Metamorphoses – Book II

Book II

Phaeton / The Heliades / Cycnus / Phoebus / Callisto / Arcas The Raven / Coronis, the Raven, the Crow, Nyctimene / Ocyrohoe / Battus / Mercury, Herse, Aglauros / Europa & Jove

The Fall of Phaeton (c. 1604-05)
Peter Paul Ruebens
source Wikimedia Commons

Phaethon reaches the gorgeous palace of Phoebus, where his father confirms his birthright.  Arrogantly, Phaeton requests to drive his chariot, and sadly Phoebus concedes, giving instructions to his son for his safe journey. Thetis unbars the way for her grandson and the horses leap high in the air, but it’s as if they have no rider and control is lost.  Phaethon regrets his decision, yet is paralyzed and the chariot finally plunges down to earth destroying large swaths of it with fire.  The earth cries out and “the Almighty Father” (Jove) hurls a thunderbolt, unseating Phaeton, yet combatting fire with fire.  Phaeton, consumed by the fire, is buried by the river Po by the Naiads, while his father in grief buries his face and shuts out the sun for a day.  Clymene laments with her daughters, the Heliades, at her son’s grave, but her daughters metamorphosize into trees in spite of her attempts to save them.

Cycnus, a king of Liguria and a relative of Phaeton’s, goes to pay his respects and is transformed into a swan, a bird who does not trust to seek the sky because of Jove’s lightning bolts.

Jove then inspects the heavens and earth for damage from the fire, but spots a nymph, Callisto and, disguising himself as the goddess Diana before reappearing in his normal form, rapes her in spite of her frantic struggles. Diana discovers her shame and sends her away, and when Juno learns of Jove’s crime and of the son born to Callisto, Arcas, she transforms Callisto into a bear.  Later, Arcas encounters his mother and nearly kills her, but Jove intervenes, grabbing both and placing them in the sky as Ursa Major and Minor.

Plate 101 Raven
John James Audubon
source Wikiart

As Juno is enraged at the compliment given to Callisto, she travels to heaven in her chariot which is drawn by the peacocks who have recently changed hue.  We hear of another bird, Phoebus’ sacred bird, the Raven, who also gets his colour changed from white to black, as punishment for his talkative chatter. He refuses to listen to the Crow’s warning, whose feathers were transformed as he informed on the three daughters of the bi-form Cecrops, Pandrosos, Herse and Aglauros, when they looked into a basket and discovered a baby that had been formed by the seed of Vulcan, after he attempt to rape Minerva.  Minerva, however, turns him black for his snitching, and the poor crow relates that before this incident, he had been a princess, but was transformed into a crow while escaping from the sea-god who attempted to ravish her.  Yet now he is supplanted in the affections of Minerva by Nyctimene, the owl, oh woe is he!  The Raven, however, declines to heed the crow’s wise wisdom, and instead reveals to Apollo (Phoebus) that his love, Coronis had lain beside a Thessalian youth. Inflamed with hot fury, Apollo kills Coronis yet before she is burned, he snatches their unborn son, Aesculapius, from her womb and gives him to the centaur, Chiron, to raise.  The Raven, however, receives his due and is banished.  We learned of this same story in Chaucer’s The Manciple’s Tale.

The daughter of Chiron, Ocyrhoe, prophesies over Aesculapius, saying that he will become a great healer and god.  Her father’s immortality will also change to mortality, but as she speaks she is transfigured into the form of a horse with a new name, Hippe.

Landscape with Mercury and Battus (1618)
Jacob Pynas
source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, bereft with grief, Phoebus is roaming the hills in the guise of a shepherd, but in his mourning over the fate of Coronis, his cows wander off and are hidden by Mercury.  Yet an old man named Battus witnesses the theft, but Mercury buys off his silence with a choice cow from the herd.  Battus promises a stone would give more information than he.  To test the old man’s resolve, Mercury disguises himself and returns asking for “his cows” and offering Battus a cow from the herd for information on the theft.  Battus reveals all and Mercury changes him into a stone (now called a touchstone or tellstone) in payment for his betrayal.

Mercury spots Herse, daughter of Cecrops, and is determined to possess her. He enlists the help of her sister, Aglauros, but Envy, spurred by Minerva, poisons Aglauros.  Infected with resentment of her sister’s happiness, she attempts to prevent Mercury from entering her bedroom, and he turns Aglauros into a statue.

Returning to heaven, Mercury is directed by Jove to drive the king Agenor’s cattle down to the shore, yet unbeknownst to him, Jove is planning the capture of the daughter of the king, Europa.  He disguises himself as a perfect white bull, entices the girl, and then rides away into the ocean with her on his back.

The Abductiion of Europa (1715)
Jean-François de Troy
source Wikipedia


The daughters of Clymene  ❥  Trees
Cycnus  ❥  Swan
Jove  ❥  Diana  ❥  Jove
Callisto  ❥  Bear  ❥  Ursa Major
Arcas  ❥  Ursa Minor
Raven:  White feathers  ❥  Black feathers
Princess  ❥  Crow: White feathers  ❥  Black feathers
Ocyrhoe’s Prophecy:  
Aesculapius  ❥   god  ❥  corpse  ❥  god
Immortal Chiron  ❥  Mortal Chiron
Phoebus  ❥  Shepherd
Battus  ❥ Stone
Aglauros  ❥ Statue
Jove  ❥  White Bull

8 thoughts on “Metamorphoses – Book II

  1. I know I have said this before but I simply cannot get over the amount of violence that is meted out against women, of lesser class so to speak – non goddess variety. I felt so bad for Callisto; she is raped, then banished by Diana and then turned into a bear and none of it is her fault, unless being beautiful. I know some of these women are babes lost in the wood, hanging around for Jupiters and Apollos to "ravish" them, but somehow I cannot reconcile myself to the fates of most of these woman, espeically where the female goddesses seem to be more nastier than their male counterparts. There is a gender politics at play here. I cannot feel, that considering both Greek and Roman society were all for seclusion of women and thought of them as lesser mortals, I cannot help but feel,that the narratives coming from this society will always put women in a not so nice light. Just musing…could be completely off base!

  2. Musings are good! And I don't know …. how is that for an answer? 😉 I would just be careful in lumping the Greeks and the Romans together as the more I read, I get the feeling that their societies, while one did borrow from the other, were very different. I'm trying to remember if I recall this type of behaviour in my Greek reads, and I can't. Perhaps it's because I haven't read enough, or perhaps this is just Ovid's take. I'm really not certain.

    However, I'm assuming that this was a very patriarchal society, so whomever was "in the family" you protected with a vengeance, yet whomever was outside of the family unit (which was probably quite extensive) was considered of much lesser value. And, sorry, but women are just weaker and if someone has no moral values or societal checks (ie. laws), it's perhaps not surprising that they get taken advantage of. Completely wrong and totally disgusting, and it bothers me too. I don't really see gender politics; I haven't received the impression that it's considered okay for them to capture and rape these nymphs, as you notice that it's always done in secrecy, yet it's a serious lack of laws and conscience. But honestly, when dealing with these gods, they are amazingly horrible entities. Even when only dealing with their machinations in war, like in The Iliad, they are shockingly lacking, not only any moral base, but any conscience. And they think humans are bad!

    With the Greeks, I definitely have not found that women are always portrayed in a poor light. Mostly, I think, they are portrayed in a strong light, if you look at the actual goddesses. They are pretty much equal to the males often. And some of the Greek playwrights show a surprising amount of sympathy and respect for women. Now, the Romans, I can't speak for yet, having not read enough of their works, but with Ovid, I'm beginning to wonder …… ??? 😛

  3. Greeks were surely better than Romans in atleast giving woman right to property but only just…I mean greek born woman were not even considered citizens of Greece, regardless of their land holdings because well, they were not men. But yes, Romans took it to a whole new level. The acts being done in secrecy shows more of societal shame and what would my fellow God think and how will my consort react kind of mentality.Laws alone as you know do not guarantee good behavior, it something more moral and comes from inside. Also this might be an Orientalist perception of what Godom constitutes, but Gods are Gods not because of their strength but because of their moral rectitude; it is because of their characters that they gain the kind of strength that they require. I mean in Hindu pantheon there are loads of Gods, funny gods, political gods, powerful gods, but anyone who violates women are instantly deemed as a villain…I think thats why I am unable to reconcile the acts with the God like stature.More musings! I promise not to bore you on this anymore!!!! 🙁

  4. Ovid has been taunting me from my bookshelf ever since I bought the book but left it unread; your posting encourages me to stop the taunting. Besides, Shakespeare was a fan of Ovid, and that is an endorsement that is more than persuasive. BTW, I enjoyed reading your posting. Well done!

  5. There are articles that compare citizen women from non-citizen women, so there must have been a point where they could be citizens ..?? I think it all depended on what time period you are looking at. And it's important to treat Athens and Sparta differently as they were very different societies. It all gets very complex. I know I get influenced by Paul (the apostle) because of his (probably radical) treatment of women …. allowing them places high in the church, etc. Perhaps that mentally transfers to my perception of Greeks, I'm not sure. I have soooo many books on Ancient Greece that I haven't read yet; hopefully this conversation will spur me on to pulling some of them out.

    You are so right about laws vs. good behaviour! I remember the professor in my Moral Theology class stating that laws are there to try to prevent people from participating in bad behaviour, but it's almost impossible to legislate good behaviour. So true!

    Hinduism interests me ….. did you know C.S. Lews (I know that I always bring him up, but he has fascinating ideas, so bear with me) said in his essay "Christian Apologetics" that …. well, I'll quote him, "I have sometimes told my audience that the only two things really worth considering are Christianity and Hinduism." then I believe he goes on to delineate the differences …. the essay is in my God in the Dock spin book, but I haven't reached it yet. Interesting though, huh?

    Please keep your musings coming. It's wonderful to actually have a discussion about what we're reading.

  6. I'm glad that I could inspire you, R.T. I must say that, because of my love of the Ancient Greeks, I was anticipating getting more joy out of this book than I have been. I think partly the translation is at fault, but I sense a definite Roman flavour to it. In any case, I will keep plugging along and if nothing else, it's reminded me that I need to read more Roman Lit to make even a tenuously educated judgement. All the best ….

  7. With Book II I'm starting to see why Metamorphoses is sometimes nicknamed 1001 rapes…

    Love that painting, The Fall of Phaeton – I didn't come across that one. Rubens did so many Ovid-inspired paintings – never realised that 🙂

  8. I had no idea about the nickname! I'm not sure I can take a book full of that sort of thing. 🙁

    I've just begun Aeschylus' The Suppliant Maidens and it mentions Io and Jove and the cow, but not the rape, at least not yet.

    Yes, the painting is awesome, isn't it? I kind of wish that I'd chosen it as my regular Ovid "header" painting. Perhaps I can incorporate it if I ever revamp my blog layout. We'll see …..

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!