Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 7 – The Raven and Crow, and more

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Erichthonius Discovered by the Daughters of Cecrops (c 1616), oil, 217.9 × 317 cm, Palais Liechtenstein, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

After the dreadful story of Callisto’s abuse, Ovid returns to the image of Juno riding high in her chariot with peacocks adorned with the eyes of dead Argus. This leads on to one of the more intricate and interwoven sections of Metamorphoses, with the overall theme of the penalties of gossip and telling tales about others.

This first section starts with the story of how the raven was changed from a white bird to black, and in the course of that Ovid embeds the stories of Minerva and Ericthonius, the daughter of Coroneus changed into a crow, Nictimene’s incest, and Apollo killing Coronis. Added as a sequel to the end is the related story of Ocyroe and Aesculapius, bringing a total of six myths and four transformations in less than 150 lines of Latin verse.

The Story

The outermost story starts with the raven, then white and devoted to Apollo, learning that Coronis, who was Apollo’s lover, had been unfaithful to the god. The raven then rushes off to tell Apollo, only to be chased by an inquisitive crow. The raven tells the crow about Coronis, to which the crow cautions the raven from reporting it to the god, telling the raven that it was his ‘faithful’ reporting of such incidents which caused his downfall.

The crow then tells the raven part of the myth of Ericthonius, who had arisen without a mother (from the spilled semen of Hephaestus when he tried to rape Minerva, which Ovid omits). Minerva had left a small basket containing the infant Ericthonius in the care of three maiden sisters, the daughters of Cecrops, named Herse, Pandrosos, and Aglauros, with strict instructions not to open the basket.

The last of these could not resist the temptation, and discovered that the basket contained the baby and a snake. The crow saw this, and hurried off to Minerva, who promptly stopped protecting the crow, and degraded him in the order of birds to be below an owl, which she brought into her protection.

The crow then reveals that he (or she) was originally the beautiful daughter of Coroneus, king of Phocis. One day she was pursued by Neptune, who intended to rape her. When she called for divine assistance (much in the the way of Daphne and Syrinx), Minerva responded by changing her into a crow, and adopting her:
“I fled from that sea-shore,
to fields of shifting sands that all my steps
delayed: and in despair upon the Gods
and all mankind I called for aid, but I
was quite alone and helpless. Presently
the chaste Minerva, me, a virgin, heard
and me assistance gave: for as my arms
implored the Heavens, downy feathers grew
from out the flesh; and as I tried to cast
my mantle from my shoulders, wings appeared
upon my tender sides; and as I strove
to beat my naked bosom with my hands,
nor hands remained nor naked breast to beat.
“I ran, and as I sped the sands no more
delayed me; I was soaring from the ground;
and as I winged the air, Minerva chose
me for a life-companion; but alas,
although my life was blameless, fate or chance
deprived me of Minerva’s loving aid;

The crow then explains that Minerva’s owl, who displaced him, was created when Nictimene committed incest with her father: her punishment was to be transformed into an owl.

The raven dismisses the crow, and hastens off to tell Apollo, who immediately falls into a rage, picks up his bow (with which he had killed Python just after the Flood, in Book 1), and looses an arrow into the breast of Coronis, his unfaithful lover:
And when Apollo, Phoebus, heard the tale
the busy Raven made such haste to tell,
he dropped his plectrum and his laurel wreath,
and his bright countenance went white with rage.
He seized his trusted arms, and having bent
his certain bow, pierced with a deadly shaft
that bosom which so often he had pressed
against his own.

As she lies dying, Coronis reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Apollo is then filled with remorse, but unable to revive his lover, whose funeral pyre is already built. Apollo then rescues the unborn baby from the body of Coronis, and carries the child to Chiron the Centaur for him to look after.

Apollo then vents his anger on the raven:
Then to him
he called the silly raven, high in hopes
of large requital due for all his words;
but, angry with his meddling ways, the God
turned the white feathers of that bird to black
and then forbade forever more to perch
among the favoured birds whose plumes are white.

The story of the raven and the crow now complete, Ovid leads us straight into the next, about Ocyroe, the beautiful daughter of Chiron the Centaur. Centaurs have the upper body (head, arms and chest) of a human, and the body (forelegs and hindlegs) of a horse, giving them a total of six limbs.

Ocyroe has the gift of ‘second sight’, and as soon as she sees Aesculapius, the infant son of Apollo and his dead lover Coronis, Ocyroe pronounces that the baby will grow to bring health to the world (he became god of medicine), but would be destroyed by Jupiter before being returned as a god. She also warns her father, Chiron, that he would be tormented by the blood of a serpent to the point of imploring his death, which will be granted him by the Fates.

These prophecies are not welcomed by the Fates, who take away her gift and her power of speech, and she is transformed into a mare:
And as she wailed the words became confused
and scarcely understood; and soon her speech
was only as the whinny of a mare.
Down to the meadow’s green her arms were stretched;
her fingers joined together, and smooth hoofs
made of five nails a single piece of horn.
Her face and neck were lengthened, and her hair
swept downward as a tail; the scattered locks
that clung around her neck were made a mane,
tossed over to the right. Her voice and shape
were altogether changed, and since that day
the change has given her a different name.

Ovid not only threads the consequences of gossip and ‘telling tales’ through these stories, but plays on names too: Coronis and Coroneus are derived from the Greek root for crow and raven, for example the noun κοράκι (koráki) which can mean either bird. Latin uses a related root starting in cor-.

The Paintings

These stories have not appealed much to painters, although they have appeared more in literary works.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Erichthonius Discovered by the Daughters of Cecrops (c 1616), oil, 217.9 × 317 cm, Palais Liechtenstein, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens, the most prolific painter of myth, saw the opportunity for two versions of Erichthonius Discovered by the Daughters of Cecrops, of which this, from about 1616, is the better. Aglauros has just given way to temptation and taken the top off the basket entrusted to the three sisters by Minerva, revealing the infant Ericthonius and a small snake inside.

To the right is a fountain in honour of the Ephesian Artemis (Roman Diana), distinctive with her multiple breasts, each of which is a source of water. At the left, in the distance, is a herm, at the foot of which is a peacock, suggesting that Juno may not be far away either, although this myth concerns a crow and Minerva, neither of which are visible.

The only story of these which has attained any popularity in painting is Apollo’s murder of his unfaithful and pregnant lover Coronis.

Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652–1725), Apollo and Coronis (date not known), pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over black chalk, 26.5 x 34.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1961), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Foggini’s fine pen and ink drawing of Apollo and Coronis, probably from around 1690-1700, shows a moment just after Apollo’s arrow has left his bow. His lyre is at his feet, dropped in haste and anger at the message brought by the raven, who is flying above him. Coronis holds her hands up in self-defence, and the arrow is presumably in mid-flight; her fate is now sealed.

Domenichino (1581-1641) and assistants, Apollo slaying Coronis (1616-18), fresco originally in Villa Aldobrandini, transferred to canvas and mounted on board, 199.4 x 89.5 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1958), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

This superb section of fresco by Domenichino, showing Apollo slaying Coronis from 1616-18, depicts the couple a moment later, with Apollo’s arrow embedded deep in Coronis’ chest. She is here trying to draw it out from her. This fresco was originally in the garden pavilion of the Villa Aldobrandini, in Frascati, Italy.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Apollo and Coronis (1606-08), oil on copper, 12.6 x 17.4 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

My final painting I offer in two different copies. The original, painted in miniature onto copper, was made by Adam Elsheimer: Apollo and Coronis from 1606-08. However, this now appears very dark, and its details are clearer in a contemporary copy (below) attributed to Johann König, a follower of Elsheimer. Coronis, who is visibly pregnant but hardly at full term, is laid out naked at the left, Apollo’s arrow having been extracted and left on the ground. Next to her is a tiger (or similar).

Apollo is bent down, picking herbs with which to anoint her, from a bed of plants which have wilted and are dying. In the distance, a small party of satyrs is busy making a funeral pyre on which to lay the dead Coronis.

Johann König (attr) (1586-1642), after Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Apollo and Coronis (c 1607), oil on copper, 17.4 × 22.9 cm, Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

There are some paintings of the later life of Aesculapius, which I have discussed in another article, but none which appears to depict any of the story in this part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.