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Ovid begins the Metamorphoses by asking the gods to help him trace the origins of the world and its development up to his own time (Caesar Augustus’s reign in the Roman Empire). Ovid then explains that the universe used to be a jumble of parts making up a “single face […] called Chaos.” The gods separated out the elements, setting the heavier ones down as earth and dissipating the lighter ones as air. They created landforms, animals, and weather. Finally, they created Man—a creature with divine attributes who could hold dominion over other animals. After this initial creation, the world develops naturally through four Ages—the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. With each age, human beings become more corrupted as they start warring with each other and abusing their power over the Earth and animals. Fed up with this corruption, the gods, led by Jupiter, flood the Earth, obliterating everyone except two devout survivors—Deucalion and Pyrrha. These two survivors, having humbly asked for instruction from the gods, throw stones over their shoulders that metamorphose into a new human race. The world is purged again when Phaethon steers Phoebus’s fiery chariot astray, setting the Earth on fire.

The world slowly redevelops after the fire. Many stories ensue, most of which end in a metamorphosis. Jupiter has several affairs with mortal women, incurring Juno’s wrath and causing her to transform his mistresses. In one such affair, Jupiter kidnaps Europa, causing her brother Cadmus to set out looking for her. When he can’t find her, he gets instruction from the gods to sow dragon’s teeth in a particular place. These teeth transform into people, creating the population for a new city—Thebes. Later, Jupiter sleeps with Cadmus’s daughter Semele. A furious Juno arranges for Semele’s death, and Jupiter snatches the baby from her womb who later becomes the god Bacchus. Those who refuse to worship Bacchus are punished by him, while Bacchus’s relatives are punished by Juno, who is still angry at Jupiter for having a child with another woman. Several stories ensue which warn against the refusal to worship the gods, such as when Latona murders Niobe’s children after she boasts at her good fortune, and when Arachne is transformed into a spider for daring to be as skilled at weaving as Minerva.

After a story in which an Athenian princess, Philomela, is raped by her sister Procne’s barbarian husband Tereus, Medea betrays her father’s kingdom to marry Jason, the leader of a Greek army. She then betrays Jason and runs off to marry Aegeus, the king of Athens. Shortly after, king Minos of Crete engages Athens in war over the murder of his brother. When Minos arrives at Athens, Scylla sacrifices the kingdom because she has fallen in love with Minos. Minos refuses Scylla (who transforms into a bird) but takes Athens and returns to Crete, bringing Theseus to feed to the Minotaur. Theseus escapes from the Minotaur with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne and returns to Athens, stopping along the way to kill a boar that Diana set loose in a nearby city, and in Achelous’s house where he hears many stories. The Metamorphoses then tells the story of Hercules, who is burned to death when he puts on a cursed shirt given to Deianira by a centaur, who had competed with Hercules for Deianira’s hand in marriage. Hercules is made a god. The story of Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother follows, then the story of Orpheus whose wife dies tragically on the day of their wedding. In his grief, Orpheus sits and sings many songs of metamorphoses and the gods’ powers until he is killed by a group of women whom he’d rejected.

Troy is then founded by Laomedon with the help of Neptune, Apollo, and Peleus. Shortly after founding Troy and marrying Thetis, Peleus kills his brother and flees to Ceyx’s kingdom. A story ensues in which Ceyx leaves his devoted wife Alcyone to visit Apollo’s temple and is shipwrecked in a storm. The Trojan War begins when Paris kidnaps Helen. The Metamorphoses recounts several battle scenes in the Trojan War and Achilles’s killing by Paris. Achilles’s shield and sword are then given to Ulysses after he wins an oration contest between himself and Ajax. After Athens defeats Troy, Ulysses captures Hecuba and sacrifices Polyxena.

After the Trojan War, Aeneas travels around the Mediterranean until he arrives in a city in Italy. There, he engages Turnus in war and eventually wins the kingdom. At this point, Venus convinces Jupiter to make Aeneas a god. Several generations later, one of Aeneas’s ancestors unjustly seizes a city that Romulus then retakes and names Rome. When Romulus and his wife Hersilie are made divinities, Numa becomes king of Rome and instructs himself in the teachings of Pythagoras. After Cipus manages to evade a prophecy that he will become Rome’s tyrant, Romans retrieve Aesculapius so he can cure the city’s horrible plague. Afterwards, Julius Caesar becomes king of Rome, Numa having died. When Venus foresees that Julius Caesar will be betrayed and murdered, she seeks to change his fate, but Jupiter reminds her that the gods cannot alter Fate. So, Venus makes Julius Caesar a god while Caesar Augustus rules Rome. Ovid ends the Metamorphoses by praying that Caesar Augustus will rule for a long time and asserting that his writing—unlike everything else that decays—will last for eternity.