Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'

 

Callisto and Arcas

Read or listen to an extract from Ovid's epic poem 'Metamorphoses', translated by Ted Hughes

 

If this text remains on screen after the page has loaded, please install Adobe Flash and enable Javascript.

 

After Phaethon's disaster
Jove was repairing the earth,
Clothing the burnt lands again with life –

But even such a labour of love,
So urgent, has to yield
To one even more urgent.

And there she was – the Arcadian beauty, Callisto.
He stared. Lust bristled up his thighs
And poured into the roots of his teeth.

She wasn't the sort
That sat at home, her eyes in a daze
On the whirl of a spinning wheel, or a mirror.

She loped along with the huntress Diana,
Her tunic pinned with a bold brooch,
Her ponytail in a white ribbon

And in her hand a bow or a javelin.
Of all Maenalus' nymphs she was Diana's
Favourite. But favourites have to fall.

The sun was well past noon when this girl
Came in under the massive cooling columns
Of a virgin forest. She slackened her bow

And setting her quiver as a pillow
Flung herself down among the anemones
On the sun-littered floor of the woodland.

And that is where Jupiter spotted her.
Defenceless, drowsing, languid. 'A wonder!'
He breathed, 'that my wife need never disturb,

Or if she happens to, the price will be worth it.'
Callisto woke to a voice. Above her
Diana's perfect double, gazing down,

Was speaking to her: 'Best-loved of all my virgins
Where did you hunt today? On which ridges,
Down which valleys?' The girl sat up, astonished –

'O Goddess, O my divine mistress –
Greater than Jupiter –
And I don't care if he hears me – ' Jove smiled

Secretly behind his disguise
Delighted to receive more adulation
Than himself. He stretched beside her and kissed her,

A kiss more than maidenly, that roughened –
A kiss that, as she tried to answer him,
Gagged her voice, while his arms tightened round her,

Straitjacketing her body, and his action
Revealed
The god – irresistible and shameless.

Callisto's piety had limits.
She fought. If Juno had seen how she fought
Her final cruelty might have been modified.

But it was no good. Desperately as she denied him
The God of gods went off home contented
As if from heavenly bliss to heavenly bliss.

The girl wept. Suddenly, she hated the forest,
The flowers, that had watched while it happened.
She was in such a hurry to get away

She almost abandoned her bow and her quiver.
Diana, coming along the ridge of Maenalus
With her virgin troop, after hard hunting,

Saw her darling, and called her. Callisto's
Jumpy terror of Diana's likeness
Grabbed with electric hands, and she bolted –

But then recognised her friends, the virgins
Who ran with the goddess,
And knew this could not be Jove. So she joined them.

But changed now. How hard it is
To keep guilt out of the face!
She no longer led the troop –

Was no longer the boisterous nearest
To the goddess. She hung back, eyes to the ground,
As if slinking along from hiding to hiding.

If any spoke to her she blushed, then paled.
Without her divinity Diana
Could not have missed the thousand human tokens

That were no puzzle to the nymphs.
Nine months passed. Finally came the day,
Heated with hunting under the hot sun

Diana led her company into a grove
With a cool stream over smooth pebbles.
'Here is a place,' she called,

'Where we can strip and bathe and be unseen.'
The Arcadian girl was in a panic.
The rest were naked in no time – she delayed,

She made excuses. Then all the others
Stripped her by force – and with shrill voices
Exclaimed at her giveaway belly

That she tried pitifully to hide
With her hands. The goddess, outraged,
Cried: 'Do not defile this water or us.

'Get away from us now and for ever.'
Meanwhile, Juno had seen everything.
She was merely waiting for an occasion

To exact the exemplary punishment.
The moment Jove's bastard was born –
A boy, Arcas! – her fury exploded.

She stared in wild hatred at the new infant.
'So,' she screamed at Callisto, 'the world can see
You have perfected your insult – and my shame.

'Now see me perfect my revenge
On this beauty of yours
That so unbalanced my husband.'

She grabbed the girl by the hair
Above her forehead, and jerked her down flat on her
   face.
As Callisto lay there, pleading for mercy

With outstretched arms – those arms the god had
  caressed
Suddenly bushed thick with black hair,
Her hands curved into scoops of long talons –

They had become feet. And her mouth
That Jupiter had kissed in his rapture
Was fanged jaws, like a torn open wound.

Then to empty her cries of their appeal
The goddess nipped off her speech. Instead of words
A shattering snarl burst from her throat, a threat –

Callisto was a bear.
Yet her mind was unaltered. Her lament
Was the roar of a bear – but her grief was human.

And though they were a bear's forepaws
That she raked at heaven's face with,
Her despair over Jove's ingratitude,

Though she could not speak it, was a girl's.
Afraid of sleeping in the woods, she crept into the
   gardens
Of what had been her home.

Often she galloped for her life
Hearing the hounds. Often she laboured, gasping,
Hunted across the hillsides where she had hunted.

Sometimes she forgot what she was
And hid from the other creatures. As before –
Above all, what this bear feared were the bears.

She also feared the wolves,
Though her own father
Was out there among them, one of them.

Meanwhile, Arcas grew to his fifteenth year.
He knew nothing at all
About his mother. Hunting was his passion.

One day, after choosing the ground carefully,
Reckoning with the wind
And with the lie of the land

Arcas had pitched his nets
Among the scrubby coverts of Erymanthis.
As he started the drive, of a sudden

Out of the long grass his mother
Reared upright to face him,
Standing tall to see him better, fearless,

As if she recognised him. She recognised him.
Arcas backed slowly, mouth dry,
Terror, three parts wisdom, staring

Fixedly at the eyes that stared at him.
But when she dropped on all fours
And he saw her shaggy shoulders

Humping through undergrowth towards him
He could not think what this great beast intended
If not to kill him. He braced himself

Behind his spear
To meet her momentum
And drive that long, keen-ground blade as deeply

Into her body as he could. Jupiter
Saw it all. He stooped down from heaven
And blocked the bronze point with his fingertip.

Then spun mother and son up in a whirlwind.
So these two, about to be reunited
In that bloody crime and tragic error,

Found themselves far out in space, transformed
To constellations, the Great Bear and the Small,
Dancing around the Pole Star together.

Extracts from 'Callisto and Arcas' taken from 'Tales from Ovid' © 2012 Estate of Ted Hughes reproduced by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.

Related events

 
  • Share