44).

Originally published online February 2000. Latest revision September 2018.

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