Over the last eight months, I have stepped through each of the stories in the first seven and a half books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, summarising their verbal narrative and showing some of the best paintings which tell those stories.
To mark this halfway point, I have selected eleven of the very best stories and the finest paintings. The full list of articles and an index of all the characters involved is provided here.
Daphne, and how the laurel became the crown (Book 1)
The god Apollo is completely smitten with Daphne, a water-nymph, but Daphne wants nothing to do with him. Even before she was struck by Cupid’s lead arrow, she had resolved to remain a virgin, rejecting every suitor, and events only strengthen her resolution.
His heart on fire for her, and his mind wandering dangerously towards raw lust, Apollo starts to chase Daphne through the countryside. As he runs he breathlessly tries to persuade her to stop and give in to his desires, but she keeps running just out of his reach.
Eventually the pair tire. Recognising her imminent fate, Daphne calls on her father, a river god, to save her. Before she has finished uttering her prayer, her body starts to transform into a laurel tree, leaving Apollo embracing her trunk and kissing the wood.
Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne (c 1470-80) is one of the earliest, and remains one of the most famous, depictions of this myth. Apollo’s pursuit has ended, he has reached his quarry and is embracing her, as she changes into a laurel. Already her arms have become exuberant bushes, and her feet are rapidly rooting into the ground.
Jupiter & Io, Mercury & Argus, Pan & Syrinx (Book 1)
In one of his most elaborately structured sections, Ovid tells three myths with four metamorphoses ingeniously embedded into a single story.
The outermost story consists of Jupiter’s rape of Io, who he then transforms into a white cow for safe keeping. This leads to the embedded story of Mercury murdering Argus, whose hundred eyes are then used to transform the peacock. Within that story, Mercury tells Argus the story of Pan’s attempt to rape Syrinx. Finally, Io is transformed back to human form.
Jupiter meets Io when she is out walking, and taking a fancy to her, offers to lead her safely through the hazards of the forest – a pretext for abduction and rape. Io flees from him, but Jupiter brings her to a halt by cloaking the surface of the earth with a dense cloud. He then rapes her.
Juno, watching from the heavens, suspects that her husband is again up to no good, so she descends to earth to disperse the clouds. Knowing that his wife is on his trail, Jupiter quickly transforms Io into a white cow, which deepens Juno’s suspicions, so she asks for the cow.
Jupiter is now trapped, and has no option but to make a gift of Io to his wife, who then entrusts the cow to the care of the ever-watchful Argus, whose head is covered with a hundred eyes, which take it in turns to sleep.
Io’s life as a cow comes as a shock, and is miserable for her. She manages to communicate her name to her father by scratching it out with a hoof, but Argus then removes her to a mountain to graze. Jupiter takes pity on Io, and devises a way of getting her back by killing Argus. He therefore calls Mercury to murder Argus.
Mercury’s first task is to lull Argus to sleep. He tries playing his reed (‘Pan’) pipes, but then resorts to telling Argus the story of Pan and Syrinx, another myth like that of Apollo and Daphne, in which Pan lusts after the beautiful Naiad Syrinx. Part way through this story, Mercury has already put Argus to sleep, but Ovid completes the story of Pan and Syrinx for the benefit of the reader.
When Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx has almost succeeded, Syrinx implores her sisters to transform her. Just as Daphne before, when Pan reaches her, she has been changed into reeds. As the wind blows, so those reeds emit plaintive music – the origin of reed pipes.
Returning to the story of Mercury and Argus, once his victim is sound asleep, Mercury beheads him and throws his head from a cliff, ending his watch over Io the cow. In the third transformation, the hundred eyes of the dead Argus become the eyes on the feathers of Juno’s peacocks.
Juno expresses her anger at Io the cow, eventually driving her as far as the river Nile in Egypt. Jupiter and Juno then make peace, and the king of the gods promises his wife that Io will trouble her no more, as Io is transformed back into human form.
The most popular scene in these stories is that of Mercury lulling Argus to sleep, although few artists show Argus’ hundred eyes. Abraham Bloemaert is an exception, in his carefully composed Mercury, Argus and Io (c 1592). Mercury here plays his flute at the left, as Argus falls asleep in front of him, his additional eyes visible over the surface of his head. In the distance at the right is Io as a white cow.
The far figure on a green hill may be part of a multiplex narrative, as it could represent Mercury holding the head of Argus aloft after he had murdered him.
Phaëthon, the Heliades, Cycnus (Book 2)
Having been raised by his mother, Clymene, Phaëthon is the child of a single-parent family. His absent father is reputed to be Phoebus, the god of the sun. Phaëthon’s friend mocks him about this, so his mother despatches Phaëthon to visit his father in the Land of Dawn.
Phaëthon there asks his presumed father Phoebus to give him a token to prove his paternity. Phoebus promises Phaëthon anything which he desires, so the youth asks to take charge of his father’s chariot of the sun for a day.
In the mythical model of the sun, it is drawn across the heavens by Phoebus’ chariot, with four horses in harness. When trying to dissuade Phaëthon from his wish, his father explains the great challenges which lie in controlling the chariot, as it crosses the constellations, and how difficult it is to restrain the team of horses.
Despite Phoebus repeatedly telling his son how dangerous and disastrous his wish would prove, Phaëthon is insistent, and his father is bound by his oath. Phaëthon then leaps into the chariot, departs on its course, and immediately loses control, the sun running off its track. This brings the chariot too close to the earth, which starts melting the polar regions, burning crops and forests, and destroying great cities.
The Ethiopian people have their skin darkened as a result, and all the rivers of the earth are turned to vapour in the heat. The goddess of the Earth appeals to the gods, forcing Jupiter to respond by throwing one of his thunderbolts at Phaëthon, who is killed instantly and falls to earth in flames. The chariot lies broken, its horses scattered.
The charred remains of Phaëthon are buried by Naiads in a distant tomb, and his mother Clymene is left to mourn his death. Phaëthon’s lamenting sisters are then transformed into poplar trees, and their tears into amber (electrum). Finally, Phaëthon’s beloved friend Cycnus is transformed into a swan.
Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton, which was started in about 1604, is the best of several superb paintings of Ovid’s story. He seems to have reworked this over the following three or four years. Rubens has elaborated the scene to augment the chaos: accompanying Phaëthon in the chariot are the Hours (Horae, some shown with butterfly wings), who are thrown into turmoil, and time falls out of joint as Phaëthon tumbles out of the chariot.
Cadmus and the Dragon’s Teeth (Book 3)
Following Europa’s abduction to the island of Crete and rape there by Jupiter, her brother Cadmus is sent on an unsuccessful mission to find her. Unable to return home to report his failure, he consults the oracle at Delphi as to where he should settle. He is told to follow a cow which he meets in a lonely land, and where it settles, to found a city in Boeotia, in central Greece.
He does this, and kisses the ground in thanks for guidance to the site of his new city. Intending to make a ritual sacrifice to Jupiter, he sends his men off to find a spring to provide water for the purpose. Entering ancient forest, they find a cave with a spring, but it is occupied by a huge and fearsome draconian serpent, which starts killing the men.
Cadmus is puzzled by the delay in their return, so enters the forest to find them. He walks into their bodies, with the serpent towering proudly over them. Cadmus swears to avenge their deaths, and throws a huge rock at the serpent, which is not even grazed by the blow. Cadmus then throws his javelin at the monster, which impales it against the trunk of an old oak. Driving the javelin deeper into its throat, Cadmus kills the serpent.
As Cadmus stares at the dead monster, a voice utters the prophecy that, one day, he too will be a serpent and will be stared at. Next, Minerva appears and commands him to sow the dragon’s teeth in the ground to generate men. No sooner he has done that than the teeth transform into warriors, who fight one another in a miniature civil war, until just five are left. Cadmus and the survivors then proceed to build that city in Boeotia, which becomes Thebes.
Rubens’ workshop is credited with making a fine oil sketch of Cadmus Sowing Dragon’s Teeth between 1610-90, which Jacob Jordaens turned into this superb finished painting of Cadmus and Minerva.
Cadmus stands at the left, Minerva directing him from the air. The warriors are shown in different states, some still emerging from the teeth, others killing one another. Behind Cadmus is the serpent, dead and visibly edentulous.
Actaeon’s fatal mistake (Book 3)
Thebes grew into a city from which Actaeon, the founder’s grandson, went hunting. Having enjoyed considerable success earlier in the day, he calls on his companions to stop now that it has grown hot. Unknown to Actaeon, Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt, had a sacred wood nearby, in which she too had grown tired after her morning’s hunting. She had just reached a cave with her favourite pool where her companion nymphs could help her bathe.
Actaeon inadvertently enters the wood and, guided by the Fates, stumbles across Diana, naked in the pool. The nymphs take fright, shrieking and beating their breasts. They quickly group around Diana to shield her body from Actaeon’s eyes, but as the goddess stands head and shoulders above them, this is ineffective.
Diana wishes that she had her bow and arrows to hand, but with only the water available, she splashes it on him in vengeance, transforming him into a great stag. Actaeon flees. As he stands wondering what to do, his own hunting dogs catch up with him and attack, inflicting wound after wound. Actaeon’s companions see the dogs’ success in attacking their quarry, and call in vain to him as he lies dying.
Corot’s Diana and Actaeon (1836) captures the earliest moment, and uses multiplex narrative to tell the whole story a couple of centuries after the technique fell into disuse in painting. He also achieves a perfect balance between his marvellous woodland landscape and the figures telling the story.
The most prominent figures of Diana and her attendant nymphs are behaving like real people, climbing a branch bent over the water, and soaking up the sunshine. At the right, just about to run straight into them, is Actaeon with one of his hunting dogs. Diana, appropriately crowned, stands pointing to the distant figure at the left – which is Actaeon again, antlers growing from his head as the goddess transforms him into a stag.
Tiresias, Echo and Narcissus (Book 3)
In an idle moment, Jupiter and Juno are arguing over whether the man or woman gets more pleasure from sex. They refer the matter to Tiresias, who has apparently changed gender twice, and therefore is presumed to know both sides of the bed. When a young man, he disturbed a pair of snakes copulating, which caused him to become female. Over seven years later, he chanced upon the same event, and by striking the snakes again reverted to being male.
Tiresias sides with Jupiter’s claim that the woman derives greater pleasure than the man, for which he incurs Juno’s wrath. As his punishment, she blinds him, to which Jupiter (unable to reverse his wife’s vindictive act) compensates by giving Tiresias prophetic powers. This links to the story of Echo and Narcissus, as the water nymph Liriope – who had been raped by Cephisus – brought her young son Narcissus to Tiresias for him to pronounce on his future. True to form, the prophecy is cryptic:
If he but fail to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun
When Narcissus was approaching manhood at the age of fifteen, Echo fell in love with him. She was a nymph who had originally been too loquacious for Juno, who transformed her power of speech so that she could only repeat the words of others. Ovid illustrates this wonderfully with a passage in which Echo’s echoed words invite Narcissus to make love to her.
Ovid then reveals the curse which afflicts young Narcissus: one youth, whom he had scorned earlier, prayed that Narcissus should never be able to win his love, which Nemesis implemented for them. This became manifest when Narcissus, slaking his thirst in a lonely pool, first saw himself: that was the moment that the young man fell in love with his own reflection.
Being unable to embrace his reflection, Narcissus pines for himself, and cannot eat or rest for his burning self-love. Echo follows him around, watching him being consumed by this passion for himself, until he lies down on the grass and says “Farewell!” Echo repeats his valediction, and Narcissus dies, then to be transformed into the Narcissus flower.
A couple of narcissus flowers are seen at the far right edge of John William Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus (1903), which combines the young man staring longingly at his reflection, with the forlorn and near-silent figure of Echo stood at the left.
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.