Ovidius Metamorphosis - George Sandy's 1632 edition

Cover of George Sandys's 1632 edition of Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished

Metamorphoses (from the Greek μεταμορφώσεις, "transformations") is a Latin narrative poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid, describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework. Completed in 8 CE, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. One of the most-read of all classical works during the Middle Ages, the Metamorphoses continues to exert a profound influence on Western culture.


Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek mythology and sometimes straying in odd directions. The poem is often called a mock-epic. It is written in dactylic hexameter, the form of the great heroic and nationalistic epic poems, both those of the ancient tradition (the Iliad and the Odyssey) and of Ovid's own day (the Aeneid of Virgil). It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse", and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection.

Tizian - Danae receiving the Golden Rain - Prado

Titian's Danaë, one of innumerable paintings inspired by the Metamorphoses.

The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is love—be it personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon, who is the closest thing this putative mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.

Antonio del Pollaiolo Apollo and Daphne

Apollo and Daphne by Antonio Pollaiuolo, one tale of transformation in the Metamorphoses—he lusts after her and she escapes him by turning into a bay laurel.

The Metamorphoses can be said to be unique in that it is the only Latin mock-epic to have an epilogue. This epilogue (Book 15, lines 871–879) is Ovid's way of telling his readers that everything is in flux, but that the exception to this is the Metamorphoses, "Now stands my task accomplished, such a work as not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword nor the devouring ages can destroy". The idea that this implies is that the authors gain "immortality" through the survival of their works.

Main episodes

Inspirations and adaptations

Ovid Metamorphoses Vol II, 1727

Second Volume of a 1727 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses

The story of Coronis and Phoebus Apollo was adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, where it forms the basis for the Manciple's tale.

Metamorphoses was a considerable influence on English playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is influenced by the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses Book 4), and, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a band of amateur actors performs a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare's early erotic poem Venus and Adonis expands on the myth in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses. In Titus Andronicus, the story of Lavinia's rape is drawn from Tereus' rape of Philomela, and the text of Metamorphoses is used within the play to enable Titus to interpret his daughter's story. Yet, most tellingly, Shakespeare adapts, with minor changes, a passage from Book 7 of the Golding translation into an important speech in Act V of The Tempest.

  • In 1613, Spanish poet Luis de Góngora wrote an illustrious poem titled La Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea that retells the story of Polyphemus, Galatea and Acis found in Book XIII of the Metamorphoses.
  • In 1625, sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini finished his piece entitled Apollo and Daphne, taken from the episode in Book 1 in which Apollo, pierced by a love-inducing arrow from Cupid, pursues the fleeing nymph Daphne. This episode furthermore has been treated repeatedly in opera, notably by Jacopo Peri (Dafne) in 1597 and Richard Strauss (Daphne, with a libretto that deviates significantly from Ovid's account) in 1938.
  • In 1783, Austrian composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf wrote twelve symphonies on selected stories of the Metamorphoses; only six survive, corresponding to stories from the first six books.[2]
  • Ruben Dario's Collection of poems, Prosas Profanas (1896) contains the poem "Coloquio de los Centauros" based upon Ovid's Metamorphoses.
  • In 1951, British composer Benjamin Britten wrote a piece for solo oboe incorporating six of Ovid's mythical characters.
  • In 1988, author Christoph Ransmayr reworked a great number of characters from the Metamorphoses in his The Last World.
  • In 1997, the British poet laureate Ted Hughes adapted twenty-four stories from the Metamorphoses into his volume of poetry Tales from Ovid. This was later adapted for the stage in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1999, the year after Hughes's death..
  • In 2000, author Phillip Terry edited a collection of modern adaptations of some of Ovid's myths as Ovid Metamorphosed. Contributors included Margaret Atwood.
  • In 2002, author Mary Zimmerman adapted some of Ovid's myths into a play by the same title, and the open-air-theatre group London Bubble also adapted it in 2006.
  • Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories also bases its format on Metamorphoses, adapting Ovid's poem to modern times with drug-addicted, teenage versions of many of the characters from the original play.
  • Acis and Galatea, a masque by Händel, is based on the eponymous characters out of the Metamorphoses, as is Lully's opera Acis et Galatée.
  • Jazz artist Patricia Barber's 2006 album, Mythologies, is a set of songs based on Ovid's Metamorphoses.
  • Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis's 2009 album Metamorphosen is based on Ovid's epic Metamorphoses.
  • In 2009, British author Adrian Mitchell wrote a collection entitled Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses, intended for young adult readers. This is one of Mitchell's last books, as he died in 2008, and it was published posthumously.
  • In 2010, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre presented a new adaptation of Metamorphoses at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.[3]
  • Australian writer Ursula Dubosarsky adapted ten of the stories from the Metamorphoses into plays for children. These were first published in the School Magazine, a publication of the New South Wales Department of Education, from 2006.

Manuscript tradition

Bartolomeo di Giovanni - The Myth of Io - Walters 37421

This panel, by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, relates the second half of the story. In the upper left, Jupiter emerges from clouds to order Mercury to rescue Io.[4] The Walters Art Museum.

Ovid's Metamorphoses was an immediate success (although Quintilian considered Ovid's tragedy Medea his best work), its popularity threatening that of Virgil's Aeneid. It was considered such a definitive work on mythology that Seneca joked in his Apocolocyntosis that the deification of Claudius should be added to the Metamorphoses.[5] But the poem's immense popularity in antiquity and the Middle Ages belies the struggle for survival it faced in late antiquity. "A dangerously pagan work,"[6] the Metamorphoses was preserved through the Roman period of Christianization, but was criticized by the voices of Augustine and Jerome, who believed the only metamorphosis really was the transubstantiation. Though the Metamorphoses did not suffer the ignominious fate of the Medea, no ancient scholia on the poem survive (although they did exist in antiquity[7]), and the earliest manuscript is very late, dating from the 11th century.

The poem retained its popularity throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and is represented by an extremely high number of surviving manuscripts (more than 400);[8] the earliest of these are three fragmentary copies containing portions of Books 1-3, dating to the 9th century.[9]

Collaborative editorial effort has been investigating the various manuscripts of Metamorphoses, some forty-five complete texts or substantial fragments,[10] all deriving from a Gallic archetype.[11] The result of several centuries of critical reading is that the poet's meaning is firmly established on the basis of the manuscript tradition or restored by conjecture where the tradition is deficient. There are two modern critical editions: William S. Anderson's, first published in 1977 in the Teubner series, and R. J. Tarrant's, published in 2004 by the Oxford Clarendon Press.


  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print. Pages ix–xi
  2. under "About this Recording" at bottom left. Keith Anderson, liner notes for The 18th Century Symphony: Dittersdorf: Sinfonias on Ovid's Metamorphoses Nos. 1 - 3, 1995
  4. "The Myth of Io". The Walters Art Museum. 
  5. Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 9.
  6. Cameron, Alan (2004). Greek Mythography in the Roman World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517121-7. 
  7. Brooks Otis (1936). "The Argumenta of the So-Called Lactantius". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 47: 131–163. 
  8. Tarrant, R. J., P. Ouidi Nasonis Metamorphoses. Oxford. vi
  9. Reynolds, L. D., ed., Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, 277.
  10. R. J. Tarrant, 2004. P. Ouidi Nasonis Metamorphoses. (Oxford Classical Texts) Oxford: Clarendon Press: praefatio.
  11. Richard Treat Bruere (1939). "The Manuscript Tradition of Ovid's Metamorphoses". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 50: 95–122. 

External links

Latin text with English translation

English translation only

Insight and commentary

Audio Reading

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Metamorphoses. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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