Metamorphoses Book 3 Overview: Transformations Collaborative Poetry Project

25 Mar
George Braque Metamorphoses

George Braque Metamorphoses


Started in February 2013, 17 poets, 15 months,  creating 1 contemporary reworking of Ovid‘s Metamorphoses

See the Transformations Page For More Details

Well, here we are nearing the 3rd month of our project with the second set of Book 2 poems due in on Thursday 28th March. The Book 1 poems have been posted out steadily over March with one more posting out this week. It’s been brilliant to see which common themes have been taken up by the poets and the different verse forms and interpretations employed. All the poets involved have shown such care over their work and the quality has been absolutely fantastic. You can find their poems here, here here   

I will be putting out the Book 3 Prompt and Deadline Details on Saturday 30th March.


Overview of Book 3:

‘Now, safe in Crete, Jove shed the bull’s disguise

And stood revealed before Europa’s eyes.

Meanwhile her father, baffled, bade his son

Cadmus, set out to find the stolen girl

And threatened exile should he fail- in one

Same act such warmth of love, such wickedness ‘


NarcissusAnd so begins Book 3…  shifting emphasis and setting up a  dynamic between love and wickedness.

This book has a completely different feel to Book 2, and grounds itself in a less convoluted although slightly longer narrative structure. The book concentrates on the transformations in a specific place- the House of Cadmus (Cadmus being the brother of Europa). Like Jupiter in Book 2, as the quote above shows, Ovid leaves Europa safely behind him and focuses his beady eye on her brother (the legendary founder of Thebes) and the wrath that Juno (queen of heaven and wife of Jove) focuses on Europa’s family (consisting of brother Cadmus, Grandson Actaeon, Sister Semele). Within this book Ovid touches on the eternal subject matter of the power relationships between the gods and man. A two sided approach is taken up: looking at the specific belief that to look at a god actually merited death; and that equally, from the gods’ side, promises must be kept. A God’s word must be kept.  The book also delves into the concept of faith in the gods: faith in the gods… regardless, and in so doing touches upon the themes of belief and worship.

Summary of the Tales in Book 3:


The Myths and Key Characters: Cadmus; Diana and Actaeon; Semele and the Birth of Bacchus;  Tiresias; Narcissus and Echo;  Pentheus and Bacchus


Europa’s father Agenor sends his son Cadmus on an epic search for Europa. Whilst looking for her, guided by oracles, he comes across a new homeland and whilst doing so violates a specific and ancient woodland’s sanctity. As punishment for this violation Cadmus has to battle a horrific serpent. He kills the beast and is told to plant the serpent’s teeth in the ground. He is also warned that he too will be turned into a snake. Regardless, Cadmus plants the teeth into the soil and an army of soldiers is born. They fight each other for survival and only 5 remain. The soldiers help Cadmus build the city of Thebes. Ovid warns them that the building of Thebes, although seemingly a good thing, may not bring happiness, and that man is not ultimately happy until his death.

Diana and Actaeon

 In this particular tale Ovid directly addresses the reader, deliberately bringing to the fore the idea of fate and luck. Don’t blame Actaeon, it was just his ‘misfortune’ to see what he saw he seems to be indicating… Actaeon sees Diana bathing naked one day and watches her; he is instantly turned into a stag. In this new guise Actaeon’s own dogs don’t recognise him and he is torn to shreds by them. Juno (being the lovely goddess that she is) rejoices in the fact that this has happened to Actaeon.

Semele and the birth of Bacchus

Juno has another grievance (misplaced) on the boil in relation to Semele (the daughter of Cadmus) because Semele has become pregnant by Jove. Instead of just chiding Jove she decides to actively employ some trickery to get back at him. She disguises herself as Semele’s servant and persuades Semele to persuade Jove to disclose himself to her in his full majesty and in so doing she is consumed by his fire (for a mortal is unable  to sustain contact with an immortal). The child that Semele is carrying is saved by Jove and sewn into his thigh until it is born. Io eventually cares for the child.




Ovid creates a lighter feel in this tale (a change of air) and foregrounds the role Tiresias is going to play in the following tales. Tiresias is a dynamic and challenging character, having lived as both sexes giving him a particular understanding of the lives of both genders. Because of this particular insight Tiresias is asked to intervene when the Gods argue which gender enjoys sex more. Tiresias agrees with Jupiter (thus siding with the men) and Juno (Queen of Heaven, Wife of Jove) blinds him  in punishment of her divine authority. And, feeling sorry for Tiresias, Jupiter,  in an act of amelioration,  gives Tiresias prophetic sight. 

Narcissus and Echo:

Tiresias foretells the tale of a new born baby called Narcissus, who when asked if her son will live a long life replies ‘If he never knows himself’. This tale explores the idea of a ‘dangerous gaze’ as he looks at his reflection in a pool. It is inter-cut with the tale of Echo who sees Narcissus and instantaneously falls in love with him. However, Narcissus rejects her and she pines away due to this rejection. The story serves as a wry and witty love elegy with Echo and Narcissus bantering to and fro even though Echo’s calls are always one-sided. Echo eventually materially fades away with only her echos left as a reminder; and Narcissus is left, alone, with his reflection…

Pentheus and Bacchus:

Pentheus mocks Tiresias’ prophetic powers…and Tiresias predicts that Pentheus will meet a sticky end once Bacchus (also known as Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest) arrives in Thebes. Pentheus bans anyone from worshipping Bacchus and Bacchus declares war. Unsure of the power that Bacchus holds Pentheus wants to witness the revelry of Bacchus for himself and he goes undercover to watch the worship of Bacchus. As he watches Pentheus discovers he has been turned into a wild boar. In his boar-form Pentheus is not recognised and in a form of  sacred madness is torn to pieces by the out of control female worshippers. Neither his aunt or mother recognise him. 


Themes, Analysis and Relevance

Sins and errors, acts and their consequences, revenge, transgression, twists and boundaries: these are the primary themes flowing through Book 3 in a much less convoluted and overt way than Book 2.

Some specific themes highlighted in brief for you:

  •  Divine Revenge- Every major character is seen to be punished for their transgressions in this particular book. And there is a definite distinction made between ‘sins’ (Pentheus) and ‘errors’ (Actaeon).
  • Ironic Twists- In book 3 every act by God or mortal is accompanied by an ironic twist at the expense of the victim. For instance: Actaeon being mauled by his own dog’s, Tireasias and his blindness. As if the plight of both the transgressor and the transgressed are equally in danger, equally fragile. All actions have there consequences; life, Ovid seems to be suggesting,  is never straight.
  • The Danger of Transgression- Ovid puts a fine focus on the consequences of crossing boundaries (intentionally and unintentionally). We see this exemplified with Semele where she is destroyed by her contact with an immortal.


 In Book 3 Ovid is clearly highlighting the dynamics of human and mortal behaviour, the dynamics of decision making and the consequences of crossing over boundaries that are clearly established. He is also exploring the texture of transgression and the profound and fatal impact that this can have on our lives. These themes are ever-more relevant to us today as boundaries are either swept away with gay abandon or inexplicably dropped upon us by the powers that be.

Below you’ll find another 2 movements of composer  Benjamin Britten’s  sequence of pieces for the Oboe entitled Six Metamorphoses After Ovid. This time his focus is on Narssisus and Bacchuand their moments of transformation. These two are mysterious, atmospheric and vibrant.

Britten 6 Metamorphoses After Ovid: Narsissus

Britten 6 Metamorphoses After Ovid: Bacchus


And for inspiration and consolidation: Carl Springer, Professor of Classics Talking About Metamorphoses and Ovid 


Shortly, a truncated version of this post will be placed onto the Transformations Resource Page (under the Collaborations Tab) so everything will be in one place. There will also be an audio recording of ‘Tiresias’ story and a list of all the main characters. And watch out for the poetry inspired by Book 2 which will be posted out during April.



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




One Response to “Metamorphoses Book 3 Overview: Transformations Collaborative Poetry Project”

  1. ArtiPeep March 26, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    Dear all, The fact that I have liked my own post is a mistake, and something I would not normally do. Unfortunately I can’t remove it. Someone near and dear to me signed in as me by accident. My apologies, and thanks for your understanding. Nicky

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