Ovid's Metamorphoses



Ovid’s account of “forms changed into new bodies” (I.1–2) runs, so his proem announces, “from the world’s beginning to the present day” (line5). The transformation that occurred in his own day was the metamorphosis of the soul of Julius Caesar, assassinated in 44 B.C.E., into a star. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and the poem ends with a compliment to the reigning emperor, which is deftly capped by the wish that many years may elapse before Augustus too ascends to Heaven and becomes a god (not in the anthology).

Ovid, whose reputation as a poet had been built on his playful, witty, and at times licentious love poetry, turns in the Metamorphoses to the epic genre; the meter of his verse, the hexameter, is the same as that of Virgil’s Aeneid, and the opening lines of the poem announce the theme in solemn strains. This dignified tone is maintained through the account of the creation and the four ages, the account of the flood and the recreation of humankind; but with the episode of Apollo and Daphne we are back in Ovidian territory.

But it is not only the subject matter that has changed; though the stories still deal with gods, the style modulates toward the playful wit that will be characteristic of Ovid’s narrative for the bulk of the poem. The dialogue between Apollo and Cupid, for example (I.634ff.), makes no attempt at epic seriousness. Apollo’s detailed appreciation of Daphne’s charms as he pursues her (lines 686ff.) recalls the poet of the Art of Love. The embarrassment and subterfuges of Jove when caught red-handed by Juno (lines 840ff.) suggest social comedy rather than epic grandeur. Daphne is rescued from what she feared most, and Io is restored to human shape.

Ovid’s poem pursues its course through more than twelve thousand lines; this “epic of the emotions,” as it has been called, rings the changes on all the genres—comedy, tragedy, pastoral, didactic—as it creates a brilliant anthology of mythological tales (most of them Greek). Most of the mythical stories that have become household words in Western culture through their re-creation in later art and literature—Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas and the golden touch, Pyramus and Thisbe—owe their form to their appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.


Discussion topics




Study Questions


Book I

1.       How did Creation take place? Who or what was responsible?

2.       “Metamorphosis” means “transformation”. In what way is the creation of the world a “transformation”?

3.       Who or what was Python, and what was its fate?

4.       What was the catalyst for Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne?

5.       Why didn’t Daphne accept Apollo’s advances?

6.       What happens to Daphne?

7.       Io experiences two transformations. Why? What are they?


Book V

8.       Who are Ceres and Proserpina?

9.       Why does Ceres get angry? What does she do?

10.   What happens to Proserpina?


Book IX

11.   What is Iphis’ problem, and how does Isis solve it?

12.   Describe Isis and her entourage.


Book X

13.   What does Pygmalion create? Why?

14.   How does Aphrodite reward Pygmalion for his worship of her?

15.   Who is Adonis, and how does he die? What is Adonis transformed into?






[1] From Norton Anthology Instructor’s Guide