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Love and War as Depicted in Ovid's Metamorphoses

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In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, there are a great many instances that link love and war, thus creating a disconcerting antithetical comparison prominent throughout the canon of literature. In particular, this theme can be seen in and around the region of Thrace: home to a “primitive, warlike, and ferocious” people (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1515). This description of the Thracians is elaborated on by Ovid, who pairs Thrace with brutal acts of dismemberment and revenge, and eliminates any possibility of divine intervention.

One of the most memorable instances of dismemberment in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is that of Orpheus, the much-loved and sought-after poet. “Many women wanted this poet for their own, and many grieved over their rejection” (Ovid, 236), thus bringing about feelings of resentment and jealousy. Eventually, lust and desire for Orpheus lead the women to an act of incredible violence:

…and then the women rushed back to murder Orpheus, who stretched out his hands in supplication, and whose voice, for the first time, moved no one…The poet’s limbs lay scattered where they were flung in cruelty or madness. (Ovid, 260)

First, one must address the irony of this dismemberment. Orpheus is a figure of harmony, uniting the different worlds he encounters; therefore, it is extremely ironic that his death occurs through dismemberment, a form of division. Secondly, one must note the nature of this act of brutality. The Thracian women call Orpheus their “despiser” (Ovid, 259), and since they are upset, they transfer that feeling of destruction onto Orpheus by killing him. The mercilessness of the Thracian women leads us to believe in the idea of “madness” triumphing over “cruelty”, which is characteristic of these Bacchanalian women.

This unreasonable lust is seen again in a description of the faults of Tereus, the king of Thrace: “all the Thracians are too quick at loving” (Ovid, 144). Indeed, Tereus haste to love causes him much grief. Before analyzing the story of Tereus and Procne, however, let us consider the fact that Procne is a spoil of war, thereby strengthening again the antithetical link between war and marriage. However, one war prize does not seem to be enough; Tereus violently rapes his wife’s sister, who “shook and trembled as a frightened lamb which a gray wolf has mangled and cast aside” (Ovid, 146) Ovid uses animalistic terms to describe sexual acts, revealing the natural bond between violence and sexuality. Also, the word “mangled” not only describes the mutilation of Philomela, but also foreshadows the second act of mutilation in this story. As we have seen in the past, women, especially women in groups, do not take very kindly to being pushed around, and frequently employ deformation as their mode of revenge:

Without more words, a tigress with a young fawn, she dragged the youngster to a dark corner somewhere in the palace, and Itys, who seemed to see his doom approaching, screamed, and held out his hands, with Mother, Mother!…but she, with never a change in her expression drove the knife home through breast…And they cut up the body, still living, still keeping something of the spirit, and part of the flesh leaped in the boiling kettles. (Ovid, 150)

However, Itys does not raise his hands up in prayer to the gods as Orpheus does, and as Philomela does “in vain” (Ovid,146), supporting the notion that Thrace remains untouched by the gods. We must also note the parallel between the two dismemberments in this story, in regards to the parent-child relationship. When in danger, the instinct of both Philomela and young Itys is to call for a parent figure, showing the Thracian need for mortal support in the absence of divine intervention. Cruel irony also plays a part in this parallel: Tereus’ violation of his promise to King Pandion [to protect Philomela “with a father’s love” (Ovid, 146) and ensure her safe return) is punished with the death of Itys. There is even irony in the name “Tereus”, which means “watcher” (Graves, V2, 410); a term that is definitely not applicable to Tereus – unless it refers to his lustful nature towards women.

Tereus does not understand a “father’s love” until he experiences the loss of his own son. This instance is even more frightening than the mob murder of Orpheus: a mother whose rage is so extreme that she is driven to murder her own son. Again, one wonders why the gods have not intervened. This murder is calm and calculated, unlike the wild slaughter of Orpheus, thus revealing a different form of sexual madness found in Thrace.

Interestingly enough, having eaten the stew and realized the trick, Tereus’ metamorphosis is into a “hoopoe, the bird who looks like war” (Ovid, 151), further strengthening the bond between love and war. However, there is some confusion surrounding the transformation of the two women. Some sources claim that Procne becomes a swallow and Philomela a nightingale, but others insist on the inverse, which hearkens back to the older story of Aedon (, where the mourning wails of the nightingale are attributed to the mother figure. Furthermore, the tie between Philomela and the nightingale adds another point of irony, since the nightingale is known for its sad song. The name “Philomela” means “sweet melody”, thus refuting the established role of the nightingale. (Graves, V2, 405)

Similar to the tale of Tereus is the story of Medea, who also kills her own son to punish a man. Sexual jealousy drives her to murder her son in order to inflict the most severe punishment possible on Jason. Even before this act, Medea has used violence as an expression of her love: she murdered her little brother, Apsyrtus, and scattered pieces of his body into the Black Sea in order to help her lover, Jason, and his Argonauts. Each of Medea’s violent acts of dismemberment stems from her own sense of “dismemberment”. When she is separated from Jason, she feels incomplete, and assumes that she needs to somehow unleash her feelings in order to be closer to Jason.

Interestingly, the pieces of Apsyrtus’ dismembered body are brought back for burial in a place called Tomi, which just happens to be the part of Thrace ( where Ovid was sent in exile (Bulfinch, In some ways, Ovid was dismembered by his exile; his voice was taken from him. One of the possible reasons for his exile was the message about love that his writings conveyed to the people; the emperor did not want Ovid perpetuating these ideas, so he cut the writer loose and sent him to Thrace.

It is to be expected, then, that the one place that Ovid depicts most negatively in his work is the location of his exile. Perhaps the “Metamorphoses” influenced Ovid’s decision about where to spend his exile. Whatever the case may be, Ovid was, indeed, in Hell:

My situation has been clouded over by unexpected evils.

Unwritten poetry wants solitude and leisure: the wild winter tosses me about, the waves and the winds.

All sorts of fears prevent my writing: one moment I fear

A sword will slit my throat, the next that I am dead. (Ovid,

This excerpt from Ovid’s “Tristia” expresses both his discomfort and restlessness in this location, along with his fear of being killed for expressing his opinions. Ovid sees Thrace as an unsettling place centered around mortal violence. Even in this text, poetry – which to some extent relates to love and harmony – seems to be linked with violence and discord.

Works Cited

Bulfinch, Thomas, Bulfinch’s Mythology. <> (October 10, 2004)

Cane, Gregory (Ed), The Perseus Digital Library. < >

Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths Vols. 1 and 2. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960.

Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Indiana UP, 1955.

Ovid, Tristia translated by Michael Dinan on < > (October 19, 2004)

Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD)


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