Justice According to Ovid: The Logic Behind Transformations in the Metamorphoses
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid discusses tales of transformations and reveals a system of justice within them. Generally, the gods either grant transformations in response to prayers, but for those transformed unwillingly, the change was normally cast as a punishment. In some instances, the person transformed neither wished for it, nor deserved it as punishment. In these instances, the person that was transformed gains justice by eventually benefiting from the alteration. In the end, those transformed against their will received justice, whether it was through punishment or through reward.
Starting with the story of Jove and Io, Ovid shows the system of justice and metamorphosis. Lusting after Io, Jupiter decided to pursue her and in an attempt to hide the affair from his wife, Juno, Jupiter turned Io into a beautiful heifer. Juno saw through this trick and asked to have the cow as a gift, (Book 1, lines 846-856). Jupiter obliged and Juno placed Io under the many watchful eyes of Argus. Io suffered greatly during her time as a cow. She was forced from living her normal, comfortable life to now having to live as an animal, (Book 1, lines 868-880). Jupiter pitied Io and in an endeavor to save her, he sent his son to kill Argus. As a reward for serving her, Juno saved the many eyes of Argus, and placed them on the tail of peacocks in order for him to see forever. Still outraged over his death, Juno called for Io to be tormented more, sending her running throughout the world until she reached the Nile River, (Book 1, lines 991-1007). Seeing her immense suffering, Jupiter begged Juno to end Io’s punishment, swearing to never pursue her again. Juno was appeased and allowed Io to regain her former self (Book 1, lines 1014-1022). Since she was undeserving of punishment, as her only crime was to attract Jove, Io’s transformation was unjust. To make up for this injustice, Io and her son of Jove were granted the honor of being gods and Io lived on as Isis, worshipped by the Egyptians, (Book 1, lines 1032-1037). In the end, Io was rewarded for dealing with her unjust transformation and justice was served.
The next form of justice that Ovid illustrates is the story of the Muses and the daughters of Pierus. The setting reflects that of a court, with the two sides pitted against each other, the daughters representing the prosecutors, accusing the Muses of not being the best in song and the Muses having to defend their title, (Book 5, line 448). Picked as the judges, river Nymphs came to observe the case, (Book 5, line 466). The daughter of Pierus sang first, telling a narrative of the Olympian gods in a negative light, (Book 5, line 469). Next, Calliope sang alone on the behalf of the Muses’, (Book 5, lines 503). She sang the story of Venus and Cupid, who made Dis fall in love with Proserpina. As Calliope’s song goes, Venus asked Cupid to force Dis to fall in love with Proserpina and he rapes her and then takes her to his underworld kingdom, (Book 5, lines 545 and 562). Ceres, Proserpina’s mother, searches everywhere for her daughter. During her travels, Ceres came across a hovel where she asked for a drink of water. She was given a drink with toasted barley in it and she gratefully drank it, (Book 5, lines 616-620). As she drank, a boy of the household “mocked her and said she was greedy,” (Book 5, line 622). Outraged at the boy’s unjust remark, Ceres punished him by turning him into a lizard, (Book 5, line 628). Continuing on with her search, Ceres discovered that her daughter had been stolen by Dis. In her rage, Ceres makes the earth feel her wrath as she destroys all of the crops and makes it impossible for anything to grow, (Book 5, lines 645-567). After grieving, Ceres speaks to Jupiter, the father of Proserpina and the brother of her captor. Initially, Jupiter says that Dis took Proserpina out of love, and that since Proserpina has married well, that Ceres should be grateful. Ceres counters him stating that their daughter deserves to be married to someone better than a thief, (Book 5, lines 685-695). Finally, Jupiter says that if Ceres really wants Proserpina back, then she may return, as long as Proserpina has not eaten anything from the underworld, (Book 5, lines 704-706). To Ceres’ dismay, Proserpina had been seen eating some fruit in the Underworld, so she is unable to return. Outraged at the one that gave her away, Proserpina turned him into an owl, a symbol of ill omen, (Book 5, line 725). Caught between Ceres and Dis, Jupiter offered a compromise, and divided the year in two, allowing Proserpina to spend equal time with her mother and with her husband, (Book 5, lines 739-742).
The song of the Muse exposes another of Ovid’s tales that displays the system of metamorphosis and justice. Having been stolen away, Proserpina was unjustly turned from a virgin into the Queen of the Underworld. While in the Underworld, Proserpina displays that she is more than sunshine and flowers, by transforming her snitch into a bad omen. This indicates that she rightfully should be queen by revealing that she also possesses dark power. Though she proved that she should remain there as queen, Proserpina had still been unfairly brought to the Underworld. To create balance, Jupiter allows Proserpina to spend half of the year above ground with her mother, and half of the year in the underworld with her husband. This time split created the seasons, with spring and summer being when Proserpina is on Earth, and fall and winter occur when she returns the Underworld. Calliope’s song continues with the story of a fountain and then concludes with the Nymphs awarded victory to the Muses, (Book 5, line 648). Even after their loss, the daughters of Pierus continued to criticize the Muses, mocking them and shouting obscenities. Outraged by the insults given to them by the sore losers, the Muses decided to cast punishment on the disrespectful daughters by turning them into magpies, (Book 5, lines 857-867). Changing into magpies was a fitting penalty as “they are famous for their noisiness as well as for their love of argument,” (Book 5, line 870). The transformation is a just one since the Muses had won fairly but the daughters still claimed to be better.
The final display of justice and metamorphosis seen in the text, is the transformation of Atalanta and Hippomenes. During their travels, the pair came across a temple dedicated in honor of Cybele. While taking a rest in the temple, the couple defiled it by performing forbidden behavior inside of its walls, (Book 10, line 810). Cybele punished the guilty pair by turning them into lions, a fitting punishment since now as lions, “the forest now is their bedroom,” (Book 10, line 818). Since Atalanta and Hippomenes had broken a sacred rule, their punishment was justified, as now they are forced to live in the forest and performed their scandalous behavior in the open rather than in shelter.
Throughout the Metamorphoses, Ovid reviews stories of transformations and reveals a system of justice within them, but he also shows the difference between justice and revenge. Juno’s jealousy driven revenge was not seen as justice since Io had not done anything against Juno. None of the events were Io’s fault since it was Jupiter that had sought out and raped her, then transformed her into a cow and lied about the affair. Ceres transformation of the boy into a lizard was also not seen as revenge since the boy had acted unjustly and disrespectful to her as a goddess. Next was the punishment of the daughter of Pierus by the Muses. This act was not seen as revenge because the Muses had fairly won the contest and the daughters had continued to claim dominance over them. Finally was the punishment given to Atalanta and Hippomenes by Cybele. Again this was not seen as revenge since the pair had broken sacred rules. While most of the transformations in the book were in response to prayers, some characters were transformed unwillingly. The change was normally cast as a punishment, but in some instances, the person transformed neither wished for it nor deserved it as punishment. In these instances, the person that was transformed gains justice by eventually benefiting from the alteration. Whether punished or rewarded, those transformed against their will received justice.
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