Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 48 – Dryope, and an incestuous couple

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Biblis (smaller version) (1884), oil on canvas, 48 x 79 cm, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India. Wikimedia Commons.

After he has told us the story of the birth of Hercules, Ovid uses Alcmena’s link with Hercules’ former lover Iole to introduce a relatively obscure story of transformation, that of Dryope.

The Story

Iole tells the tale of her sister Dryope, the fairest in all Oechalia. She had been raped by Apollo, then married Andraemon, by whom she had a baby boy. When her son was only one and still at the breast, Dryope and Iole came to a lake, and picked crimson water-lotus flowers to please the infant. They were horrified to see drops of blood on the foliage; these later turned out to be from the nymph Lotis, who had been transformed into that bush after fleeing from Priapus.

As Dryope tried to run away, she found herself rooted to the spot:
But ignorant of all this, Dryope,
alarmed, decided she must now return;
so, having first adored the hallowed nymphs,
upright she stood, and would have moved away,
but both her feet were tangled in a root.
There, as she struggled in its tightening hold,
she could move nothing save her upper parts;
and growing from that root, live bark began
to gather slowly upward from the ground,
spreading around her, till it touched her loins:
in terror when she saw the clinging growth,
she would have torn her hair out by the roots,
but, when she clutched at it, her hands were filled
with lotus leaves grown up from her changed head.

Dryope had been transformed into a Lotus Tree, for picking the lotus flowers. Her distraught husband came, and took his son away to be cared for by a nurse.

By the end of Iole’s story, Alcmena is in tears. They are then interrupted by Iolaus, Hercules’ former charioteer who took part in the Calydonian boar hunt, who had just been rejuvenated. That occurred as a result of the intervention of Hercules (now a god) and Hebe (his heavenly wife).

Ovid also briefly mentions the sons of Callirhoe, the daughter of Achelous, whose years were advanced by Hebe to allow them to avenge their father’s murder. This in turn resulted in discord among the gods over Iolaus’ rejuvenation. Ovid uses this aside to link to the story of twins, born to Miletus and the beautiful nymph Cyanee: Byblis and Caunus.

This is the first of two stories concerning ‘unnatural love’ which conclude book 9 of the Metamorphoses.

Byblis was strongly attracted to her twin brother Caunus. At first this was nothing more than sisterly love, but it grew into something more passionate, if not obsessive. Ovid provides long soliloquies to illustrate Byblis’ confused emotional state.

Eventually, Byblis decided the best way ahead was to write to her brother confessing her love for him. She did this on wax tablets, but kept erasing her words, until she eventually arrived at a long and elaborate message, given in full by Ovid, which she signed with her signet ring. She despatched a slave to take the tablets to Caunus.

On starting to read his sister’s message, Caunus flew into a temper, threw the tablets to the ground, and angrily sent the slave back to Byblis, with a clear message that his sister’s proposition was shameful.

In another soliloquy, Byblis blamed herself for getting it badly wrong, saying that she shouldn’t have put her feelings in writing, but should have told them orally to Caunus. She then pondered whether the slave had made some error, or that her brother had mistaken her true love for him for straight lust.

Becoming more confused and upset all the time, Byblis beat herself, tore her clothing, and ran through the countryside, until she fell on the ground by a forest. The wood nymphs there tried to comfort her, to no avail:
without an answer Byblis fell from them,
and clutched the green herbs with her fingers, while
her tears continued to fall on the grass.
They say the weeping Naiads gave to her
a vein of tears which always flows there from
her sorrows — nothing better could be done.
Immediately, as drops of pitch drip forth
from the gashed pine, or sticky bitumen
distils out from the rich and heavy earth,
or as the frozen water at the approach
of a soft-breathing wind melts in the sun;
so Byblis, sad descendant of the Sun,
dissolving in her own tears, was there changed
into a fountain; which to this late day,
in all those valleys has no name but hers,
and issues underneath a dark oak-tree.

Byblis was transformed into a spring of her own tears.

The Paintings

Ovid’s story of Dryope has had no impact on the visual arts, and the only graphical representation which I can find is Baur’s engraving for an illustrated edition of the Metamorphoses.

Johann Wilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Dryope Transformed into a Lotus Tree (c 1639), engraving for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Baur’s engraving from about 1639 shows Dryope and Iole distant, at the right. As Dryope transforms into a Lotus Tree, she is still holding her son, and Iole is praying to the heavens. Presumably the two males in the foreground are Dryope’s husband and a friend.

Despite its sensitive subject of an incestuous relationship, the story of Byblis and Caunus has appeared in a few paintings. In each case, they show Byblis’ transformation into a spring, or rather they provide an opportunity to paint a young nude woman outdoors.

Jean-Jacques Henner (1829–1905), Byblis Turning into a Spring (1867), oil on canvas, 88 x 138 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Dijon, Dijon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Jacques Henner includes a spring of sorts, and some garments which have been cast off, not exactly torn, in his Byblis Turning into a Spring (1867).

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Biblis (smaller version) (1884), oil on canvas, 48 x 79 cm, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India. Wikimedia Commons.

This is a smaller version of Bouguereau’s painting of Biblis from 1884, the larger one having been exhibited at the Salon in 1885. His spring is more substantial, but there is nothing to suggest that this was not just another carefully posed nude.

Armand Point (1860–1932), Biblis Changed into a Spring (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This undated version painted by Armand Point (1860–1932), Biblis Changed into a Spring, reads a little more faithfully to Ovid’s story, but this image of it is too poor to see other potential narrative elements such as the figures in front of the temple at the left.

Even in the nineteenth century, artists were reluctant to rise to Ovid’s challenge, and tackle the issue of incestuous desire. That Ovid was prepared to do so nearly two millenia previously shows how radical his writing was, and remains. The last myth in Book 9 concerns a transgender relationship, which many in the twenty-first century seem to still be struggling with.

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.