Metamorphoses, Books IV-VI

Two tales from Book IV, one from Book V and two from Book VI, this time.

Book IV:

Pyramus & Thisbe

Everyone welcomes Bacchus except for the daughters of the king Minyas, who stay indoors weaving, spinning and telling stories. One of them decides to recount a story of the mulberry tree:

how a tree, famous for snow-white berries, took on a blood-red taint.


Pyramus and Thisbe were young lovers in a city that was said to have built by Queen Semiramis, the legendary queen of Babylon. They lived next door to each other but they were not allowed to meet due to a rivalry between their families. They could only converse through a crack in the walls. The two of them plan to meet by the site of Ninus’s tomb, beneath a mulberry tree. When Thisbe shows up, a lioness, with bloody jaws from devouring her prey, appears, and Thisbe flees into a cave. She leaves her cloak behind and the lioness picks it up in her jaws, staining it with blood. Pyramus arrives, finds the bloodstained cloak, and thrusts his dagger into his side. His blood stains the white fruits of the mulberry tree, turning them red. Thisbe returns to find Pyramus dying, and resolves to kill herself, praying that the two of them will share the same tomb and that the red berries of the tree will be the memorial of their deaths. Her prayer is granted and, when their bodies are cremated, their ashes are kept in a single urn.

It was hard to take this one completely seriously because I kept thinking of the jokes about it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, it is also thought to have been an inspiration for the earliest (Italian) versions of the story of Romeo and Juliet, which inspired the English poet Arthur Brooke in his poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which was the main source for Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet.

Andromeda as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825 (Wikipedia)

Perseus & Andromeda

Perseus, the son of Danae and Jove, flies above the world holding the head of the Gorgon Medusa, whose hair was made of deadly snakes, as a trophy of his victory over her. As Perseus flies over the Libyan desert, the Gorgons blood streams down to earth and generates snakes, and that is why the desert swarmed with serpents.” He goes to Hesperides, where Atlas lives, and asks for Atlas’s hospitality. Atlas refuses him because of a rumor that a son of Jove will steal his golden apples. Perseus wrestles with Atlas but soon realizes that he is outmatched, so he uses the head of Medusa to turn Atlas into a mountain.

Perseus discovers the maiden Andromeda, who has been chained to a rock to punish her mother’s vanity. Andromeda’s mother boasted of her daughter’s beauty, and so Andromeda was chained up as a sacrifice to a sea monster (a dragon, in fact). The dragon comes after her but Perseus intervenes to defeat it, rescuing Andromeda after asking Andromeda’s parents for her hand in marriage as a reward. (Her parents, Cepheus & Cassiope (also known as Cassiopeia) rule the kingdom of Aethiopia (Ethiopia). At the wedding celebration, Perseus tells the story of his defeat of Medusa.  He used the single eye shared by the Graeae, holding it in his hand for sight. He cut her head off and the winged horse Pegasus sprang up from her blood, along with the boy Chrysador. 

One of the wedding guests asks why Medusa had snakes for hair. Perseus says that she was beautiful once, with glorious hair. When Neptune raped her in Minerva‘s temple, Minerva punished her for her carelessness (!) by turning her hair into snakes.

As if to warn the girl of carelessness
She turned her hair to snakes. Today Minerva
To keep bold strangers at a proper distance
Wears snakes across the gold shield on her breast.

Book V

ancient statue of Persephone/Proserpina, also called Kore, the Maiden (Wikipedia)

Death & Proserpina

Venus tells her son Cupid to shoot his arrows of love towards Pluto in order to make him fall in love with Proserpina, the daughter of Jove and Ceres. She says that if they do not intervene,   
Proserpina will remain     

… A virgin til she dies, for even now
her models are the moonlit deities.

Huh? Proserpina is (presumably) immortal. Anyway, Cupid‘s arrow pierces Pluto’s heart. Pluto goes to a lake in Sicily, where he comes upon Proserpina picking flowers in the woods and abducts her. The nymph Cyane protests to Pluto and tries to stop him, but he ignores her. Cyane grieves at Proserpina‘s fate, weeping until she becomes a pool of tears.

Demeter searches for her until she comes to Sicily and finds the pool of Cyane, where the girdle that her daughter had worn when she was abducted. Demeter becomes angry and curses the earth, especially Sicily, giving orders to the fields to make the harvest fail. There she finds the nymph Arethusa, who tells her that Proserpina was taken to the underworld. Demeter goes to find Jove and ask him to help her get their daughter back from Hades. Joves response is rather disturbing:

She is our daughter, 
The token of our love and ours to cherish,
But we should give proper names to facts:
She has received the gift of love, unhurt, 
Nor will he harm us as a son-in-law.
And if he has no other merits, then
Its no disgrace to marry Joves own brother.
For all he needs is your good will, my dear…

(My emphasis. It is hard to tell what Ovid thinks of this — does he expect readers to agree with Jove or Demeter??) He goes on to say that if Demeter insists on ending the marriage, Proserpina must not eat any food in the underworld. As it turns out, she has already eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate. Jove arranges for her to be with Pluto half of the year and spend the other half on earth. The half of the year when Proserpina dwells in the underworld is fall/winter, while the half of the year when she dwells on earth is spring/summer. 

Edit: I read the Wikipedia page for Persephone (Proserpina in Latin) which adds some important context: ” The epithets of Persephone reveal her double function as chthonic and vegetation goddess. The surnames given to her by the poets refer to her character as Queen of the lower world and the dead, or her symbolic meaning of the power that shoots forth and withdraws into the earth.”  

As Queen of the Underworld, she was given euphemistic names (that is, substitutes for her real name, which was dangerous to invoke). These include: 
Despoina: “the mistress of the house”) in Arcadia
Hagne: “pure”, originally a goddess of the springs in Messenia.
Aristi cthonia: “the best chthonic” (the chthonics were the various deities of the underworld)

As a goddess of vegetation, she was called: 
Kore: “the maiden”.
Kore Soteira: “the savior maiden,” in Megalopolis.
Neotera: “the younger”, in Eleusis. (Eleusis was the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret rites which revolved around the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The Eleusinian Mysteries were observed as early as 600 BC and attracted initiates until their decline in the 4th century AD.

Book VI


Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) by Diego Velázquez, c. 1657

The translator (Horace Gregory) writes of this tale: “the stories of Arachne and of Niobe are among Ovid’s commentaries on the workings of Divine envy. His story of Arachne may be read as a parable of the craftsman (or woman) who attempts to rival divinely inspired artists. But Ovid’s way of telling the parable is important; the reader’s sympathy veers in Arachne’s direction. Her stubborn pride is foolish enough… yet Pallas Athena’s punishment of her is deadly cold. Ovid’s Italian attitude toward her is not without interests; as Athens’ patron goddess, she might well represent cold-blooded Greek intellectual passion. As Ovid shows [see book IV], her prudish virginal fury transformed Medusa’s hair into a nest of snakes. Envy is among her servants. She is attractive only on her visit to the Muses [book V]. Can we say that Ovid had a deep-seated distrust of highly formulated intellectual conduct? Perhaps. He loved wit, but kept a shrewd, half-doubting eye on deliberated wisdom.”

Arachne of Maeonia is a famous weaver. She lives in Lydia, part of western Asia Minor. She boasts that her art owes nothing to Athena, the patron goddess of the arts, and proposes to compete with the goddess in a weaving contest. Athena adopts the disguise of an old woman and warns Arachne that she should take back her proud words, but Arachne ignores her advice. (Note: Athena/Minerva is one of the few characters who is called by both a Greek and Roman name in this translation.)

They took delight in speed and craftsmanship
And there upon the looms Tyrian purple
Shaded to lavender and violet-rose
As though one saw the sun strike passing rain 
Its arrow like a ribbon across the sky,
A thousand colors streaming light within it,
Each melting into each where no eye sees
One fade into the other, yet both far ends
Colors of distant hue — gold thread to bind them,
To weave the story of long years ago. 

Athena weaves four different scenes into the four corners of her cloth so that the girl will see the consequences of pride. The scenes are: Rhodope and Haemon of Thrace, mortals who took the names of gods and were turned into mountains for their presumption; the queen of Pygmy who was turned into a crane and sent to war against her people; Antigone daughter of Laomedon, the king of Troy, changed into a bird by Juno; and Cinyras, who boasted of his daughters‘ beauty, for which they were turned into the marble steps of Junos temple. Around all of these Athena wove the olive leaf, a sign of peace, her tree.

Arachne begins her weaving with tales of Jove, including the tale of Europa (Book II), the tale of Asteria (not in Ovid), the tale of Jove impregnating Danae (mother of Perseus) in the form of a shower of gold, and several others. She moves on to stories of the other gods, all of which show them as wrathful or manipulative. She finishes by weaving the edges of the cloth in a pattern of flowers and ivy. Arachnes work is flawless, and Athena strikes her with the shuttle of her loom in anger. Arachne says that she would rather hang herself than take such punishment, and puts a noose around her neck, but before she can kill herself, Athena intervenes to turn her into a spider.

Tereus, Procne, & Philomela

When Tereus and his troops came to the aid of Athens against barbarians, the king of Athens, Pandion, rewarded him with the hand of his eldest daughter, Procne. Procnepersonal patron Juno was not there, nor Hymen the god of marriage, nor the three Graces. The Furies attended the wedding instead, carrying torches stolen from a funeral pyre. A screech owl howled from the rafters of the wedding room as an omen. The couple conceives a son, Itys. Five years later, Procne asks her husband to bring her sister Philomela to visit.

 Bernard Salomon, woodcut: Tereus, Procne & the Furies 1557 (

Tereus sets out to fetch Philomela from Athens in his ship. One look at her sparks a passionate obsession. He takes her with him to the shores of Thrace, where he leads her to a small stone cottage. There he rapes her and cuts her tongue out so that she cannot tell anyone. He returns to Procne and tells her that Philomela is dead. He keeps Philomela captive in the stone cottage, where she weaves a tapestry of her story. She gives it to her servant, indicating that it should be given to Procne. Procne sees the tapestry and plans to find her sister. She slips away on a night of festival dedicated to Bacchus, finds the cottage and smashes the bars of the cottage door. She takes Philomela to her own apartments and ponders how to exact revenge on Tereus. The boy Itys wanders into her apartments, and the two sisters decide to kill him and dismember him. They prepare his flesh in order to serve it to Tereus. Procne attends Tereus while he eats.

Philomela & Procne, Elizabeth Jane Gardner

arrives. She tosses the boys head at him, and he draws his sword to kill the two women, but they are transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow. (This translation, oddly, does not say what kind of birds, so I am going with Wikipedia here.) Tereus, in turn, was turned into a  hoopoe. 
This is one of the darkest stories so far. Wow. 

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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