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Summary of the Metamorphoses

by Sage F.

At its most basic, the Metamorphoses is a collection of myths that center around the transformation from one state of being to another. Beyond the basics, however, the Metamorphoses is rather difficult to define. It is technically considered to be an epic, but it is not an epic in the same way that the Aeneid or the Odyssey are epics. It satisfies many of the formal characteristics of epic, i.e. it is a long poem written in dactylic hexameter, but it lacks a central figure and a linear plot. In fact, it seems to lack any plot at all, and any underlying arcs are complicated by the fact that myths will be often told inside other myths: for instance, in the Orpheus Cycle, Orpheus tells the story of Venus and Adonis, but within that story, Venus tells Adonis the story of Atalanta. Having a narrator within a narrator makes it difficult to keep of track of who is speaking to whom, but also makes it difficult to distinguish between Ovid’s narrative voice, and the voice of his individual narrators. This is further complicated by the fact that Ovid does not have one unified narrative voice. Despite these metatextual difficulties, the Metamorphoses can be loosely divided up into a series of cycles, where the stories in each cycle are tied together by a connecting thread, be it a second narrator or a family tree.

The Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the universe, or the world’s first metamorphosis. From there it transitions into what is effectively the first cycle, which is primarily comprised of myths about the gods and their unwilling mortal lovers. The first story surrounding a god and his pursuit of a woman, of which there will be many more, is the story of Daphne and Apollo. Next comes the Theban Cycle, which is not so much narratively centered as centered around genealogy: the people at the center of the stories are all connected to Thebes in some way. The Echo and Narcissus myth falls in the middle of the Theban Cycle. Afterwards comes the Perseus Cycle, which is rather brief and centers around the deeds of Perseus himself, and then a series of contests. These contests are usually between gods and mortals, and the mortals usually lose horribly to the gods. The most notable example is the weaving contest between Arachne and Minerva.

The Athenian Cycle comes after the series of contests and stretches out over four books, encompassing everything from Jason and Medea, to Daedalus, to Hercules. The Orpheus Cycle starts off Book 10, one of the rare instances in which the beginning of a cycle lines up with the beginning of a book; within the overarching frame of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, Orpheus sings many other tales, in addition to the Adonis and Atalanta myths mentioned earlier. After the Orpheus Cycle, we enter a more historical and narrative framework in which Ovid tackles both the great epics of his predecessors and Rome’s own history. He begins with the “Little Iliad,” also called the Trojan Cycle, and covers the creation of Troy up until its destruction. Then Ovid turns to Vergil in the “Little Aeneid,” but prefers to elaborate on minor details in Vergil’s Aeneid instead of following in Vergil’s exact footsteps. He ends with Rome, detailing its creation and the story of Romulus through to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. As Ovid says in the proemium, or prologue, he has truly sung from the beginning of the world up until his own time.

One of the more stylistic choices that Ovid made was not to evenly divide his cycles between books, e.g. the Athenian Cycle begins midway through Book 6 and does not end until Book 9. Sometimes even individual myths themselves will carry over between the books: for instance, the Phaëthon story begins at the end of Book 1 and continues until the middle of Book 2. Therefore, when examining the importance and placing of the Echo and Narcissus myth in a larger context, we must look through three different frames: its place in Book 3, next its place in the larger Theban Cycle, and finally its place in the Metamorphoses as a whole.

Echo and Narcissus’ link to the Theban Cycle is rather tenuous: neither of them are from Thebes or directly related to any of the other Thebans mentioned in the Theban Cycle. Instead, their link is through Tiresias, for Narcissus’ mother Liriope was the first to call upon Tiresias’ skills of prophecy. The story of Tiresias’ transformation into a woman, ending in his receiving the gift of prophecy, is told directly before the Echo and Narcissus myth.

Nevertheless, the connection between the Echo and Narcissus myth and the rest of Book 3 is quite clear: Echo and Narcissus, like the rest of the mortals in Book 3, experience divine retribution after offending the gods in some way. Like Actaeon is punished by Diana after he interrupts her bathing, Echo is stripped of everything but her voice after helping her fellow nymphs escape detection from Juno. While it is not a god that Narcissus offends, merely another mortal man whom he refuses to take as a lover, it is Nemesis, the goddess of divine punishment, who enacts vengeance on Narcissus.

It is also interesting to note that Book 3 is as much about the mortals being the instruments of their own punishment as the divine retribution itself. Though Diana turns him into a deer, Actaeon is killed by his own hounds; though Juno put the idea in Semele’s head, it is at Semele’s own request that Jupiter shows her his true form which will incinerate her; and though Bacchus stirs up his worshippers against Pentheus, it is his own mother who tears Pentheus’ head from his shoulders. Likewise, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and it is by pining for himself that he wastes away. In all these cases, it is something that the victims hold dear that is the instrument of their deaths, and the gods themselves do not inflict the punishment themselves.

Unsurprisingly, the place of this myth in the Metamorphoses as a whole is harder to define, given that there is no underlying arc for all fifteen books other than the fact that every story includes a transformation of some kind. But the Echo and Narcissus myth does give Ovid the chance to put a new spin on some of his favourite themes. Ovid is fascinated by love, be it unrequited, forbidden, or never meant to be; here, he gives both Echo and Narcissus’ perspectives on unrequited love and hints at the potential dangers of spurning a lover. He also seems to like stories where the punishment fits the crime or is particularly ironic: it is Echo’s voice that displeases Juno, so Juno takes away everything but her voice, while simultaneously stripping her voice of any power and autonomy. Narcissus’ situation is ironic because he attracts everyone, but is only attracted to himself, the one being that he cannot have. In the end, he wastes away rather than live in a world where he is denied himself. In addition to the idea of divine retribution, Ovid also plays with the theme of mortal daring, for it is by vexing Juno and rejecting nymphs that lead Echo and Narcissus to their respective punishments. These themes, and others, Ovid explores throughout the Metamorphoses, doing his best to uncover every possible scenario for each trope.

Source: https://iris.haverford.edu/echo/summary-of-the-metamorphoses/