The Metamorphoses, by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso)
For Western art and literature, The Metamorphoses by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC – 18AD) is one of the best classical sources. It is a poem of 250 myths which has inspired Dante, Brueghel, Bernini, Shakespeare, Rubens and Kafka.
Although the majority of the myths that Ovid related are much older than his poem (for example, the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus in Book 8 has been found on 6th century BP vases), it was his poem which popularized them for ever. We must not forget that he was the most popular writer in his time, much more than Virgil, and a graffiti about Ovid has been found on the walls of Pompeii.
In the first verses, Ovid maintains to be writing one continuous poem, not an anthology of myths. For this reason and in spite of several anachronisms, the poem has chronological progression: it begins with the story of creation and finishes with Augustus on the throne. Furthermore, Ovid’s central idea is always the same: nothing is permanent. This principle is much more important than the own metamorphosis and some stories only try metamorphoses as an incidental element.
We could see the organization of the poem as a first part (books 1-2) where gods act like humans, a second part (books 3-6) where mankind suffers a cause of gods, a third part (books 6-11) where mankind is suffering a cause of themselves and a forth part where humans become gods. The introduction is the History of the Creation.
Translator: Henry Thomas Riley
The formation of man is followed by a succession of the four ages of the world. The first is the Golden Age, during which Innocence and Justice alone govern the world.
The Golden Age was first founded, which, without any avenger, of its own accord, without laws, practised both faith and rectitude. Punishment, and the fear of it, did not exist, and threatening decrees were not read upon the brazen tables, fixed up to view, nor yet did the suppliant multitude dread the countenance of its judge; but all were in safety without any avenger. The pine-tree, cut from its native mountains, had not yet descended to the flowing waves, that it might visit a foreign region; and mortals were acquainted with no shores beyond their own. Not as yet did deep ditches surround the towns; no trumpets of straightened, or clarions of crooked brass, no helmets, no swords then existed. Without occasion for soldiers, the minds of men, free from care, enjoyed an easy tranquillity.
The Earth itself, too, in freedom, untouched by the harrow, and wounded by no ploughshares, of its own accord produced everything; and men, contented with the food created under no compulsion, gathered the fruit of the arbute-tree, and the strawberries of the mountain, and cornels, and blackberries adhering to the prickly bramble-bushes, and acorns which had fallen from the wide-spreading tree of Jove. Then it was an eternal spring; and the gentle Zephyrs, with their soothing breezes, cherished the flowers produced without any seed. Soon, too, the Earth unploughed yielded crops of grain, and the land, without being renewed, was whitened with the heavy ears of corn. Then, rivers of milk, then, rivers of nectar were flowing, and the yellow honey was distilled from the green holm oak.