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Mythical Creatures in Ovid's Methamorphoses

Lect. Univ. Drd. Cuciuc Romanescu Laura Sînziana


„Ovidius” University of Constanța, Romania
Faculty of Arts

Abstract.
„Despre ce vorbește Ovidius când nu vorbește despre dragoste? Un răspuns evident la
această întrebare este mitul...”1.
Metamorfozele, cele mai faimoase poeme ale lui Ovidius, constituie chiar și astăzi una
dintre cele mai de valoare surse de mitologie greacă și romană, „o veritabilă comoară de
aproximativ 250 de povestiri” 2 ce fac trimitere la transformarea zeilor sau a oamenilor în
animale, plante sau constelații.
Deși miturile apar frecvent și în alte lucrări ale lui Ovidius, Metamorfozele sunt
reprezentative în folosirea de către poet a miturilor și a creaturilor mitologice ca sursă de
inspirație.
Mitul, în metamorfozele lui Ovidius, este câmpul de tensiune în care forțele - zeii,
oamenii, natura – se ciocnesc și își găsesc echilibru3, totul depinzând de spiritul cu care sunt
conectate miturile.

Abstract.
„What does Ovid talk about when he is not talking about love? One obvious answer to
this question is myth...”4.
The Metamorphoses, Ovid’s most famous poem, remains even these days one of the
most iconic sources of Greek and Roman mythology, „a veritable treasure trove of about 250
tales”5 related to the transformations of gods or men into animals, plants or constellations.
Although myths show up frequently in Ovid’s other works, the Metamorphoses are
reprezentative in poet’s use of myth and mythological creatures as source of inspiration.

1
Katharina Volk, Ovid, Wiley-Blackwell Publisher, Malden, MA, 2010, p. 50.
2
Ibidem.
3
Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid, Clarendon Press Publisher, Oxford, 1993, p.118.
4
Katharina Volk, loc.cit.
5
Ibidem.
Myth, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is the field of tension where the forces – gods, men,
nature - clash and balance6. Everything depends on the spirit in which the myths are related.
Keywords: Ovid, Metamorphoses, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, myth, mythology,
mythological creatures.

*
Myths (from the Greek work “mythos” – story) are traditional tales about mortals and
gods, and relashionship between them7.
The very first written medium for myth was poetry, with its genres as epic and tragedy,
dedicated nearly entirely to the representation of mythological tales8.
In many writings, myths are simply told for the beauty of the legend itself, having the
ultimate purpose of entertaining the audience9. Everybody loves stories and legends, realtion
between gods and mortals and, in this genre, The Metamorphoses „represents a wide variety of
phenomena: punishment inflicted by a god or reward requested, salvation or consolation for
loss, memorial, psychological realization or miraculous surprise”10.
Ovid's Metamorphoses11 tell us, in 15 books, the history of the world from the departure
of chaos to the apotheotic age of Julius Caesar. In his masterpiece, Ovid arranges the histories
of metamorphoses according to his great poetic plan and combining the abundance of
expression, the picturesque, the plasticity and the realism the result being a true compendium
of Greek mythology, to which they correlate, as far as possible, the legendary Roman
valences12.
Often considered as a mythological composition, the Metamorphoses, seen in relation
to the previous literary and mythological tradition, complete the mythological stories of Greek-
Latin literature, underlining its perenniality.
Under the eyes of the reader Ovid succeeds the story of Orpheus, of Venus and Adonis,
of Midas, the legends of the Trojan War, the story of Enea, the foundation of Rome, Romulus's
apotheosis, the life of the earth, scenes from the life of the gods, the expeditions of the
Argonauts, Pythagorean philosophy, Caesar's apotheosis.

6
Jonathan Bate, loc.cit.
7
Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, Dicționar de Simboluri, Vol. 2, Editura Artemis, București, 1994, p. 308.
8
Katharina Volk, op. cit, p. 51.
9
Ibidem.
10
Joseph B. Solodow, The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses, The University of North Carolina Press, 2014, p. 270.
11
See Ovid, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Xist Publishing, 2015. (https://www.scribd.com/book/263910676/The-
Metamorphoses-of-Ovid)
12
See Pierre Grimal, La mitología griega y romana, Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona, 1998.
The theme of metamorphosis 13 (mutatae formae) ensures the unity of the poem's
content, according to a popular formula in the Hellenistic era, which does not lack the erotic
aloudations, which are explicable to the author of books such as Amores or The Art of Love.
The beauty of reading is attributed to the narrative fluidity, rhythm and amazing
thematic diversity: storytelling of cosmic catastrophes, legends related to natural history,
mythical geography, erotic stories, battle scenes, pathetic love stories, incestuous passions and
conjugal affection.
*
The extent of Ovid's tales made them popular even in the time when the Christian
authorities frowned at the pagan content.
One of the most popular mythological metamorphose is the story of Arachne14, a young
woman very proud of her ability to spin, praising that her works are even better than those of
goddess Palas Athena (Minerva)15. Athena organizes a competition between them to decide
who is better. When Arachne produces a magnificent tapestry, but with images of the sexual
sins of the gods, Athena goes so upset that punish Arachne by transforming her in a spider and
condemn it to spin his web over and over again. (fig. 1)
“…And on Arachné, fair Mæönian maid,
She turns her vengeful mind; whose skill she heard
Rivall'd her own in labors of the loom.
No fame her natal town, no fame her sire
On her bestow'd; her skill conferr'd renown…”16
Another famous transformation is when Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf as a punishment
for feeding him with human meat. We speak here about the myth of the lycans, the men –
wolves17. The term lycanthropy18 originates in lykos, the Greek word for wolf, and anthropos
meaning man. The myth of human transformation into the wolf, as we know it today, has gone
through many phases, beginning with Shamanism, magical-religious beliefs of archaic
societies, continuing with the mythologies of various Indo-European peoples, culminating in
the beliefs of the Middle Ages in witchcraft and ending with popular culture.

13
Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, op. cit, p. 296.
14
Victor Kernbach, Dicționar de mitologie generală, Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică, București, 1989, p. 43.
15
Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, op. cit, Vol. 1, p. 149.
16
Ovid, op. cit, p. 179.
17
Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, op. cit, Vol. 2, p. 251.
18
Victor Kernbach, op. cit, p. 311.
Returning to Ancient Greece and speaking about the legend of Lycaon, the king of
Acardia19, is known that he, having Zeus himself as a guest, offered him human flesh to test his
divine powers. Zeus was angered and sent his weapon, the lightning bolt, upon Arcadia and
transformed Lycaon into a wolf. (fig. 2)
“…This from his lofty seat beheld, and sigh'd;
The recent bloody fact revolving deep,
The Lycaönian feast, to few yet known.
Incens'd with mighty rage, rage worthy jove,…”20
In other story, Artemis(Diana)21 turned Actaeon22 into a deer because he was looking at
the goddess while she was bathing. She took a fistful of water from the river and threw it on
Acteon cursing him. He turned instantly into a deer and he ended by being devoured by his own
dogs. (fig. 3)
“…With threatenings storm'd, but on his sprinkled head,
The antlers of the long-liv'd stag are plac'd.
His neck is lengthen'd; with a sharpen'd point,
His upright ears are form'd; to feet his hands,—
To long and slender legs his arms are chang'd;
And round his body clings a dappled coat.
Fear in his bosom she instils: the youth,
The bold Actæon flies, and wondering feels
His bounding feet so rapid in the race…”23
Another legend tell us how Io was transformed by Zeus into a heifer in order to hide her
from Hera. In Greek mythology, Io was a young woman from the city of Argos, a priestess in
the temple of the goddess Hera. Her father was a river god, Inachus, a descendant of Oceanus.
It is said that Zeus was impressed by the beauty of this girl and fell in love with her. The young
girl had a dream where she was ordered to go to the shores of Lake Lerna and give herself to
Zeus. He tries to refuse a union with the god, but her father, counseled by the oracles of the
Delphi and Dodone oracles, decides not to stir up divine wrath and follow her dream. When
going on a field, Zeus covered her with a cloudy curtain for his wife, Hera, not to see the
adultery committed. Hera suspects the adventure, and Zeus, in order to protect Io from the wrath

19
Ibidem, p. 44.
20
Ovid, op. cit, p. 11.
21
Victor Kernbach, op. cit, p. 48.
22
Joseph B. Solodow, op. cit, p. 30.
23
Ovid, op. cit, p. 84.
of his wife, makes her a beautiful white heifer. The goddess, however, don’t trust her husband
and ask for the heifer as a gift then give her in the guard of Argus, a monster with a hundred
eyes.
Zeus commanded Hermes to kill Argus and release Io, and she is free. But Hera sends
a gadfly to torment Io, making her cross the Greek lands in fury. She crosses the shores of the
sea, which will later take its name, the Ionian Sea, and then crosses the Bosphorus Strait (the
name of this strait means "the cow's sight", reminiscent of Io's myth). She continues her journey
to Egypt, where she brings to life her son with Zeus, Epaphos, and became human again24.
„...Appeas'd the goddess, Iö straight resumes
Her wonted shape, as lovely as before.
The rough hair flies; the crooked horns are shed;
Her visual orbits narrow; and her mouth
In size contracts; her arms and hands return;
Parted in five small nails her hoofs are lost:...”25
Looking at these examples (I only mentioned some of the most popular myths) of
„shapeshifting” we can affirm that Ovid is a true master of metamorphoses. Most of Ovid’s
writing in Metamorphoses is what we can call mythological and in the course of his work, the
poet manages to cover most major Greco-Roman myths. A masterpiece of literature, The
Metamorphoses are, at the same time, an excellent source for ancient myth and was used as a
valuable mythological handbook by writers and artists, being a true source of inspiration until
today.
Being accesible for everybody in the present, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and his entire
work) is a valuable source of knowledge for European culture and civilisation.

Bibliography:
 BATE, Jonathan, Shakespeare and Ovid, Clarendon Press Publisher, Oxford, 1993.
 CHEVALIER, Jean, GHEERBRANT, Alain, Dicționar de Simboluri, Vol. 2, Editura Artemis,
București, 1994.
 GRIMAL, Pierre, La mitología griega y romana, Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona, 1998.
 KERNBACH, Victor, Dicționar de mitologie generală, Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică,
București, 1989.

24
Victor Kernbach, op. cit, p. 252.
25
Ovid, op. cit, p. 36.
 OVId, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Xist Publishing, 2015.
https://www.scribd.com/book/263910676/The-Metamorphoses-of-Ovid
 SOLODOW, Joseph B., The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses, The University of North Carolina
Press, 2014.
 VOLK, Katharina, Ovid, Wiley-Blackwell Publisher, Malden, MA, 2010.
fig.1: Arachne and Athena,
Sursă: http://www.stufftoblowyourmind.com/blogs/art-spotlight-the-myth-of-arachne.htm

fig.2: Myth of Lycaon,


Sursă: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virgil_Solis_-_Lycaon.jpg
fig. 3: Titian - Death of Actaeon,
Sursă: http://www.stufftoblowyourmind.com/blogs/art-spotlight-the-myth-of-arachne.htm

fig.3: Pieter Lastman - Iunona descovering Jupiter with Io (1618)


Sursă: https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hera#/media/File:Pieter_Lastman_-
_Juno_Discovering_Jupiter_with_Io_-_WGA12485.jpg