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The tile of Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses literally translates to mean “transformation.” The compendium is actually itself a transformational work, merging a multitude of Greek and Roman historical traditions into one massive epic poem. There are many different types of transformations that occur for different reasons throughout the poem: people and gods change into plants and animals, love into hate, chaos into being. Love is the catalyst that creates these changes in the stories that comprise the Metamorphoses. This love is portrayed as a turbulent force that possesses the power to create both positive and negative change. Those affected by this force are wholly in its power, to the exclusion of reason and often morality. Transformations in the Metamorphoses flow from the pursuit of or effects rendered by love. As noted, this love does not always have a positive result; in fact, often the case is quite the opposite. Five main sub-categorical causes stem from love-provoked transformations: sexual encounters, escape, sorrow, punishment, and romantic love.
Sexual encounters are various and common within the stories of the Metamorphoses. The two types of encounters that recur are those of rape and relationships resulting in pregnancy. Rapes are disconcertingly rampant in the plots of these stories. These instances occur in plots such as that found in Book X, which documents the rape of Caenis by Neptune. Thereafter, Caenis transforms into a male so that she may never again be sexually violated. In Book VI Tereus rapes his sister-in-law, Philomela, who eventually, along with her sister, turns into a bird to escape. When, in Book X, Myrrha satisfies her sexual appetite for her father and becomes impregnated, she runs from her home land and prays for transformation; thereafter, she is turned into a myrrh tree that produces the illegitimate child.
Many of the characters in these stories experience a transformation in their attempt to escape a person, god or a situation. In Book I, Apollo pursues Daphne, a follower of Diana who was determined to preserve her virginity. When Apollo persists against Daphne’s wishes, Daphne flees and calls on her father, the river god, to transform her beauty. Daphne becomes a laurel tree and successfully escapes by doing so. In the next example, we again see a human fleeing the unwanted affections of a god. In Book 5, Arethusa is transformed into a river by the goddess Diana to escape her pursuant, Alpheus. In both instances, the gods take pity on humans, modifying their physical composition.
Sorrow often becomes the cause of a transformative tale due to the fact that the human or god form that the character occupies becomes unbearable. By transforming, typically into a plant form, this character not only escapes their mourning, but preserves the memory of that for which they mourned forever. In Book X the young man Cyparissus accidentally brings about the death of his favorite deer, and in his inability to stop mourning, Apollo turns him into a cypress tree. Book VIII tells the story of Byblis, whose unrequited love so grieves her that she turns into a spring that is eternally fed by her teardrops.
Punishment is a consistent theme throughout the epic, usually inflicted by the gods on human beings or upon each other due to outrage over hubris or simply out of revenge. These types of punishment tie into love in that revenge is an act of self-love by the doer- it focuses on appeasing oneself. Similarly, hubris is also the act of self-love, to the exclusion of all others. Revenge is sometimes motivated by genuine grievances, but more often is carried out on a whim by one of the gods. We see this fickleness in Diana, who in Book 3 transforms Actaeon into a stag to be murdered by his own hounds and companions, due to the fact that he accidentally happened upon her while she was bathing. Hubris, however, is considered a very serious and fatal flaw that often causes a character’s downfall. This hubris always catches the attention of the gods and is punished. The gods, as portrayed by Ovid, are hostile to any human being who tries to be their equal. Arachne is transformed by Minerva into a spider after she proudly boasts that her weaving skills surpass that of the gods in Book VI. In the same chapter, the woman Niobe is punished for boasting her worth by the death of her nineteen children and is then turned into stone.
Finally, transformation may be the product of romantic love. Romantic love is a mutual force that may end in tragedy or joy, but focuses mainly upon emphasizing the power that that love held. In Book VIIII a girl named Iphis is transformed by the gods into a male so that she may marry her love, Ianthe. Book X documents the love of Venus and Adonis. When the latter dies, Venus preserves his blood in the anemone to represent her eternal love for him. The reader gets the impression that because this love was romantic love, it had already defied time and the anemone is simply a symbolic act that represents this defiance.
Transformations, then, occur in myriad forms and most of these transformations can be traced back to the predominant impetus, love. Love, being a turbulent force that overtakes its subjects wholly, is capable of producing good or evil. In the collection of Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts the legendary stories that result from the various types of love, conveying the idea that the world essentially is change and one of the greatest catalysts of this constant change is love, in its many forms.
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