The role of bird metamorphosis in Ovid’s Met. 8 – Dissertation Summary

This is a blog post by Lauren Phillips, a year 3 student, about her dissertation topic: The role, theme and allegorical nature of bird metamorphosis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8.

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My dissertation explored the role, theme and allegorical nature of bird metamorphosis in Book Eight of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The connotations and metaphorical interpretations in bird imagery is what encouraged my decision to pursue this form of metamorphosis more than any other (such as plants, trees or animals). I wanted to explore in particular the upward motion of a bird’s flight and what allegorical meanings can be taken from this.

I chose to focus my analysis on three episodes in the opening of Book Eight which are all interlinked by their subject content, yet each deal with bird metamorphosis differently. Scylla, the princess of Megara betrays her father, King Nisus by cutting his magic lock of hair (which causes her city’s downfall) in her desire for their enemy, King Minos. The episode ends with Minos’ rejection and abandonment of Scylla to which she and her father are transformed into birds.

In the next story, it is King Minos who prevents the inventor, Daedalus, from leaving Crete. The inventor then decides to build the wings of a bird to enable himself and his son, Icarus, to escape Crete through flight. This ends in tragedy as Icarus flies too close to the sun, causing the wax holding the wings together to melt and Icarus to fall to his death.

It is a partridge who witnesses this death and rejoices at Daedalus’ grief. We soon find out that this partridge is Perdix, Daedalus’ nephew. The inventor, envious of Perdix’s own inventive genius attempts to kill his nephew. Perdix is thrown from the Acropolis and the goddess Minerva saves him by transforming him into a partridge.

The bird motif is present in these episodes even before any bird metamorphosis takes place. Yet, in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus no direct bird metamorphosis occurs. Daedalus’ invention causes himself and Icarus to undergo a semi-metamorphosis into birds. Initially, this may seem a very limiting number of sources to form an analysis of bird metamorphosis. However, I wanted to explore the large and complex themes that present themselves to us in the three myths.

During my research I found that, until recent scholarship, the Perdix myth had not been considered as an important aid to our understanding of the Daedalus and Icarus episode. This, in my opinion, was not very helpful in understanding bird metamorphosis in the opening of Book Eight. I felt there was some significance in the position of this episode by Ovid.

The story of Perdix is told after the fall of Icarus, yet chronologically Perdix’s transformation occurs before Daedalus’ exile to Crete. I dedicated a chapter of my dissertation to the myth of Perdix in order to consider its significance in aiding our understanding of bird metamorphosis, specifically the semi-metamorphosis of Daedalus and Icarus into birds.

What I discovered in my analysis and research throughout my dissertation was the various forms that bird metamorphosis can take. Scylla experiences two forms of bird metamorphosis in the narrative; a psychological metamorphosis and a physical transformation. The bird imagery in the beginning of the narrative foreshadows the physical bird transformation at the end.

Scylla’s desire for Minos, her dilemma and patricide over her duties as a daughter, Minos’ rejection of her, and her metamorphosis are all thematically linked and explored by Ovid through the bird motif. The bird motif began as a sign of liberation for Scylla who desires the wings of a bird to reach Minos. By the end of the narrative, the bird metamorphosis she undergoes is a physical manifestation of her dehumanisation and isolation from humanity as a result of betraying her father.

In the episode of Daedalus and Icarus, I found that bird metamorphosis became a way for the characters to transcend their status as mortals. I compared Daedalus’ role as an inventor and the image of Daedalus crafting the wings of a bird to an artist over his craft. I suggested that the feathers layered on top of one another forming the wings of a bird was metapoetic of the structure of the Metamorphoses itself; individual stories of metamorphosis brought together into one continuous poem.

With that comparison in mind, I interpreted bird metamorphosis to be allegorical of the poet’s process of poetry making. I found that father and son’s semi-metamorphosis into birds and the fall of Icarus could be allegorical of artistic vision, artistic failure and the theme of art and nature in the poem. This brought my analysis to much more complex and wider themes than I first expected.

Through bird metamorphosis I observed Ovid to be exploring his own artistic excellence and ascent at the end of the Metamorphoses.   This was confirmed in my analysis of the metamorphosis of Perdix. I argued that Ovid presents Perdix as an inventor who emulates nature with his inventions (inventing the handsaw and compass), whilst Daedalus only imitates the wings of a bird.

Yet, if Perdix (as the more gifted inventor) remains within the realm of the natural order by becoming a partridge that inhabits the hedgerows and adopts ‘the middle way’; why at the end of his poem does Ovid predict his own immortalisation through an upward metamorphosis (“the finer part of myself shall sweep me into eternity, higher than the stars”)?

I felt there was a contradiction here; I firstly interpreted Ovid viewing his own poetry as the epitome of artistic excellence. As poet and creator of his world in the Metamorphoses, Ovid perhaps explores the limits of vision and art through the various artists and inventors we encounter in the poem.

Through bird metamorphosis (or lack of) in these episodes the poet is able to transcend the natural order of his own universe. Ovid sees his poetry as an art form that is able to escape destruction and immortalise his name through the ages.

Although bird metamorphosis cannot reveal all of Ovid’s themes in the Metamorphoses, what my dissertation demonstrated is that it is a form of metamorphosis that is necessary towards understanding major themes in the text and the poet’s own artistic vision.

Written by Lauren Phillips – Edited by Emma Garland