Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

The next story that you will read is one that is not well known outside of Ovid at all: this is the story of Myrrha, and her incestuous passion for her own father, Cinyras. Many of you may have read the famous incest story about Oedipus, who ended up marrying his own mother, Jocasta, by accident. Myrrha's story is a very different kind of incest story: she is very clear about who she is in love with (her father), and her guilt about this passion drives her to commit a desperate act.

Myrrha falls in love with her father, Cinyras

Cinyras was the son of Paphos, and he might have been counted amongst the fortunate, if he, in turn, had been childless. I speak of terrible things. Fathers and daughters, keep away: or if your mind takes pleasure in my song, put no faith in this story of mine, and imagine it did not happen. Or, if you do believe it, believe in the punishment also, that it brought. If nature, however, allows such crimes to be visible, then I give thanks that the people of Thrace, this city, and this land, are far from the regions where such sin is born. Let the land of Panchaia, beyond Araby, produce its balsam, cinnamon, costmary; its incense, exuded from the trees; its flowers different from ours; if it produces myrrh: a strange tree is not worth such a price.

Cupid denies that his arrows hurt you, Myrrha, and clears his fires of blame for your crime. One of the three sisters, the Furies, with her swollen snakes, and firebrand from the Styx, breathed on you. It is wrong to hate your father, but that love was a greater wrong than hatred. The pick of the princes, from everywhere, desire you: young men, from the whole of the East, come to win you in marriage. Out of the many, choose one, for your husband, Myrrha, but let one man not be amongst the many.

Indeed, she knows it, and fights against her disgraceful passion, and says, to herself: "Where is my thought leading? What am I creating? You gods, I pray, and the duty and sacred laws respecting parents, prevent this wickedness, and oppose my sin, indeed, if sin it is. But it can be said that duty declines to condemn such love. Other creatures mate indiscriminately: it is no disgrace for a heifer to have her sire mount her, for his filly to be a stallion's mate: the goat goes with the flocks he has made, and the birds themselves conceive, by him whose seed conceived them. Happy the creatures who are allowed to do so! Human concern has made malign laws, and what nature allows, jealous duty forbids.

"Yet they say there are races where mother and son, and father and daughter, pair off, and affection is increased by a double bond. Alas for me, that I did not happen to be born there, and that I am made to suffer by an accident of place! - Why do I repeat these things? Forbidden hopes, vanish! He is worth loving, but only as a father. - I could lie with Cinyras, if I were not Cinyras's already. Now, he is not mine, because he is already mine, and the nearness of our relationship damns me: I would be better off as a stranger. I would be happy to go far away, and leave the borders of my homeland behind me, if I might run from evil: but even if nothing more is permitted, a wicked desire to see Cinyras, touch him, speak to him, and kiss him, face to face, prevents my leaving. But then, what more might you look to have, impious girl?

"Do you realise how many names and ties you are throwing into confusion? Would you be, then, your mother's rival, and your father's mistress? Would you be known, then, as your son's sister, your brother's mother? Do you not fear the three sisters, with black snaky hair, that those with guilty hearts see, their eyes and mouths attacked with cruel torches? Since you have still not committed sin in the flesh, do not conceive it in your mind, or disregard the prohibitions, of mighty nature, in vile congress! Grant that you want it: the reality itself forbids it. He is a good man, and mindful of the moral law - but, O, how I wish the same passion were in him!"

Cinyras asks Myrrha whom she wants to marry

She spoke: Cinyras, however, who was made doubtful of what to do, by the crowd of noble suitors, naming them, asked her whom she wanted, as a husband. At first she is silent, and staring at her father's face, hesitates, her eyes filling with warm tears.

Cinyras thinking this to be virgin shyness, forbids her to cry, dries her cheeks, and kisses her on the lips. Myrrha is overjoyed at this gift, and, being consulted as to what kind of husband she might choose, says: "Someone like you."

Not understanding this, however, he praises her, saying: "Always be so loving." At the word "loving", the girl, lowers her glance, conscious of her sin.

Myrrha's desperation

It was midnight, and sleep had released mortal flesh from worldly cares, but Cinyras's daughter, wakeful, stirring the embers, reawakens her ungovernable desires, one moment despairing, at another willing to try, ashamed and eager, not yet discovering what to do. As a tall tree, struck by the axe, the last blow remaining, uncertain how it will fall, causes fear on all sides, so her fickle mind, swayed this way and that, her thought taking both directions, seeing no rest for, or end to, her passion, but death. She felt ready to die.

She got up, determined, to fix a noose round her throat, and, fastening a cord to the doorway's crossbeam, she said: "Goodbye, dear Cinyras, and realize the reason for my death!" And she tied the rope around her bloodless neck.

They say that the murmured words came to the ears of her loyal nurse, who watched at her foster-child's threshold. The old woman gets up, and opens the door, and, seeing the equipment of death, cries out, and in the same moment, strikes her breast, snatches at the folds of her robe, and tearing the noose from the girl's neck, pulls it apart. Then, finally, she has time to cry, to embrace her, and demand the reason for the rope.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • did Cinyras know his daughter was in love with him?
  • how did Myrrha decide to kill herself?
  • who rescued Myrrha from her attempted suicide?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Ovid's Metamorphoses (2000). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM