The Metamorphoses, otherwise known as the “Books of Transformations”, were written by a Roman Poet named Ovid and are made out of poems that chronicle the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythic-historical framework.
In this essay I will briefly review several different poems from the Metamorphoses in order to give you a basic understanding of them and I will also discuss the ethical performance of the gods in these stories according to Ovid:
Daphne and Apollo:
This is a story that involves Cupid, you know, the little boy with wings who flies around shooting people with his bow and arrow. In this story, a god named Apollo taunted Cupid. Cupid in response shot two different arrows, one of love and the other of repulsion. The first arrow hit Apollo and the latter hit Daphne, a nymph. This caused Apollo to fall deeply in love with her, but she absolutely hated him in response. Eventually she got so sick of him that she prayed to heaven and then she was turned into a laurel tree.
This all happened because of one small but powerful god, who just wanted revenge on Apollo for taunting him, yet it ruined the life of Daphne; who did nothing wrong in the first place. The implication of this story is that people are not in control of love and how there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Arachne and Minerva:
A goddess named Minerva had been teaching a human named Arachne to weave. Eventually Arachne thinks that she is the better at weaving than Minerva so they have a contest which Arachne wins. This angers Minerva who then attacked Arachne physically. In response to this Arachne tries to hang herself, but then Minerva steps in and turns her into a spider.
The lesson of this story is that humans must submit to the hierarchy of the gods. If they don’t, they will receive negative sanctions which is the pattern you will start to see in these stories.
Niobe is a wealthy, beautiful and powerful human being who resents the worship of the goddess Latona. She compares herself with the goddess, saying how she had 14 children instead of only 2. This did not sit will Latona who then got the help of Apollo and Artemis, two warrior deities, who swooped down and killed all 14 children, after which Niobe’s husband commits suicide. Latona then turns Niobe into a mountain which sheds tears.
Again, the god’s form of punishment is turning you into an object of nature because of your ethical rebellion, in which you are no longer able to influence history or make ethical decisions. No mercy, no second chances, not even a warning is given.
Marsays was a Satyr who one day challenged Apollo to a music contest. The winner would be able to do whatever he wanted with the loser. When Apollo wins, he brings his whip down upon the poor Satyr who starts pleading Apollo for mercy. But Apollo doesn’t listen and flays him alive. Upon learning of the Satyr’s death the creatures of the region cry and their tears become a river.
This is a different story from the rest because the wrong-doer does not actually become an object of nature since he is already dead, rather, the tears shed for him become nature.
Julius Caesar, Transformed into a Star:
Apparently the gods cared about what happened to Julius Caesar, because in this story the goddess Venus pleads Jupiter for Caesar’s life (who was about to be murdered.) Jupiter says that fate has said otherwise and that there was nothing he could do. Venus then asks that Caesar be make a god, to which Jupiter agrees and authorizes her to make him a god. However, Caesar’s son Octavian has performed greater feats than his father, therefor his soul is now divine and he too will become a god after his death.
In conclusion: There are positive and negative sanctions that the gods give in these stories. The positive sanction is that they make you into a god and the negative sanction is that they turn you into an object of nature (except in the case of Marsays).
As for Ovid’s view of the gods’ ethical performance? I may be wrong, but perhaps Ovid would agree with me when I say that the gods’ ethical performance is comparable to that of a spoiled child who always gets their way. On the other had he may have been completely in favor of the way the gods behaved… it’s hard to say.
Whatever the answer is, I believe the main theme that Ovid would have wanted us to take away from his poems, is that pride (the main cause of the negative sanctions) is something we should all be wary of.