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Metamorphoses (poem)

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Metamorphoses (poem)

This article is about the poem. For other uses, see Metamorphoses (disambiguation).
by Ovid
Genre(s) Metamorphoseon libri
First published in 8 AD
Language Latin
Narrative poetry, epic, elegy, tragedy, pastoral (see Contents)

The Metamorphoses (Latin: Metamorphoseon libri: "Books of Transformations") is a Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, considered his magnum opus. Comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework. Although meeting the criteria for an epic, the poem defies simple genre classification by its use of varying themes and tones. Ovid took inspiration from the genre of metamorphosis poetry, and some of the Metamorphoses derives from earlier treatment of the same myths; however, he diverged significantly from all of his models.

One of the most influential works in Western culture, the Metamorphoses has inspired such authors as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante and Boccaccio. Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in masterpieces of sculpture and painting by artists such as Titian. Although Ovid's reputation faded after the Renaissance, towards the end of the twentieth century there was a resurgence of interest in his work; today, the Metamorphoses continues to inspire and be retold through various media. The work has been the subject of numerous translations into English, the first by William Caxton in 1480.

Sources and models

Ovid's relation to the Hellenistic poets was similar to the attitude of the Hellenistic poets themselves to their predecessors: he demonstrated that he had read their versions ... but that he could still treat the myths in his own way.

—Karl Galinsky[2]

Ovid's decision to make myth the dominant subject of the Metamorphoses was influenced by the predisposition of Alexandrian poetry.[3] However, it ceased to be the cause for moral reflection or insight, but rather an "object of play and artful manipulation".[3] His model for a collection of metamorphosis myths was a pre-existing genre of metamorphosis poetry in the Hellenistic tradition. The earliest known example is Boio(s)' Ornithogonia—a now-fragmentary poem collecting the myths of metamorphoses of humans into birds.[4] There are three examples of the Metamorphoses by later Hellenistic writers, but little is known of their contents.[2] The Heteroioumena by Nicander of Colophon is better known, and clearly an influence on the poem—21 of the stories from this work were treated in the Metamorphoses.[2] However, in a way that was typical for writers of the period, Ovid diverged significantly from his models; the Metamorphoses was longer than any previous collection of metamorphosis myths—Nicander's work consisted of probably four or five books[5]—and positioned itself within a historical framework.[6]

Some of the Metamorphoses derives from earlier literary and poetic treatment of the same myths. This material was of varying quality and comprehensiveness; while some of it was "finely worked", in other cases Ovid may have been working from limited material.[7] In the case of an oft-used myth such as that of Io in Book I—the subject of literary adaptation as early as the fifth century BC, and as recently as a generation prior—Ovid reorganises and innovates existing material in order to foreground his favoured topics and to embody the key themes of the Metamorphoses.[8]


Scholars have found it difficult to place the Metamorphoses in a genre. The poem has been considered as an epic or a type of epic: e.g. an anti-epic or mock-epic;[9] a Kollektivgedicht that pulls together a series of examples in miniature form, such as the epyllion;[10] a sampling of one genre after another;[11] or a narrative that refuses categorization.[12] The poem is generally considered to meet the criteria for an epic; it is considerably long, relating over 250 narratives across fifteen books;[13] it is composed in dactylic hexameter, the meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid; and it treats the high literary subject of myth.[14] However, the poem "handles the themes and employs the tone of virtually every species of literature",[15] ranging from epic and elegy to tragedy and pastoral.[16] Commenting on the genre debate, G. Karl Galinsky has opined that "... it would be misguided to pin the label of any genre on the Metamorphoses."[12]

The Metamorphoses is comprehensive in its chronology, recounting the creation of the world to the death of Julius Caesar, which had occurred only a year before Ovid's birth;[11] it has been compared to works of universal history, which became important in the first century BC.[15] In spite of its apparently unbroken chronology, scholar Brooks Otis has identified four divisions in the narrative:[17]

Section I Book I–Book II (end, line 875): The Divine Comedy
Section II Book III–Book VI, 400: The Avenging Gods
Section III Book VI, 401–Book XI (end, line 795): The Pathos of Love
Section IV Book XII–Book XV (end, line 879): Rome and the Deified Ruler

Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek mythology and sometimes straying in odd directions. It is written in dactylic hexameter, the form of the great heroic and nationalistic epic poems, both those of the ancient tradition (the Iliad and the Odyssey) and of Ovid's own day (the Aeneid of Virgil). It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse", and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection.

The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is love—be it personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon, who is the closest thing this putative mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.

The Metamorphoses ends with an epilogue (Book XV.871–9), one of only two surviving Latin epics to do so—along with Statius' Thebiad.[18] The ending acts as a declaration that everything except his poetry—even Rome—must give way to change:[19]

"Now stands my task accomplished, such a work
As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword
Nor the devouring ages can destroy".[20]



The different genres and divisions in the narrative allow the Metamorphoses to display a wide range of themes. Scholar Stephen M. Wheeler notes that "Metamorphosis, mutability, love, violence, artistry, and power are just some of the unifying themes that critics have proposed over the years." [22]


In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/ corpora;

—Ov., Met., Book I, lines 1–2.

Metamorphosis or transformation is a unifying theme amongst the episodes of the Metamorphoses. Ovid raises its significance explicitly in the opening lines of the poem: In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/ corpora; ("I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities;").[23] Accompanying this theme is often violence, inflicted upon a victim whose transformation becomes part of the natural landscape.[24] There is a huge variety among the types of transformations that take place: from human to inanimate object (Nileus), constellation (Ariadne's Crown), animal (Perdix); from animal (Ants) and fungus (Mushrooms) to human; of sex (Hyenas); and of colour (Pebbles).[25]


Main article: Cultural influence of Metamorphoses

No work from classical antiquity, either Greek or Roman, has exerted such a continuing and decisive influence on European literature as Ovid's Metamorphoses. The emergence of French, English, and Italian national literatures in the late Middle Ages simply cannot be fully understood without taking into account the effect of this extraordinary poem. ... The only rival we have in our tradition which we can find to match the pervasiveness of the literary influence of the Metamorphoses is perhaps (and I stress perhaps) the Old Testament and the works of Shakespeare.

—Ian Johnston[24]

The Metamorphoses has exerted a considerable influence on literature and the arts, particularly of the West; scholar A. D. Melville says that "It may be doubted whether any poem has had so great an influence on the literature and art of Western civilization as the Metamorphoses."[26] Although a majority of its stories do not originate with Ovid himself, but with such writers as Hesiod and Homer, for others the poem is their sole source.[24]

The influence of the poem on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer is extensive. In The Canterbury Tales, the story of Coronis and Phoebus Apollo (Book II 531–632) is adapted to form the basis for The Manciple's Tale;[27] the story of Midas (Book XI 174–193) is referred to and appears—though much altered—in The Wife of Bath's Tale.[28] The story of Ceyx and Alcyone—from Book IX—is adapted by Chaucer in his poem The Book of the Duchess, written to commemorate the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster and wife of John of Gaunt.[29] The Metamorphoses was a considerable influence on English playwright William Shakespeare.[30] His Romeo and Juliet is influenced by the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses Book IV),[31] and, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a band of amateur actors performs a play about Pyramus and Thisbe.[32] Shakespeare's early erotic poem Venus and Adonis expands on the myth in Book X of the Metamorphoses.[33] In Titus Andronicus, the story of Lavinia's rape is drawn from Tereus' rape of Philomela, and the text of The Metamorphoses is used within the play to enable Titus to interpret his daughter's story.[34] Most of Prospero's renunciative speech in Act V of The Tempest is taken word-for-word from a speech by Medea in Book VII of the Metamorphoses.[35] Among other English writers for whom the Metamorphoses was an inspiration are John Milton—who made use of it in his masterpiece Paradise Lost and evidently knew it well[36][37]—and Edmund Spenser.[38] In Europe, the poem was an influence on Giovanni Boccaccio—the story of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in his poem L'Amorosa Fiammetta[24]—and Dante.[39][40]

During the Renaissance period, mythological subjects were frequently depicted in art. The Metamorphoses was the greatest source of these narratives, such that the term "Ovidian" in this context is synonymous for mythological, in spite of some frequently represented myths not being found in the work.[41][42] Many of the stories from the Metamorphoses have been the subject of paintings and sculptures, particularly during this period.[30][43] Some of the most well-known paintings by Titian's depict scenes from the poem, including Diana and Callisto,[44] Diana and Actaeon[45] and Death of Actaeon.[46] Other famous works inspired by it include Pieter Brueghel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus[47] and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture Apollo and Daphne.[30] The Metamorphoses also permeated the theory of art during the Renaissance and the Baroque style, with its idea of transformation and the relation of the myths of Pygmalion and Narcissus to the role of the artist.[48]

Popular for many centuries, Ovid's reputation began to wane after the Renaissance, and his influence on the nineteenth century was minimal.[30] However, towards the end of the twentieth century his work began to be appreciated once more; Ted Hughes collected together and retold twenty-four passages from the Metamorphoses in his Tales from Ovid, published in 1997.[49] In 1998, Mary Zimmerman's stage adaptation Metamorphoses premiered at the Lookingglass Theatre,[50] and the following year there was an adaptation of Tales from Ovid by the Royal Shakespeare Company.[51] In the early twenty first century, the poem continues to inspire and be retold through books,[52] films,[53] and plays.[54]

Manuscript tradition

In spite of the Metamorphoses' enduring popularity from its first publication—around the time of Ovid's exile in 8 AD—no manuscript survives from this period.[56] From the ninth and tenth centuries there are only fragments of the poem;[56] it is only from the eleventh century onwards that manuscripts, of varying value, have been passed down.[57]

Influential in the course of the poem's manuscript tradition is the seventeenth-century Dutch scholar Nikolaes Heinsius.[58] During the years 1640–52, Heinsius collated more than a hundred manuscripts and was informed of many others through correspondence.[58]

But the poem's immense popularity in antiquity and the Middle Ages belies the struggle for survival it faced in late antiquity. "A dangerously pagan work,"[59] the Metamorphoses was preserved through the Roman period of Christianization, but was criticized by the voices of Augustine and Jerome, who believed the only metamorphosis really was the transubstantiation. Though the Metamorphoses did not suffer the ignominious fate of the Medea, no ancient scholia on the poem survive (although they did exist in antiquity[60]), and the earliest manuscript is very late, dating from the 11th century.

The poem retained its popularity throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and is represented by an extremely high number of surviving manuscripts (more than 400);[61] the earliest of these are three fragmentary copies containing portions of Books 1-3, dating to the 9th century.[62]

Collaborative editorial effort has been investigating the various manuscripts of the Metamorphoses, some forty-five complete texts or substantial fragments,[63] all deriving from a Gallic archetype.[64] The result of several centuries of critical reading is that the poet's meaning is firmly established on the basis of the manuscript tradition or restored by conjecture where the tradition is deficient. There are two modern critical editions: William S. Anderson's, first published in 1977 in the Teubner series, and R. J. Tarrant's, published in 2004 by the Oxford Clarendon Press.

In English translation

The full appearance of the Metamorphoses in English translation—sections had appeared in the works of Chaucer and Gower[65]—coincides with the beginning of printing, and traces a path through the history of publishing.[65][66] William Caxton produced the first translation of the text on 22 April 1480;[67] set in prose, it is actually a literal rendering of a French translation known as the Ovide Moralisé.[68] From 1535–7,[69] Arthur Golding produced a translation of the poem that would become highly influential, the version read by Shakespeare and Spenser.[70] The next significant translation was by George Sandys, produced from 1621–6,[71] which set the poem in heroic couplets, a metre that would subsequently become dominant in vernacular English epic and in English translations.[72] In 1717, a translation appeared from Samuel Garth bringing together work "by the most eminent hands":[73] primarily John Dryden, but several stories by Joseph Addison, one by Alexander Pope,[74] and contributions from Tate, Gay, Congreve, and Rowe, as well as those of eleven others including Garth himself.[75] Translation of the Metamorphoses after this period was comparatively limited in its achievement; having "no real rivals throughout the nineteenth century", the Garth volume continued to be printed into the 1800s.[76] Around the later half of the twentieth century, however, as literary translation underwent a revival,[76] a greater number of translations appeared;[77] this trend has continued into the early twenty-first century.[78] In 2004, a collection of translations and responses to the poem, entitled After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, was produced by numerous contributors in emulation of the process of the Garth volume.[79]

See also



Modern translation

Secondary sources

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Further reading

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External links

Latin versions

  • Ovid Illustrated: The Renaissance Reception of Ovid in Image and Text — An elaborate environment allowing simultaneous access to Latin text, English translations, commentary from multiple sources along with wood cut illustrations by Virgil Solis.
  • Perseus — Hyperlinked commentary, mythological, and grammatical references)
  • University of Virginia: Metamorphoses — Contains several versions of the Latin text and tools for a side-by-side comparison.
  • The Latin Library: P. OVIDI NASONIS OPERA — Contains the Latin version in several separate parts.

English translations

  • John Dryden et al., 1717.
  • trans. by George Sandys, 1632.
  • trans. by Brookes More, 1922.


  • The Ovid Project: Metamorphising the Metamorphoses — Illustrations by Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600 – 1640) and anonymous illustrations from George Sandys's edition of 1640.
  • A. S. Kline.
  • , An introduction and commentary by Larry A. Brown.

Audio reading

  • Ovid ~ Metamorphoses ~ 08-2008 — Selections from Metamorphoses, read in Latin and English by Rafi Metz. Approximately 4½ hours.


  • BBC.
  • World Digital Library/

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