After Achelous finishes his story, one of Theseus’s companions scoffs, calling the story fiction and saying that the gods can’t create and alter things in nature. Theseus’s companions are appalled at this man’s sacrilege. One of the companions, Lelex, tells him to visit an oak and linden tree in a certain land. Lelex says that Jupiter and Mercury once visited this land disguised as mortals. They went from house to house, asking for food and shelter, and were turned away by everyone except a couple named Philemon and Baucis who lived in a humble shack.
In the Metamorphoses, the gods most often make themselves known through transforming. They transform their victims, offenders, lovers, and themselves. Theseus’s sacrilegious companion, in not believing that the gods can transform, therefore implies that the gods are never very close by. On the other hand, believing in transformation leads people—like Philemon and Baucis—to treat everyone as though they may be gods in disguise.
Although they have very little, Philemon and Baucis greet the disguised gods and prepare them a meal. With love and care, the couple cook and engage the gods in pleasant conversation. They bring a bucket of warm water for washing and steady a rickety table adorned with olive branches. They serve a humble yet delicious meal in carved dishes. While they eat, the dishes magically refill, and Philemon and Baucis realize their guests must be gods.
Philemon and Baucis’s hospitality shows that what the gods demand from human beings is not a sacrifice of wealth but rather humility, generosity, and kindness with whatever means a person has. Although Philemon and Baucis have very little, their hospitality towards their guests (whom they believe are only mortals) impresses the gods.
Philemon and Baucis pray to heaven to forgive them for serving their guests such a poor feast. They try to kill their one goose to serve, but their guests stop them and confess that they are gods. Jupiter and Mercury tell the couple that their neighbors will pay for their inhospitality, but that Philemon and Baucis will be saved. The gods tell the couple to hike up a mountain. Philemon and Baucis obey, and when they look back, they see that their neighbors’ homes are under water, but that theirs has become a temple.
When Philemon and Baucis suspect that their guests are gods, they try to make their feast even more generous. However, the fact that they treat human guests almost as generously and respectfully as they would treat gods is what pleases Jupiter and Mercury. A positive outcome of believing in transformation is that it causes a person to treat everyone well, as even a poor beggar might be the incarnation of a god.
Mercury and Jupiter ask Philemon and Baucis what they want. The couple ask to be made priests of the temple and to die on the same day so as never to be separated from each other. Their wish is granted. They serve in the temple until they one day start to sprout leaves from their limbs. Each turns into a tree (oak and linden respectively), and the nearby peasants honor the trees as proof of the gods’ existence.
Philemon and Baucis are very humble. They want to lead religious lives of constant worship. When the couple dies, the gods turn them into the trees they want to be turned into, showing how humility pleases the gods. This metamorphosis also serves to teach future generations to honor the gods like Philemon and Baucis did.