Metamorphoses – Book IV

Book IV

The Daughters of Minyas / Pyramus & Thisbe / Mars, Venus, Vulcan, the Sun / Leucothoe & Clytie / Salmacis & Hermaphroditus / The Daughters of Minyas / Athamas & Ino / Cadmus & Harmonia / Acrisius / Perseus & Atlas Perseus & Andromeda / Perseus & Medusa

Minyas’ daughter Alcithoe and her sisters disdain Bacchus’ revelries and deride the god. The daughters of Minyas sit at home during the festivities, and as they weave their cloth, they also weave stories as they work, carefully choosing their tales.

Thisbe (1909)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikipedia

Handsome Pyramus lives next door to Thisbe, a girl as charming as she is lovely. Forbidden to marry by their parents, they can only converse through a crack in the wall between their two abodes.  One day, they devise a plan to meet outside the city beside Ninus’ tomb, beneath the mulberry tree.  Thisbe reaches the rendezvous first, but is startled by a prowling lioness who has just finished feeding.  Terrified, she flees but drops her shawl, and the lioness, finding it, worries it in her jaws.  When Pyramus arrives and finds the bloodstained garment, he is engulfed in despair.  Wishing to join his love, he thrusts his dagger into his abdomen, and the blood seeping from him is drawn by the roots of the mulberry tree, turning its white berries a dark red.  When Thisbe returns to find Pyramus fading into death, she too stabs herself, claiming that the berries of the mulberry will be a sign of this tragic conclusion.  The gods grant her wish.

Clytie (1687)
Charles de la Fosse
source Wikimedia Commons

Sister Leuconoe begins another story in which the Sun is a witness to the adulterous liaison between Venus and Mars.  When the husband of Venus, Vulcan is informed, he fashions chains of very thin bronze into a net, and snares the lovers during their next meeting.  Yet now Venus is hungry for revenge on the Sun and causes him to fall in love with Leucothoe.  Disguising himself as Eurynome, he gains entrance to her room and she submits, but her sister, Clytie, is jealous and informs their father.  Incensed and deaf to Leucothoe’s pleas of rape, he has her buried alive, but the Sun in his grief, leaves a sweet nectar around her body, turning it into a shrub of sweet incense.  Clytie is shunned by the sun and as she sits day by day in the same spot without food or drink, she transforms into a pale, yet also reddish plant (heliotrope).

Alcithoe takes over the storytelling, revealing that in the caves of Ida, a boy was raised called Hermaphroditus.  One day, he is passing by a pool and the nymph Salmacis, a lazy nymph who never joined Diana’s active company, spots him and decides that she must have him.  Engaging him in conversation, her words become more suggestive, and Hermaphroditus warns her to cease or he’ll leave.  Instead, she relinquishes the spot, disappearing into the bushes, but watches him as he decides to bath in the pool’s clear waters.  At last she has him, plunging into the pool and wrapping around him like a serpent, in spite of his struggles to spurn her.  Finally they become one, emerging as both and neither a man or woman.  Distraught, Hermaphroditus prays that the pool will have the same effect on anyone who enters it.  I’m not certain why, as the experience seemed most unpleasant!

Suddenly a roar is heard and Bacchus and his merrymakers arrive.  Suddenly their weaving mutates into twining grapevines, and while the daughters of Minyas rush to seek refuge, they shrink and transform into squeaking, shrieking bats, often called Vesperites.

Athamas taken by the Furies (1801)
Arcangelo Migliarini
source Wikimedia Commons

The reputation of Bacchus grows, and his aunt Ino sings his praises.  She is very proud of her husband, Athamas, and of her lovely children, but envy is brewing in the breast of Juno who travels to Hades as part of her plotting. Curiously, we find the daughters of Danaus here, who had apparently married their fifty “Egyptus” cousins, then murdered them and, in Hades, are endlessly filling cracked jars for their crime.  (In Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens, they had evaded their cousins and were under the protection of King Pelasgus of Argos).  In any case, Juno summons the Furies, Ixion, Sisyphus and Tisiphone, to do her bidding.  Tisiphone arrives in Thebes with Sorrow, Terror, Dread and Madness at her side, terrifying Athamas and Ino with her serpent locks and, infusing them with a venomous potion, leaves them to go insane. Athamas, seeing his wife as a lioness, attacks her and the children.  Grabbing his son, Learchus, he whirls him around, dashing his head against the rocks. Ino is distraught and, clutching her son, Melicerta, she climbs a promontory near the sea, calling on Bacchus for help.  In her madness, she leaps from the top with her son, and Venus in her pity, begs Neptune to transform them into sea deities, Leucothoe and Palaemon.  He grants her wish.  The Theban women, friends of Ino, mourn her fate and Juno transfigures them into rocks and birds.

Unbeknownst to Cadmus that his daughter and grandson are now sea deities, he and Harmonia leave Thebes in sadness and suffering until they reach the region of Illyria.  He requests that if the snake whose teeth he had scattered on the ground had been sacred, that he too assume such a shape.  As he begins to change, Harmonia cries out, asking to join her husband and both of them become serpents, but ones who remember who they were.  Ironically Cadmus becomes what he used to start his kingdom.

Acrisius, from the line of Belus instead of Agenor, defies Bacchus and also, in his stubborn resolve, denies that Perseus was born of Jove in a shower of gold.  But soon the king reverses these claims.  Perseus, at this time, is flying over the deserts of Libya, carrying the Gorgon’s head, which is dripping rivulets of blood, and as each drop hits the sand it metamorphoses into a snake.  This is why Libya is infested with snakes.

Atlas and the Hesperides (1925)
John Singer Sargent
source Wikimedia Commons

From Libya, Perseus comes to Hesperia, the land of Altas, who raises sheep and cultivates a golden orchard.  Perseus, asking if he might rest from his travels, is blatantly refused hospitality by Atlas.  A prophecy has reached his ears, of a despoiling of his golden orchard by a son of Jove.  Perseus is annoyed with the refusal and struggles with the giant, but knowing that eventually his strength with be of no match, holds up the head of Medusa. Immediately Atlas is changed into an enormous, rugged mountain.

Perseus & Andromeda (1867-69)
Gustave Moreau
source Wikiart

Perseus continues his journey, intending to pass over Ethiopia until he spies a woman, Andromeda, tied to a rock.  Descending, he inquires of the maiden’s plight, discovering her punishment is for her mother’s boast of her own loveliness. Suddenly, a sea monster, Ammon, rises from the ocean, and her parents, Cepheus and Cassiope, plead for assistance, which Perseus promises in exchange for their daughter’s hand in marriage.  High up in the sky, Perseus rushes, then downward, plunging his sword into the monster again and again.  Victorious, he places the head of Medusa onto a bed of seaweed, which soaks up the power of the Gorgon, and transforms to coral.

The wedding celebrations now begin, yet one of Cepheus’ lords requests Perseus to recount the story of the Gorgon’s head.  Perseus describes how he travelled beneath Atlas, took the one eye of the Graeae sisters, and advanced until he found Medusa and her sister, Gorgons.  Using the Graeae eye in one hand for sight, he turned his own gaze away and lopped off Medusa’s head.  When asked why, of the two sisters, only Medusa had snakes for hair, he relates that she once had been a beauty renowned for her gorgeous hair, yet the Ruler of the Sea raped her in Minerva’s sanctuary, and the goddess made Medusa pay for her crime by turning her lovely hair into serpents.

Perseus and the Graiae
Edward Burne-Jones
source Wikiart

The Geneaology of the Argives

Boys  ❥  mute fishes
Naiad  ❥  fish
Mulberry = white berries  ❥  dark berries
Leucothoe  ❥  shrub of sweet incense
Clytie  ❥ part pale, part reddish plant (Heliotrope)
Hermanphroditus + Salmacis  ❥  hermaphrodite
Weaving  ❥  grapevines
Sisters  ❥  bats
Ino & son  ❥  Palaemon & Leucothoe (sea dieties)
Theban women  ❥  rocks & birds
Cadmus & Harmonia  ❥  serpents
Drops of blood  ❥  snakes
Altas  ❥  mountain
Seaweed  ❥  coral
Men & animals  ❥  stone
Medusa’s hair  ❥  snakes

Links to my other posts:

Metamorphoses:  Book I / Book II / Book III

8 thoughts on “Metamorphoses – Book IV

  1. I had only known the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from the butchered performance of it in 'Midsummer Night's Dream'. It was very interesting to read the source material.

  2. I liked this book a bit more, maybe because the narrative style changed or maybe because we see a God being heroic and marries instead of raping! Oh! Well!

  3. It's kind of Romeo and Juliet-ish too, isn't it? I would have loved to hear the original myth. The more I read about Ovid and his times, and the more I find his versions of other myths exaggerated compared to the Greeks, the more I suspect that he employed perhaps excessive embellishment. I'll save my final verdict until I finish though. 🙂

  4. Yes, but in this book, it's a man who gets raped this time. 🙁 In any case, all these rather fantastical stories are making me want to learn more about Ovid. Or at least, I think I want to learn more about him ……. :-Z …….. 😉

  5. True that…now that I recollect that part, I am not sure if I really like this book all that much. I am still deciding about Ovid!

  6. I very much enjoyed the fourth book, and I think Pyramus and Thisbe was my favourite. I think I've said before, but in case not – they inspired a part of Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons 🙂

  7. You make me laugh with your 'rounds' of my posts! You're like a blog "doctor"! 😉

    I really enjoyed the fourth book too. And I made the connection with the mulberry tree in The Fortune of the Rougons, can you believe it? Strange that the mulberry tree is what stood out for me and not Silvère and Miette's relationship…… Which reminds me, I need to read Le Rêve next — I remember that you said it was one of your favourites.

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