Home » 8th Season: 2020-2021 » 2020-2021 v.01 » Alternative Transformations in “Venus and Adonis”

Alternative Transformations in “Venus and Adonis”

By Tate Frederick, VI Form

Alternative Transformations in Venus and Adonis

The transformations within the story of Venus and Adonis represent multiple characters straying from traditional stereotypes.  While traditional Ovidian transformations are included in the story, such as Adonis becoming a flower and Atalanta and Hippomenes morphing into lions, the most significant transformations occur when the characters deviate from the way their gender is typically perceived in Roman culture.  Inclusion of these interesting character transformations also offers a new perspective on the division and dynamic of power within this story.  These special kinds of transformations occur when Venus becomes a hunter and when Atalanta takes control of her own fate.

It is Adonis’ status as a hunter that convinces Venus to transform into a different version of herself so that she can spend as much time with him as possible; this metamorphosis turns Venus into a fierce hunter, which is antithetical to the Venus that the audience would expect.  Since Venus is captivated by him, and more specifically his beauty, she knows she will have to sacrifice some of the practices and qualities she has grown accustomed to.  For example, Venus is used to staying in the shade to avoid tan skin, which is considered less beautiful, as well as increasing and cultivating her own beauty, or maintaining a plumper figure, which is also considered the ideal image: “adsuetaque semper in umbra indulgere sibi formamque augere colendo” (10.534-5).  Following her infatuation with Adonis caused by Cupid’s arrow, Venus is willing to change the location of her usual haunts and her appearance despite her previous values, such as traditional beauty, in order to best suit herself to be a hunter.  This new persona best equips her to spend her days with Adonis.  She prepares to have tanned skin and a slimmer, more athletic figure.  

In addition to her appearance, Venus’s usual behavior is transformed in the story.  Keeping with her new hunting figure, she adopts a lifestyle and new behavior that is associated with hunting: “per iuga, per siluas dumosaque saxa uagatur, fine genus uestem ritu succincta Dianae. Hortaturque canes, tutaeque animalia praedae aut pronos lepores aut celsum in cornua ceruum aut agitat dammas” (10.535-9). Venus’s normal behavior morphs into that of a hunter.  She travels with Adonis over ridges and through forests, and with her clothes hitched up so her knees are exposed, just like Diana, a famous huntress.  She even urges on the dogs and hunts some of the safer wild animals, such as hares, stags, or deer.  Venus has transformed into a person more similar to Diana, a fierce woman of the forest, than to her previous self.  Combined with the introduction of her new appearance, this new behavior describes a transformation, although not as marked as others in the poem.  This transformation depicts Venus’s change from her normal form to a huntress. 

 Additionally, despite Venus’s status as a goddess, this change proves that she is not immune to the powers of Cupid’s arrow, and that she is subject to transformation as well, which is a trait mostly associated with humans throughout Ovid’s poetry.  Therefore, Venus’s change describes a different power dynamic than usual, too; this one suggests that she, even as a goddess with incredible abilities, is not the wielder of the power in this instance.  This relates her more to traditional female characters within Ovid’s poetry, who usually exhibit a lack of power.  By subjecting Venus to Cupid’s arrow and showing her immediate love for Adonis, Ovid displays her lack of control and power during this love.  

The embedded narrative of Atalanta also represents a less traditional character in Ovidian poetry.  Women in Roman culture, and therefore in most traditional poetry and prose, rarely have the opportunity to choose their own fate.  Few women have any power over their own lives, especially regarding marriage.   When Venus begins to describe Atalanta’s situation, she says that, “Fortisan audieris aliquam certamine cursus ueloces superasse uiros.  Non fabula rumor ille fuit; superabat enim” (10.560-2).  Venus begins her story with some context regarding Atalanta’s situation.  She tells Adonis that the rumor he may have heard, which says that Atalanta could beat any man in a race, is not false, and that she could outrun them all in a contest.  Already, Atalanta is depicted as an atypical female in Roman society, as she is portrayed as a woman who has the ability to overpower males.  Atalanta further confirms this description of a more individual, powerful one when she swears off marriage: “territa sorte dei per opacas innuba siluas uiuit, et instantem turbam uiolenta procorum condicione fugat” (10.567-9).  The prophecy that warned Atalanta scared her, so she lived in shady forests and did not get married.  She also escaped the crowds of eager suitors by demanding harsh conditions.  These conditions were that a man could only marry her if they beat her in a footrace.  These circumstances, and the fact that Atalanta does her best to avoid the opportunity to marry a man, shows that she has control of her life, which many women in Roman culture did not.  

When Atalanta does eventually get married to Hippomenes, Venus becomes upset because of the couple’s lack of gratitude.  To punish them, she urges them to disrespect a sacred site.  Due to this disrespect, they are transformed into lions, because Cybele did not believe that death was a punishment severe enough for their action: “poena leuis visa est” (10.698).  Cybele sees death as too lenient a punishment, so she turns the two into her domesticated lions.  Reflecting on this physical transformation, at the end of Atalanta’s story, she has lost the previous control she had over her life.  The power she once exhibited, especially regarding marriage, is gone.  This lack of power, which previously made her so individual and independent, was indirectly caused by her marriage to Hippomenes, because if she had refused him, she would not have been in the position to disrespect Cybele.  Atalanta’s power at the end of the story is more accurately aligned with the power of a common woman during this time in Rome.  This transformation, from a woman that defies norms regarding gender and power to one that conforms to those same dynamics, is an example of a less typical transformation in Ovidian poetry.

These less typical transformations seen in Venus and Atalanta are not physical changes, such as turning into a flower or an animal.  Despite their uniqueness, these changes that occur in a character’s values or individuality are important to the story.  Both female characters begin their respective stories in positions of power.  Venus is a goddess, and Atalanta holds an unusual amount of decision-making power regarding marriage.  Both women experience something that restricts their level of control.  Venus is hit with Cupid’s arrow, while Atalanta marries and is turned into a lion.  Despite this similar decrease in power within both characters, the change of expression is opposite for the two women.  Venus starts as a symbol of love and lust, but changes her appearance and behavior to better suit a hunting lifestyle.  In contrast, Atalanta begins as a hunter who resides in the woods and shuns men, but when she marries, she becomes a symbol of love and lust.  These transformations, although opposite in expression, describe a similar change in power for both Venus and Atalanta, and therefore are significant to the story of Venus and Adonis.

Tate Frederick is a VI form remote/boarding student from Hopkinton, Massachusetts.  She loves to play tennis, read, and write in her free time.

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