Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 63 – First casualties at Troy, and gender change

Virgil Solis (1514–1562) Caenis and Neptune (c 1560), engraving for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XII, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Borne on the fair winds brought by the near-sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia, the thousand Greek ships arrive at the shores of Troy. Battle commences, and there are early casualties on both sides.

The Story

Ovid continues with a lengthy ekphrasis on Rumour, to announce that the Trojans became aware that the Greek force was on its way, and were ready guarding its shores. When the Greeks land, the first man ashore, Protesilaus, is quickly killed by Hector.

Achilles then flies off in his chariot, in pursuit of Hector or Cycnus to redress the balance for the invading force. Finding Cycnus, Achilles drives his chariot at him and implants his spear in Cycnus’ shield. But this makes little impression. Cycnus responds by throwing his lance at Achilles, but he too fails to achieve much impact. After a second attempt, Achilles is still thwarted, and becomes angry with his enemy.

To test his weapon, Achilles throws his spear at Menoetes, pierces his armour, and kills him instantly. He tries the exact same combination of spear and throwing arm against Cycnus’ shoulder, but the projectile just bounces off his armour. For a moment, Achilles thinks that he may have drawn blood, but realises it is that of Menoetes, not Cycnus.

Achilles then grows more angry still, so draws his sword and attacks Cycnus at close quarters. This only blunts the sword:
Achilles could not hold himself for rage,
but furious, with his sword-hilt and his shield
he battered wildly the uncovered face
and hollow-temples of his Trojan foe.
Cygnus gave way; Achilles rushed on him,
buffeting fiercely, so that he could not
recover from the shock. Fear seized upon
Cygnus, and darkness swam before his eyes.
Then, as he moved back with retreating steps,
a large stone hindered him and blocked his way.
His back pushed against this, Achilles seized
and dashed him violently to the ground.
Then pressing with buckler and hard knees the breast
of Cygnus, he unlaced the helmet thongs,
wound them about the foeman’s neck and drew
them tightly under his chin, till Cygnus’ throat
could take no breath of life. Achilles rose
eager to strip his conquered foe but found
his empty armor, for the god of ocean
had changed the victim into that white bird
whose name he lately bore.

With Cycnus beaten by Achilles and transformed into a swan, there is a pause in the fighting. Achilles gives sacrifice to Pallas Athene, and the Greeks celebrate his victory over Cycnus in a feast. There, Nestor tells the story of Caeneus of Thessaly, who survived a thousand wounds in battle, but had been born a woman.

Caenis, as she was previously, had been the prettiest girl in Thessaly, although she remained unmarried. When walking on the beach one day, Neptune raped her:
Caenis never became the willing bride
of any suitor; but report declares,
while she was walking on a lonely shore,
the god of ocean saw and ravished her.
And in the joy of that love Neptune said,
‘Request of me whatever you desire,
and nothing shall deny your dearest wish!’ —
the story tells us that he made this pledge.
And Caenis said to Neptune, ‘The great wrong,
which I have suffered from you justifies
the wonderful request that I must make;
I ask that I may never suffer such
an injury again. Grant I may be
no longer woman, and I’ll ask no more.’
while she was speaking to him, the last words
of her strange prayer were uttered in so deep,
in such a manly tone, it seemed indeed
they must be from a man. — That was a fact:
Neptune not only had allowed her prayer
but made the new man proof against all wounds
of spear or sword. Rejoicing in the gift
he went his way as Caeneus Atracides,
spent years in every manful exercise,
and roamed the plains of northern Thessaly.

With Caenis the beauty transformed to Caeneus the warrior, Ovid moves on to the next story told at the feast of the Greeks, of the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs.

The Paintings

Neither of these stories has become well known, and as far as I can establish they have not been painted. They have, though, been included among the engravings used for illustrated editions of the Metamorphoses, so I show three examples of those.

Virgil Solis (1514–1562) Achilles Challenges Cycnus to a Duel (c 1560), engraving for Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XII, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgil Solis’ Achilles Challenges Cycnus to a Duel from about 1560 shows Achilles and Cycnus swinging their swords at one another in the midst of this very early phase of the battles which made up the Trojan War.

Johann Ulrich Krauss (1626-c 1683), Caenis and Neptune (before 1690), engraving for Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XII, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Ulrich Krauss tells a fragment of the story of Caenis and Neptune (before 1690), although he doesn’t make any allusion to the transformation to Caeneus. As is usual, the flying Cupid indicates entirely inappropriately the rape of Caenis, and Neptune’s horses are held ready for his return.

Virgil Solis (1514–1562) Caenis and Neptune (c 1560), engraving for Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XII, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgil Solis’ Caenis and Neptune from about 1560, a century earlier, moves the story on to the rape itself. Neptune puts his arms around Caenis, who doesn’t reciprocate. The god’s trident has been dropped to the ground, and his horses are prancing in the waves. In the distance is a walled city, which may be a reference to Troy, although this rape took place in Thessaly, Greece, on the opposite shore of the Aegean Sea.

The dearth of paintings here will be more than adequately compensated in the next article, where we will again be spoilt for choice.

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.