an oil painting showing two nude women, one holding the other while the other's hands sprout laurel leaves.

Transformed women in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Gruesome stories of women being transformed to escape men in Ovid's ancient Greek text

Maria Teresa Natale (opens in new window) (Michael Culture Association / Museu)

The theme of men’s and gods’ greediness for women recurs very often in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid's famous book focuses, as its name implies, on the metamorphosis of people, animals and gods in Greek mythology. Often, women are the ones that are changed as a result of trying to escape the courtings of Gods or the wrath of those gods' wives. Read more about Ovid's Metamorphoses in our first blog on the subject.

Apollo and Daphne

In the first book of the Metamorphoses Ovid writes about the god Apollo. Being struck by Eros' arrow, Apollo fell in love with the nymph Daphne, one of the subjects of the goddess Diana. Daphne turned down Apollo's courting and begged her father Peneus, the river deity, to change her appearance. The climax of the story is the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel tree.

Alpheus and Arethusa

Alpheus, river deity, was attracted by the beauty of the nymph Arethusa, who one day, after a long run in the woods, decided to cool off in a stream. While bathing, Arethusa heard a strange sounds coming from the depths of the stream. Terrified, she leapt out of the waters onto dry land. The sound turned out to be the god Alpheus who, attracted by her beauty and nakedness, leapt out of the stream after her. Desperate, the nymph called for the help of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, who enveloped her in a cloud and with a powerful breath pushed her in the direction of Sicily. Arriving near Ortygia, Arethusa turned into a fresh water spring, becoming one of the symbols of female resistance to male violence.

Tereus and Philomela

The story of Tereus and Philomela is a gruesome one. Procne, the daughter of the king of Athens, married Tereus, king of Thrace. The wedding was celebrated under a sign of bad luck: an owl, sent by the Erinyes, perched on their nuptial bed. The bride, struck with grief due to this bad omen, hoped that seeing her sister Philomela would help lift her spirits. Procne begged her new husband to go retrieve Philomela for her. When Tereus went to meet Philomela in Athens, he instantly fell in love with her and took her back home. There, he locked up his sister-in-law in a stable and brutally raped her. The young Philomela, outraged and destroyed in spirit, invoked the gods to punish the wicked Tereus. Tereus, fearing divine wrath, grabbed the girl and cut off her tongue with pincers so that she couldn't speak of his crimes.

Philomela, unable to speak, began weaving a web, with purple letters among the threads revealing what Tereus did. When Procne received this web, she read the painful story and decided to kill her and Tereus' son, Itys, in revenge. She served her son to Tereus as a meal before revealing to him that he had eaten their dead child. At this point, the gods intervened and transformed Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale, so that they could escape the wrath of Tereus.