Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.05


P.M.C. Forbes Irving, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Pp. xv, 326. ISBN 0-19-814730-9.


Reviewed by Patricia A. Johnston, Brandeis University.

In this text, Irving attempts to explore both the history and structure of stories of transformation in Greek myths. Particularly interesting to this reviewer is his observation that, while metamorphosis is found as early as Homer (most notably the Niobe and Proteus tales), the greater proportion of these myths first appear during the Hellenistic period. The Hellenistic versions of these myths are aetiological in that they "explain some present creature or landmark," and they are terminal, in that they bring the story to a conclusion. Ovid, by contrast with the Hellenistic practice, tends to replace the concluding cult aition with the "more obvious explanation of animal features and an emphasis on the continuity of human traits." The moral symbolism, moreover, of Ovid's aitia is lacking in Hellenistic versions of these myths.

Irving arranges the stories in this collection into six categories: transformation into Animals, Birds, Plants, and Stones; Sex Changes, and 'Shape-Shifters.' He finds that stories of mammals "in many ways ... form a group of their own. The great mass of transformation stories describe the change of men into birds, plants, and stones" (p. 96).

He breaks the first category into two subgroups, "The Ritual Theory" and "Myths as Stories." The stories of Io and Callisto are the basis for his rejection of animal-cult and initiation-ritual theories. The second subgroup consists of "The Young Women" (Atalanta, Taygete, Hippo, the Proitides, Leto, Philyra) and (without further subheading but clearly separate in the author's mind), the stories of Actaeon and Lycaon. The central action of the stories of "The Young Women" is "some illicit sexual experience, usually the illicit loss of virginity. This is usually followed by a taking to the wilds, transformation (these two are closely liked), birth of a child, and either a final marriage or an end to all relations with men or animals.... Women are most commonly compared to animals in respect of their sexuality.... The effect of these metaphors is not only to celebrate the physical functions which women share with animals, but to suggest a certain wildness about sex and the sexual nature of women ... (providing) an implicit or explicit opposition to the order of the house." (p. 64) He concludes (p. 68) that in these cases "transformation reflects the traumatic effect of an unorthodox or illegitimate change from young girls to sexual objects." He notes that the myths "are not a direct illustration of Greek moral thinking" and points out that "Athenian law made no distinction between adulterous wives who had been willing partners and those who had been the victims of rape." (p. 69)

The stories of Actaeon and Lycaon are examined in some detail to illustrate the tensions between the home and the wild. These stories, the author concludes, show both a link and a contrast between wild animals and the abuse of human social institutions (p. 94).

His second category, bird transformations, "always point to a world beyond or opposed to our own." The ambiguous situation of women is reflected in the story of Procne. While transformation into a bird often follows a family crime, however, it is sometimes a sign of apotheosis (p. 115). Most bird stories, however, are aetiological, explaining the birds that remain rather than those that disappear into the sky.

His third category is transformation into plants. "Heroes of these stories are often early or primitive men.... The heroines are often daughters of rivers or the earth; the sun, winds, or water are often important characters ... the transformation is most usually worked by the earth" (p. 128). These stories usually tell of a transformed mourner or represent a local cult aetia, the latter mostly stemming from Nicander.

His fourth category, "stories of petrification ... worked a rather bleaker mediation between the world of the living and the world below." (138) In the story of Niobe, "the antithesis of stone and human qualities also has a special and quite different role.... Though she is dead in every other respect Niobe's grief defies the defining qualities of stone and she continues to weep even after her petrification." (147) "Petrification", he concludes, "tends to be a direct consequence of a crime ... these stories (show) patterns of punishment in which the petrification is an appropriate reversal of criminal qualities rather than a mitigation or ambiguous reflection of human suffering.... Such stones will naturally be seen as signs from the gods.... The pattern of crime and punishment will therefore very often involve some kind of interference with the gods" (p. 148)

He discusses the fifth and sixth categories less extensively than the earlier four. For sex-changes (the fifth category) he makes brings no broad generalization; from its three illustrations (Teiresias, Kaineus, and Leucippus), three different themes are drawn.

His sixth category, Shape-Shifters, which includes Proteus, Nereus, Metis, Nemesis, Thetis, Periclymenus, Dionysos, and Mestra was also inconclusive: "The defining feature of this class of heroes is that they undergo a whole series of transformations rather than a single one ... these are self-willed and temporary; unlike those of the gods they have strong suggestions of magic." I was surprised to see these figures referred to as "heroes." His conclusion about this category (particularly in view of the presence of Dionysos) seems inappropriate: "They are marginal figures: they are opposed to the Olympians in their weakness as old men or women, in their home in the sea, in their antiquity, and in their magical powers and knowledge, and their characteristic story tells how they are subdued by an Olympian or one of their favourites" (p. 194).

The second half of the text is a useful series of catalogues wherein he deals with with the minutiae of the categories of the first half of the text. An index of the mythological figures referred to in the text is included. The text lacks a complete bibliography, unfortunately, or even an index to the secondary sources in the footnotes.

Irving admits to being strongly influenced by the structuralist approach to myth and acknowledges its importance but he repeatedly makes a point of distinguishing his approach from what he apparently considers a structuralist belief, "that the only meaning of a mythical motif lies in its relation with another one, and that the stories have no direct relevance to general human concerns (even though this relevance may be a metaphorical rather than a literal one)." His concern, he repeatedly indicates, is to "suppose that the myths are primarily stories, and that the imaginative and emotional response they evoke is not something to be distinguished from their narrative function but a central part of it." (p.5) It is not entirely clear to me that he achieves this laudable goal. Frequently his categorical distinctions and rebuttals of previous theories collapse or contradict themselves. In rejecting the "ritual theory," for example, he seems, if anything, to be endorsing rather than rejecting that theory. Other logical inconsistencies can be found. On the other hand, the myths themselves do not follow a neat logical thread. Irving's selections and juxtapositions offer valuable insights into the fascinating complexities of these myths. Despite its problems, this is a valuable reference text for any scholar of classical mythology, regardless of whether one accepts all his conclusions. Future editions would be even more valuable, if they should include a complete bibliography or index of modern works cited.