Classic Greek Mythology: Stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book I: Daphne Eludes Apollo

Apollo Chasing Daphne, by Gianbattista Tiepolo
Apollo and Daphne Apollo Chasing Daphne, by Gianbattista Tiepolo.

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Daphne eludes the amorous god Apollo, but at what cost?

There was a nymph daughter of a river god who was turned off to love. She had coaxed a promise from her father not to force her to wed, so when Apollo, shot by one of Cupid's arrow, pursued her and wouldn't take no for an answer, the river god obliged his daughter by turning her into the laurel tree. Apollo did what he could, and cherished the laurel.

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Book II: Europa and Zeus

Europa carried off by Jupiter in the form of a white bull
Europa and Jupiter, by Nöel-Nicolas Coypel. 1726-1727.

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The Phoenician King Agenor's daughter Europa (whose name was given to the continent of Europe) was playing when she saw the enticing milk-white bull that was Jupiter in disguise. First she played with him, decorating him with garlands. Then she climbed on his back and he set off, carrying her across the sea to Crete where he revealed his true form. Europa became queen of Crete. In the next book of the Metamorphoses, Agenor will send Europa's brother out to find her.

Another popular story from the second book of Ovid's Metamorphoses is of Phaethon, the son of the sun god.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book III: The Myth of Narcissus

Narcissus, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 1594-1596
Narcissus, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 1594-1596.

Wikipedia

The beautiful Narcissus scorned those who loved him. Cursed, he fell in love with his own reflection. He pined away, turning into a flower named for him.

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The Star-crossed Lovers Pyramus and Thisbe

Thisbe, by John William Waterhouse, 1909
Story of Pyramus and Thisbe Thisbe, by John William Waterhouse, 1909.

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The story of the star-crossed Babylonian lovers appears in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream where they meet nightly at a wall.

Pyramus and Thisbe communicated with each other through a chink in the wall. This painting shows the side on which Thisbe talked and listened.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book V: Proserpine's Visit to the Underworld

Rape of Persephone, by Luca Giordano. 1684-1686
Rape of Persephone, by Luca Giordano. 1684-1686.

Wikipedia

This is the story of the abduction of Ceres's daughter Proserpina by the Underworld god Pluto that led to Ceres's great and costly grief.

The fifth book of the Metamorphoses begins with the story of Perseus's marriage to Andromeda. Phineus is angry that his fiancee has been carried off. Those involved felt he had forfeited his right to marry Andromeda when he failed to rescue her from the sea monster. To Phineus, however, it remained a wrong, and this set the theme for another abduction, that of Proserpina (Persephone in Greek) by the Underworld god who is sometimes shown emerging from a crack in the earth in his chariot. Proserpina was playing when taken. Her mother, the goddess of grain, Ceres (Demeter in Greek) laments her loss and is driven to despair not knowing what has happened to her daughter.

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A Spider (Arachne) Challenges Minerva to a Weaving Contest

The Spinners, by Diego Velázquez 1644-1648
Arachne and Minerva in The Spinners, by Diego Velázquez 1644-1648.

Wikipedia.

Arachne lent her name to the technical term for the 8-legged web-weaving spider—after Minerva finished with her.

Arachne boasted of her skill in weaving saying it was better than Minerva's, which displeased the craftswoman goddess, Minerva (Athena, to the Greeks). Arachne and Minerva had a weaving contest to settle the issue in which Arachne showed her true mastery. She wove wondrous scenes of the infidelities of the gods. Athena, who depicted her victory over Neptune in their contest for Athens, turned her disrespectful competitor into a spider.

Even after Arachne met her fate, her friends misbehaved. Niobe, for one, boasted that she was the most happiest of all mothers. The fate she met is obvious. She lost all those who made her a mother: her children. Towards the end of the book comes the story of Procne and Philomela whose horrible revenge led to their metamorphoses into birds.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book VII: Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea, by Gustave Moreau (1865)
Jason and Medea, by Gustave Moreau (1865).

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Jason charmed Medea when he arrived in her homeland to steal her father's Golden Fleece. They fled together and set up a family, but then came disaster.

Medea rode around in a chariot driven by dragons and accomplished tremendous feats of magic, including ones of great benefit to the hero Jason. So when Jason left her for another woman, he was asking for trouble. She made Jason's bride burn and then fled to Athens where she married Aegeus and became queen. When Aegeus's son Theseus arrived, Medea tried to poison him, but she was found out. She disappeared before Aegeus could draw a sword and slay her.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book VIII: Philemon and Baucis

Jupiter and Mercury in the house of Philemon and Baucis, Adam Elsheimer, c1608, Dresden.
Jupiter and Mercury in the house of Philemon and Baucis, Adam Elsheimer, c1608, Dresden.

Wikipedia

Philemon and Baucis model hospitality in the ancient world.

In Book VIII of the Metamorphoses, Ovid says the Phrygian couple Philemon and Baucis cordially received their unknown and disguised guests. When they realized their guests were gods (Jupiter and Mercury) -- because the wine replenished itself -- they tried to kill a goose to serve them. The goose ran to Jupiter for safety.

The gods were displeased by the poor treatment they had received at the hands of the rest of the area's inhabitants, but they appreciated the generosity of the old couple, so they warned Philemon and Baucis to leave town -- for their own good. Jupiter flooded the land. Afterwards, he allowed the couple to return to live out their lives together.

Other stories covered in Book VIII of the Metamorphoses include the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, and Atalanta and Meleager.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book IX: The Death of Hercules

Abduction of Deianira, by Guido Reni, 1620-21
Deianeira and Nessus Abduction of Deianira, by Guido Reni, 1620-21.

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Deianeira was Hercules's last mortal wife. The centaur Nessus abducted Deianeira, but Hercules killed him. Dying, Nessus persuaded her to take his blood.

The great Greek and Roman hero Hercules (aka Heracles) and Deianeira had recently been married. In their travels they faced the Evenus River, which the centaur Nessus offered to ferry them across. While mid-stream with Deianeira, Nessus tried to rape her, but Hercules answered her screams with a well-aimed arrow. Mortally wounded, Nessus told Deianeira that his blood, which was contaminated with Lernaean hydra blood from the arrow with which Hercules shot him, could be used as a potent love potion should Hercules ever stray. Deianeira believed the dying half-human creature and when she thought Hercules was straying, infused his clothing with Nessus's blood. When Hercules put the tunic on, it burned so badly he wanted to die, which he eventually accomplished. He gave the man who helped him die, Philoctetes, his arrows as reward. These arrows had also been dipped in the blood of the Lernaean hydra.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book X: The Rape of Ganymede

The Rape of Ganymede, Rembrandt
The Rape of Ganymede, Rembrandt.

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The Rape of Ganymede is the story of Jupiter's abduction of the most handsome mortal, the Trojan prince Ganymede, who came to serve as cupbearer to the gods.

Ganymede is usually represented as a youth, but Rembrandt shows him as a baby and shows Jupiter snatching the boy while in eagle form. The little boy is quite obviously scared. To repay his father, King Tros, eponymous founder of Troy, Jupiter gave him two immortal horses. This is but one of several stories of beauties in the tenth book, including that of Hyacinth, Adonis, and Pygmalion.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XI: The Murder of Orpheus

Halcyone, by Herbert James Draper (1915)
Halcyone, by Herbert James Draper (1915).

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(H)Alcyone feared her husband would die on a sea voyage and begged to go with him. Denied, she instead waited until a dream ghost announced that he was dead.

At the start of Book XI, Ovid tells the story of the murder of the famed musician Orpheus. He also describes the musical contest between Apollo and Pan and the parentage of Achilles. The story of Ceyx, a son of the sun god is a love story with an unhappy ending made more tolerable by the metamorphoses of the loving husband and wife into birds.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XII: The Death of Achilles

Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, by Piero di Cosimo (1500-1515)
Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (Not the Elgin Marbles) The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, by Piero di Cosimo (1500-1515).

Wikipedia

"Centauromachy" refers to the battle between the related Centaurs and Lapiths of Thessaly. Famous Elgin Marble metopes from the Parthenon depict this event.

The twelfth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses has martial themes, beginning with the sacrifice at Aulis of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia to ensure favorable winds, so the Greeks could get to Troy to fight the Trojans for the release of King Menelaus's wife Helen. As well as being about war, like the rest of the Metamorphoses, Book XII is about transformations and changes, so Ovid mentions that the sacrificial victim may have been spirited away and exchanged with a hind.

The next story is about Achilles's killing of Cyncnus, who had once been a beautiful woman named Caenis. Cyncnus turned into a bird upon being killed.

Nestor then tells the story of the Centauromachy, which was fought at the wedding of the Lapith king Perithous (Peirithoos) and Hippodameia after the Centaurs, unused to alcohol, became intoxicated and tried to abduct the bride -- abduction being a common theme in Metamorphoses, as well. With the help of the Athenian hero Theseus, the Lapiths won the battle. Their story is commemorated on Parthenon marble metopes housed at the British Museum.

The final story of Metamorphoses Book XII is about the death of Achilles.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XIII: The Fall of Troy

The Burning of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1713–1769)
The Burning of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1713–1769).

Wikipedia

To end the Trojan war, the Greeks came up with an ingenious plan. They hid then emerged from a famous giant wooden horse, the Trojan horse, which had been wheeled in to Troy as a "gift" to from the Greeks. With Troy defeated, the Greeks set fire to the city.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XIV: Circe and Scylla

Circe, by John William Waterhouse, 1911
Circe, by John William Waterhouse, 1911.

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When Glaucus came to the sorceress Circe for a love potion, she fell in love with him, but he rejected her. In response, she transformed his beloved into rock.

Book XIV tells of the transformation of Scylla into rock then continues with the aftermath of the Trojan War, including the settling of Rome by Aeneas and followers.

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Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XV: Pythagoras and the School of Athens

Pythagoras and the School of Athens, by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509
Pythagoras and the School of Athens, by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509.

Wikipedia

The Greek philosopher Pythagoras lived and taught about change—the topic of the Metamorphoses. He was though to have taught the second king of Rome, Numa.

The final metamorphosis is that of the deification of Julius Caesar followed by a praise of Augustus, the emperor under whom Ovid wrote, including the hope that his deification will be slow in coming.