Metamorphosis (mythology)

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Metamorphosis in mythology (Greek μεταμόρφωσις metamórphōsis , μετά metá "at, with", as a prefix "um-", μορφή morphḗ "shape" → μόρφωσις mórphōsis "design") denotes the change of shape or the transformation of a mythical deity People, less often animals or objects. This can be temporary or permanent. The transformation of a deity or a person into an animal often takes place - especially the bird metamorphosis is a popular topic - but also into a plant or a body of water. Petrification is a special form of transformation. A change can also include a gender change. The transformation of animals into humans is less common.

Almost all cultures know the metamorphosis. It can be a sign of divine power, but also the result of a magical act. In shamanism , the transformation into an animal plays a special role. In modern times, metamorphoses are popular subjects in fairy tales and literature. But while in myths and legends transformations often produce a benefit, in fairy tales this is usually the result of curses and punishments. In folk tales, the image of the witch turning into a cat is also common.

Temporary metamorphosis

Temporary metamorphosis is usually used by certain deities to achieve a certain goal. Zeus turns into a bull to kidnap Europe , or Odin turns into a worm to get to the poet 's metro. Wizards are also able to transform themselves temporarily on their own with the intention of deceiving others. The temporary change of form from people to others is less common, such as the transformation of Odysseus' companions into pigs by the sorceress Kirke . Sometimes the transformation can take place several times, for example Sudyumna changes his gender several times in the Hindu legend. Temporary metamorphosis can also be a tool to escape from danger.

The transformation into the husband of a faithful wife is also popular in order to satisfy one's own sexual desire. The child of such a union is not infrequently a significant figure, like King Arthur .

Permanent metamorphosis

The permanent metamorphosis is almost exclusively limited to people. It can take place as punishment or as revenge by a deity, as in Arachne , who was turned into a spider by Athena . But reward or redemption from an emergency, as with Daphne , can also be the cause of a transformation.

Greeks and Romans

In early Greek literature, metamorphosis was limited to magic and divine power. Zeus in particular likes to use the change of shape during his love affairs and thus approaches Europa as a bull , Leda as a swan , Danaë as a golden rain and, to beget Heracles , he turns into Amphitryon , the husband of Alcmene . The jealous Hera takes revenge on Io by turning her into a heifer .

The seer Teiresias was transformed into a woman after killing a female snake, and later became a man again.

Later, and especially during Roman times, stories of metamorphoses enjoyed increasing popularity, although it is not always clear whether the metamorphoses described have a real mythical background or are spontaneous inventions by the author. The best known are probably the metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid , where around 250 metamorphoses are described.


Change of characters is a central theme in Celtic mythology and can be found in many stories. Irish legends tell of Túan mac Cairill as the oldest Irish resident who experienced the waves of conquest of Ireland in various animal forms. So he fell asleep as an old man and woke up again as a deer, then as a boar, as an eagle and finally as a salmon. Ultimately, he becomes human again. Other Irish examples are the story of Fintan mac Bóchra with strong parallels to Túan and the story of De chophur in da muccida ("Of the [metamorphosis?] Of the two swineherd"). These fight a wizarding contest and transform one after the other into different animals before they are accidentally swallowed by cows as water worms. They are then reborn as the famous bulls Donn Cuailnge and Findbennach .

The Welsh sagas also show metamorphoses in their narratives. As a punishment, the two brothers Gwydyon and Gilfaethwy are successively transformed into Hirsch and Hinde, Eber and Bache, Wolf and Wülpin, each fathering a child.

In the Arthurian legend , Uther Pendragon is transformed into Count Garlois by the magician Merlin . As Garlois, Uther Pendragon fathered King Arthur with Garlois' unsuspecting wife .

Germanic peoples

In Norse mythology, the art of changing shapes is limited to a few deities. Loki and Odin in particular often and not infrequently give themselves a different shape with fraudulent intent, whereby a real transformation, e.g. B. in an animal, but sometimes just a mere disguise, can be present. According to the Ynglinga saga , Odin's body lay asleep during the transformation, while he himself was on the move as an animal.

Loki gives birth to the stallion Sleipnir in the form of a mare , as a fly he disturbs the dwarfs Brokk and Sindri while forging the thunderbolt Mjöllnir and finally, in the form of a salmon, he tries to escape the punishment of the gods. From Heimdall is known that he fought in the shape of a seal with Loki and Gefjon turned her sons into bulls.

The bird metamorphosis obviously plays a special role. According to Nordic evidence, this is done by putting on a bird's robe. So Loki borrows Freyja's hawk robe to fly to the giants. The Völundlied describes three Valkyries who, after seven years of married life, put on their swan robes and flew away. According to the myth, several giants turned into eagles.

The bird metamorphosis is also iconographically attested among the Alemanni . The Daxlanden bracteate shows a man's head with a bird's cap, plumage and bird's claws.

In the heroic saga, Fafnir is a son of the giant Hreidmar, who transforms into a dragon, while his brother Otr lives in the form of an otter.


According to the Bible, Lot's wife froze into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah despite the prohibition (Genesis 19).