Ovid’s view of the gods’ ethics

In Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses, Ovid tells many mythological tales of certain things turning into other things, as is hinted by the title. Ovid refrains from openly expressing his opinions of the gods actions; for the most part. But, Ovid still hints at his opinion in a few places in the book.

One of his stories is the story of Arachne and Minerva. In the story, Arachne is a human being who is very skilled at the art of weaving. Minerva is the goddess of weaving. Arachne would not give credit to Minerva, so Minerva came to earth in the disguise of an old woman and went to her house. She tried to convince Arachne to give credit to Minerva, but Arachne insults her and disrespects her. Minerva throws off her disguise, and they have a contest to determine who is the best. Arachne wove many pictures of the wicked deeds of the gods into her work. Arachne wins the contest, and Minerva attacks her in anger. Arachne tried to kill herself, but Minerva saved her life. Minerva then turned her into a spider for the rest of her life.

Another story is the story of Marsyas, a satyr. Marsyas was very skilled at the flute, and challenged Apollo (a god) to a music contest. They both agreed that whoever won could do whatever he wished to the other person. Apollo won the music contest, and as a result, he killed Marsyas by flaying him alive. So many people wept for him that their tears became a river known as the Marsyas river.

Ovid also tells the story of Niobe and Latona. A prophetess in a certain town told everyone that they should sacrifice to Latona, a goddess. In Greek and Roman mythology, Latona was the mother of Phoebe and Phoebus (Also known as Apollo and Artemis) by Jupiter. When the women of the town went to sacrifice to Latona, Niobe, the queen of the town, ordered them to stop their sacrifices. She asked them why they didn’t sacrifice to her instead, because she had fourteen children, while Latona only had two. She also bragged of her husband’s status, her beauty, and other positive sanctions that had been bestowed upon her. The women stopped and returned home, still honoring Latona secretly in their hearts. Latona became angry at Niobe, and she came down with Apollo and Artemis to teach Niobe a lesson. To punish her, Phoebus shot her seven sons with his bow. As a result of this, Niobe’s husband, the king, committed suicide. Then Apollo shot all of her seven daughters. Finally, Niobe was turned into a mountain that shed tears.

These stories show the gods acting in very cruel ways toward mankind, even towards people who had done nothing but win a contest. In the story of Niobe, Apollo even shot her innocent children, who had done nothing. Niobe was prideful, of course, but it was still a very harsh punishment toward her. Ovid thought that the gods were capable of evil, but that you should honor them and give respect to them because they were powerful and would punish those who acted against them in pride. Many of the stories he relates speak of human and divine pride. Humans should become prideful and rebel against the gods, otherwise the gods may punish them. Ovid himself writes that the gods actions were wicked, but he isn’t super open about it.


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