Ovid did not believe that the conduct of the gods was bound to ethical principles. The gods were imperfect and exhibited human vices, like envy, and their ethical conduct was unpredictable. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there were stories that showed the gods with all their imperfections.
In the story of Jupiter and Io, Jupiter was an ethical monster who was unable to control his passions. He raped Io and turned her into a cow so his wife, Juno, would not find out. She did, however, and had Io guarded by a god called Argos with eyes all over him so Jupiter could not get at her again. Jupiter sent Mercury to get her back, so Mercury cut off Argos’s head and threw it into a ravine. Later there was a reconciliation and Jupiter vowed not rape Io again, and Juno permitted Io to resume her original form. This poem showed Jupiter as a lustful, murderous, and deceitful scoundrel, with absolutely no regard for good ethical conduct.
The story of Arachne and Minerva focused on the fault of pride and envy. Arachne was a weaver who was so skilled at her art that she aroused the envy of the god Minerva, whose specialty was weaving. They had a contest, and Arachne was the obvious winner. Minerva was so angry that she turned Arachne into a spider. This story showed how the gods are envious of the skill of man, and are easily angered by man’s arrogance. It also showed how unpredictably the gods wielded sanctions.
Another story that showed the unpredictability and ruthlessness of the gods was the story of Apollo and Marsayas. Marsayas challenged Apollo to a music contest and said the winner could do what he liked with the loser. Marsayas lost, and Apollo flayed him alive. Marsayas cried out that it was only a music contest, but Apollo persisted until Marsayas was dead. Apollo showed no mercy in his unpredictable punishment of Marsayas.
The story of Niobe and Latona, another story of pride and envy, was also a story of ruthless vengeance without mercy. It was about a Queen, named Niobe, who was very arrogant. She boasted of how well off she was, and demanded that the people should not worship at the altar of the god Latona, but rather to Niobe, who considered herself a god. This angered Latona, who sent her children, Phoebus and Phoebe (Apollo and Artemis) to punish Niobe by slaughtering all of her 14 children, and driving her husband to suicide. Latona was ruthless in her punishment of Niobe, and showed no mercy.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the gods’ ethical conduct was completely unpredictable. They showed human faults and vices, and they delivered unjust punishments toward mankind. Jupiter was ethically evil, and completely out of control of his passions. Apollo was ruthless and unjust. Nothing the gods did was bound to ethical principles.