The Characters of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Metamorphoses is populated by a vast array of characters drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. From gods and goddesses to heroes and mortals, each character plays a role in the intricate tapestry of stories that make up Ovid's epic poem. This page introduces the major characters of Metamorphoses from the selections I teach regularly, offering insights into their roles, relationships, and significance in the narrative.
Jupiter (Zeus): Jupiter, the king of the gods, is known for his power, his authority, and his numerous love affairs. He often transforms himself into various forms to seduce or deceive mortals. His actions often lead to transformations and conflicts in the stories.
Juno (Hera): Juno, the queen of the gods and Jupiter’s wife, is known for her jealousy and her vengeful nature, often punishing Jupiter's lovers and their offspring. Despite her negative traits, she is also a protector of women and marriage.
Apollo: Apollo, the god of the sun, music, and prophecy, is portrayed as both a lover and a punisher. His pursuit of Daphne, who transforms into a laurel tree to escape him, is one of the most famous stories in the poem.
Venus (Aphrodite): Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, often intervenes in the affairs of gods and mortals, causing transformations and conflicts.
Minerva (Athena): Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war, is often portrayed as a protector of heroes and a punisher of those who offend her.
Mercury (Hermes): Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is sent by Jupiter to free Io. He lulls Argus to sleep with his music and storytelling, then kills him, demonstrating his cunning and resourcefulness.
Metamorphoses features numerous mortal characters who become the playthings or victims of the gods. The mortal characters add depth and diversity to the narrative, highlighting the complexities of the human condition and the capriciousness of the gods.
Argus: Argus is a hundred-eyed giant set by Juno to guard Io, who has been transformed into a heifer. He is eventually lulled to sleep and killed by Mercury, allowing Io to be freed.
Daphne: Daphne is a nymph who is pursued by Apollo. To escape him, she prays to her father, the river god Peneus, who transforms her into a laurel tree. Daphne’s transformation is a symbol of chastity and resistance against the desires of the gods.
Europa: Europa is a Phoenician princess who is abducted by Jupiter, who has transformed himself into a bull. He carries Europa across the sea to the island of Crete, where he reveals his true identity.
Io: Io is a nymph who catches the eye of Jupiter. To protect her from the wrath of his jealous wife, Juno, Jupiter transforms Io into a heifer. However, Juno is not fooled and takes Io as a gift, setting a hundred-eyed giant named Argus to guard her. Eventually, Io is freed and restored to human form by Jupiter with the help of Mercury, who lulls Argus to sleep and kills him.
Iphis: Iphis is a character who is born female but raised as a male by her mother to avoid the wrath of her father. When Iphis falls in love with the girl Ianthe, the goddess Isis transforms Iphis into a male, allowing the two to marry.
Ianthe: Ianthe is a girl who falls in love with Iphis, not knowing that Iphis was born female. When Iphis is transformed into a male by Isis, Ianthe marries him.
Pygmalion: Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created. Disgusted by the faults he perceives in women, he prays to Venus to bring the statue to life. Venus grants his wish, and the statue transforms into a living woman, whom Pygmalion marries.
Lycaon: Lycaon is a king who is transformed into a wolf by Jupiter as punishment for his impiety and cruelty. His transformation is the event that prompts Jupiter to send a flood to cleanse the earth of human wickedness.