Metamorphoses Book 1:Transformations Collaborative Poetry Project:

21 Jan


Starting in February, 15 poets, 15 months,  creating 1 contemporary reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

See the Transformations Page For More Details

Metamorphoses Overview

In the introduction of Ted HughesTales from Ovid he states:

‘But the opening lines describe the very different kind of poem that Ovid set out to write: an account of how the beginning of the world right down to his own time bodies had been magically changed by the power of the gods into other bodies’ (Hughes 1997: vii) 

George Braque Metamorphoses

I George Braque Metamorphoses

Completed in 8 AD by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid to you and me) Metamorphoses is first and foremost an extended narrative poem about change; change of all kinds: historical, religious (from the Roman multi-God form of worship to the birth of Christ within the Roman Empire); from human to inanimate object; from  human to animate object; from the mythic to the Christian. It forms a vaste canvas where mortals intertwine with Gods and are transformed.

With great beauty and vigour the text flings you into the ‘overworld and underworld’ (vii) of all creation and explores both Greek and Roman myth reinvigorating the old tales with humour, pathos and cheer and all through the notion of metamorphoses. CHANGE

Metamorphoses, as Ted Hughes points out in his introduction of his fantastic reworking of the tale Tales From Ovid, is a poem about ‘passion’ (ix), passion in its extreme- where passion ‘combusts, or levitates or mutates into the experience of the supernatural’ and each myth is reinvigorated and explored through that sense of passion. It’s always there bubbling underneath the surface as a life force. It is also a story about the tension between good and ‘the despicable’ (either godly or human.) 

The poem starts off explicitly outlining Ovid’s intention:

Of bodies changed to other forms I tell;

You Gods, who have yourself wrought every change.

Inspire my enterprise and lead my lay

In one continuous song from nature’s first

Remote beginnings to our modern times.

(Ovid 1986: 1)


And indeed Ovid’s tale takes us up to the point where Julius Caeser was deified in 42 BC after his assassination.

Book One Overview:

Book 1:

The Myths: The Creation; The Ages of Mankind, The Flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo & Daphne, Io, Phaethon

Key Characters: Jove, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Pan, Apollo and Daphne, Io and Phaethon

 In Book 1, as they say, we begin at the beginning and are taken through the sequence of how the world came into being. Through chaos, the creation of the different elements, water, seas and the creation of man. We are then walked  through the 5 ages of man: Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron where all evil is let loose and warfare is prevalent, so much so that all immortals desert the earth and heaven is attacked by giants.

490px-Daphne_chased_by_ApolloJove, Lord of heaven, witnesses these Iron-Age atrocities and recalls the time when he turned Lycean a cannibal king into a wolf. This prompts him to take divine council and he suggests all mankind should be killed by a flood, to rid the world of evil. The God’s agree and all is destroyed.

Deucalion (Son of Prometheus) and Pyrrha (Wife of Deucalion) are  the only survivors of this destruction and are given permission by the goddess of Justice, Themis, to recreate mankind out of stones. This included the dangerous side of humanity too like Python, a serpent, who is eventually killed by Apollo, the God of the Sun.

  • Facilitated by Cupid Apollo falls in love with Daphne (Daughter of Peneus, the river God). However, Cupid being the naughty god of love that he is, complicates matters by shooting Daphne with a love repellent arrow. And in order to avoid Apollo’s attentions she asks Peneus to help her and he turns her into a Laurel Tree.
  • Io, also known as Isis, is ravished by Jove but Juno (his wife) finds out (don’t they always ;)) and in order to evade being found out turns Io into a beautiful heifer. Juno insists the heifer is given to her and asks Argus (a monster with 100 eyes) to guard her. Io is treated so badly by Argus that Jove intervenes and asks Mercury (Son of Jove and the messenger of the gods) to kill Argus.
  • Mercury kills Argus by telling him a tale of transformation whereby Pan changes Syrinx a nymph into a reed from which he makes his pipes. Argus falls asleep to this tale and Mercury kills him.
  • Juno follows Io to Africa and begs her forgiveness and as she does is changed back into human form. Io gives birth to a son Epaphus who becomes a friend of Phaethon (the son of Apollo).
  • Epaphus challenges the nature of Phaethon’s parentage and the two, supported by Clymene (mother of Phaethon) begin a journey to India to find Phaethon’s father.

Themes, Analysis and Relevance

In Metamorphoses as a whole and in Book 1 the theme of transformations is a broad one encompassing a diversity of transformation both elemental and physical: from chaos to the universe to Daphne into a Laurel Tree. However, the text goes beyond the surface of the myths to actually explore the dynamics of transformation investigating the very nature of power (not only between those who are transformed but also those who transform). As Spark Notes suggests Book 1 of Metamorphoses looks at the ‘relationships of POWER’. Transformation is often a punishment for a wrong doing (like Jove destroying the world with a flood for the depravity that man has reached in the Iron Age). And this wrong doing applies to both mankind and the Gods equally. In contrast, those (like Deucalion) who side with Gods, are allowed to live.

Love is seen as the kingpin of this power dynamic, with love and lust inextricably linked, and in Book 1 Spark Notes suggests love is unrequited (Daphne and Apollo, Pan and Syrinx). One transformation begets another (often ending in tragedy and serves to highlight the manner in which change affects mankind).

This engagement with the dynamics of power and change, betrayal and love, flood and war are clearly still relevant in contemporary society and culture today. Book 1 is a rich source from which to draw to lay the foundations of what is both good and bad about mankind, and has been drawn on by such composers as Benjamin Britten for inspiration, composing a sequence of pieces for the Oboe entitled Six Metamorphoses After OvidThe first one of which you’ll find below as it depicts Pan’s moment of transformation. They are sparky, energetic and capture the energy and dynamism of transformation perfectly. 

For a more extensive overview here’s the In Our Time Podcast with Melvyn Bragg on Metamorphoses

Brittain 6 Metamorphoses After Ovid: Pan


References :

Brunauer, Dalma. H (1996) The Metamorphoses of Ovid, New Jesey Research and Education Association

Hughes, T (1997) Tales from Ovid, London: Faber and Faber

 Ovid (1986) Metamorphoses, World Classics, tr. A.D Melville, Oxford: Oxford University Press


Shortly, this post and more will be placed onto the Transformations Resource Page (under the Collaborations Tab) so everything will be in one place. There will be an audio recording of Io’s story and a list of all the main characters. And watch out for the poetry inspired by Book 1 which will be posted as it comes in and and at the end of February in its entirety.

Let the transforming commence!

One Response to “Metamorphoses Book 1:Transformations Collaborative Poetry Project:”

  1. orwell531 January 21, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    What a splendid idea, this is well thought through and it is very exciting to await the results of this venture.

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