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Section III: The Suffering of Love

Books 6-11

This section (beginning halfway through book 6 with the tragedy of Tereus) is less structured than the first two, more like three braids of a rope intertwined, involving themes of frustrated love, fortunate love, and unnatural passion. Some non-romantic stories (Daedalus, Midas, etc) are interspersed throughout the section. The notes below will focus on these major threads.


Tereus, Procne, Philomela (book 6)

This story is probably based on a lost tragedy by Sophocles. In telling his version of the story, Ovid uses some techniques typical of that playwright such as foreshadowing to create suspense. He describes ominous signs at the beginning of the marriage: the Furies bring the bridal torches from a funeral. Born from the blood of Uranus, these frightful creatures took vengeance on those who murdered blood relatives; they are mentioned again when Procne kills her son Itys.

Throughout his story, Ovid reminds us of the gap between the knowledge of the characters and that of the narrator (“people never know it seems,” “little she knows,” “how was she to know”), setting the stage for disaster in a manner similar to Sophoclean irony where the audience knows more than the characters (compare to Oedipus’ ignorance of his true parents).

Characteristic of the tales in section III, the problem now lies in the human heart, not with the gods: “The hearts of men have such blind darkness in them.” Ovid describes passion as an unquenchable fire, but one that can willingly be fed. Tereus admires Philomela’s beauty but also imagines what he has not yet seen of her (similar to Apollo thinking of Daphne in book 1). As he watches Philomela kiss her father goodbye, Tereus’ fantasy fuels the flames even to incestuous desires as he wishes he were her father at that moment. Ovid compares Tereus to an eagle with its prey, again like the Apollo/Daphne story.

In versions by Apollodorus (3.14.8) and Hyginus, Tereus tells the family that Procne is dead so he can “marry” Philomela. In Ovid’s version Tereus seems innocent of any evil desires at first, until overcome by her beauty.

The only role the gods play in this story is as silent witnesses to the atrocities, causing Philomela to question their existence: “If those on high behold these things, if there are any gods…”

Note Ovid’s psychological insight: Philomela the innocent victim feels guilty about the rape, thinking she’s betrayed her sister.

To rescue her sister, Procne disguises herself as a worshipper of Bacchus, reminding the reader of previous stories and the gruesome acts performed under his influence. Ovid ironically describes both Tereus and Procne as “burning” but with different passions, both leading to horrible crimes. Seeing her son Itys reminds her of his father, and so prompts her terrible act of revenge. She is motivated more by sympathy for her sister (why should her son speak and her sister can’t?) than feelings of betrayal. Greek tragedy often portrays characters torn between duty to relatives: see the story of Althaea (book 8).

Ovid underlines the ethical paradox of the situation: deciding to kill her own son, she rationalizes, “Crime is duty when your husband is Tereus” (6.635). In these tragic circumstances, wrong becomes right as Procne convinces herself that this horrible act is her only just option. Compare Ovid’s similar description in later stories of the daughters of Pelias who kill their father (“lest she be criminal, she commits a crime” 7.340), and Althaea who kills her son (“dutiful of her violation of duty” 8.476).

After two false displays of sorrow, Tereus finally weeps real tears at his son’s death.

All three characters are transformed into birds, but no gods are mentioned as causing the metamorphosis; they didn’t show mercy before, and do not appear now to enforce justice. Earlier in the 5th c. BCE, Aristophanes parodied this transformation in his comedy the Birds, with Tereus as a refugee from the tragic stage [Dubrov, “The Tragic and Comic Tereus,” AmJPh 114 (2): 189-234]

Ovid’s tale influenced the Renaissance tragedy Titus Andronicus, but Shakespeare goes one step further by having the villains cut off his heroine’s hands as well, so she cannot even write her assailant’s name. Lavinia must point to a copy of Ovid and the tale of Philomela to reveal her plight (IV.i).

Read the poem “Philomela” by Matthew Arnold.

Medea (book 7)

This Art Nouveau poster by Alphonse Mucha (1898) depicts the French actress Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Medea, after killing her sons, a deed which Ovid mentions only in passing (see Euripides’ tragedy for the full account). Ovid had written a tragedy (unfortunately now lost) based on Euripides and probably didn’t want to repeat himself, so in book 7 he focuses on less famous episodes of her infamous career. Ovid also included a letter by Medea to Jason in his Heroides 12 (a series of fictional love letters).

Argonauts background: Jason’s uncle Pelias usurped the throne from his brother Aeson. Because an oracle warned that one of Aeson’s sons would kill him, Pelias wiped out the rest of the family; only Jason escaped. Years later, Jason appeared wearing only one sandal (fulfillment of another oracle), so Pelias sent him to obtain the golden fleece, thinking he would never return from this dangerous assignment. The Minyans mentioned here are descendants of King Minyas who travel with him; blind Phineus advised them of the route to take once they rescued him from the harpies (Apollodorus 1.9)

The origin of the golden fleece: Athamus (husband of Ino, book 4) had two children by a previous wife, who escaped their step-mother’s deadly plot by riding on a flying golden ram. Helle fell to her death into the sea (hence giving the name to the Hellespont near Turkey, mentioned in book 11) and her brother Phrixus sacrificed the ram, which became the constellation Aries.

In the first dramatic soliloquy in the work, Ovid focuses on Medea’s moral struggle between duty and desire. In this section of the Metamorphoses characters are victims not of the gods but of their own passions as Medea admits, “The greatest god is the one in my own spirit.” We can sympathize with her struggle with passion, unlike the gods who never hesitate to satisfy their lusts without the slightest moral concern.

One of the most famous lines from Ovid (line 20): “Reason calls one way, desire another. I see, approving things that are good, and yet I follow worse ones.” Compare this to Euripides’ Medea 1078: “I understand the horror of what I am going to do, but anger, the spring of all life’s horror, masters my resolve.” The apostle Paul says much the same thing about the struggle with sin: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Medea calls on Triple Hecate to aid her incantations. Hecate was the goddess of magic, descended from the Titans. She was described as having three bodies.

Jason must complete three tasks: yoke and plow with fire-breathing bulls, sow the dragon’s teeth, and steal the fleece from the dragon. According to the Argonautica 3.1176, the dragon’s teeth came from Cadmus and were given to Medea’s father by Minerva. Below is an ancient vase depicting Jason and the fleece.

Twice Medea prays but doesn’t wait for the results of her prayers.

She worries less about betraying her father than that Jason might marry another, foreshadowing the familiar ending to this story told by Euripides. She convinces herself that she leaves nothing of value behind; in other versions, she takes her baby brother with her, cuts him up and tosses him overboard to delay her father’s pursuit.

Apollodorus (1.9.16) explains that Pelias was disrespectful to Hera, so she gave him the idea to send Jason after the fleece, in order to punish him years later by Medea’s hand. Ovid either assumes we know the motivation for killing Pelias or wants to show Medea’s act as one of wanton cruelty. Notice how she pollutes his daughters as well, making them commit the crime. Hyginus says that she came to them disguised as a priestess of Diana. The murder of Pelias was the subject of one of Euripides’ tragedies in his first competition (455 BC, 24 years before he wrote Medea).

The most famous episode of Medea’s life is summarized in four lines. Ovid barely mentions Medea’s killing of her own children out of jealous revenge, a detail that Euripides may have invented, as other versions say she killed them accidentally trying out an immortality potion, or that Creon’s kinsmen killed them after she had escaped and placed the blame on her.

Medea’s flight in the dragon-drawn chariot serves only as an excuse to mention several other metamorphoses.

Medea finally arrives in Athens where she marries Aegeus, father of Theseus. Medea tries to poison the young hero, but he escapes in time. We see Theseus again in book 8 when he defeats the minotaur.

Scylla (book 8)

In another insightful soliloquy, Scylla describes her passion for her father’s enemy, King Minos of Crete (son of Europa). She betrays her father by cutting off a purple lock of his hair, without which his kingdom would fall. Her passion for Minos causes her to choose against her father and city. Her character can be summed up in her thought: “Every person, surely, is his own god,” similar to Medea’s admission (above). However, when she presents Minos with the lock of hair and professes her love, he rejects her for her treachery. (This Scylla is not the same as the dangerous rock in books 13-14.)

Pasiphae (book 8)

After Minos rejects Scylla, she mentions his unusual birth by Europa and Jove in the form of a bull. She also taunts him about his wife Pasiphae (daughter of the sun-god Helios) whose unnatural passion for an actual bull resulted in the birth of the monstrous minotaur, half-man, half-bull, who lives in the labyrinth built by Daedalus at Knossos. Daedalus also built the artificial cow that Pasiphae hid inside. In his Art of Love (1.290-327) Ovid uses the example of Pasiphae to assure his male readers that women will go to great lengths to satisfy their lust.

Minos’ daughter Ariadne helps Theseus find his way through the labyrinth to kill the minotaur, and they escape Crete together, but on his way home, he abandons her on an island (another case of frustrated love). She justly complains of her terrible treatment in Heroides 10 (a series of fictional love letters). Fate avenges her, though, for Theseus forgets to hoist a white sail on his return to Athens. His father Aegeus, seeing a black sail and assuming it signaled the death of his son, throws himself into the sea, henceforth known as the Aegean. In The Art of Love (1.525-564) Ovid tells how Ariadne was rescued by Bacchus and became his wife.

In book 15, Ovid tells of the forbidden passion of another daughter of Pasiphae. Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, fell in love with Hippolytus, his son by the Amazon Hippolyta. Having dedicated himself to the virgin Diana, Hippolytus spurns all women. Faced with his rejection, Phaedra lies to her husband that his son had tried to rape her, and Theseus calls on his father Poseidon to curse his son. One day while Hippolytus is riding his chariot along the shore, the sea-god sends a monstrous bull from the ocean which frightens his horses, and they drag him behind his chariot to his death. Euripides wrote a play on this tragedy, as well as Seneca and the French playwright Racine.

We mentioned the tragedy of Icarus on the first page. Here is another painting by Herbert Draper, “The Lament for Icarus” (1898).


Byblis (book 9)

This story of a sister’s lust for her brother is a masterful example of rationalization, the power of the will to capture the imagination and reasoning faculties, twisting them to its own ends. The focus now is on human psychology, although she blames her passion on a god’s curse in an attempt to escape responsibility.

Resembling Freudian psychology, her subconscious desires appear first in dreams.

Thinking of the gods’ incestuous adulteries, at first Byblis dismisses the comparison (“gods are laws unto themselves”) but later justifies her desires by their example. For this reason Plato warned against the wicked influence of such tales, banning poets from his ideal Republic.

Byblis even wants to die, then imagines Caunus will come and kiss her dead body. Her every thought leads back to the same desired conclusion.

She mentions the children of Aeolus (Odyssey 10.7). For a parallel to this letter, see Ovid’s Heroides 11 where Canace writes to her brother Macareus.

She projects her desires onto him; if he had pursued her, she would yield, so why not the reverse?

“Let old men quibble about right and wrong; we are young; our need is love and rashness,” a common generation gap complaint in love stories. “We’re too young to know right from wrong” yet she clearly does or she wouldn’t be debating with herself. Her real reason, “all things are right if only we believe it,” is similar to Scylla (book 8).

In her letter she ends up putting the guilt on him, “don’t be my murderer,” another example of psychological manipulation.

Even after being rejected, she continues to pursue, feeling no shame, only regret that her first attempt failed.

Convinced that her guilt cannot be greater, she thinks, “what have I to lose?” making no distinction between temptation and the deed itself (final rationalization).

Myrrha (book 10)

Crimes of passion culminate in the story of Myrrha who commits incest with her father, a deed so vile that Ovid urges his readers not to believe it. Myrhha’s illicit lust was kindled not by Cupid but the hateful Furies. Praying to the gods for help, she recognizes her immoral desire as a crime at first, but no sooner is the prayer off her lips than she begins to rationalize her way to the forbidden conclusion she wants: Nature permits relations that arbitrary human laws prohibit; other lands allow such behavior.

The fruit of this unholy union, rescued from the myrrh tree she has become, is Adonis, leading into a story of unfortunate love with Venus.



Cephalus & Procris (book 7)

Procris was the daughter of Erechtheus, king of Athens.

An ironic story of a couple whose intense love causes each to doubt the other, leading to unloving actions, traps, spying, eventually death. The painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin in the Louvre depicts Aurora watching over a sleeping Cephalus (1810).

Perhaps to idealize their love, Ovid omits details in Apollodorus 3.15 where Procris obtained the spear by sleeping with Minos, and in other accounts she actually goes to bed with disguised Cephalus, committing adultery with her own husband.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare refers to this story ironically, having his Pyramus and Thisbe swear by the true love of “Shafalus and Procrus,” unaware of their fateful relationship.

Meleager & Atalanta (book 8)

The famous boar hunt is described in Iliad 9.529-99. Homer does not include the details of Meleager’s love for Atalanta (which may have been invented by Euripides in his lost tragedy) or his death by burning the magic log.

His mother Althaea’s soliloquy resembles Euripidean drama. The struggle of choosing between relatives was a common tragic theme; compare to Medea. Althaea is also the mother of Deianira (Hercules’ wife, see below) and the sister of Danae, mother of Perseus.  Aeschylus uses her to illustrate crimes of passion in Libation Bearers 605.

The relief below depicting the famou boar hunt is from a Roman sarcophagus, 200 AD.

Hercules & Deianira (book 9)

Sculpture of Hercules by Baccio Bandinelli (1534) in the town square of Florence (Fiorenza), Italy

Sophocles recounts the story of Deianira and Heracles (the Greek form of his name) in his tragedy Trachiniae (Women of Trachis), which differs from Ovid in several ways. Sophocles’ heroine  never contemplates murdering her rival Iole, and is more noble and sympathetic than the Deianira seen here. Ovid also omits her remorseful suicide prior to Hercules’ return home (but see below). In Sophocles, Heracles comes to recognize his true enemy to be the centaur Nessus, who bought his revenge through this poison; as Sophocles puts it, “the dead return to kill the living.” Sophocles has the dying Nessus tell Deianira that if she uses the potion from his blood, her husband “will never love another,” spoken with intentional irony as his death puts an end to his amorous exploits. In Ovid’s account Hercules places the blame on Juno (literally Saturnia in the text, as Juno was the daughter of Saturn).

Ovid’s treatment of Deianira is more sympathetic in his Heroides 9 (a series of love letters from mythical women to their absent lovers). In her letter she tells her husband that a vengeful goddess could not crush him but now Iole has placed a yoke on him. “Venus has harmed you more than Juno.” Love has conquered him when a thousand beasts and enemies could not. At the close of her letter, she prepares to kill herself once she learns the mistake she has made by trusting the words of Nessus.

Deianira is the sister of Meleager; Bacchylides’ version has Hercules meet the handsome Meleager in Hades and asks for a wife as beautiful. Hercules’ fate somewhat parallels the story of Meleager, in that the hero moves from an epic height to a tragic fall at the hands of a woman, but in Hercules’ case, the harm is unintended.

Hercules is described as either the son of Amphitryon or the son of Jupiter/Jove, who came to his mother Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon one night (Apollodorus 2.4.8). Thus Hercules’ stepmother is Juno, who constantly tormented him out of jealousy. When he was a child, she sent serpents to kill him in his crib, which he strangled (Hercules mentions this feat during the battle with Achelous). In a story not in Ovid (see Hyginus 2.43), Jove placed the infant at the breast of sleeping Juno, so that by drinking the goddess’ milk, Hercules would be endowed with divine qualities. When Juno awoke, she thrust the child from her, and the milk spewing from his mouth formed the Milky Way galaxy (the word galaxy comes from the Greek word for milk). In Euripides’ tragedy Heracles, she orders the goddess of madness to drive him into an insane rage in which he slaughters his wife and children (a different family than in the present story).

Nessus was pierced first by Cupid’s dart before Hercules’ arrow; his father Ixion lusted after Juno and now is punished in Hades bound to a wheel (see earlier notes on book 4).

Rumor is based on truth as well as falsehood; Hercules conquered the city of Oechalia in order to win Iole. (See the description of the House of Rumor in book 12).

In his Inferno (c. 12), Dante depicts Nessus carrying the author across a river of blood. See the painting “The Rape of Deianira” by Guido Reni (1630s).

Read my article on Heracles in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides.

Hercules recites his mighty labors which he accomplished to atone for killing his children in a fit of madness (see Euripides’ Heracles). Ovid doesn’t follow any traditional order, and includes some deeds that are not in the usual list of twelve (see Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, for details).

  • Busiris was king of Egypt who sacrificed foreigners on the altar.
  • Antaeus was the son of Earth, and gained his strength from her whenever he was touching the ground. Hercules lifted him off the ground, and broke his back.
  • Geryon was a king in Spain who had three bodies joined at the waist; Hercules killed him and stole his herd of cattle (the 10th labor in Apollodorus 2.5.10, alluded to in Hesiod’s Theogony 287-94).
  • Cerberus was the three-headed dog that guarded the way to Hades (12th labor in Apollodorus, also mentioned in Iliad 8.368Odyssey 11.622-6). See below the 6th century BCE vase painting (in the Louvre). Hercules wears the skin of the Nemean lion.
  • The Cretan bull was sent out of the sea by Poseidon to King Minos to be sacrificed, but Minos substituted another bull instead, angering the god who caused the bull to run wild, terrorizing the island. Heracles captured the bull for his 7th labor (Apollodorus 2.5.7).
  • For his fifth labor, Hercules diverted a river to clean out the manure in the stables of Augeas, king of Elis.
  • For his sixth labor, he frightened away a flock of birds from the Stymphalian lake.
  • For his third labor he hunted for a year and captured a golden-horned deer, sacred to Artemis, on Mount Parthenius.
  • He stole the golden belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, for his ninth labor.
  • He killed a 100-headed dragon which guarded the golden apples. Apollodorus (2.5.11) tells an alternate story of the 11th labor: following the advice of Prometheus, Hercules asks Atlas to retrieve the apples while he holds up the sky on his shoulders. Ovid doesn’t mention the connection to Atlas here but alludes to a different version of the story in book 4.631-62.
  • On his 4th labor, according to Apollodorus, Hercules battled Centaurs while hunting a boar in Arcady. To the right see “Hercules fighting the Centaur” by Giovanni da Bologna (1600).
  • For his 2nd labor, Hercules killed the hydra of the Lernaean swamp, a monster with nine heads, one of which was immortal. When he cut off any of the other heads, two would grow back in its place. When the hydra was dead, Hercules dipped his arrows in its poison. The vase painting below from the 6th c. BC is in the Getty museum.
  • His 8th labor was to capture the man-eating horses of Diomedes.
  • Traditionally, Hercules’ first labor, assigned to him by Eurystheus, was to kill the Nemean lion, whose skin was impervious to his arrows, so he strangled it; afterward he wore the skins as invulnerable armor. Hesiod describes several of these legendary monsters; the lion, the hydra, the chimera, and Cerberus all shared the same parents Echidna and Typhoeus (Theogony 327).

Before dying, Hercules gives his bow to Philoctetes, who is destined to kill Paris with it during the Trojan War. (See Sophocles’ tragedy about him)

Hercules’ apotheosis (transformation into a divine being) foreshadows that of Aeneas, Romulus, and Caesar in books 14-15.

After Hercules’ death, his old nemesis Eurystheus continued to persecute his sons, who sought protection in Athens, the subject of Euripides’ play Heraclidae.


Orpheus & Euridice (book 10)

This story has influenced numerous musical works, including the earliest opera (according to Grout, History of Western Music), Euridice by Peri and Caccini (1600), and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the first popular opera (1607), and other works by Gluck, Liszt, and Offenbach. Another interesting adaptation of the story is the surrealist film Orphee by Jean Cocteau.

Orpheus was the son of the muse Calliope, from whom he gets his musical gifts. Orpheus also sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, overcoming the enticing voices of the Sirens (who lured men to their deaths) with his more beautiful music.

Orpheus reminds the ruler of Hades that Love had once conquered him as well, reflecting back on the abduction of Proserpina in book 5. At Orpheus’ singing, those typical characters punished in Hades (Tantalus, Tityus, Sisyphus, Ixion; see book 4) stop their labors to listen.

Later sources claim that the head of Orpheus continued to sing and pronounce oracles, until Apollo, fearing competition with his own oracle at Delphi, silenced him (see Graves for sources).

In the ancient world, Orpheus was thought to have founded the mystery religion of Orphism, based in part on the death and rebirth of Dionysos-Zagreus, torn apart by the Titans, a fate shared by Orpheus at the hands of maenads (book 11). Orphic mysteries focused on purifying the immortal soul for the next life. (Apollodorus 1.3.2)

For all its influence, Ovid uses the story primarily as a frame to lead into other stories of ill-fated lovers about which Orpheus sings.

The painting of Orpheus leading Euridice from the Underworld is by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1861).

Venus and Adonis (book 10)

Myrrha’s incest with her father produced a child; when she is transformed into a tree, the child struggles to break free in a most unusual birth. Once he reaches maturity, the beautiful Adonis catches the attention of Venus, ironically an accidental victim of Cupid’s arrow. In an example of meta-meta-narrative, Orpheus sings of Venus telling the story of Hippomenes and Atalanta (beloved of Meleager, book 8) who turned into lions, to warn Adonis of the wild beasts in the forests. The youth ignores her cautionary tale and is killed by a boar. Both stories continue Ovid’s theme of ill-fated love.


Philemon & Baucis (book 8)

This story is unique to Ovid. It provides both the actual and thematic center of the poem, a mini-theodicy demonstrating the justice of god, along with the contrasting story of Erysichthon. Each tale provides an unusual portrait of the gods acting justly by rewarding virtue and punishing wickedness: a generous couple feeds the gods and are turned into trees, to live together forever; in the second case Erysichthon (son of Cecrops) cuts down a sacred tree and is punished with hunger (poetic justice).

Brooks Otis sees Ovid holding up true, mutual, heterosexual passionate love as a model, in classical literature a rare theme (tragedies were usually not about love unless it was unnatural).

Iphis (book 9)

Born a girl but not exposed, disguised as boy, then falls in love with another girl, but resists temptation until turned into a boy. Her moral restraint is in sharp contrast to Byblis. The reference to Inachus’ daughter: the Greeks associated the Egyptian Isis with Io who settled in Egypt; the horns of the moon similar to cow horns. The worship of Isis was a popular mystery cult with Roman women.

Pygmalion (book 10)

Pygmalion’s chaste love turns stone to flesh, in contrast with the prostitutes in the preceding story who turn to stone. Ovid apparently invented the connection between Pygmalion and his great-granddaughter Myrrha. This myth inspired Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name, perhaps better known as the musical My Fair Lady. (painting by Jean Leon Gerome, 1890).

Peleus and Thetis (book 11)

This couple’s romance is important for initiating the events that would lead to the Trojan War. First told in the lost epic Cypria, at their wedding Eris the goddess of Strife was uninvited but showed up anyway, tossing into the party an apple on which was written “to the fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite fought over the prize, demanding that Zeus decide the issue. The god wisely left it to Paris, prince of Troy, to judge this beauty contest. Aphrodite won the decision by promising Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as a bribe, which was Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. And the rest, as they say, is history … or in this case, mythology.

Book 11

Like the Roman god Janus who looks backwards and forwards, book 11 relates stories which reflect back on the three main themes thus far, while preparing for Section IV. Orpheus’ death at the hands of the maenads resembles Pentheus’ similar fate (book 3). Midas’ golden touch reminds us that, like Semele, one must be careful when requesting a gift from the gods (Ovid provides the earliest version of this famous story). The rape of Chione by Apollo and Mercury points back to the divine seductions of Section I. Bacchus’ punishment of the maenads and Apollo’s curse on Midas, giving him ass’s ears, follow the theme of the avenging gods in Section II. The tragedy of Ceyx and Alcyone is another case of unfortunate love in Section III. The birth of Achilles, the building of the walls of Troy, and the ill-fated love of Aesacus look forward to the next section starting in book 12 when Ovid presents his version of the Trojan War.

Originally published online February 2000. Latest revision September 2018.

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