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Cover of George Sandys's 1632 edition of Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished

The Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid is a narrative poem in fifteen books that describes the creation and history of the world. Completed in 8 AD, it has remained one of the most popular works of mythology, being the Classical work best known to medieval writers and thus having a great deal of influence on medieval poetry.



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 myth and sometimes straying in odd directions. The poem is often called a mock-epic. 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 Odyssey) and of Ovid's own day (the Aeneid). 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.

Titian's Danaë, one of innumerable paintings inspired by the Metamorphoses.

The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of 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 mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god of pure 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.

Apollo and Daphne by Antonio Pollaiuolo, one tale of transformation in the Metamorphoses—he lusts after her and she escapes him by turning into a bay laurel.

Main episodes

Inspirations and adaptations

The story of Coronis and Phoebus Apollo was adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, where it forms the basis for the Manciple's tale.

The Metamorphoses was a considerable influence on English playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is influenced by the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses Book 4), and, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a band of amateur actors performs a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. In Titus Andronicus the story of Lavinia's rape is drawn from Tereus' rape of Philomela, and the text of Metamorphoses is used within the play to enable Titus to interpret his daughter's story. Yet, most tellingly, Shakespeare adapts, with minor changes, a passage from Book 7 of the Golding translation into an important speech in Act V of the Tempest.

  • In 1613, Spanish poet Luis de Góngora wrote an illustrious poem titled La Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea that retells the story of Polyphemus, Galatea and Acis found in Book XIII of the Metamorphoses.
  • In 1625, sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini finished his piece entitled Apollo and Daphne, taken from the episode in Book 1 in which Apollo, pierced by a love-inducing arrow from Cupid, pursues the fleeing nymph Daphne. This episode furthermore has been treated repeatedly in opera, notably by Jacopo Peri (Dafne) in 1597 and Richard Strauss (Daphne, with a libretto that deviates significantly from Ovid's account) in 1938.
  • In 1783, Austrian composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf wrote twelve symphonies on selected stories of the Metamorphoses; only six survive, corresponding to stories from the first six books.[1]
  • In 1951, British composer Benjamin Britten wrote a piece for solo Oboe incorporating six of Ovid's mythical characters.
  • In 1988, author Christoph Ransmayr reworked a great number of characters from the Metamorphoses in his The Last World.
  • In 1997, the British poet laureate Ted Hughes adapted twenty-four stories from the Metamorphoses into his volume of poetry Tales from Ovid. This was later adapted for the stage in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1999, the year after Hughes's death..
  • In 2002, author Mary Zimmerman adapted some of Ovid's myths into a play by the same title, and the open-air-theatre group London Bubble also adapted it in 2006.
  • Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories also bases its format on Metamorphoses, adapting Ovid's poem to modern times with drug-addicted, teenage versions of many of the characters from the original play.
  • Acis and Galatea, a masque by Händel, is based on the eponymous characters out of the Metamorphoses, as is Lully's opera Acis et Galatée.
  • Jazz artist Patricia Barber's 2006 album, Mythologies, is a set of songs based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. See jazzpolice link below for details.

Manuscript tradition

Ovid's Metamorphoses was an immediate success (although Quintilian considered Ovid's tragedy Medea his best work), its popularity threatening that of Virgil's Aeneid. So definitive a work on mythology was it considered that Seneca joked in his Apocolocyntosis that the deification of Claudius should be added to the Metamorphoses.[2] 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,"[3] the Metamorphoses was fortunate to survive Christianization, and the vitriolic voices of Augustine and Jerome, who believed the only metamorphosis worth reading about was the transubstantiation. Indeed an extremely concise, "inoffensive" prose summary of the poem ("a metamorphosis-free Metamorphoses") manufactured in late antiquity for Christian readers threatened to eclipse the poem itself. Though the Metamorphoses did not suffer the ignominious fate of the Medea, and survived, no ancient scholia on the poem survive (although they did exist in antiquity[4]), 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);[5] the earliest of these are three fragmentary copies containing portions of Books 1-3, dating to the ninth century. [6]

Collaborative editorial effort has been investigating the various manuscripts of Metamorphoses, some forty-five complete texts or substantial fragments,[7] all deriving from a Gallic archetype.[8] 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.


  1. ^ under "About this Recording" at bottom left. Keith Anderson, liner notes for The 18th Century Symphony: Dittersdorf: Sinfonias on Ovid's Metamorphoses Nos. 1 - 3, 1995
  2. ^ Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 9.
  3. ^ Cameron, Alan (2004). Greek Mythography in the Roman World. Oxford University Press.  
  4. ^ Brooks Otis (1936). "The Argumenta of the So-Called Lactantius". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 47: 131–163.  
  5. ^ Tarrant, R. J., P. Ouidi Nasonis Metamorphoses. Oxford. vi
  6. ^ Reynolds, L. D., ed., Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, 277.
  7. ^ R. J. Tarrant, 2004. P. Ouidi Nasonis Metamorphoses. (Oxford Classical Texts_ Oxford: Clarendon Press: praefatio.
  8. ^ Richard Treat Bruere (1939). "The Manuscript Tradition of Ovid's Metamorphoses". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 50: 95–122.  

See also

External links

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