Cry me a river: watery fates in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Ovid's Metamorphoses is a poem about change on every level imaginable. So many different changes occur that people have long tried to find patterns in them and reasons that might explain why Ovid wrote his most famous poem. There are many elements of this poem that fascinate me, and I've always been particularly interested in the number of stories involving people literally turning into water. The type of water varies; sometimes it is a spring, at others a pond. The contexts of the transformation also differ; sometimes gods seem to cause the change, but sometimes the event grows out of the story all on its own. One thing remains
constant for all such cases of dissolving within the poem, however: every victim is female. And the characters are, in all but one instance, stated as in floods of tears (notice the metaphor we use in English to describe this), a state that is frequently key to the changed form of the woman.


Let's have a look at some examples. Cyane turns into water occurs in book five of Ovid's poem, where Pluto, god of the underworld, has seized Proserpina and is flying away with the terrified girl and her petal collection, which is now frittering away in the breezes. Cyane attempts to save the stolen girl, but the god grows angry and plunges his sceptre into her waters, creating a way to Tartarus, towards which he heads with his chariot; he leaves Cyane in a state of humiliation and grief. Cyane is described as sustaining an inconsolabile vulnus 'inconsolable wound', which 'she wears in her silent mind and is all consumed in tears'. These seem to be natural reactions: she falls silent immediately, and breaks into tears. The next line is startling: 'and she dissolved into the very waters of which she had recently been a power'. The nymph seems to be melting away in her grief.

The narrator tries to draw us right inside the mysterious happenings by addressing us: 'her limbs could be seen melting away, her bones growing flexible, her nails losing firmness. The slenderest parts of her body dissolved first, her deep-blue hair, fingers, legs and feet'. She is literally dissolving into tears. The main emphasis is upon thinning: 'she is thinned out into water', 'the slenderest parts of her body dissolved first', 'it was a slight change from slight limbs into icy waters', 'fading away, they vanished into slim streams'.

Ovid has already played with this idea earlier in the poem. In book one, Inachus, a river god, is absent from a meeting of rivers through grief at the disappearance of his daughter: 'Inachus alone was not there, but hidden away in the depths of his cave he swelled his waters with weeping'. But Inachus has not lost his body, for he is later described as able to speak and possessing hands. Cyane Is totally water, to the extent that she can communicate only by displaying an item on the surface of her waters. Is there a reason for a nymph entirely transforming into water'?

A closer look at this melting can help to reveal why it's very fitting that Cyane melted in her grief. Cyane does not present herself as powerful and fearsome, but rather a naive and vulnerable young girl. Ovid himself comments: 'for it is a slight change from thin limbs into icy waters', a remark which shows the similarity between the nymph and the waters she dissolved into. This appears to be an important part of the transformation. That Cyane becomes a pool of water startlingly reveals the essence of he:character and responses, so that her inner nature becomes outer in a permanent way. Cyane is described in the moment before her metamorphosis as suffering from an inconsolable wound and the implication is that her transformation is because of this wound; there seems no other way forward for her and so she reacts by side stepping reality and becoming water.

Cyane is a water nymph (Ovid mentions her blue hair, caerulei crines). Nymphs are mysterious elements of ancient religion, intimately connected with parts of nature, such as trees, ponds and fountains. Two more nymphs who turn to water in the poem are Egeria and Canens. Canens' story occurs in book fourteen, told by Macareus to Achaemenides on Aeneas' journey to find a new homeland. Macareus is himself repeating a tale told to him by one of Circe's housemaids so, as with many episodes in Metamorphoses, It is a tale within a tale within a tale. After the disappearance of Picus, her husband, she grieves intensely, fasting and trailing the countryside for six days and nights. Eventually, tired out from her grieving, she lies down on the banks of a river and weeping, she both melts and vanishes into nothing.

Canens's story differs from Cyane in its use of two forms of metamorphosis, melting and disappearing. It shares with Cyane's story the thinning of an already slender frame: 'with slight sound', 'having liquefied her slender marrow', 'she vanished gradually into thin air'. There is a suggestion that Canens has already begun to merge with nature before the actual metamorphosis; she is described as 'placing her body onto the icy bank'. This lying prostrate on the earth by the river is a symbol of closeness to the natural world. The wateriness of the lines preceding the transformation is clear: her tears are mentioned (14.428), and this is followed by the simile of the swan, a water-borne creature, and finally it is said that she is liquefacta 'Iiquified' and that she tabuit 'melts'. It is perhaps also relevant that the last person to see her is the river Tiber, another peculiar hybrid form within the poem.

The vanishing into thin air is another metaphor like dissolving into tears. But it's clear that there is far more to Ovid's use of these than simply a play on language. As we have seen, these victims of metamorphosis are not fully human: they are nymphs. Canens' status as a nymph is mentioned at the beginning and end of her story. She also associates with these waterhaunting creatures whose existence is shadily connected with various lakes, ponds and rivers.

Egeria's transformation occurs in the fifteenth and final book of Ovid's poem. As with Canens the nymph is grieving intensely, here for her lost husband, Numa. We saw how Canens wandered the countryside in her desperate state; Egeria is also described as retreating into nature: 'she left the city and hid in the dense woods of the Aricinan valley'. The nymphs are described as speaking consolantia verba ('consoling words') to her. However, Egeria remains Inconsolable – in much the same way in which Cyane had an inconsolabile vulnus. The beautiful phrase Iiquitur In lacrimas ('melted into tears') comes right before the transformation. The account of the moment of transmutation recalls aspects of those other dissolutions we have seen; the idea of thinning out is used – 'and dissolved her limbs into everlasting waters' - and the brief tale is awash with liquid vocabulary - liquitur ...Iacrimas .. ./...fontem / ...undas ('is melted ... tears... fountain... waters').

These are just a few of many examples of melting, weeping women in Ovid's poem, but just from these there are some patterns emerging. We've seen how the characters felt themselves to be in a helpless situation - they are all described as inconsolable. They are all also nymphs, or associated with nymphs. Just before they change, they give clues of their imminent transformations. They show a desire to merge with nature. In these episodes Ovid is making concrete and actual a common turn of phrase, to melt into tears" or to "be in floods of tears"', and this in interesting in itself. But why does Ovid so often write about women who literally melt away as a result of the aggression of males, of society and of life? And in doing so, does he offer them a fair hearing, or does he simply encourage us to see them as weak, vulnerable and fragile?