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.


The Future of the Past: The relevance of history in creating change

“The only constant in life is change.”


The Greek philosopher Heraclitus penned these words, and although it is fitting to a scholar studying women in Greco-Roman antiquity, this iconic phrase has itself remained an ironic constant since the moment it was written almost two millennia ago; a reminder to us of the constant shift our universe endures every day.

What other words of wisdom can we obtain from people, scholars, and worlds past? That is the question almost every academic has likely asked themselves at some point, yet the question is becoming ever more urgent in a contemporary world that seems hell-bent on pursuing its globalized, Technicolor future. Much like a teenager drunk on his own hormonal concoction of serotonin and youthful delusion of immortality, the people of the 21st century rarely consider the consequences of their actions, nor do they the past or its relics of much importance. It appears we are on a one-way track that seems to be constantly gaining forward momentum, without regard to the cultures, people, and history that is plowed through or crushed along the way toward our proverbial goal of a “better future.”

I feel like the one thing I have learned since becoming an anthropologist/archaeologist, contrary to and despite the words of Heraclitus, is that people, inherently at least, don’t change. We are capable of doing so, but across time and space, the beauty of the human race is in their predictability; the need to love, be loved, and make love; the desire to be free; and also the jealousy, greed, and hunger for power; these are all part of human nature, and can be tracked from the earliest societies on. Now hang in with me here – for this is where we can learn from those in our past, if we so choose to. Because we are all remarkably the same, because humans all have the same needs, dreams, desires, and impulses, we can find a whole lot of comfort and wisdom from history, and that is exactly its relevance. Why search for evidence of God or other unknown life in the universe when there is so much to be known and discovered about ourselves through the history of our own Kind? That is the relevance of history. Take comfort in the fact that others have made the same mistakes we have, but know that we shouldn’t always have to make the same mistakes to learn and grow. That is the relevance of history. Before attempting something drastic in the political sphere, those in power should read about what happened when it was tried before (as odds are, it has been). That is the relevance of history. And yet, too often it repeats itself unnecessarily.

Thus the scholars’ job of relating history to contemporary society is only becoming harder, especially in a world that values youth and innovation, and anything labeled as “last generation” or “old” is snubbed as useless or simply irrelevant. How can we make people care about the past? Or more radically, in a world of duplicity where people don’t change, yet change is constant – how can we relate this sort of scholarship and academia of the past, to contemporary social change?

I believe that as scholars, the best thing we can do is to provide parallels, and voice our knowledge and observations to the public. Constant critical rhetoric and public dissemination of information, therefore, is the only way to wake people up out of the subconscious impulse to react, rather than act with conscious purpose through knowledge of past experiences.

A good example of this is the recent major incident at a USC party off of campus. The celebratory party was full of USC students reveling in their soon-to-be status as a college graduates, and alumna of USC. ID’s were checked at the door, there were no weapons, no guns. The same was true for a party across the street. The only difference was that the former house was full of African American students, and the latter was white.

It started with a noise complaint, and shortly thereafter, 79 LAPD officers had the one house surrounded. The cops were armed with riot gear, including batons and tasers, soon to be joined by a myriad of helicopters and spotlights. At least six people were arrested. The students, who were rightfully angry at this blatant racial profiling, caught much of the excessive force and alleged police brutality on camera. There were multiple other loud parties going on at the time; USC classes had just ended and it was a period of blissful armistice between the students and their studies until finals commenced the following week. And yet the only party that was shut down, and with so much excessive resources and force by the LAPD, was the party of minorities.

This incident has caused so much outrage among the minority and white communities alike at USC that students have started a movement to promote awareness and change of such racial profiling. A segment has even been aired on NPR as of the posting of this blog, the link for which is included below.

USC students, both white and minority, passionately condemn this incident, claiming that this is an event that parallels the police brutality and racial profiling of the 1990’s, most notably of which happened to Rodney King, and sparked the LA Riots of 1993. Some students went even farther back in time, referencing the days of racial inequality of the 1960’s, arguing that little has changed in police tactics towards racial profiling African Americans and other minorities since these times. This is not the first time such an incident has happened to USC students, but this was the largest the city has seen in a while by far. Students see the ensuing conversation of racial profiling in LA as a long time coming.


The most heartbreaking, yet inspiring to me however, is the slogan the campaign has adopted, “We are SCholars, not Criminals,” (the SC an intentional reference to USC). That is the phrase students began chanting at the police officers the night the incident occurred, and again at a rally sparked by the event and held on campus Monday.

Although such an horrible incident can at first be seen as disheartening, the scholars of USC know that social change is possible through public collaboration, dissemination of the facts, and relating such an event to other events in history that have struck a similar nerve. Students have often been the catalyzers of change, but it is important to continue to do so through out our careers, whether they be in academics or not. Those of us blessed enough to have been given a higher education must use it to better contemporary, and future society, while always keeping a watchful eye on the past. For sometimes, in eras of intense social change such as now, and as exemplified above, that is often when the past is most relevant to the agenda for a better future.

NPR Segment:

Birth Happens: The relevance of midwifery to the feminist cause


In Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s film “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives,” Ina May, in one of her more powerful monologues, describes the scene of giving birth from the point of view of the midwives and the other women in the room. She claims that in the presence of such an amazing natural act, the act of giving birth, one cannot help but fall in love with the woman doing so. I feel I must agree: Truly, something magical is going on here, something we have long forgotten to cherish. Too long we have been shoving the glorious, natural act of giving birth into the back of our consciences, whether from fear of the unknown, or from the comfort of confinement to patriarchal societal “norms” that have kept women in a vice lock, arguably since antiquity. However, in this brand new documentary, the viewer is given a fresh perspective into what it means to give birth in a more natural setting, surrounded by love and experienced women, rather than impersonal doctors and beeping machines. This modern revisitation back towards midwifery, one of the oldest professions of human kind, is therefore evidence that women are reclaiming the power they naturally have and emit, in the aiding of and the giving of life.


It is easy to forget that women have been giving birth without the help of real doctors, or even sterilization, for thousands of years. The rise of caesarian sections and induced births, rather than following the natural birth processes, have only added to the enigma and fear that birth seems to conjugate in contemporary minds, both male and female alike. Upon watching this documentary, for example, I was at first appalled; not because I think babies or vaginas are gross, but because it is rare to be truly exposed to the full on birthing process. Once I was able to get over the initial “ew” factor, I realized what I was watching was actually quite remarkable – a celebration of the power of a woman’s body, and what it is capable of. Because the actual birth can get a little messy, we have somehow deemed the whole process as “unclean” when really it is a feat to be celebrated. Our bodies, as women, were made for this, biologically speaking at least. It is only scary because our culture has shut the whole “unclean” part of it out. Pregnant might be “in” in Hollywood, only until the celeb moms enter a hospital. That whole unclean part (the actual birth!), which Ina May would argue is the most important part, is forgotten and shut away, until it has produced a beautiful little celebrity baby and a flushed and tired mom; that part we like.


The sexual and absolute power of the woman giving birth, empowered by the steady women surrounding her, loving her, encouraging her, is the vision of Ina May, based off of the age-old profession of midwifery, and thus centuries and millennia of knowledge passed down. That is why it is so important to not let such a profession, and thus its knowledge and wisdom, slip away. Although we cannot say for sure that this is exactly how the midwives of antiquity went about the birth, through the film at least we can get a good grasp of just how empowering, and therefore important, this profession is. Women had little to no rights in Greco-Roman antiquity, and the only writings we have to go on for the birthing processes were written by men. However, even just by watching the scenes of the midwives with the woman giving birth, it is possible to feel the love and the beautiful, inspirational power that these women have together in that one room, during that special time. I can only imagine how it must be in real life, if I felt so inspired just by watching it on a screen in a classroom, and it is because of this that I feel so strongly about the application of cross-cultural comparison. Through time and space, women give birth the same way, and midwives have risen to help them through. It is so important not to forget that we, as women, were biologically made to give life; thus it is not surprising to see that we are at our climax of ecstasy and power when doing so. Rather than reject what we are told is “unclean,” we should rejoice in the strength and enduring naturalness of our sex, and our bodies.

Girl on Girl – And Not the Good Kind

Though my presentation this week centered more on the rape of Philomela and the aggression of men against women, I’d like to focus my blog post on another aspect of violence against women: woman-on-woman aggression. Although much of the literature of antiquity focuses on men-on-woman aggression, such as rape, there are also many tales of the opposite. These myths, such as the myth of Arachne, act supposedly as cautionary tales to women, a warning to not act too proud, or too beautiful or desirable, lest a goddess may act revenge on them. The theme of the “jealous goddess” I would argue is a subtle undertone for the anxieties of men we spoke of this week in class, such as men’s anxiety over women’s power through sexuality, or communication. Because these stories were written by men, we can infer these to be tales whose purpose is to “frighten” women into their place, or face the wrath of the gods.

Interestingly enough, these mortal women who “challenge” the gods sometimes do no such thing. Although Arachne purposefully stands up to Minerva, others, such as Io, are merely going along their own business, and happen to attract the attention of a powerful male god, such as Zeus, who inadvertently falls in love with them. These mortal women are then punished for merely for being desirable to other male gods; the women’s desirability and beauty are described as the women’s fault. The female goddesses punish the women, such as the jealous Hera turns Io into a cow, rather than confronting fully their adulterous husbands. Thus these mortal women are thus arguably doubly punished: first by being the object of affection, which leads them to being “seduced” (raped?), to then being victims of the curse of transformation by the female goddesses their rape transgressed. In other words, the female goddesses feel themselves to be transgressed, or violated, by this ambiguous mortal woman who is blamed for leading their husbands astray, into committing adultery against the powerful goddesses. So the goddesses lash back out at these women, and violate them in retaliation, using their powers to curse and transform them into ugly creatures, and silencing them altogether, thus solving the problem of their potentially threatening beauty and power all at once.

The cycle of woman-woman aggression and violation-retaliation is therefore also an interesting aspect of violence against women in the literature of antiquity. For it seems not only do the men violate the women; quite often, the women are guilty of a sort of violation themselves, in transforming or cursing these women so that they are no longer objects of affection for their straying husbands. The solution is always to punish the woman for being desirable, rather than the man for straying, which I believe still permeates contemporary culture. Girls’ bullying of other girls in grade school, for example, could arguably be traced to the same themes as the myths of antiquity; how much attention one girl receives from a boy, and whether that threatens another girl he is with, is a common cause of female aggression. Women are biologically competitive in their own way, though we are more used to hearing about male-male aggression.

It is an interesting thing to keep in mind as a feminist, and as a woman, that as women, we need to stand up for one another, rather than to attack, violate, and assume the worst. For the women in these myths, such as Minerva and Hera, are no better than their male rapist counterparts.

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”

Does Medusa Depict Vagina Dentata?

Jenifer Neils’ book Women in the Ancient World is a fabulously colorful read. I found the myriad of material culture she presented to be quite a delicious feast for the eyes, and sustenance for the brain. The stories supposedly told by these culturally significant artifacts, on the other hand, were sometimes a bit stretched, or even far fetched. I suppose such a book is really more of a survey of women in ancient material culture rather than an individual in depth analysis of each artifact, but I suppose that’s the archaeologist in me that is hungry for more information.

For example, I want her entire source citation and train of thought that led to such a conclusion, that the “Athenian hydra”, or water jar depicting Medusa’s decapitated head, “is the embodiment of the vagina dentata” and therefore alludes to men’s fears of castration. As striking as the phrase vagina dentata is, that is not the first time I’ve heard of the motif itself. I happened to take a survey of literature course in my freshman year of college, which focused on the Victorian time period. It is in the writings of this socially “stuffy” era, that suppressed sexuality could be and indeed was expressed, though discreetly of course. (To give perspective, not even the legs of tables could be shown, as it was thought to be too suggestive, hence the fashion of table skirts and cloths of this era that had to touch the floor just as a lady’s should.) Not to step on anyone’s childhood memories, but one such author who is widely agreed by scholars to have had a lot of vagina dentata anxieties was none other than Louis Carroll, author of Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. These sort of anxieties were common in the era, probably because of the culture to suppress sexuality and women’s supposed power over men as sexual beings. Upon looking up the motif in the Oxford Dictionary online, the origin of vagina dentata is indeed claimed as early 20th century. Further research narrows this down to Freud supposedly, and his obsession with both genders needing to fulfill some perverse form of violence to feel comfortable with their sexuality. Women, according to Freud, have “penis envy”, and men have a fear of women’s power of sexuality, i.e., men are afraid because women want the power of their penis. Hence the fear of castration and the motif of vagina dentata.

Bringing it back to Medusa – I understand there were myths at the time the water jar was made that were probably similar to the Victorian/early 20th century literature and folk tale motif, but to apply that to an archaeological artifact seems a bit stretched to me. It would be interesting to do more research on this topic, because to my knowledge, I’d never heard of Medusa ever being a symbol of male fear of castration. All she had to do was to look at a man and he would turn to stone. Yes, she is portrayed in this water jar as a fanged and frightening creature, but that’s how the myth describes her as well – ugly! My point being that it is not enough just to come to a conclusion on a whim about one object. One needs to look at the bigger picture, as we discussed in class, about these artifacts and what they mean in describing women and the cultural constructs of women at the time.


Oxford Dictionaries.

Garland, Carina. “Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender, and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts.” The Lion and the Unicorn 32.1 (2008): 22-39. ProQuest Research Library

Women in Material Culture: Gender Dominance in Conceptualization

When it comes to the portrayals of women in ancient material culture, it is hard not to feel a little deflated. After all, most of the depictions of women that remain were made by men, and the cultural significance they served were probably also tailored to men. For example, wine cups made for men and by men, depict erotic images of women, or men and women, and were thus used by men at men-only parties. These erotic images of women were none other than visual stimuli for men, thus it is their desired conceptualization of women, and not necessarily the actuality.

Another example of the vagueness of women in ancient material culture are their funerary tombs or sarcophagi. More specifically, the etruscan sarcophagus of the aristocratic Etruscan woman, Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, is a great example of how idealized women were in the culture, as well as the culture’s conception of the afterlife as well. Because Seianti’s skeleton was still quite intact inside the sarcophagus, scientists were able to do a modern reconstruction of her face and features. Compared to the portrait displayed on her lounging eternal counterpart, Seianti’s skeletal reconstruction of her face differs a noticeable amount, in that the artist had gone to some length to make her appear younger and “improved” (Neils, 22). What I wish archaeologists could figure out today about this sort of thing is if it was her husband that requested the improved features, the artist who did it out of cultural norms, or the wife herself who wanted to appear as her younger, best self for all of eternity, of which I couldn’t blame her for. After all, how much has really changed in a couple thousand years?

Take Facebook for example. How many of us are guilty of photoshopping a “profile picture”, even as little as changing the lighting, in order to make ourselves appear more attractive to the whole of the Internet, and world for that matter? How awesome do we try to make our lives appear to be on our Facebook profiles? It is in human nature to want to leave some sort of legacy, of validation that we were here on this earth, and that we were the best human we could be. We want people to know that we are attractive, driven, successful; all the cultural expectations of contemporary individuals. Thus a lot of these funerary sarcophagi detailing the virtuous, motherly and goodly wives of antiquity are not far off from the Facebook walls of today. Even if it was the men who designed the funerary sarcophagi for their women, as it often was, that is not far off from today, as men constantly dictate and reinforce women’s images of themselves, especially due to the overbearing presence of media, and social media. Thus it would almost appear that human instinct is truly engrained into us from the beginning, which explains why, although we have tried to change and have come a little further in the quest for equality of the genders, the common thread of men’s dominant conceptualization of women appears to be a constant through time.

Neils, Jennifer. Women in the Ancient World. Trustees of the British Museum: London, 2011.