What You Need to Know before You Read Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Created with Canva. Ovid Among the Scythians by Eugene Delacroix, 1862

My intention is to tell of bodies changed

To different forms; the gods, who made the changes,

Will help me–or I hope so–with a poem

That runs from the world’s beginning to our own days.

Rolfe Humphries, translator


Ovid’s Metamorphoses is perhaps one of the easier poetical works to read. If poetry was the bane of your existence in school, and narrative poems are not something you’ve ever attempted, then Metamorphoses is probably the best work to start with. 

If you’ve read any book on Greco-Roman mythology, you are more than likely used to the stories in prose form. Nearly every form of the myths we’re exposed to in school, or in our own reading, is prose–not in the original poetry.

Reading Ovid, therefore, may be something of an adventure. But, like all adventures, you want some vague idea of what you’re getting into. So, here’s an overview of the text itself, how it’s arranged, and what you can expect from different translations. 

Why is it poetry? Couldn’t those Romans tell stories like normal people? 

Until Don Quixote and, later, Robinson Crusoe, came on the scene, nearly anything which wasn’t non-fiction or religious was a poem. Why? Poetry was easier to memorize, and therefore perform. Remember my tips on reading 18th and 19th century novels

Most literature wasn’t meant for private reading with a nice warm mug and a cozy blanket. It was performed, or read out loud. Poetry, of course, is easier to read out loud and easier to remember.

Poetry was also the pinnacle of literary endeavor for centuries because it required an extensive vocabulary and some level of skill to render the words in the right order to create the right rhythm. 

This means that very long poetic works like MetamorphosesIliadOdyssey, and The Aeneid would have not only required some skill at storytelling, but additional skill in linguistics which rarely get any use in today’s world. 

I can say more on this point, but that’s for another post entirely.

A Narrative Poem arranged like a novel. Sort of. 

The poem is arranged into “books” which you can almost think of as chapters. Each “chapter” has different stories in it. In some editions, like my Rolfe Humphries’ translation, the stories themselves have their own subheadings, which makes reading a lot more enjoyable and productive. 

There is just one caveat to that and that is while we’re used to our chapters and stories to come to nice, neat end, there are actually what I call “transition” passages in Metamorphoses that help link all the stories together. These transitions also happen at the end of each book, so it’s like one book flows into the next, just as one story flows into the next.

For instance, Book 1 ends with a reference to Phaeton, the sone of Helios who tried to drive his father’s chariot across the sky to prove his father was the sun god. The first story of Book 2, therefore, is the story of Pheaton going to his father and asking for proof that he was fathered by a god. And the result of it. 

There’s also the overall theme. You’d think with a title like Metamorphoses, it would be about changes. Well, it is. It’s about the change of the world from the Golden Age to the Iron Age, the change from of humans into animals from the god’s wrath, and, of course, the change of the world as it marches on through time. 

But it’s also about passions. Many times, the gods act irrationally and according to their own emotions in the moment. So, the changes aren’t just of bodies changing, but of emotions changing. And they change very quickly at that.

Which translation should you choose? 

Like most classic works from Ancient Rome, you have a good number of translations from which to choose, some of which date back as far as the 1500s. I’m going to go over two of the translations in this post. Overall, whatever translation you get, will be mostly readable if you’re familiar with the stories themselves. 

The Classic Translation

Arthur Golding, is THE classic translation for Ovid. Done in 1567–just three years after Shakespeare’s birth, it was the second time Ovid had appeared in English. The first was William Caxton’s publication in 1480.

Golding’s translation, undoubtedly, was the one Shakespeare himself would have read and enjoyed. However, writers as recent as Ezra Pound also enjoyed Golding and thought very highly of it. 

I do not recommend you pick up Golding’s translation as your first attempt. If you do, you’ll see exactly what I mean. The language, while beautiful, is pre-Shakespearean and unless you know your Shakespeare, then Golding may prove more a headache than a delight. 

And Golding is a delight, if you can get through the archaic spelling. Fans of Shakespeare will recognize where the Bard took many of his classical references and there’s nothing like finding one of the references to make you feel like Sherlock Holmes. 

Unfortunately, it is an occupation which takes up a lot of time–more time than most of us have. So, if you cannot get through Golding initially, or at all, you would be more than justified in pushing aside with a huff of frustration. 

A more recent translation may be better if poetry isn’t your usual literary fare. 

The more modern translation I have in my own library was done by Rolfe Humphries in 1952. He used the text available from Loeb Classic Library. Now, if you aren’t familiar with the Loeb Classic edition, then you are in for a real treat. Loeb is famous for printing everything in both English and Latin (or Greek) so you can compare the two. If you’re actually trying your hand at learning Latin and Greek, then they’re invaluable because it’s like having training wheels as you learn the language. 

Also, I like Humphries’s no-nonsense approach. If what you’re looking for is something straightforward without all the poetic flourishes of speech then you could do worse. Poetry isn’t as popular an area of literary endeavor anymore and let’s face it, we don’t speak in poetry and we don’t encounter poetry on a daily basis. 

Now, I’ve found Humphries has made one questionable translation decision and that is in Book Two. Golding translated the Latin as “morning star.” Humphries translates it as “Lucifer” because the second line refers to the morning star making the rest of the stars march away. 

Why is this questionable? Well, it makes it seem like Ovid was drawing from the Septuagint for some of his source material. This is not entirely impossible, but it’s highly improbable. So, while the reference works, it does give the work a very distinctly Christian cast to it. 

Not entirely inaccurate–Ovid had been used for Christian allegory in the Medieval Era. But, it’s misleading in the 21st century. Doesn’t alter my opinion. Humphries has a fantastic translation, but you do have to be aware that any references to anything Biblical are probably not in the original Latin text. 

The order of the stories is supposed to be chronological. 

Ovid’s own introduction to Metamorphosis tells us he’s going to tell his stories in order, from the time of Creation to the present day. The present day, of course, for him was Julius Ceaser. So, he’s following a vaguely chronological path. 

Book 1, for instance, tells of the four ages of the world: gold, silver, bronze, and iron. No Stone Age, but the Greeks, unlike modern Humans, believe that the world wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse. 

Overall, I think the four ages only serve to show us that the world indeed doesn’t change that much over the centuries. If you read the stories themselves, there are the same passions, foibles, and faults which we still think can be somehow eradicated from humanity. 

It’s a sobering thought. Metamorphoses was completed about 8 AD and they already thought the best days were past. Makes you wonder what they’d think about us today? 

Would they have added a fifth age, do you think? Or a sixth? What elements would they have used? Let me know your thoughts below! 

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