By Ed Marks and Dan Cummings, revised by Joe Phelan
In the spring of 1849, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) faced a Russian firing squad. He had been accused of the political crime of promoting utopian socialism, a popular ideology that threatened the deeply conservative government of Czar Nicholas I. Just as the order was being given to the firing squad to shoot, a messenger appeared with an edict from the Czar commuting the sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Apollo and Daphne
Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876
The Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) is considered one of the most influential books in the Western canon and an extremely important source for classical mythology. Since the Middle Ages, writers, painters, and sculptors have been drawing on Ovid’s stories of the passions, adventures, and battles of the gods and heroes for inspiration. Even modern filmmakers use these myths as the foundation for their screenplays (i.e. the portrayal of Achilles in Troy and the 1930s-style retelling of Odysseus’ wanderings in O Brother Where Art Thou?) Despite his popularity in his own lifetime, this Latin author was exiled from Rome in 8 CE by the Emperor Augustus. Thanks to Ovid’s imaginative rendering of these mythological figures and events, the stories still continue to have meaning for us today.
The lessons in this unit comprise a series of comparisons. The first lesson compares similarities between Genesis and The Metamorphoses. Students consider the creative elements within two stories of creation and the destructive elements within two stories of a great flood that all but obliterated humankind. The second lesson has students consider the story of Orpheus, the lover who tries to rescue his beloved wife from death itself. They then compare Ovid’s mythic passages with the poem entitled “Eurydice” by H.D., a twentieth-century poet. In the third lesson, students turn from Ovid’s legacy in literature to visual art. They explore great art works that drew inspiration from Ovid and compare how the same story can be rendered in two different mediums.
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Grade level standards:
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).
Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).
Born near Rome in 43 BCE, Ovid studied rhetoric to prepare for a career in politics but abandoned his studies to pursue poetry. His early works were collections of poems that were both passionate and erotic. His major text, the one for which he is best known, was The Metamorphoses (literally, “the changes”), in which he set down tales of the Roman divinities and heroes from creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. Frequently, those stories entail physical changes: a god changing into a swan; a girl changing into a heifer; a nymph becoming a tree. For a reason unknown to history, Ovid was exiled in 8 CE by the Emperor Augustus and was forced to live away from Rome until his death in 17 CE. Ovid’s Metamorphoses continued to be very popular, however, and his stories continued to inspire writers and artists from the Middle Ages to the present.
The Metamorphoses appears on the Common Core State Standards in Appendix B as a grade 9–10 Text Exemplar under the category: “Stories.” The unit maybe adapted for different grade and ability levels.
Read more background about The Metamorphoses of Ovid including the structure and significance of the poem and the influence Greece had on this work.
Have students write an essay using the following prompt:
Select another short work of literature: a poem, a painting, a musical work, or a film that interprets a myth found in Ovid. Write a report which covers (a) general information about the author/artist; (b) a description of the tale(s) from Ovid that the author/artist used as inspiration; and (c) a discussion of how the author/artist shaped those ideas to create a work that is distinctively his or her own.
For item (d), your teacher may suggest a work of art or sculpture, or you can locate one yourself using websites such as:
EDSITEment-reviewed Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, which has a feature devoted to Ovid’s Metamorphosis with a number of works derived from it.
EDSITEment-reviewed National Gallery of Art has a remarkable array of works derived from classical literature. The collection is particularly rich in imagery from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses—the stirring stories of Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus, Pomona, Phaeton, Philemon and Baucis, and Cupid and Psyche are found in paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, and drawings. Here are five examples:
Worksheet 5. Rubric for Final Assessment provides a tool for both student writing and teacher evaluation.
1. Analyze the hero’s journey archetype as described by an American mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Campbell refers to a “monomyth” (a word he borrowed from James Joyce), a universal pattern that he sees as the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture. This appears in his seminal work in comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) but there are many online sources that disseminate Campbell’s monomyth.
Veteran journalist Bill Moyers sat down with Campbell in 1988 for a series of six PBS interviews entitled The Power of Myth. In “Episode 1: The Hero's Adventure” Campbell explains this archetype and offers examples of it in mythology, literature and film. The Power of Myth videos and its companion text are widely available in libraries, though the full episodes are not online.
Students may analyze one of Ovid’s hero stories to see to how well it fits Campbell’s formula (i.e. Perseus, Jason, Theseus, and Hercules.)
2. Analyze the interpretation of the Orpheus myth as it appears in the 1959 classic film Black Orpheus (originally Orfeu Negro) directed and with screenplay by Albert Camus. It was filmed largely in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and uses their annual pre-Lenten Carnival as a backdrop for a modern retelling of the classic myth. Have students compare Ovid’s telling of the myth in The Metamorphoses with the film version. They may look for similarities and differences between the two versions of the stories told through different mediums.
3. Ovid’s collection of letters in his Heroides represent 15 aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology who address their heroic lovers. One letter is written in the voice of Penelope to her husband Ulysses, long overdue from the Trojan War. Contemporary Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s novella, the Penelopia retells the story of the long-suffering wife, from Penelope’s perspective. Have students read both Ovid’s letter poem and Atwood’s short novel to compare and contrast the two versions.