Metamorphoses Book VII

Book VII

Medea and Jason / Medea and Aeson / Medea and Pelias / The Flight of Medea / Theseus and Aegus / Minos / Cephalus / The Plague / The Myrmidons / Cephalus, Procris & Aurora

Jason and Medea (1907)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

The twin sons of Boreas assist King Phineus, who aids them in their journey to Colchis, where Jason meets with King Aeëtes to claim the Golden Fleece. The king agrees to relinquish his prize upon Jason completing three horrendous tasks. Yet Medea, daughter of the king, has fallen madly in love with Jason.  In spite of Jason’s foreign origin and the loyalty she owes to her father, she agrees to help Jason succeed in his trials in exchange for his promise of marriage.  First, he tames the dangerous bulls with herbs of Hecate given to him by Medea, yoking them to plow a field that has never before been plowed.  As he drops snake’s teeth into the ground from a bronze helmet, each takes the shape of an armoured warrior who attacks Jason.  But the young man hurls a stone into their ranks and they turn on each other, perishing in a civil war.  In his last test, Jason puts to sleep a dragon with juices from a hypnagogic herb, gains the Fleece and sails home with his new wife.

Medea Rejuvenating Aeson (1760)
Corrado Giaquinto
source Wikimedia Commons

Upon his arrival home, Jason learns that his old father, Aeson, is ailing and pleads with his wife to take years from his life and add them to his father’s.  Instead, Medea promises to lengthen Aeson’s life. Nine days and nights she searches through the land in a chariot pulled by dragons, discovers magic herbs and returns.  Purifying Aeson with fire, water and sulphur, she brews the herbs with plants, stones, ocean sands, filthy screech-owl wings, the guts of a werewolf, the liver of an old stag, the skin of Libyan snakes and the head and beak of a crow. Cutting the old man’s throat, there she pours her potion and he is renewed to youth.

Pretending that she has quarrelled with her husband, Medea arrives as a suppliant at the palace of Pelias, the old man weighed down with age. Hearing of Medea’s success with Aeson, the daughters of Pelias beg her to perform her magic on their father.  Medea mixes a concoction, using herbs that have no power, and convinces the daughters to slit their father’s throat, yet while each want to be pious, none can bear the sight of their deed, and they cut blindly into the old man.  Sitting up, he accuses them of murder, but Medea cuts short his accusations, throwing his flesh into the boiling vat.

The Murder of Pelias by his Daughters (1878)
George Moreau de Tours
source Wikimedia Commons

Escaping, the horrible witch flies across the lands in her dragon-pulled chariot, and we hear of many transformations.  The flight of Medea takes her to Corinth where she kills Jason’s new wife by burning her with poison, sets fire to his halls, kills her own children and just in time escapes Jason’s vengeance. As Medea takes refuge in Athens, King Aegus, not only shelters the witch, but also marries her.


Theseus, the son of Aegus, arrives in Athens, and Medea attempts to poison him but, at the last moment, Aegus dashes the cup from his hands.  Medea escapes and the people praise Theseus.

Intent on waging war with Athens for the killing of his son, King Minos sets out to gather allies by force or promise.  With a number of states on his side, Minos speaks with King Aeacus of Oenopia, or Aegina, and his sons Telamon, Peleus and Phocus, but his grandson Aesopus regrets they cannot join him, as they have a treaty with Athens.  Minos utters dire threats for their decision.

Cephalus arrives to enlist the aid of the Aeginians in their battle against Minos, stating that he is a threat to all Greece.  Cephalus is pleased at their loyalty, but notes that there are many missing faces from his last visit to Aegina.

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikiart

Aeacus relates of a plague sent by a raging Juno, that fell upon their fair island.  It affected man and beast alike, causing an horrendous thirst so intense that people died in pools and rotted there.  The king attempted to make a sacrifice of a bull, but the animal dropped dead where it stood, and everywhere people were dehumanized in their suffering.

In his despair, Aeacus called out to Jove, who heard his plea.  In a dream, Aeacus saw an oak tree sway, dropping ants to the ground that began to take human shape. When he awoke, Telamon summoned him to a rank of humans whom Aeacus recognized, the Myrmidons, giving them that name because of their origin [ myrmex = ant ].  They are patient and zealous in their work, fine replacements for the plague-ridden island. But now all men gather to wait and marshal their troops.

Cephalus & Procris (1580)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

As Cephalus and Phocus sit together, Phocus admires the lance of Cephalus, who bursts into tears at his words.  He tells that the shaft destroyed his precious wife and begins to elaborate with a story.  His wife, Procris, the sister of Orithyia (see the last story in Book VI) was gracious and beautiful, and Cephalus treasured her love.  But two months after their marriage the goddess, Aurora, kidnaped him, and Cephalus, repelling her advances, angered the goddess who allowed him to leave, but promised revenge.  On his way home, a distrust of his wife’s fidelity came upon him and he arrived in disguise, attempting to seduce her with favours.  Day after day, she resisted until he offered her untold wealth, gifts and pressed her until she was ready to acquiesce, whereupon he revealed himself and berated her.  Abused and aggrieved, Procris left to roam the mountains and pursued the pursuits of Diana, yet Cephalus begged her to return, which she did, bringing him a lance and a hound.  All division seemed mended, but Cephalus innocently wandered around calling for his beloved “aura”, meaning the wind which he wished to cool him, but his mutterings were taken to Procris who believed that he was being unfaithful.  She covertly followed him, but when Cephalus heard a rustling in the bushes, he believed it to be a predator, and let fly the lance, which pierced the breast of Procris. When he realized his perfidy, he attempted to save his wife, who begged him not to marry “Aura”.  When he explained her mistake, she appeared to die in peace.

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Ovid’s pacing in these stories is often wonky.  We have Medea getting Jason to promise marriage and running off with him, and then, whamo!, he’s married to someone else and she’s seeking sanctuary (or for someone else’s life to ruin, we’re not sure), burning halls, killing children, etc.  There is no transition ….. nothing.  I’m assuming it’s because the people of Ovid’s time would have been familiar with the stories and could mentally fill in the gaps themselves, but when you’re a modern reader it can often leave you confused and searching frantically for information.  It’s a little bit jarring too, but I’m now accustomed to not being surprised at anything from Ovid.

Cephalus & Aurora (1627-30)
Nicholas Poussin
source Wikipedia

Winged-dragons  ❥  younger
Old Aeson  ❥  Young Aeson
Old ram  ❥  lamb
Cycnus  ❥  swan
Hyrie  ❥  lake
Combe  ❥  bird
King & Queen of Calaurea  ❥  birds
Cephisus’ grandson  ❥  sea-calf
Son of Eumelus  ❥  bird
Rain with mushrooms  ❥  mortal bodies
Phene, old Periphas & Polypemon’s daughter  ❥  birds
Sciron’s bones  ❥  Scironian rocks
Ants  ❥  Myrmidons (men)

4 thoughts on “Metamorphoses Book VII

  1. I agree on the plot pacing…its jerky and this is not the first time. Often we jump to another book, with the threads of the previous book still left tangled…I don't know may be Ovid was too impatient or he assumed everybody would know, which makes me think, that if thought everyone would know, he was sure that he is not writing something immortal for the generations to come. Or maybe he thought the Romans would last 2000+ years….anyway I love the Plague's painting. Quite horrifying!

  2. On one hand, I think that Ovid probably didn't care, and on the other, I think we may be missing something. This blog is quite illuminating, if you have time to read some of the entries (ah, time! I certainly need much more of it!): It gives much more insight into Ovid and his times.

    Yes, isn't the plague painting chilling? I love it!

  3. For all I like the Medea myth I found Book VII quite a trial (as well you know!). It did feel a bit disjointed and jarring as you say. Sure, his contemporaries would have been able to fill the gaps in themselves easily, and we both managed too, but it would have been nice to read Ovid's interpretations.

  4. I often find the stories interesting, but it seems that then he'll hit you with one that's particularly distasteful, or downright digusting, which somewhat ruins the other parts. I think that I've gotten used to him and then all of a sudden, he'll do something that makes me dislike his delivery. I don't think that it's necessarily the content of his stories, it's more that I feel he glories in them. Ugh!

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