Metamorphoses ~ Book X

Book X

Orpheus and Eurydice / Cyparissus / Orpheus’ Prologue / Ganymede / Hyacinthus / The Cerastes / The Propoetides Pygmalion / Myrrha & Cinyras / The Birth of Adonis / Venus and Adonis / Atalanta & Hippomenes / The Fate of Adonis

Orpheus & Eurydice (1864)
Frederic Leighton
source Wikiart

Hymen did not bless the wedding of Orpheus, and what a mess! (I’m losing my narrative tone, aren’t I?) His bride, Eurydice, while crossing the meadow with her Naiad friends, stepped on a viper and died.  After his weeping ceased, he travelled to the Underworld to seek his cherished wife.  Playing sweetly on his lyre, he begged the gods to restore her to life, and so beautiful his song that even the bloodless shades shed tears and the Furies wept. By his skill and love, Orpheus won his wife back, but was warned as he was leading her out, to only look straight ahead or she would be reclaimed by the dead.  Nearly in the upper world, Orpheus could not resist looking at her, and as his eyes fell upon her, he watched her sink back into the abyss.  Frantic, he ranged the banks of the Styx like a shade, then finally left the Underworld.

Three years went by and Orpheus, in his grief, shunned the love of women.  He spent days playing his lyre, and playing it so sweetly that even the trees came to listen.  We learn of a youth, Cyparissus, who had a stag he treated almost like a pet.  Tragically, one day his javelin accidently pierced the stag, killing it, and Cyparissus was so distraught that he begged the gods to let him grieve forever.  In response, they transformed him into a cypress tree.

Cyparissus (c1670-77)
Jacopo Vignali
source Wikimedia Commons

Opheus now goes into a prologue, plucking his lyre and announcing that he will sing of “boys the gods have loved, and girls incited by unlawful lust and passions, who paid the penalty for their transgressions.”

Ganymede (1531-32)
source Wikiart

Singing, Orpheus tells how the lusts of Jove raged for the Phrygian, Ganymede, so he transformed himself into a bird, “one with force enough to carry Jove’s thunderbolts,” and snatched up the Trojan boy.  Even now, Ganymede is a page for Jove, preparing nectar for him and filling his cups.

Phoebus Apollo loved Hyacinthus, a Spartan boy, and was his close comrade.  In competition, as Phoebus threw a discus, Hyacinthus recklessly rushed to pick it up, only to have it rebound with great force back into his face, killing him.  Phoebus, blaming himself, wished to die as well, but death was denied him so he claimed the boy would be a new flower on which his lament was inscribed: “Ajax” would be stamped on his petals.  With his own hand, he wrote “AI” and Sparta honours Hyacinthus each year with the Hyacinthus festival.

The Cerastes polluted the altar of Jove with the blood of guests, appalling Venus who made ready to leave Cyprus.  But thinking awhile of the dear sites and towns, she instead transformed them into savage bulls.

The Propoetides declared that Venus was not a goddess, and for their audacity, the girls, who were the first prostitutes, were transformed into hard stones.

Pygmalion & Galatea (c. 1890)
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Repulsed by the shameful acts of women, Pygmalion is determined not to take a wife, instead, carving a beautiful woman from a block of ivory.  Enchanted with his creation, he desires a wife like her, and Venus, understanding his prayers, answers.  This time when Pygmalion kisses the statue, as usual, he feels warm lips and flesh. After the wedding, his wife gives birth to Paphos and since, Cypress is called the Paphian isle.

The son of Paphos, Cinyras, would have found happiness where it not for his misfortune of having daughters.  Myrrha, loves her father in an unnatural way.  To subdue this perfidy, she attempts to hang herself but her nurse interrupts the deed and pledges her assistance.  During the feast honouring Ceres, they trick the king into sleeping with her, until he finally recognizes her, and drawing his sword attempts to kill her but, Myrrha flees.  Pregnant, she escapes “palm-rich Arabia and Panchaea’s lands” coming at last to the Sabaeans’ land where she prays to be denied both life and death.  At this prayer, she is metamorphised into a Myrrh tree.

Even though Myrrha is now a tree, her child is still ready to be born and Lucina, goddess of chidbirth, speak a spell and Adonis is born.  Set in a meadow by the Naiads, he is anointed with myrrh, his mother’s tears, and his beauty is unsurpassed.

The Awakening of Adonis (1899)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

Adonis grows into manhood and as he grows, so does his beauty.  Venus, the goddess herself, is in love with him.  She is scratched by Cupid’s arrow and cannot suppress her desire for this mortal, and neglects all her duties, sinking into a pining admiration for him. She warns him against being reckless and about wild animals, then cuddling him on the grass, she tells him a story.

Atalanta (1908)
John William Godward
source Wikiart

Atalanta is a girl faster than the fastest of men.  The oracle instructs her to shun marriage and if she does not, she will remain alive but lose herself.  Terrified, she lives in the shadowy forest but suitors still seek her out so she devises a plan, telling all that she would marry the one who could best her in a footrace, but those who lost would surely die.  Hippomenes, at first scoffs at the contenders, but when he sees Atalanta’s splendid “form”, he too desires her for a wife.  Atalanta bests all the suitors, but Hippomenes challenges her to a one-on-one race.  Atalanta enjoys his attention and agrees, yet while they prepare for the race, Hippomenes prays to Venus who gives him three golden apples. During the race, he drops an apple at a time and Atalanta, drawn by their beauty, swerves to pick them up.  With the first two apples, she is able to catch up but with the last apple’s distraction, Hippomenes is able to win the race and his bride.  Stupidly, the hero forgets to thank his benefactress, Venus, who causes him to have an overwhelming desire for his wife near a shrine and they defile it with their lovemaking, causing the goddess Cybele to change them into two lions.  The story is a warning to Adonis to avoid wild beasts, and Venus sails away in her chariot.

Adonis youthful ignorance supersedes all warnings and he hunts the wild boar, wounding the animal but not killing it.  The boar turns on him, impaling him in the groin (ouch!) and his life ebbs away.  Venus, hearing his groans, rushes to him but he is dead. She transforms the blood of the young man into the Anenome flower, a flower that is brilliantly beautiful but quickly fades to death.

Venus Weeping Over Adonis (c. 1625)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikiart
Man frightened by Cerebus  ❥  stone
Olenus & Lethaea  ❥  two rocks on Ida
Attis  ❥  pine tree
Cyparissus  ❥  cypress tree
Jove  ❥  bird
Hyacinth’s blood  ❥  flower
The Cerastes  ❥  savage bulls
The Propoetides  ❥  hard stones
Ivory woman  ❥  real woman
Myrrha  ❥  myrrh tree
Hippomenes & Atalanta  ❥  lions
Adonis’ blood  ❥  Anemone flower

14 thoughts on “Metamorphoses ~ Book X

  1. I'm saving all these reviews and will read them individually once I start Metamorphoses. Are you reading a paperback of kindle version of the book? Just curious so I can decide what to buy myself.

  2. I could never read this on a Kindle ….. much easier to reference things, if you have to go backwards and forwards, on paper. I'm reading Alan Mandelbaum's translation and I'm very pleased with it. I hope you like it. It's easy to read with so many different stories, and the dramatic tension at times is quite an experience!

  3. What a great review of so many myths. It's interesting how many of them are rather sad. As though they were written by people who didn't live with hope (hmmm). I love the paintings that you provided also. I think my favorite Pygmalion painting is by Burne Jones.

  4. The Pygmalion story is perhaps one of the very very few to have a happy ending in this book! The blood and gore continue otherwise! I am also kind of tired of the incestuous themes – also its always the woman who lusts after the father/brother and it is the principled father/brother who draw away from such immoral liaison! I really need to understand this anti-woman complex!

  5. Isn't the Pygmalion painting wonderful?!

    Ovid is definitely making the myths his own, so I'm being careful with equating them with the original myths. I've read Greek myths before and have never been so shocked and horrified. I think there's an indication of why Augustus exiled Ovid. I imagined he crossed the morality line more than a few times.

    It's also interesting to note that the later Greeks questioned the myths too. Herodotus basically pooh-poohs a few of them in his histories. There has certainly been a development between mythical times and the democratic times of ancient Greece.

  6. I know! I really enjoyed it, I'm just scared that there's more to the story than Ovid told and it ended badly. Isn't it silly? Now I just expect everything to end badly.

    Yes, the unnatural love theme and the shameful acts of women are very pronounced, but Orpheus does announce that he's going to sing about them. Why, I wonder? He's distraught over his wife, and shuns women so perhaps he is weary of their attentions, and gains a disgust of them. Who knows?

    I'm also noticing Ovid's treatment of places. We get stories from Cyprus in this book and I remember him telling about Crete in another.

    Well, let's see what the next book holds …….

  7. Thanks so much for the advice.
    I'll start searching for the book today.
    I took a quick glance in Wikipedia about the book…
    what a cast of characters, so many!

  8. Thanks for making clear on my post Oxford app Cl Lit….that Ovid is a Roman poet and not Greek. I felt awkward correcting the person who commented on my blogpost. I 'm just starting the Ancients and don't feel qualified to comment on misconceptions. Your expertise is admirable and only proves that point…reading broads you horizons!

  9. I had to keep reminding myself that Ovid wasn't Greek at first, but the further I read into the poem, I sensed a different style or tone and then it wasn't difficult to remember. And Herodotus discounts many of the myths in his Histories so you see a movement …. well, perhaps not away from the myths, because they were important to their culture and lineage, but you see more of an effort to explain them using less unbelievable reasoning, whereas Ovid uses more. However we do owe him for preserving many of them; without him some would be lost. In any case, I hope you have a really great read!

  10. I really loved Book X I must say. As you know I've been struggling along (not hating it, just finding it tricky) since Book V or so, but this one I really adored.

    Love the paintings you included – especially the Waterhouse 🙂

  11. Yes, this one was mostly very good. I liked the story of Orpheus and also Atalanta and Hippomenes, although I wish the outcome for them had been better. That's curious, I liked Metamorphoses until about Book IV, struggled until about book VII and since have been really enjoying it. I hope I'm not getting numb to Ovid's rather startling descriptions! :-Z

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