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Author Biography
Poem Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading


Ovid 8 A.D.

Ovid is, after Homer, the single most important source for classical mythology. The Metamorphoses, which he wrote over the six-year period leading up to his exile from Rome in 8 A.D., is the primary source for over two hundred classical legends that survived to the twenty-first century. Many of the most familiar classical myths, including the stories of Apollo and Daphne and Pyramus and Thisbe, come directly from Ovid.

The Metamorphoses is a twelve-thousand-line poem, written in dactylic hexameters and arranged loosely in chronological order from the beginning of the universe's creation to the Augustan Rome of Ovid's own time. The major theme of the Metamorphoses, as the title suggests, is metamorphosis, or change. Throughout the fifteen books making up the Metamorphoses, the idea of change is pervasive. Gods are continually transforming their own selves and shapes, as well as the shapes and beings of humans. The theme of power is also ever-present in Ovid's work. The gods as depicted by the Roman poets are wrathful, vengeful, capricious creatures who are forever turning their powers against weaker mortals and half-mortals, especially females. Ovid's own situation as a poet who was exiled because of Augustus's capriciousness is thought by many to be reflected in his depictions of the relationships between the gods and humans.

It can be argued with a great deal of justification that the Metamorphoses is Western literature and art's most influential work. Ovid was hugely popular during his lifetime, and the influence of his work continued to grow immediately after his death. Writers as diverse as Dante, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ted Hughes have drawn on the Metamorphoses for inspiration. Artists throughout the centuries have depicted scenes from Ovid's work in their own paintings. The list of writers, poets, artists, musicians, and performers who have been directly influenced by the Metamorphoses is extensive and covers virtually every era since Ovid's death in 17 a.d. Many English translations of the work, in both prose and verse, exist, giving further evidence of the poem's lasting significance.

The discussion in the Plot Summary, Themes, and Style sections below focuses on Book 1 of the Metamorphoses.

Author Biography

Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, was born on March 20, 43 b.c. in Sulmo, Italy, and died at the age of sixty-one in exile in the Black Sea port of Tomi, known today as Constantsa, Romania. Considered to be one of the most influential poets in Western literary tradition, Ovid wrote several important works, including Heroines and The Art of Love. His most famous and revered work, and considered alongside the works of Homer and Virgil as among the world's masterpieces, is Metamorphoses, which he finished around 8 a.d.

Of the details of Ovid's life, historians know very little. He was born into an upper-middle-class family. To prepare for a professional career, he was sent to Rome to study rhetoric, the standard core of study for Roman education at the time. Upon completion of his studies in Rome, Ovid spent a year in Athens studying philosophy, following which it was presumed by his family that he would return to his home to begin his career. Ovid did return home to spend a year as a public official; however, poetry soon became his passion, and, rather than choosing the life of a professional careerist, he began to work on his first book, Loves, or Amores, when he was twenty years old.

Loves was followed by Heroines, a collection of fictional letters from mythical heroines to their absent lovers. Soon thereafter came The Art of Love, and in a six-year period between 2 and 8 a.d. Ovid penned Metamorphoses. Between the publications of Amores and Metamorphoses, Ovid was married three times and fathered a daughter.

The fact about Ovid's life that came to define him was his banishment in 8 a.d. to Tomi by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Tried personally by Augustus himself, Ovid was found guilty of a crime that remains unclear. Although Ovid wrote about banishment in the poem Tristia, or Sorrows, the reasons for the exile remain uncertain. "Two offenses, a poem and a mistake, have destroyed me," was all that Ovid wrote in Tristia.

Ovid's final years would be spent in Tomi writing long letters and poems of appeal to Augustus to allow him to return to Rome. The pleas were useless, and Ovid remained in exile until his death in 17 a.d.

Poem Summary

Book 1: Lines 1–162

The major theme of the Metamorphoses is introduced in the poem's first sentence: "I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms." The theme of metamorphosis, or change, is the unifying and distinguishing feature of Ovid's work. In lines 1–162 of Book 1, Ovid describes the creation of the world, how the chaos that ruled the universe metamorphosed into the Earth as people know it. Ovid opens with his version of the cosmogony, or the origins of the universe, and follows that with a description of the evolution of the myth of ages and his version of the gigantomachy, or the battle of the giants for control of the universe.

In the beginning was Chaos, a lifeless, warring mass. The great Creator of the universe separates Earth from sky, and from the Earth, Prometheus molds man. What distinguishes man from other living creatures is that man stands upright, can hold his head erect, and is able to raise his eyes to the stars and the heavens. As man evolves, he passes through four distinct stages, each one worse than the previous. Under Saturn, the Golden Age exists, in which man lives in harmony with nature, and the Earth provides man with everything he needs. War is not yet known to the world, and all humans are faithful to the gods and to one another. When Saturn is overthrown by his son Jupiter, the Silver Age begins, and along with it come the four seasons, which force man to work hard for food and shelter. The Bronze Age introduces war to humankind, and with the Iron Age trickery, greed, and deceit are introduced. It is during the Iron Age that the gods convene to discuss the future of mankind.

Media Adaptations

  • The Ovid Project: Metamorphosing the "Metamorphoses," is the University of Vermont's online, digitized collection of illustrations from the 1640 edition of the Metamorphoses by George Sandys and the 1703 edition from seventeenth-century German artist Johann Wilhelm Bauer. The illustrations are taken from the university's private rare book collection and offer a rare glimpse into some of the English translations' early artistic depictions of the classical tales.
  • The University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center at hosts an extensive database of Metamorphoses resources, including the original Latin text, five English translations, and many related links.
  • While the breadth of movie adaptations of Ovid's tales is extensive, one notable example is the 1959 Cannes Film Festival Prize–winner and that year's Academy Award–winner for Best Foreign Film, Black Orpheus. Set in Brazil with an all-black cast and a jazz soundtrack that went on to sell over a million copies, the movie is an adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend and is available widely on video.
  • Perhaps the most famous of all adaptations of an Ovid story is George Bernard's play Pygmalion, which was based on the story told by Orpheus in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses and which in 1964 was made into the hugely successful movie My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn.
  • While not specifically about Ovid, the thirteen-part British Broadcasting Company production of I, Claudius covers the years of Augustus's rule, from the days when Ovid was launching his poetry career through the years of his exile. The series stars Derek Jacobi as Claudius and is widely available on video and DVD.
  • Metamorphoses: A Play, by Mary Zimmerman (a playwright and teacher of drama at Northwestern University), was launched on Broadway and toured extensively across the United States to positive reviews.
  • Perhaps the most Ovidian of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus draws heavily on the tales of Actaeon and Philomela. Although not specifically based on the Metamorphoses, Julie Taymor's 1999 film adaptation of the play, Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, reveals the extent of Ovid's influence on Shakespeare and is widely available in video and DVD formats.

During the Iron Age, not only is life on Earth violent and strife-ridden, so too is life among the gods. In their bottomless desire for power, giants attempt to reach Mount Olympus, the domain of the gods, in order to take control. In revenge, Jove strikes them down with his lightning and destroys them, but the blood of the giants drenches the Earth, and out of the blood arise mortals full of evil intent.

Book 1: Lines 163–415

Jove becomes so disgusted and irate over the state of mankind that he calls a council of the gods on Mount Olympus. Jove tells the gods how he has tried to do everything to purge humankind of its wickedness but to no avail, and it is now time to destroy the human race. He relates the story of how he disguised himself as a traveler and entered the palace of Lycaon, the king of Arcadia, a land known for its race of men with cannibalistic traditions. Even after making his immortal presence known to the king, Lycaon still tried to feed the god with human flesh. In return, Jove destroyed his palace and turned him into a wolf.

With the assistance of his brother Neptune, Jove destroys the human race with a flood. He first fills the Earth with rain so relentless that all of mankind's crops are destroyed. Humans themselves, however, survive, so Jove turns to Neptune, the god of the seas, who unleashes the fierce powers of the oceans. The only survivors of the god's wrath are Deucalion and his wife and cousin, Pyrrha, who land on Mt. Parnassus and seek out the prophetess Themis who gives them instructions of how to repopulate the Earth through an oracle that they must interpret. "Leave the temple and with veiled heads and loosened clothes throw behind you the bones of your great mother," Themis tells the couple. Deucalion and Pyrrha are confused at first, but when they realize that the Earth is their "great mother," they decide that the Earth's stones are her "bones." The stones that Pyrrha throws behind her spring up into women, and the stones that Deucalion throws metamorphose into men, and thus a new race of humans is brought to life.

Book 1: Lines 416–451

As the Earth continues to warm, life forms of all natures spring forth. Soon the Earth is abundant with animals as well as humans. With the new life arrives a creature not yet seen by man: the giant python who crawls across entire mountain ranges and strikes fear into the hearts of mankind. Apollo, the archer god, destroys the python with his arrows and thus gives rise to the sacred Pythian games.

Book 1: Lines 452–779

The capricious nature of the gods and their unquenchable lusts are brought to full light in this last section of Book 1. After successfully killing the python, Apollo notices Cupid with his own arrows, and the mighty god mocks the blind, winged boy. In revenge, Cupid strikes Apollo through the heart with an arrow designed to induce love in the god, and he similarly strikes an arrow into the beautiful Daphne, the daughter of the river-god Peneus, with an arrow that repels love. When Apollo eyes the beautiful virgin, he is overcome with desire and sets out to chase her through the forests. Daphne, under the influence of Cupid's bow, runs away with great speed. Despite Apollo's incessant pleas, Daphne continues to run, and just as the god is about to overtake her, she calls out to her father to destroy her beauty. Peneus answers his daughter's pleas and transforms her into a laurel tree. Apollo continues to love her, however, and he proclaims the laurel as the decoration for Rome's emperor and for all conquering generals.

With the story of Io, the theme of female revenge is introduced into the Metamorphoses. Io, the daughter of Inachus, is returning from her father one day when Jove catches sight of her and rapes her. In order to hide his passions from his jealous wife Juno, Jove hides the Earth under a cloud cover. Juno grows suspicious, and she clears away the clouds. Jove quickly turns Io into a white heifer in order to hide his affair. Juno, distrustful of her husband, asks for the animal as a gift, a request the god cannot deny. Juno gives the heifer to Argus, a creature with one hundred eyes, for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Io's family is looking for the young girl. Eventually they realize that she has been transformed into the heifer. Argus separates her from the family, and Io becomes a heartbroken slave. Jove has pity for Io and sends Mercury to Earth, disguised as a shepherd, to kill Argus. He eventually lulls Argus to sleep with his music and storytelling and cuts off his head. Juno, who is furious, places the eyes of Argus into the tail of the peacock, and she places a spell on Io that forces her to circle the Earth in terror. Jove eventually promises Juno that he will never be unfaithful to her and, in return, Juno changes the heifer back to human form. Io becomes a goddess who, with Jove's seed, gives birth to Epaphus.

Book 1 closes with the introduction of Phaethon, the friend of Epaphus who believes that Apollo is his father and sets outs to the palace of the sun in Ethiopia to find proof. Book 2 of the Metamorphoses opens with Apollo granting the boy any wish he desires as proof of his devotion to him. Phaethon wants to drive his father's chariot across the sky. Apollo fears for the boy's life but keeps his vow, and Phaethon takes the reins of the sun god's powerful chariot. However, he quickly loses control and flies too close to the Earth, scorching Ethiopia, turning the skin of its people black and creating the Sahara desert. When the pain becomes unbearable, Mother Earth calls out for help, and Jove is forced to kill Phaethon with a bolt of lightning in order to extinguish the fire.



A large portion of the first book centers on the theme of the creation of the universe, the Earth, and humankind. Ovid describes the nothingness of Chaos as the Metamorphoses opens and how Prometheus formed man from the ground. After Jove and Neptune nearly destroy all humanity with the great floods, Deucalion and Pyrrha are able to save it with the help of the prophetess Themis. Beyond the literal acts of creation, many of the stories in the Metamorphoses explain how certain living beings and traditions came to be. For instance, in Book 1, Ovid explains the origin of the design of the peacock feathers in the story of Io, and in the story of Daphne he explains how laurel wreaths came to represent victory.

Topics For Further Study

  • The story of Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha is often referred to as an "archetypal" flood story. What is meant by that term? What is an archetype? Find flood stories in other traditions and compare them to the flood story in Metamorphoses.
  • Epic poems usually tell historical and mythical tales of war or conquest, yet Metamorphoses is considered an epic poem. Research the characteristics of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's The Aeneid and compare them to the characteristics of Metamorphoses. What are the major similarities and differences between the works? Do you think the Metamorphoses should be referred to as an epic poem? If not, how should it be labeled?
  • A portion of Book 1 in the Metamorphoses is devoted to the theogony, or the heredity of the gods. Ovid drew much of his information from Hesiod's Theogony. Research Hesiod's work, and list significant differences in his account from Ovid's.
  • In Genesis, man is said to be formed "from the dust of the ground." In the creation story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, humans are similarly created from the ground when the oracle calls on Pyrrha to toss the "bones of her mother" behind her. When was Genesis written? Would Ovid, or any of his contemporaries, have had widespread access to the stories in Genesis? If not, what do you think accounts for the similarities between the stories?
  • In many ways Ovid's Metamorphoses can be read as a study of power relationships. Analyze how power is used between the sexes in the Metamorphoses. Do male figures always hold power over females? If not, how do females exert their power? Based on your analysis, how would you characterize Ovid's view of sexual relationships?


The major theme of Ovid's Metamorphoses is metamorphosis itself. "I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms," the poet declares in the first sentence of the poem. Throughout the twelve thousand lines of the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes how change continually occurs in the universe; how the gods, out of revenge or capricious desires, endlessly exert their transformative powers on the world. Metamorphosis is the recurring theme throughout all the stories in the Metamorphoses, and it is the theme that artists and writers have drawn from Ovid over the centuries.


When read in the light of Ovid's own banishment from Rome, much of the Metamorphoses can be interpreted as an allegory about the capricious nature of power. Like Augustus who at his own discretion had the power to exile Ovid, the gods as portrayed in the Metamorphoses have absolute power over life and death in the world. Although humans are sometimes able to trick the gods for a short time, mortals are essentially powerless to respond to the gods' capricious acts.


In Book 1, Daphne is the first female to experience the lustful urges of the gods. When Cupid pierces Apollo with an arrow, Apollo falls uncontrollably in love with the young virgin and tries to rape her. Her speed and quick wits save her from the god, but the price she pays is her youthful beauty. Io similarly experiences the sexual powers of the gods when Jove finds her and rapes her. Throughout the Metamorphoses, women, especially young virgins, are subject to the urges of and violent rapes by the male gods.


Revenge takes at least two forms in the Metamorphoses. The first is the revenge the gods take upon humankind for humanity's perceived indiscretions, and the second is the revenge the gods take upon each other, especially the revenge goddesses out of jealous anger take upon the gods. Early in Book 1, Jove tries to destroy the world when greed and wickedness take over it. When he is caught by his wife Juno having an affair with Io, Juno exacts her revenge by turning the object of the god's desire into a heifer. In relation to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the gods of the Metamorphoses are very much like the God of the Old Testament: their anger is profound, and they do not hesitate to take revenge upon humankind as a means of teaching lessons never to be forgotten.


From the Greek theogonia combining "god" and "to be born of," a theogony is an account of the origin of the gods. The Metamorphoses, especially Book 1, provides an account of the age of the Roman gods. Ovid used and in some cases corrected Hesiod, whose Theogony, written around 700 b.c., is the most thorough account of the gods. Much of Ovid's work in the Metamorphoses focuses on explaining the births and lineage of the gods.


Violence, especially violent change, permeates the universe of the Metamorphoses. From the earliest battle of the giants that results in drenching the world with blood to Jove's shooting down of Apollo's son Phaethon with a lightning bolt, Book 1 is, if nothing else, one story after another of violent transformation.


Dactylic Hexameters

Dactylic hexameter is the meter that traditionally was used in Greek and Latin epic poetry. From the Greek meaning "finger," a dactyl is a metrical arrangement that consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Hexameter literally means "six metra." The term dactylic hexameter is a metrical pattern that per line consists of six successive dactyls. Virgil's Aenid is an example of an epic written in dactylic hexameters. Beginning with the second line of the Metamorphoses, Ovid employs dactylic hexameter for his epic.


An epic is a long poem that deals with mythical, legendary, or historical events, or a combination of the three. Homer is considered to be the first, and arguably greatest, epic poet. Although the stories that make up the Metamorphoses do not form a single narrative whole—that is, while the stories may be linked thematically, they are not connected sequentially in terms of plot—the Metamorphoses is an epic because it is long and because it takes as its main subject the origins of the created universe and the history of humankind up to the Roman era.


The themes of change and power are presented in the first twelve books of the Metamorphoses through mythic stories. Many of the stories in Ovid's work were orally transmitted over the centuries and formed the basis of pagan belief systems. Ovid may also have been influenced by several earlier Latin and Greek poets, including Nicander, Boios, and Parthenius of Nicaea, but most of their works have not have survived.


With the demise of classical education in the twentieth century, most readers who study Ovid'sMetamorphoses in the early 2000s must rely on a translation. Unfortunately, the quality and the style of translations vary widely, and, while the basic content can be found in a competent translation, many of the nuances of Ovid's original style, including his use of meter, metaphor, and wordplay, are lost. While translations bring the ancient worlds to the English reader, they cannot convey the true artistry of the original and in many ways must be treated as a separate works of art in their own right.

Historical Context

About the time of Ovid's birth in 43 b.c., Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Octavianus, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar and more commonly known as Augustus, came to Rome as a young man to assert control over the estate his granduncle had bequeathed to him. For the next twenty years, Augustus methodically gained power over his adversaries, and, by the time Ovid began writing poetry at the age of twenty, Augustus was firmly established as the emperor of Rome and had long since set about to exact measures to purify Rome of its immoral influences.

Although far from being considered a prude himself, Augustus nevertheless saw sexual licentiousness as a lifestyle that could undermine the power and efficacy of the state. The Roman Empire itself had experienced decades of upheaval. Roman civil wars alone had killed some 200,000 Italians, and the empire's outposts were continually on guard against invasions. Augustus's great achievement was to end the wars and work to establish a sense of stability throughout the empire. In large part, he was highly successful, and in many ways history views him as the greatest of all the emperors.

Compare & Contrast

  • 8 a.d.: Christianity does not yet exist. Romans continue to pray to their gods, and Augustus moves to restore ancient temples for prayer.

    Today: The Vatican, which is located in Rome, is the home of the pope, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. Italy itself is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the ancient Roman religion, in later centuries called paganism, no longer exists as an institutional religious force.

  • 8 a.d.: Rome is the mightiest empire in the West. Its reign extends across the known world, made up of all of the Mediterranean basin and extending through much of Europe. Augustus is the most powerful leader in the West.

    Today: Italy is a relatively small democratic nation. Although it is an advanced Western society, it is no longer considered a military or political power.

  • 8 a.d.: Ovid's place of exile, the port of Tomi, on the Black Sea, is a distant outpost of the Roman Empire.

    Today: Tomi is known as Constantsa, Romania, and is a shipping port and resort on the Black Sea coast.

  • 8 a.d.: Slavery plays a large role in Roman society. Nearly three million of the empire's eleven million inhabitants are slaves.

    Today: Slavery has long been prohibited in Italy.

  • 8 a.d.: Exile is a common form of punishment for men and women who are classified as enemies of the state.

    Today: So-called enemies of the state are no longer sent into exile. Instead, punishment takes the form of imprisonment.

Part of his successful strategy was to give Romans a sense of the morally upright state. If Romans were to love anything at all, Augustus reasoned, they ought to love the state. Thus, he set out to pass laws regulating such activities as premarital sex and enforced economic measures that penalized individuals for avoiding marriage and children. However much he tried to control sexual expression in his domain, his efforts only succeeded to a certain degree. His only daughter, Julia the Elder, was caught in an affair with Marc Anthony, one of the emperor's mortal enemies, and she was banished to the island of Pandateria. Bereft of the opportunity to have a direct heir, Augustus was irrevocably affected, and when his granddaughter, Julia the Younger, was similarly caught with a man in suspect circumstances, she was also banished.

While the details are unclear, it seems unlikely that Ovid was somehow involved with the indiscretion connected to Julia the Younger. Although Ovid had been playfully critical, especially in his book Loves, of the emperor's attempts at legislating sexual morality, Ovid was not known to have had a contentious relationship with Augustus. However, in return for what he calls a "mistake," Ovid was tried by Augustus personally. In the same year that Augustus banished his granddaughter from Rome, he sent Ovid to live out his years in the distant outpost of Tomi on the Black Sea.

In the context of his relationship to the capricious and powerful Augustus, Ovid's Metamorphoses can be read. Certainly, with his early elegies on love, Ovid had contributed to the liberalization of sexual mores in the empire, effectively setting himself against the leadership in Rome.

With respect to the mythological themes of the Metamorphoses, it should be remembered that Rome was still several centuries away from adopting Christianity. In fact, Christianity as such did not yet exist, and so-called pagan belief systems continued to be widely accepted and practiced for the next three centuries. Augustus, in fact, believed that a part of the moral breakdown of Rome was due to laxness regarding traditional religious rites and customs. During his reign, he moved to restore major temples to the gods.

Critical Overview

The influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on Western art, music, drama, poetry, and literature cannot be overstated. If emulation is the greatest form of flattery, as it has been said, then there is perhaps no more complimented writer in the Western canon than Ovid.

Ovid's impact is distinguished among the classical writers in that his fame grew during his own lifetime and continued to grow unabated after his death. Archeologists have found Ovidian graffiti dating to Ovid's lifetime on the walls of Pompeii. According to Peter Knox, writing in his biographical essay on Ovid for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Seneca said in reference to Ovid's oratorical skills, "He had a neat, seemly and attractive talent. Even in those days his speech could be regarded as simply poetry put into prose." However, Knox also quotes the Spanish rhetorician, Quintilian (35–96 a.d.), who criticized Ovid's transitions in the Metamorphoses as examples of "feeble and childish affectation" that Ovid uses "without restraint."

Ovid's influences remained strong after his death. The twelfth century, for instance, was called the Ovidian Age because so many poets wrote imitations of Ovidian hexameters and used themes introduced in the Metamorphoses. Dante acknowledged his debt to Ovid by placing the poet alongside Homer, Horace, and Lucan in Limbo in The Divine Comedy.

Ovid was easily the most influential of the classical poets during the Renaissance, with painters, sculptors, poets, and dramatists drawing freely upon his influences. Edmund Spenser and John Milton alluded frequently to Ovid's work, and, starting with Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare returned to Ovid repeatedly for inspiration. A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, relies on the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe, and Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet contain references to the tragic story of Phaethon.

E. J. Kenney, in his introduction to the Oxford's World Classics edition of the Metamorphoses, quotes Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who claimed to have "derived more pleasure" from the Metamorphoses than from Virgil's Aeneid. In 1873, Virgil scholar James Henry, according to Kenney, described Ovid as "a more natural, more genial, more cordial, more imaginative, more playful poet. . . than [Virgil] or any other Latin poet." In the twentieth century, Ezra Pound's Cantos and Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid continued the Ovidian legacy.

The list of painters who have drawn on Ovid's stories is also extensive: for example, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pieter Brueghel, Peter Paul Rubens, Marc Chagall, and Pablo Picasso. Painters throughout the centuries have been inspired by the Roman poet, as well as sculptors.

In the performing arts, Ovid's influence can be seen in the American Ballet Theater's 1958 production Ovid's Metamorphoses and in the 2002 Broadway production by Mary Zimmerman of Metamorphoses: A Play. In film, Jean Cocteau drew upon the story of Orpheus and Eurydice for his 1949 film Orpheus. In 1958, Marcel Camus made Black Orpheus, a version that sets the two star-crossed lovers in Brazil and stars an all-black cast and includes a jazz soundtrack that went on to sell a million copies. Black Orpheus won the 1959 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize and the Oscar's Best Foreign Film award.


Mark White

White is the publisher of the Seattle-based press Scala House Press. In this essay, White argues that the themes of the gods' vengeance and caprice were drawn from the poet's experience in Augustan Rome.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is arguably the most influential literary work in the Western canon. For two millennia writers and artists of every genre have turned to the Roman epic for inspiration, more so than to any other single book, with perhaps the exceptions of the Bible or Homer's Odyssey. The major theme the poem addresses—and the theme that the vast majority of its influences repeatedly use—is, as the title suggests, metamorphosis, or change. Two equally important themes emerge from the poem: revenge and the gods' capricious use of power. Time and time again Ovid describes otherwise innocent beings transformed beyond recognition, either to save themselves from the caprices of the gods or because of the gods' wrathful vengeance itself.

While it is unclear how autobiographical or allegorical Ovid originally intended his masterpiece to be, the parallels between his life in Augustan Rome and the lives of his creations are undeniable. The history of the Roman Empire in total, and in particular the forty-year reign of Augustus, Rome's first emperor, provided ample character studies for Ovid as he set out to create his vengeful and capricious gods. And at the height of his powers and popularity as a poet, Ovid had to look no further than himself for a real-life example of a victim of the emperor's caprices. The exiling of Ovid to the distant Black Sea outpost of Tomi can be viewed in much the same way as any number of transformations in the Metamorphoses: with a dramatic swipe of the hand and for questionable reasons at best. Ovid, the well-known poet of love, was thus transformed over night to a potentially soon forgotten writer of whining letters and tedious verses.

"I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms," Ovid proclaims, announcing the major theme to the Metamorphoses in the poem's first line. For the rest of the epic, Ovid would do just that, describing some of literature's most poignant stories of metamorphoses: Daphne turning into a laurel; Io being transformed into a heifer; the young virgin Callisto being turned into a bear and then into a constellation; the beautiful young Adonis being metamorphosed at his death into the anemone. The list is extensive, and the idea of change, of metamorphosis, is what links these otherwise disparate stories.

The poem's very next lines—"You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world's first origins to my own time"—turn the attention from metamorphosis to the source of all change, the gods themselves. Viewed in the context of Ovid's life in Augustus's Rome, these secondary lines—the lines that are normally viewed as the subtext to Ovid's masterpiece—take on a primary significance.

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Octavianus—or Augustus, as he came to be known—came to power in Rome around 23 b.c., around the same time that Ovid was abandoning a career in law in favor of poetry. Augustus, which is Latin for "majestic" or "venerable," set out to consolidate his power and return Rome to what was called the mos maiorum, or the customs of the ancestors, as a strategy for bringing Rome to the state of grandeur for which it would ultimately be remembered. In an early undertaking, Augustus rebuilt many temples to the gods that had fallen into disrepair from disuse and neglect, and his restoration of the Secular Games in 17 b.c. was a symbolic gesture of his desire to restore the ancient religious traditions. Eventually, Augustus turned to issues of sexual mores, making adultery a criminal offense and encouraging the building of nuclear families by offering economic incentives to couples with more than three children.

While Augustus was in many ways widely regarded as Rome's greatest and most just emperor, his efforts to regulate the morals of society may have been seen as intrusive to Ovid, whose book The Art of Love (or Ars Amatoria), a collection of poems that parodied contemporary love verse and poked fun at Roman society, was a hit among the more liberal classes, much to the chagrin of Augustus. Not that Augustus was a prude himself; rather, Augustus saw in his return to mos maiorum a great symbolic vehicle for uniting his empire in line with his grander political ambitions. Ovid's writing was probably seen by the emperor as having more of a gadfly effect than being a legitimate threat to his power, but enough of a gadfly to take heed of. In this context Ovid is the perfect explanation of why Plato called for the expulsion of poets in his Republic; poets, choosing the dictates of their muses over that of their leaders, are by and large not reliable citizens of the state.

Although no one knew for certain why Augustus, in 8. a.d., personally tried and prosecuted Ovid, The Art of Love, which was published seven years earlier, was probably a factor, though certainly not the direct one. Instead, speculation centered on the indiscretions of Augustus's daughter, Julia the Elder, and his granddaughter, Julia the Younger, as the more direct reasons.

Julia the Elder, like many in her circle, was reputed to be a fan of Ovid's work and was known widely for her licentious ways. Rumors of her sexual abandonment circulated throughout the empire. After being caught in an affair with her father's enemy, Marc Antony, she was banished to the distant island of Pandateria where she eventually died of malnutrition. Her daughter Julia, similarly grew to be fond of Ovid's writing. Not more than eight years after her mother's forced exile, she was also banished. The fact that Julia the Younger and Ovid were banished months apart from one another added fuel to the historical speculation that Ovid was somehow involved, however indirectly, with one of her affairs. While there could be some political justification for the banishment of Augustus's daughter, there was little doubt among historians that the motives behind the emperor's exile of his granddaughter had no political source whatsoever. Although the exiles of Julia the Younger and Ovid certainly had political and social implications, the motives behind them were primarily personal. Augustus, at the age of 71, bereft of an heir once he banished his only child, was fed up with what he perceived as the immorality of his own family members when the larger issue of the public morality of the entire empire was at stake. Rather than give in to the loosening of control within his own family, he chose to rid himself and Rome of the problems once and for all.

Of his banishment, Ovid is quoted only as saying that it was the result of "a poem and a mistake." The poem was most likely The Art of Love, and as for the mistake, history may never know what that was. Regardless, Ovid was exiled to Tomi, in what became in the twentieth-century Romania. With his greatest works already written, he spent his remaining years there, writing letters to Rome bidding for his return and crafting poems that made up his Tristia, or Sorrows—verses critics generally looked upon with disfavor. In exile, Ovid was clearly transformed into a second-rate poet.

The themes of caprice and vengeance, then, that can be seen emerging from Ovid's interactions with Augustus, are prevalent throughout the Metamorphoses. In the story of Lycaon, Jupiter disguises himself as a traveler and enters the King of Arcadia's lands where he finds that the rumors of wickedness that preceded his arrival were "even milder than the truth." When the god realizes that Lycaon intends to murder him, he turns the king into a wolf. Now, if the story had concluded with that (arguably) understandable response, one could attribute some moral justification to his actions. However, upon returning to Olympus, Jupiter lobbies his colleagues to retaliate by wiping out the entire human race. This action may be compared to Augustus taking vengeance on Ovid for the perceived moral indiscretions of his daughter. Jupiter exerts his wrath on the entire human race for the issues he has with Lycaon. "One house has fallen, but others deserve to also." Jupiter concludes his rallying cry on Olympus, a cry that could have easily been uttered by Augustus at Ovid's trial. "Wherever the Earth extends the avenging furies rule. You would think men were sworn to crime! Let them all pay the penalty they deserve, and quickly. That is my intent."

This excess of vengeance, although it recurs frequently in the Metamorphoses, is not the prevailing way the gods exert their power over the world. Rather, the stories of Daphne, Io and Argus, and Pan and Syrinx set the tone and the style for the gods' preferred method of control. In each of these instances, an otherwise beautiful and innocent (virginal) girl (or nymph) is minding her own business in the woods when suddenly she is chased by a lustful, monomaniacal god who can only be sated by physically consummating his sexual desire. In the cases of Syrinx and Daphne, rape is avoided at the last instant when they are metamorphosed into inanimate objects—a reed in Syrinx's case and a laurel tree in Daphne's. In both cases, however, their original beauty is replaced by vegetation. Io, on the other hand, is both raped by Jupiter and transformed into a heifer by Juno, his jealous spouse. Her humiliation is twice that of Daphne's and Syrinx's, though her beauty is eventually restored, and she gives birth to Jupiter's child.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In 1988, German novelist Christopher Ransmayr published The Last World to widespread critical acclaim. Ransmayr's novel is set in Tomi shortly after the death of Ovid and tells of a Roman admirer of the poet who is in search of a lost manuscript of the Metamorphoses.
  • Tristia is Ovid's personal account of his banishment. Although he never reveals the reason for his exile in the book, he expresses his most personal and deep-seated feelings about his exile.
  • Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee's novel Age of Iron (1997) tells the story of a dying elderly South African woman during apartheid. The war between blacks and whites is at its fiercest, and the letters the woman writes to her daughter who is in voluntary exile in America make up the narrative of the novel. Although not directly related to Ovid, Coetzee's work is a prime example of how the Metamorphoses has been used as a model for writers of all genres and styles through the years.
  • After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1995), edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, is an anthology of poetry that includes the works of forty-two poets from around the world whom the editors commissioned to "translate, reinterpret, reflect on, or completely reimagine" Ovid's Metamorphoses. The poets include Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Amy Clampitt, and Charles Simic among others.
  • I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves, are the fictional accounts, written in the form of autobiographical memoirs, of Claudius, the Roman emperor who was famous for his stutter and his ability to survive the many intrigues and scandals of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.

At first glance, parallels between the situations experienced by Ovid and the characters of his Metamorphoses may not be significant, but a closer look reveals similar patterns. Ovid was presumably exiled as a result of his liberal sexual attitudes and perhaps his practices. The victims of the gods' caprices in the Metamorphoses are mostly virgins who suffer from the "liberal" sexuality of the gods. Both the victims and Ovid lack control in matters thought important by the state, especially sexuality. Although this may seem a minor point, Augustus did not ban his daughter and granddaughter or Ovid because they were sexual per se; he exiled them because they stepped outside the sexual boundaries that he, as supreme leader of Rome, prescribed. For Augustus, the issue of control was of absolute importance; when he perceived losing that control, he fought back capriciously with his decrees of exile, much as Jupiter exacted his wrath upon the world with floodwaters when he lost his hold on the world and much like Juno exacted her revenge upon Io for drawing Jupiter's attention. For both Ovid the Roman citizen and his characters, ultimately their freedom extended only so far; if the emperor or Jupiter wanted to reduce their vassals, doing so was their prerogative.

It is not clear that Ovid set out to write a personal, or even a political, allegory with his Metamorphoses. Far too little of his life outside his poetics is known to make any concrete deduction in this direction. But what is known is that the universe he created in the Metamorphoses is a universe ruled by capricious and vengeful gods, and the physical world he inhabited was one ruled by a capricious and vengeful emperor. Like his creations who would be remembered both for the wrath that they suffered and the new forms they ultimately took, Ovid has gained permanent place in Western civilization for the forms he created. "Wherever Rome's influence extends, over the lands it has civilised," Ovid concludes the Metamorphoses with words more prophetic than even he could have believed, "I will be spoken, on people's lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet's prophecies, vivam—I shall live."

Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on Metamorphoses, in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

S. E. Sweeney

In the following essay, Sweeney argues that the "allusions in Lolita to the myth of Io and Argus" help the reader to see the connection between Lolita's "metamorphosis in Humbert's eyes . . . and his own subsequent apotheosis as an artist."

Human characters in Lolita continually metamorphose into animals. Tourists passing through Nabokov's menagerie view phocine Charlotte, porcine Mr. Swine, and a leporine psychiatrist, not to mention simian Humbert Humbert; while the physical descriptions of Lolita herself, as Diana Butler pointed out in her uneven but provocative essay, "Lolita Lepidoptera," pertain also to butterflies—particularly those, like "Nabokov's Wood-Nymph," discovered by Nabokov himself. Such permutations, recurring throughout the novel's imagery, are further integrated and exemplified by the theme of "the enchanted hunters"—both in Quilty's play, with its mythical and fairy tale trappings, and in the hotel, whose dining room murals depict "enchanted hunters in various postures and states of enchantment amid a medley of pallid animals, dryads and trees."

As Alfred Appel remarks, "everything in Lolita is constantly in the process of metamorphosis, including the novel itself." The plot, for example, traces Lolita's temporal evolution from prepubescent nymphet in her prime to a woman "hopelessly worn at seventeen," against the background of her travels with Humbert and her final exile to "Gray Star." More important than the temporal and spatial changes Lolita undergoes, however, is her transformation into a nymphet in Humbert's eyes, his later correction of that perception, and his own subsequent apotheosis as an artist. Thus the relationship between Lolita's and Humbert's metamorphoses provides the dramatic action of the novel, and is echoed by other transformations in its imagery, leitmotif, and overall structure.

Nabokov's inspiration for the theme of metamorphosis, and its recurrence, at the level of metaphor, throughout his novel, may have been Ovid's Metamorphoses—a work which not only takes such magical transformations as its subject, but also duplicates them in its structure, with each story flowing seamlessly into the next. The Metamorphoses further resembles Lolita, moreover, because it describes a magical realm where conflict, exile, and unsatisfied desire are resolved by stylized metamorphosis. Nabokov's novels often depict just such a Never Never Land in order to satisfy the twin nostalgias, physical and temporal, which dominate his fiction and the lives of his heroes: the exile's longing for his homeland, and the aging adult's for his lost childhood. Earlier versions include the painting of a fairy-tale forest above Martin's bed in glory the crystal land of Zembla in Pale Fire, and the new and improved planet of Antiterra in Ada; it is manifested in Lolita as the "intangible island of entranced time," the distinctly mythological setting Humbert imagines for his nymphets. "It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones," Humbert explains. "In fact, I would have the reader see 'nine' and 'fourteen' as the boundaries—the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea." Thus immutable boundaries of space and time are resolved, and dissolved, by art's beautiful incongruities; and the paradise which Humbert half-remembers, half-imagines, synthesizes Nabokov's own idyllic Russian childhood with his adult exile.

"Quelquepart Island," as Quilty dubs it in his hotel registration entries, is comprised of bits and pieces from European folklore; fairy tales; such literary fantasies as Poe's "kingdom by the sea"; and classical mythology. A likely source for these classical allusions, as we have already seen, is Ovid's Metamorphoses—because of its subject, myths of love and transformation; the way that subject shapes its structure; and the stylized world where such magical transformation take place. An even more convincing argument for the influence of the Metamorphoses, however, is one particular myth to which Nabokov often alludes, and which, like his own novel, focuses on two interrelated metamorphoses; the myth of Io and Argus.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the myth of Io and Argus immediately follows the tale of Daphne's pursuit by Apollo and her transformation into a laurel tree. It includes, as a story within a story, the tale of Syrinx's pursuit by Pan, and her subsequent change into the reeds from which his pan-pipes were fashioned. Io's story, like theirs, is one of sexual pursuit and metamorphosis; however, her change yields no respite.

According to Ovid, the nymph Io, daughter of a river god, is pursued and finally raped by Jupiter, who promptly changes her into a heifer to avoid Juno's jealously. Unfortunately, Juno admires the animal and demands it as a gift. Still more unfortunate is the fact that she remains suspicious—even though Jupiter reluctantly bestows the altered Io upon her—and assigns hundred-eyed Argus to guard the heifer.

Io's father does not recognize her until she traces her name in the dust with one hoof; and even then he can't help his daughter, because Argus herds her away to distant pastures. Jupiter feels responsible for Io's plight, and asks the god of left and trickery, Mercury, to rescue her. Mercury disguises himself as another herdsman, and upon meeting Argus begins playing on his reed pipes and telling him stories, one of which—the myth of Pan and Syrinx—lulls the monster to sleep, after which Mercury beheads him. Outraged by this murder, Juno adorns the tail of her peacock with Argus' hundred eyes. She also sends a Fury to torment Io and drive her over the earth—until Jupiter finally confesses, begs Juno's forgiveness, and forswears Io's charms, upon which the nymph returns to her former state. Subsequently, according to Ovid, she is worshipped as a minor goddess.

There are several striking similarities between this myth and Lolita, especially in plot, character, and theme. In each a beautiful young girl—a "nymphet," in Nabokov's classically-inspired neologism—is raped by a powerful older man; is led from family and home, and forced to go on what Ovid calls "interminable wanderings;" and undergoes a metamorphosis directly linked to male sexuality and female objectification.

The various male characters in the myth parallel Humbert's multiple roles as Lolita's surrogate stepfather (Io's father); as her powerful lover (Jupiter); and, finally and most importantly, as the self-described monster who imprisons her (Argus). Mercury, the god of thieves, ingenious devices, and roads, whose name has become a synonym for "quicksilver," is a suggestive parallel for Quilty, the "veritable Proteus of the highway," and Humbert's double. Just as Mercury lulls Argus to sleep with a story, and then attempts to steal Io, so Quilty begins his liaison with Lolita during the performance of The Enchanted Hunters (his play within play Navokov's novel), and ultimately steals her during Humbert's delirium. It is Humbert who murders Quilty, of course, and not the other way around; yet the confusion of roles is appropriate, because their doubting is stressed throughout the novel.

In addition to these similarities in plot and character, Lolita elaborates upon important themes from Ovid's myth: love and metamorphosis; vision, recognition, and abnormal perception; enchantment, hypnotism, and sleep; and selfconscious art. The organization of these themes is even more significant, however, because the transformation of Io and Argus, as chronicled in the myth, correspond to the most important aspects of Nabokov's novel: the interrelated metamorphoses undergone by Lolita and Humbert Humbert.

The major attribute shared by Io and Lo, beyond the initial similarity in their names, is their designation as nymphs (or "little nymphs"). Although, according to Charlotte, Lolita is "a sturdy, health, but decidedly homely kid," Humbert is able "to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children." Thus he pronounces her a nymphet. Nabokov's use of this word and its sibling, "faunlet," derives, of course, from the minor deities of classical mythology, neither human nor divine, who haunt specific natural locales. Nymphs seduce men yet flee their embrace, sometimes even changing from anthropomorphic to natural shape (trees, water, and so on) in order to escape human sexuality; thus it's especially appropriate that in Quilty's play, The Enchanted Hunters, Lolita plays "a woodland which, Diana, or something," who enchants stray men in Dolly's Dell.

The nymphet's most distinguishing characteristic is her prepubescence, which implies an undefined, incomplete state of metamorphosis. Like the lepidopteral nymph or pupa (a usage with which Nabokov was familiar, and which he certainly intended), who is neither caterpillar nor butterfly; or the classical nymph, who is neither human nor divine—Lolita is no longer a child and yet not quite an adult. In such fairy tales as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, to which Nabokov also alludes, this same state of arrested development is manifested as an enchanted trance from which the sleeper awakes into womanhood. In the Metamorphoses, it is indicated by the changed shapes—a laurel tree, or a handful of reeds—which nymphs adopt to protect themselves from sexuality and sexual experience. That Nabokov referred deliberately to such magical changes is evident when Humbert describes his shopping trip for Lolita: "There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool." It is this "quiet poetical afternoon," in fact, that prompts their stay at the Enchanted Hunters.

It is not surprising, given this emphasis on arrested development, that Io and Lolita are defined by their specific metamorphoses and by a general tendency towards transformation. Io changes from a nymph to a heifer, and back again, before becoming a goddess. Not only does Lolita undergo similar transformations from ordinary little girl, to nymphet, to teenager, to ordinary wife and expectant mother, but Humbert also worships her in various other avatars—as Aphrodite, the Madonna, and other deities; as famous mistresses of history and legend; and as the Hollywood starlet she aspires to be. Ultimately she, too, achieves immortality through the medium of Humbert's art.

Yet why are Io and Lolita victimized by these changes, instead of protected by them? Rather than having organic cause—as in other myths from the Metamorphoses (for instance, those of Daphne and Syrinx) or traditional fairy tales—their respective transformations signify a rape brought about by male sexuality, male perceptions, and female objectification. Consider the mistaken recognitions and false male perceptions which recur throughout Ovid's myth: Jupiter disguises Io as heifer; her father fails to recognize her; Argus, her captor, is characterized by his deviant vision; and in order to kill Argus, Mercury disguises himself as a herdsman. Consider such themes as voyeurism, disguise, and mistaken identity, in Nabokov's novel, as well as its frequent allusions to visual media from billboards to movies. More significantly, Lolita's involuntary metamorphosis into a "nymphet" is caused solely by Humbert's self-absorbed perception of her: ldquo;What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita—perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness—indeed, no life of her own. The child knew nothing, I had done nothing to her. And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark." Humbert's vision of Lolita at The Enchanted Hunters, when he experiences "a confusion of perception metamorphosing her into eyespots of moonlight or a fluffy flowering bush," goes even further to exemplify such solipsism on his part in terms of an apparent change in Lolita herself.

Io's and Lolita's respective metamorphoses not only reflect their objectification by male voyeurs, as we have seen, but also their corruption by male sexuality—for both are corrupted, despite the innate sexuality of nymphs, the supposed sexuality of nymphets, and the fact that Lolita is not a virgin (she is traumatized more by premature exposure to adult sexuality than by sex itself). Thus Io's metamorphosis symbolizes her changed social and sexual status as a result of the rape. Becoming a heifer, in particular, emphasizes her gender and sex role, and connotes bestiality—especially in contrast to the asexual changes undergone by Daphne and Syrinx. Lolita's transformation is also specifically sexual, because nymphets are characterized by both their implied sexuality and the eroticism they afford the discerning male. In addition, the polarities represented by Io's two lives (humanity and bestiality, innocence and depravity) neatly parallel what Humbert identifies as the perverse "twofold nature of this nymphet . . . this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity." "The beastly and beautiful merged at one point," Humbert muses, attempting to describe their first fateful night in The Enchanted Hunters, "and it is that borderline I would like to fix."

Humbert's descriptions of Lolita as an animal not only fix that borderline, but also delineate such "eerie vulgarity." At The Enchanted Hunters he gazes at her "glimmer of nymphet flesh, where half a haunch and half a shoulder dimly showed." "Now and then it seemed to me that the enchanted prey was about to meet halfway the enchanted hunter, that her haunch was working its way toward me under the soft sand of a remote and fabulous beach." Later Humbert characterizes their relationship in terms of "the quiet murmured order one gives a sweatstained distracted cringing trained animal even in the worst of plights (what mad hope or hate makes the young beast's flanks pulsate, what black stars pierce the heart of the tamer!)." The implied connotations of bestiality in such imagery stress the perversion of Humbert's relationship with Lolita, "our singular and bestial cohabitation."

Despite such references to Lolita as an animal, or as "enchanted prey," Nabokov's novel never directly refers to Io or her changed shape. Yet the following dialogue, preceding Humbert's and Lolita's arrival at The Enchanted Hunters, and unexplained by the text, is so significant that it represents Lolita in the "Hegelian synthesis linking up two dead women" at the novel's end: "'Look, Lo, at all those cows on that hillside.' 'I think I'll vomit if I look at a cow again.'" And Immediately before retiring to their bedroom that night, Humbert spies in the hotel lobby "a delightful child of Lolita's age, in Lolita's type of frock, but pure white, and there was a white ribbon in her black hair. She was not pretty, but she was a nymphet, and her ivory pale legs and lily neck formed for one memorable moment a most pleasurable antiphony (in terms of spinal music) to my desire for Lolita." (After Io was changed back into a nymph, according to Ovid, "de bove nil superset formae nisi candor in illa." Abashed at Humbert's gaze, the little girl turns away "in specious chat with her cow-like mother." Two other passages from the narratives seem oddly similar. Ovid says of Io: "si modo verba sequantur, /oret opem nomenque suum casusque loquatur;/littera pro verbis, quam pes in pulvere duxit, /corporis indicium mutati triste peregit." In Nabokov's novel, Lolita reads advice to victimized children aloud from a newspaper: "'If,' she repeated, 'you don't have a pencil, but are old enough to read and write—this is what the guy means, isn't it, you dope—scratch the number somehow on the roadside.' 'With your little claws, Lolita.'"

Such possible allusions to Io's role in the myth are more suggestive than conclusive, however; Io and Lolita resemble each other not in specific details but in general circumstances, in their shared status as victims of rape, sexual objectification, mistaken recognition, and captivity, and in the metamorphoses they undergo. Similarities between Argus and Humbert, on the other hand, are not only more convincing, but are supported by unmistakable references to the myth. Yet the apparent incongruity isn't contradictory, because the roles of captor and captive are always interdependent; and although Argus may not be a narrator and hero in Ovid's myth, Humbert is the major character of Lolita.

Allusions to Argus are scattered throughout Nabokov's fiction and even his poetry, as Alfred Appel has demonstrated: "In Laughter in the Dark, Albinus meets his fatal love in the Argus cinema, where she is an usher, 'My back is Argus-eyed,' says the speaker in 'An Evening of Russian Poetry.' In Pale Fire, one of the aliases of the assassin Gradus is 'd'Argus'; Hermann in Despair envisions 'argus-eyed angels;' the title character in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight 'seems argus-eyed;' Ada and Van dread 'traveling together to Argus-eyed destinations,' and Van, in search of the nature and meaning of Time, drives an 'Argus' car."

Most of these are casual allusions to paranoia, keenness of vision, or the sense of sight. In Lolita, on the other hand, most of the references to Argus not only emphasize Humbert's perversion and voyeurism—and the solipsism which these traits illustrate—but also foreshadow his eventual apotheosis as an artist.

Humbert's relationship with Lolita is characterized by the same watchfulness and jealous possessiveness displayed by Argus, and he even suffers from recurrent bouts of insomnia (Arugus never sleeps). Moreover, his descriptions of himself reinforce the analogy: "attractively simian." "Humbert the Cubus," "a humble hunchback abusing [himself] in the dark," with "two hypnotic eyes," his "aging ape eyes." Most significant, however, are the parallels between Argus' perceptions and voyeurism, and Humbert's own: for Argus' abnormal eyes, like those of Homer's Cyclopes, imply a distorted vision of reality; and because he has one hundred such eyes, he is the archetypal voyeur.

Two of the novel's direct allusions to Argus are significant, particularly in context, because of what they reveal about Humbert's perceptions. "There my beauty lay down on her stomach," Humbert notes in an early journal entry, "showing me, showing the thousand eye wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs. Silently, the seventh-grader enjoyed her green-red-blue comics. She was the loveliest nymphet green-red-blue Priap himself could think up. As I looked on, though prismatic layers of light, dry-lipped, focusing my lust and rocking slightly under my newspaper, I felt that my perception of her, if properly concentrated upon, might be sufficient to have me attain a beggar's bliss immediately; but, like some predator that prefers a moving prey to a motionless one, I planned to have this pitiful attainment coincide with one of various girlish movements she made now and then." Humbert's "thousand eyes wide open," such word choice as "prismatic" and "focusing," his Technicolor imagery, and the relationship between predator and prey, clearly allude to Argus; yet they are also peculiarly appropriate to Humbert's voyeurism and his belief that he can possess Lolita without affecting her. Later, anticipating Quilty's murder, Humbert rhapsodizes: "To wander with a hundred eyes over his purple skills and hirsute chest foreglimpsing the punctures and mess, and music of pain." Quilty not only functions as Humbert's Doppelgänger in the novel, but he resembles him physically as well—even to the purple robe Humbert wore during the masturbation scene in which "Lolita had been safely solipsized." What Humbert foreglimpses with his hundred eyes, then, is the death of his own image, as well as the solipsism it represents. Thus both references to Argus underscore Humbert's distorted perception of reality at important points in the narrative, at the same time that they appropriately modify their contexts.

Several allusions to Argus' metamorphosis as the peacock's tail also subtly reinforce the themes of Humbert's voyeurism, his solipsism, and his relationship to Quilty, while on a more basic level they describe the visual effects of dappled light and shade. Humbert remembers Lolita skipping rope: "the pavonine sun was all eyes on the gravel under the flowering trees, while in the midst of that oculate paradise, my freckled and raffish lass skipped, repeating the movements of so many others I had gloated over on the sun-shot watered, damp-smelling sidewalks and ramparts of ancient Europe." The pavonine sun—which, by the way, recalls Lolita's visual metamorphosis into "eyespots of moonlight"—reappears later when Humbert watches Quilty watching Lolita from under "the peacocked shade of trees," and later still when, after killing his Doppelgänger, Humbert walks out into "the spotted blaze of the sun."

More important than mere allusion to Argus' metamorphosis, however, is the fact that is paralleled by Humbert's. By gradually correcting his memories of Lolita, seeing her in her true state, and symbolically killing his double, Humbert is able to transcend his solipsism in the final chapters of the novel, and discover that he loves Lolita not as he perceived her—"a photographic image of rippling upon a screen"—but as she truly is. Completing his manuscript, Humbert finally evolves from sexual objectification to artistic invention: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita." Other allusions to peacocks foreshadow this apotheosis. When the Ramsdale Journal identifies Humbert, early on, as the author of "'several books on Peacock, Rainbow and other poets,'" this multilingual pun on the names of Thomas Love Peacock and Arthur Rimbaud links Argus' metamorphosis with love and art, as well as with rainbow imagery; and the rainbow, in particular, not only describes the visual iridescence of the peacock's tail, but serves as an additional emblem of transcendence. Thus Humbert, who has already identified the "thousand eyes" within his "blood" in terms of primary colors, muses at The Enchanted Hunters that "in and out of my heart flowed my rainbow blood." Visiting Yellowstone Park with Lolita, he describes the "colored hot springs" as "rainbows of bubbling mud—symbols of my passion;" and they are especially appropriate symbols because they condense Humbert's perversion (the bubbling mud) and his rainbowed transcendence of it, into a single unified image.

The network of allusions to Argus similarly express Humbert's gradual transformation as a single conceit, but on a much larger scale. They stress his self-absorbed perception of Lolita, and his accompanying voyeurism and objectification of her, at the same time that they foreshadow his eventual transcendence over these things. Just as Argus' monstrous eyes become the peacock's iridescent tail, so Humbert's own solipsism metamorphoses into the deliberate and acknowledged solipsism of art.

It is clear that neither the myth of Io and Argus, nor the Metamorphoses itself, served in any sense as antecedent for Nabokov's glittering fairy tale. Instead, Ovid's myth is one of several literary parallels, most of which are already documented, which Nabokov reflects and parodies in his novel; and it may be considered the classical counterpart for such romantic subtexts as Merimée's Carmen and Poe's Annabel Lee. However, in significant contrast to these romantic parallels, which mislead the reader (for the references to Annabel Lee at worst invite the kind of Freudian interpretation Nabokov despised, and at best provide an easy rationale for Humbert's predilection; while the references to Carmen erroneously suggest that Humbert will kill Lolita), this classical subtext clarifies, rather than obscures, the novel's dramatic action.

That dramatic action, allusions to the myth suggest, lies in the novel's two separate metamorphoses—Lolita's transformation into a "nymphet," and Humbert's later apotheosis into an artist—and their interdependence. Lolita's initial metamorphosis is the direct result of Humbert's objectification of her, while Humbert's apotheosis depends upon his correction of that mistaken perception. Such transformations are thus a function of either false or accurate recognitions of others; and recognition, voyeurism, objectification, and mistaken identity are major themes in both Ovid's myth and Nabokov's novel, as we have already seen. Significantly, in both narratives these metamorphoses are accompanied by variants of the classic "recognition scene" of mythology and folklore, which dramatizes changes which have taken place and at the same time asserts a character's continued identity. Consider Io's metamorphosis, which externalizes Jupiter's perception of her and is demonstrated by her father's failed recognition. Later, when Io regains her former shape (but only when Jupiter swears to cease his sexual attentions), the reader witnesses her miraculous transformation.

Nabokov's novel also uses recognition scenes to record the changes that have transpired. Lolita's unwitting metamorphosis into a nymphet begins when Humbert perceives her as the incarnation of his childhood sweetheart, Annabelle Leigh, in a brilliant parody of the recognition scene: "as if I were the fairytale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnapped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds). I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side. With awe and delight (the king crying for joy, the trumpets blaring, the nurse drunk) I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen." The change in Humbert's perception of Lolita is underscored near the end of the novel, when he recalls overhearing a conversation between Lo and a friend: "it struck me, as my automation knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions." Although this parallel passage also recalls the classic recognition scene, it actually describes an anti-recognition instead: Humbet's ironic discovery that he has never known Lolita, and never can know anything but his recreation of her though art. Note, too, that the figure in rags is no longer Lolita, but Humbert himself. As in Ovid's myth, the heroine's first transformation is caused by desire—in particular, by sexual objectification—and the reversion to her true form is caused by love and pity. Thus the two scenes, with their allusions to folklore, neatly telescope the change in Humbert's perceptions.

The function of such metamorphoses, and such carefully staged recognition scenes, is so figuratively represent for the reader whatever changes in character—or in one character's perception of another—have occurred. In order to understand Nabokov's novel, then, and to resolve its delicate moral balance between Lolita's seductiveness and Humbert's seduction, it is crucial that the reader perceive the connection between her metamorphoses in Humbert's eyes (from little girl to nymphet, and from nymphet to her true identity), and his own subsequent apotheosis as an artist—as well as the transformation of this whole drama into the novel itself. The allusions in Lolita to the myth of Io and Argus guide the reader toward this essential recognition.

Source: S. E. Sweeney, "Io' Metamorphosis: A Classical Subtext for Lolita," in Classical and Modern Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 1986, pp. 79–88.


Kenney, E. J., "Introduction," in Metamorphoses, by Ovid, translated by A. D. Melville, Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. xii–xxix.

Knox, Peter E., "Ovid," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 211, Ancient Roman Writers, edited by Ward W. Briggs, Gale, 1999, pp. 193–206.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by A. S. Kline,

Further Reading

Brown, Sarah Annes, The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Brown shows the complexity of Ovid's influences and how his work has provided inspiration for six centuries of writers, poets, composers, and painters.

Martindale, Charles, ed., Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

With an emphasis on the influence that Ovid has had on literature (although there are some writings on the influence Ovid has had on art), this collection covers the period from the twelfth century through the twentieth century and includes the poet's influence on Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and T. S. Eliot.

Sharrock, Alison, and Rhiannon Ash, eds., Fifty Key Classical Authors, Routledge, 2002.

With essays on fifty of the major classical authors, including Ovid, Sappho, Homer, and Cicero, this book sets out to tell the story of how classical literature flourished and changed throughout the years. Each of the essays is prefaced by a substantial introduction to the author's background.

Southern, Pat, Augustus, Routledge, 2001.

Southern's biography of the Roman emperor was the first to appear in more than seventy-five years. Concentrating on Augustus himself rather than the politics of the time, Southern covers the emperor's life from his family's heritage to his deathbed.

Taylor, A. B., ed., Shakespeare's Ovid: The "Metamorphoses" in the Plays and Poems, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Ovid's work was a source of lifelong inspiration to Shakespeare. Taylor brings together Shakespeare scholars and covers all of the playwright's major plays that show Ovidian influence and includes twentieth-century criticism on the subject.

Zimmerman, Mary, and David R. Slavitt, Metamorphoses: A Play, Northwestern University Press, 2002.

Set in or around a large pool of water in the center of the stage, this play opened on Broadway in March 2002 after first being performed by students at Northwestern University, where Zimmerman teaches. The book includes the script, a production history, and photographs from several productions.