Metamorphosis, or transformation, is the driving force of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The gods exercise their power to transform for a huge variety of reasons, illustrating the claim that Roman academic Pythagoras makes near the end of the poem: that human souls are transitory and can take different forms. Most commonly, the transformations in the Metamorphoses take place when a character is in a helpless state or has done something extreme. For instance, the gods often transform human beings into animals or natural elements as a punishment for a crime they have committed. Other times, the gods answer a character’s plea for help by transforming them, such as when Daphne is transformed into a tree so she can escape Apollo, or when Perdix is turned into a partridge to save him from a deadly fall. The gods also transform those overwhelmed by grief, such as when they transform Canens and Egeria into springs because they can’t cease mourning their dead husbands, or when Narcissus is turned into a flower because he pines for himself. Although some of the forms the transformations take seem arbitrary, many reflect the action or state which prompted them. For instance, Anaxarete is transformed into cold marble to represent her cruel rejection of a poor lover, and Aesacus is transformed into a diving bird that mimics his attempted suicide. Taken altogether, these metamorphoses suggest that, as Pythagoras states, nothing remains the same. Although metamorphosis takes place for a variety of different reasons, sometimes arbitrary and sometimes significant, the sheer volume of transformations throughout the Metamorphoses suggests that change is inevitable. In depicting constant transformation on both a personal and a cosmic scale, Ovid demonstrates that change is the world’s only constant.
Metamorphosis Quotes in Metamorphoses
Yet a holier living creature, more able to think high thoughts,
which could hold dominion over the rest, was still to be found.
So Man came into the world. […]
Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and formless substance,
was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man.
No pine tree had yet been felled from its home on the mountains and come down
into flowing waves for journeys to lands afar;
mortals were careful and never forsook the shores of their homeland.
No cities were yet ringed round with deep, precipitous earthworks; […]
swords were not carried nor helmets worn; no need for armies,
but nations were free to practice the gentle arts of peace.
If only words could have followed her tears, she’d have begged him for help;
she’d have told him her name and described her plight. Two letters were all
that could serve for words, two letters traced by a hoof in the dust,
which revealed her name and the sorry tale of her transformation.
To prevent her appealing for pity by prayers or words of entreaty
her powers of speech were wrested away, and her hoarse throat only
emitted an angry, menacing, terror-inspiring growl.
But though her body was now a bear’s, her emotions were human.
Continual groaning testified to her inner anguish.
We both implore you to grant this prayer: as our hearts were truly
united in love, and death has at last united our bodies,
lay us to rest in a single tomb. Begrudge us not that!
And you, O tree, whose branches are already casting their shadows
on one poor body and soon will be overshadowing two,
preserve the marks of our death; let your fruit forever be dark
as a token of mourning, a monument marking the blood of two lovers.
I am undeniably blessed; and blessed I’ll continue to be,
without any doubt. My abundance assures me I’ll always be safe.
I am far too important a person for fortune’s changes to harm me.
However much I am robbed, far more will be left to enjoy.
My blessings are such that I have nothing to fear.
And yet no pleasure is ever unmingled; anxiety always
intrudes upon joy.
Then Aesacus furiously lowered
his head and plunged to the depths. He repeatedly tried to discover
a pathway to death and never stopped trying. His love made him thin,
and all of him lengthened out: his legs on their knotted joints,
his neck with the head so far from the body. He loves the sea,
and because he is constantly diving down it, we call him the diver.
The cries of sorrow,
the lean, pale faces and all that betokens a captured city
survived in that bird; yes, even the name, as the heron called ardea
beats her wings in her grief for the city from which she arose.
All is subject to change and nothing to death. The spirit
in each of us wanders from place to place; it enters whatever
body it pleases, crossing over from beast to man,
and back again to a beast. It never perishes wholly.
As pliable wax is easily stamped with a new impression
and never remains as it was nor preserves one single shape,
but still is the selfsame wax, so I say that our souls are always
the same, though they move from home to home in different bodies.
That day which has power over nothing except this body of mine
may come when it will and end the uncertain part of my life.
But the finer part of myself shall sweep me into eternity,
higher than all the stars. My name shall be never forgotten.
Wherever the might of Rome extends in the lands she has conquered,
the people shall read and recite my words.