Transformations in Ovid
Transformations from one shape or form into another are the central theme in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The popularity and timelessness of this work stems from the manner of story telling. Ovid takes stories relevant to his culture and time period, and weaves them together into one work with a connecting theme of transformation throughout. The thread of humor that runs through Metamorphoses is consistent with the satire and commentary of the work. The theme is presented in the opening lines of Metamorphoses, where the poet invokes the gods, who are responsible for the changes, to look favorably on his efforts to compose. The changes are of many kinds: from human to animal, animal to human, thing to human, human to thing. Some changes are reversed: human to animal to human. Sometimes the transformations are partial, and physical features and personal qualities of the earlier being are preserved in mutated form.
In the story of Daphne and Apollo, the chief agent of transformation is love, represented by Venus and her youthful and mischievous son, Cupid. When the god Apollo brags to Cupid of his great might exemplified by his defeat of the python, Cupid humbles him by reducing the great god to a shameless lover with his gold-tipped arrow of love. A transformation of sorts takes place when the Cupid’s arrow strikes Apollo. Apollo transforms from a bragging God who claims superiority over Cupid by saying, ‘You be content with your torch to excite love, whatever that may be, and do not aspire to praises that are my prerogative,’;(p. 41) to a man possessed by desire. Despite his powers of strength and domination, the God of War is humbled by Love. A lesson is being taught to Apollo by Cupid. A weakness is spotlighted and exposed, and the role of Apollo is almost completely reversed. He is transformed from a figurehead of power to a crazed lover with no power over his love.
Just after shooting Apollo, Cupid strikes Daphne with a blunt, lead-tipped arrow intended to put love to flight. The first transformation of Daphne occurs at this point. Not by her own choice but brought upon by the arrow, Daphne no longer is interested by the prospect of love. Although no physical changes take place, the character is obviously different than previous to being struck. At this point, Daphne and Apollo have both been transformed to the same degree but in opposite directions.
Metaphor is used throughout the description of Apollo’s chase of Daphne. Upon encountering Daphne, Apollo falls madly in love with her. Overcome by Cupid’s arrow, Apollo sets aside reason and becomes engulfed by his hope of attaining his love. Before being transformed, Apollo would most likely have paid little or no attention to Daphne, but now, Apollo is overcome by his lust for beauty. Ovid compares Apollo’s love for Daphne to a flame in a brush. This metaphor used by Ovid is very effective. The change that goes through Apollo is very sudden and fast. The imagery of a flame rapidly spreading through brush conveys the idea of an almost violent change. The god is consumed with a desire for the girl. His chase is fueled by a hope to overcome the ultimate futility of his actions. He sees every part of her as beautiful, her eyes, hair, face and even speculates as to the beauty of her hidden regions. Unsatisfied by the sight of Daphne and wanting more than just a glimpse of her beauty, Apollo follows Daphne as a hound chases a rabbit. The hope for his fruitless love keeps Apollo close on Daphne’s trail, and fear motivates Daphne to stay just out of reach. When Ovid tries to convey the intensity of the flight, he says, ‘He gave the fleeing maiden no respite, but followed close on her heels, and his breath touched the locks that lay scattered on her neck,’;(p. 43) Finally, burdened by mortal exhaustion, Daphne prays to her father to deliver her from her torment. As the words leave her mouth, Daphne is transformed for the second time. Her legs become roots, her arms become branches, her hair becomes leaves and the transformation is complete. Unlike her first transformation, this time the transformation is physical in nature. At this point, Daphne’s overall transformation is made more severe than Apollo’s. Ovid says, ‘Nothing of her was left, except her shining loveliness. Stunned by what has occurred, Apollo ends the chase but still stares longingly at his love in her new form. Through the new bark covering Daphne, Apollo is still able to feel her beating heart. Still under the influence of Cupid’s arrow, Apollo pledges to remain faithful to Daphne despite her transformation. To honor Daphne and her beauty, he institutes the use of the laurel branch as a symbol of Rome.
Although a complete metamorphosis has taken place, Daphne and the tree are one in the same. Her physical traits have been altered, but the love of Apollo for the girl remains despite the transformation. ‘Embracing the branches as if they were limbs he (Apollo) kissed the wood: but, even as a tree, she shrank from his kisses.’;(p. 43) Daphne in tree form still posses human characteristics such as a beating heart and also human mannerisms such as the nod of her branches in consent to Apollo. Although she did undergo a change, Daphne’s prayer was not entirely answered. Daphne appeals to her father to, ‘destroy this beauty which makes me please all too well.’;(p. 43) Her beauty still remains after the metamorphoses, and this suggests that the basic nature of the girl is not changed, just her physical features.
The intended meaning of these metamorphoses is hard to pin down. In a way, each transformation is ambiguous. Each transformation solves a problem but creates one as well. Each change is a positive event as well as a negative event. With Apollo and Daphne, the transformation from a girl into a tree is negative in that Daphne will be unable to live as the beautiful girl she once was or to experience life as a human. However, after her first transformation, her desire to remain human disappears. It was positive, however, in that it ended the chase by Apollo and delivered her from the unwanted love of a man. The motivator for change in this narrative is necessity. Powerless from Cupid’s arrows, Daphne needs something to happen for her to escape from Apollo. Her father in the story is the one who initiates the change. He agrees with her wishes and takes away the object of Apollo’s desires. The beauty of Daphne remains unchanged even with her new form.
Significantly, Ovid has paid much less regard to smooth, logical transition between stories than to complex repetition of themes and images, even to extensive wordplay. Repetition is one way to ingrain an idea or convey a point, and Ovid plays it to near perfection. The constant repetition of transformation bridges the sometimes awkward transitions between tales. Although each story in Metamorphoses may be read and interpreted separately, taken together rather than apart, the stories can be more effectively linked. The use of repetition throughout the work and constant symbolism in each tale help connect the stories. The entire work is in poetic form, and the literary techniques used are consistent with the time period. Common symbols are used throughout. A common motif is the stretching out of arms preceding metamorphosis. Also, the imagery of hunting coincides with that of sexual passion. Daphne is a huntress and is associated strongly with the forest and nature. It is fitting then that she is the character pursued by Apollo. The vocabulary of hunger and thirst, or devouring and drinking are associated with acts of violence. The constant repetition and the imagery in Metamorphoses are key to interpreting what Ovid is trying to convey to the reader. The power of change is the central issue in each story and in all the stories combined. Change as a vehicle of escape, punishment, or any means to an end is apparent in virtually every story in the book.