Lack of Metamorphoses: The Persistence of Woman-Woman Violence in Ovid

The Greeks and Romans of antiquity were clearly no strangers to violence. Indeed, judging by the literature that survives, it would seem that it permeated their culture and moral values in everything from marriage to acts of war. Feminist writers and academics have addressed the more obvious aggrievances as excessive and degrading acts of violence against women; rape is rampant throughout the texts. Mutilation, torture, and the perverse enjoyment in stripping women of their beauty and power therein, are also themes that are evidence of a culture-wide belief system in subduing, if not silencing completely, the feminine sex. Though the culprits of these ancient stories of rape, mutilation, incest, and murder of women are often men, it is significant that women, specifically angry goddesses, play a large role themselves in the humiliation, and continued degradation of their own gender. Added to the fact that these stories were written by men, in these specific instances of violence against women, it is clear that certain lessons or warnings were meant to be heeded by both men and women from the male author. For men, it was a warning to always be wary of women, that they were helplessly prone to irrational and emotional rages or actions that could hurt the man, his honor, or his offspring and family name. For women, these stories were cautionary tales of such said behavior; beauty, strength, potential, and talent were things to be careful of having, for they could lead to unwanted (or heaven forbid, wanted) male attention, or hubris; both of which could result in severe shame and punishment, or even death, from husband, father, or god. Stories of such warnings and punishment for females, by females, through a male writer, are exemplified in the work of the Roman poet, Ovid; specifically his mythological, epic poem Metamorphoses, which remains as one of the most important classical mythology sources. This paper will therefore explore a myriad of stories in the primary source of Metamorphoses in which female on female aggression is exemplified as another patriarchal deterrent for women to not vocalize or present the power of their sex and sexuality, and how patriarchy thus encourages women to seek revenge on other women for violations perpetrated upon them by men, ultimately alienating the females from other females, deconstructing the gender even further. Additionally, this paper will show contemporary examples of how such female behavior is still encouraged by a predominantly patriarchal society; and finally, that women and feminists alike have a responsibility to ourselves and each other, not to fall prey to this psychologically damaging cultural construction any longer.

Metamorphoses is Ovid’s most famous work. It is a single poem, written in the form and rhythm of an epic (dactylic hexameter), as well as in the size, in that it comprised of fifteen books. Finished around 8 A.D., Metamorphoses is comprised of roughly 250 myths, all centered around the common theme of transformation, and is the literature in which some of the most famous classical myths are played out, or elaborated upon. In discussing the violence of women against other women, there are a two main themes that Ovid predominantly uses repetitively throughout the epic as cautionary tales for women: the jealous goddess punishes the object of her husband’s affections, and women who are punished for their beauty/strength/talent. Many times the themes overlap, as will be shown in the following analyses.

Ovid’s myth that first addresses the theme of the jealous goddess is that of Jupiter and Io, in Book I of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story goes that Io was a beautiful nymph, merely resting at her father’s stream when Jupiter sets eyes on her and immediately begins to lust after her. He comes down to Earth to try to seduce her, but she flees.

Then Jupiter

Spread darkness and concealed earth far and wide.

He caught her as she was running away

And forced her to have sex against her will.

(Johnston, Book I:883-86).

Juno, both his sister and jealous wife, senses it, suspicious of the clouds: “Either I am quite mistaken, or I am being wronged.” (I:895-96) Although her husband has just raped an innocent girl, Juno claims such an act of violation is actually against herself. But it is not her husband, Jupiter, who has wronged Juno by straying; rather, Juno blames Io for her husband’s adultery. Her own beauty was Io’s wrongdoing, for in such beauty she attracted the lust of Juno’s husband, though the affection was clearly unwanted by Io.

Not only does Juno blame Io for her husband’s transgression, but she also takes pleasure in punishing and torturing the poor girl. Jupiter tried turning Io into a cow in order to conceal what he had done from Juno, thus she is still a cow when Juno discovers the truth. A significant concept to note is that the transformation that takes place in this myth, in turning Io into a cow, is initially a form of protection, rather than punishment, as is usually the case. However, the protection of turning Io into a cow is more for Jupiter’s own guise of fidelity towards Juno, rather than Io’s safety from the wrath of Juno, which comes anyway.

Immediately enraged,

She made no attempt to hide her anger.

To the eyes and mind of that Argive girl

She sent out a terrifying Fury,

Pierced her breast with hidden stings, and drove her

Through the whole world in wandering terror. (I:1095-99)

Thus Juno gets her perceived revenge on the girl by humiliating and torturing her, all because Io’s unassuming beauty attracted the unwanted advances of Juno’s husband. The story of Io is therefore a cautionary, terrifying tale for any girl or woman reading it in antiquity, for the message is quite clear: to be beautiful means to invite male attention to the point of violation, in which shame, severe punishment, and humiliation are the only outcomes; women should never trust a beautiful woman, for she could lure their husband to stray; beautiful women should be punished. For the men, the message is equally clear: take advantage of the opportunity a beautiful woman represents; women’s sole purpose is to provide for the pleasure and amusement of men; fidelity is emasculating.

Another myth in Metamorphoses that explores the jealous goddess theme is that of Jupiter, Callisto, and Juno in Book II. Jupiter is once again preying on a young and beautiful nymph, Callisto, as she unsuspectingly goes about her own business. Ovid sensually describes this forest nymph as one of Phoebe’s warriors. She carries a bow and wears her hair and clothes seductively loose:

A simple clasp held her dress together,

White ribbons kept her tangled hair in place.  (II:601-602)

Thus we can infer once again that there is a message to be taken here; if nothing else, the way that she is described in dress is almost a foreshadowing of her ultimate fate, as if to suggest, or argue perhaps, that such a fate is her fault because of the way she looks and dresses. The author, after conjuring up this titillating image of Callisto, is quick to prove his point in doing so:

No nymph wandering on Mouth Maenalus

Was more pleasing to the goddess Trivia.

But no power lasts for long. (II:606-608)

It is here, significantly, that Ovid admits the power of women in their sexuality and beauty, and subsequently alludes to, if not outright threatens for, the imminent destruction of such power thus.

Callisto is the perfect proverbial strong woman for Ovid to make an example of in his literature: a woman warrior skilled in the use of her own weapon, free, beautiful, independent – all things classical women are cautioned from being. But even a woman as strong and fierce as Callisto can still be made to be vulnerable in the writings of Ovid because, at the end of the day, she is still a woman.

Jupiter spied Callisto there, tired out

And with no one to protect her. (II:614-615)

The author even seems to amuse himself at the downfall of the once powerful woman, now overpowered and finally subdued, as he comments: “She does fight back, as much as women can,” (II:634). It is as if Ovid writes of these beautiful and strong women, building them up as so, only to tear them back down again to prove a moral point.

Juno finds out about this next transgression when Callisto gives birth to a son, Arcas, out of the rape. “That, too, really angered Juno, who thought she was a slut,” (II:689-690). This is where the woman-woman violence escalates, with the use of derogatory rhetoric and threats by a woman to describe another woman who has been raped by the former’s own husband.

“‘That’s the only thing that’s missing,

You adulteress—you would be fertile

And publicly proclaim the injury

By giving birth and thus acknowledging

the disgrace to Jupiter, my consort.

You wretched girl, you’ll get your punishment.

I’ll take away that shape of yours, which gave

You and my husband such delight.’” (II:692-699)

As if Callisto could stop her pregnancy! And it is especially absurd that Juno claims Callisto and Jupiter shared “such delight” – Juno seems to either forget or deny completely that Jupiter raped Callisto; and yet somehow Juno believes Callisto has disgraced Jupiter in such an encounter.

The saddest thing Ovid does here in his writing, therefore, is pit woman against woman. It would seem that in a culture or world where men constantly objectify and violate women for their own pleasure, women would look to their own gender for some sense of security and stability, if not safety. How alone Callisto must have felt; first she was shamed and violated by a man, then she was rejected by Diana, a goddess and therefore of the female gender, and finally punished and degraded further by Juno, another goddess and powerful female figure. It is in this way that Ovid writes into his stories the encouragement of the alienation of the female gender. The women, especially the goddesses in these stories, are especially competitive and judgmental to the point of irrationality and delusion of the facts. Women are not safe among men, and clearly they are not safe around other women either. This sort of patriarchal writing, from a man’s point of view towards women and other men, thus helps to set cultural and moral boundaries for the real women of Ovid’s own time period. Ovid seems to reiterate over and over that women are not to be trusted by men or women, thus creating an environment where the female gender deconstructs from the inside out, as it is threateningly exemplified over and over that women should not interact with other women. This works in favor of the men, however, in a patriarchal society that is trying to subdue the women’s voice. If there is strength in numbers, the men must continue to make the women feel unwilling to interact with one another, thus weakening the gender as a whole.

Similar to Books I and II, Juno makes another appearance in Book III in the story of Jupiter and Semele. Juno is already on edge because of some past transgressions detailed above. However, instead of seeing the common denominator in these scandals as her husband, Jupiter, she instead, by the pen of Ovid, chooses to blame her own female gender for such repeated grievances:

 All those numerous complaints of mine –

What good have they done me? I must attack

That girl in person. I have to kill her

If I am rightly called the most mighty Juno (III:391-394)

Juno decides that the mere punishment she had been dolling out before has done nothing to deter those other females from her mighty husband Jupiter, and decides that death is the only way to prove her point once and for all. She must make an example out of Semele to truly deter the women from directing their unending sexual appetites toward her husband. Or so Ovid infers.

Once again, Ovid, through Juno of course, aims to tear down these women by attacking their most favorable attributes first. Juno even seems to sadistically delight in planning the downfall for this poor girl, going the extra cruel step to coerce Jupiter, Semele’s own lover and father of her child, to kill her himself.

 

She has such great faith in her own beauty.

I’ll make sure that confidence deceives her.

I am not Saturn’s daughter if that girl

Does not fall into the waters of the Styx,

Dumped down in them by Jupiter himself. (III:406-410)

Jupiter indeed succeeds in this plot, and Semele is consumed by the fire of Jupiter’s own lightning bolt. Thus Ovid again makes plain the moral of the story that beautiful women are to be punished, and that transgressions by a male are always the female’s fault. This effectively continues to encourage women to be suspicious of and competitive with one another, essentially preventing any hope of empowering the women to feel comfortable in heir own gender. It is a rather unassuming psychological brainwash that such classical women had to endure. In each story where a strong woman appears to exist and vocalize or exhibit her power, she is torn down as an example to others who might try to do the same. Moral threats and sexual anxieties through such literature as Metamorphoses thus effectively kept women in their “place” as mere objects of pleasure and domesticity to men.

Classical literature, however, is not the only place where women-women violence is perpetuated or encouraged to serve a patriarchal agenda. Even in contemporary society, women and girls participate in some of the same general behavior, though perhaps a little less extreme, as Juno and Minerva in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Biology plays a bigger role than one might think in this. Though society is accustomed to masculine aggression, sexual selection in humans has also bred hostility in women towards other women, especially when it comes to our partners or spouses. The competition of females for males is just as prevalent as the competition of males for females; the only difference being that females are more emotionally motivated, while men are more physical. That jealous twinge in the pit of your stomach when your partner’s eyes linger too long on someone else, or the unbearable pain when your loved one has strayed with another, are all aggravated by how women are taught to respond to such circumstances.

For example, sometimes it can be too much for a woman to imagine her lover committing adultery. It is much easier to blame the other woman rather than to admit that the person you invested time, energy, and emotion into could betray your trust like that. In a patriarchal society, the men especially encourage this type of behavior. If the woman fails to put the responsibility on her significant other, he can perpetuate the adulterous cycle, while still managing to keep his girlfriend for his own.

Furthermore, we live in a society that considers girls fighting to be an encouraged spectacle, if not also attractive even by some. So oftentimes men will encourage girls to go after the other girls their significant others cheated on them with, perpetuating a cycle of violence-revenge-violence seen in many of the myths of Ovid as explained above.

Women, as in Ovid’s work, are in constant competition with themselves to this day. Too often in high school, for example, does one hear girls spreading nasty rumors, using derogatory words to describe other girls, making up reasons not to trust them because they are beautiful, or talented, or both. These are the same themes discussed in myths such as Jupiter and Callisto, or Juno and Io.

In the career specter, women in power are also called awful names for being so, while a man in power is just considered natural. It seems people want to tear women down or pick them apart until they find something wrong, just because they are strong women.

Finally, one of the most prevalent themes of Ovid’s work that remains quite rampant in today’s society is that of women ‘deserving’ rape. Just recently, the country came together in shock at the vulgarity of a case in Steubenville, Ohio. A fifteen-year-old girl was dragged around by the football team while she was passed out drunk, and was subsequently raped and molested by at least two of players. Outrage ensued and the case gained national attention when pictures posted on social media of the victim went viral. The worst part is the lack of support the victim received in her own town. Because of her intoxication level, and the fact that she was at a party when she blacked out, some kids at her school believed that she ‘deserved’ what happened. How girls can say this of other girls, I will never understand. The worst part happened just when it seemed that the victim could finally get some peace. The two players charged with her rape and molestation were convicted and sentenced to three years in a juvenile detention center. Right after this was made public, tweets from two of the convicted rapists’ female family members tweeted threats of violence, and even death, towards the young girl their family members had just been convicted of raping.

Why do women feel so compelled to thrust violence and distrust at one another? Some of it may be biology, but a lot of it has got to be a more permeable cultural construction through space and time, as it has lasted through several millennia, especially when encouraged by a patriarchal cultural construction. From Ovid’s tales of the wrath of Juno and Minerva, to real life (and almost harder to believe) examples of contemporary female aggression, it appears we women have a lot to work on in terms of remembering that we should be breaking down the patriarchal constructions, rather than perpetuating them. Feminists and females alike therefore have the responsibility as such to be able to tease out the patriarchal undertone from stories such as Metamorphoses, so as not to fall prey to such rhetoric.

Works Cited

Johnston, Ian. Ovid Metamorphoses. Vancouver Island University. British Columbia. Online.

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