Resource Post 16: Reclaiming Depictions of Violence

“What secret darknesses human hearts hide!”

– Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI


So much of the written history and lore of antiquity contains violence and sex, or violence through sexual violation, that it is hard not to question the roots of such unspeakable cruelty. The written myths and stories that survive to this day have created a large debate as to the significance of such violence, especially towards women, that persisted through the cultures of antiquity, and the poets that recorded it thus. Modern feminists have also since begun to question what substance we can get out of such seemingly demeaning stories, and conclude that the best way to honor such violated and silenced women through history is to honor them by speaking out, metaphorically rather than physically, through art and the art of literature and academics.

Political Implications of Rape: The Paradoxical “Raped Virgin”

As with the tales of the rape of Philomela and the Vestal Virgins, chastity was considered sacred in Greco-Roman culture, and women were often metaphorically used in comparison to sacred cities, and cities were often feminized (i.e. Roma). Both women and cities in such stories as the rape of Philomena are controlled and/or threatened by the same men, be they father, husband, or barbarian. Chaste women are often used as an exchange of currency, and therefore are depicted as the “cure” for violence, or the “cause,” depending on if they are married off to save the city from conflict (cure), or are raped, and therefore the cause of transgression. (Joplin 269). Thus chastity is crucial and sacred as a metaphorical bargaining chip for the pure city (Athens or Rome) they represent. However, as clarified by P.K. Joplin:

But female chastity is not sacred out of respect for the woman as a person; rather, it is sacred out of respect for violence. Because her sexual body is the ground of the culture’s system of differences, the woman’s hymen is also the ground of contention. The virgin’s hymen must not be ruptured except in some manner that reflects and ensures the health of the existing political hierarchy. (267)

From the arbitrary power of the males of the rape stories, and the male poets that wrote them, we can derive a definitive anxiety of what fifth-century Athenian Greeks feared most: a barbarian invasion represented metaphorically by the rape/transgression of a young and beautiful woman (Joplin 269). In the story of Philomena, Tereus is indeed a barbarian, so the rape is somewhat justified by the author, and represents a barbarian transgression into Greek “territory,” in this case, a woman.

Rape is also used politically in stories such as the tale of Lucretia and the rape of the Sabines in order to justify/catalize political upheavals or outright war. “Political anxieties that fuel the myth [of Philomela and Tereus] are transformed into erotic conflicts,” (Joplin 265). Again, we have the violation of an important woman, representing the transgression of Greek territory by Other, but she is only important in the story because she is raped. Her chastity only serves the purpose of being so, so that it is that much worse when she is violated, and represents a more ideological transgression of Athenian/Roman identity, than the emotional/physical state of the woman herself after having just been raped.


Rape/Violence and Cultural Constructions of Identity

In the myth of Philomela the fact that both acts are performed by the same man, Tereus, and that both daughters are taken from the same man, Pandion, suggests that the difference between the generative rite (marriage) and the dangerous transgression (rape) is collapsing within the Greek imagination.” (Joplin 269)

Identity appears to be alarmingly put at stake in the myth of Philomela, as the two cardinal rules of the Rule of Exogamy (marrying outside one’s own social group), adultery and incest, are clearly broken. Tereus, upon setting eyes upon Philomela for the first time, wishes to be her father so he can fondle her. Then, with the rape, Tereus becomes an adulterer as well. These may only be slightly acceptable in light of the fact that Tereus is an outsider, a barbarian.

Philomela, however, also has a radical breakdown in terms of her identity:

Were my father’s orders

Nothing to you, his tears, my sister’s love

My own virginity, the bonds of marriage:

Now it is all confused, mixed up; I am

My sister’s rival, a second-class wife, and you,

For better and worse, the husband of two women,

Procne my enemy now, at least she should be. (533-39)

Philomela has experienced rape and that is also incest, as she is now her sister’s “rival and monstrous double” (Joplin 270). She is also a “second-class wife” in the sense that her chastity and purity have been violated, and she will never be worth a good marriage, on top of being her sister’s double. Thus she does not even view herself as Philomela anymore in this sense; her identity has been reduced to practically worthless in terms of her culture’s constructions of worth and identity. As Joplin puts it, “If marriage uses the woman’s body as good money and unequivocal speech, rape transforms her into a counterfeit coin, a contradictory word that threatens the whole system,” (270).


Women’s Silenced Language Through Art (“Voice of the Shuttle”)

P.K. Joplin, author of the article “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours,” argues that women, through literature from antiquities on, have been forced into silence; that such stories and myths have set the example to mute and mutilate women into submission. According to Joplin, “all posit an original moment in which an act of violence (the transgression of a boundary, the violation of a taboo) explains how difference became hierarchy, why women were forbidden to speak,” (262). From Freud’s castration complex of women, to feminists such as Virginia Woolf’s rejection of this complex through her metaphoric story of the mutilated Manx cat, Joplin argues that this “metaphor for muteness” permeates literature as a threatening violence toward women, and has since silenced us (262). While it has been explained above that men have obvious sexual and political anxieties, Joplin describes a “sexual anxiety” in women as well, as a result of this archetypal, violent mutilation of women’s ability to speak and to be heard (262). Women have developed a sort of “premonition for violence” out of this inherent anxiety if they speak their mind, that men will lash out in some violent way, in men’s case the only way, to subdue women’s power in her speech (262).

Signs of hope, however, permeate these modern feminist thinkers’ analyses of such ancient stories. Philomena, for example, though silenced by Tereus, weaves her story into her loom, and in this way is able to “speak” the truth so that her sister finds out, and rescues her. The image of women metaphorically “speaking” or communicating through art is exactly what Joplin encourages other women to keep on doing. It can be hard to read any substance into such tales of violence against women, as a woman, but Joplin, Virginia Woolf, Philomena, and many others both ancient and modern may encourage others to communicate women’s power through their art. It is important not to mourn these women as victims, but rather, as Joplin put it best:

We celebrate Philomela weaving, the woman artist who in recovering her own voice uncovers not only its power, but its potential to transform revenge (violence) into resistance (peace). In freeing our own voices, we need not silence anyone else’s or remain trapped by the mythic end. In undoing the mythical plot that makes men and women brutally vindictive enemies, we are refusing to let violence overtake the work of our looms again. (278)




Joplin (2002) “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours” in Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (excerpt: Book Six)

Richlin (1992) “Reading Ovid’s Rapes”


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