Reading the Power Dynamics of Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Literature

“In all creation there is nothing constant,” says Pythagoras in the final book of the Metamorphoses. All things are subject to the power of change: bodies, landscapes, cities, nations—even the cosmos. Ovid announces his epic’s main theme as metamorphosis in its first two lines: “My spirit moves to tell of shapes transformed / into new bodies.” We might instead expect “bodies transformed into new shapes” since generally it is the body that is reshaped. This is how several translators render this line: “bodies changed to other forms” (A. D. Melville) and “stories of bodies changed / into new forms” (Stanley Lombardo).

But by undermining our expectations, Ovid places special emphasis on the body and invites us to consider carefully the relationship between the body, its shape, and the identity it contains. For Ovid, what constitutes a body can be variously defined, and one kind of body can be reshaped into another. Yet there is almost always something left of the original form. This can be something superficial, such as Daphne’s beauty that gleams within the laurel tree she becomes.

More often than not, however, something sentient remains: Callisto and Actaeon, for instance, are fully conscious inside their animal forms, their essential identity unchanged. Grief, love, and loss can echo through the ages, crystallized by metamorphosis into creatures and objects still known to us today. Metamorphosis, though synonymous with change and flux, is likewise the process through which the familiar world is established.

The Metamorphoses begins at the very beginning of this world, before grief or love or loss—or even time. The first word after the proem is simply “before,” a word that at once unleashes time into the cosmos. Time becomes the irresistible force propelling the narrative forward, bringing constant change in its wake. Time might be read as teleological; that is, moving toward some overarching cosmic goal within an increasingly stable universe.

In the epic’s first transformation, chaos becomes ordered as the cosmic realms of heaven, air, earth, and sea are established. This also enacts a hierarchy, with heaven ascending over all other realms, just as the gods rule over humans, animals, and objects. In this view, the Rome of Ovid’s own day is the ultimate goal of time’s movement, with Augustus at its helm, destined himself to ascend to heaven. But in this epic, more than one reading is always possible, and disorder is always working to rear its head.

In Book 1, for instance, no sooner is the universe structured than the flood is unleashed to throw it into disarray. Time can therefore also be read as a force for chaos, as Pythagoras’ speech in Book 15 suggests: far from being permanent, Roman power, like that of Sparta or Athens or Mycenae before it, will necessarily be temporary and subject to transformation.

Humanity itself nicely encapsulates the ambivalence that sits at the heart of this epic. When humans are created at 1.76–90, Ovid gives two possibilities. They are, in one view, the final artistic achievement of the Demiurge, neatly positioned in the cosmic hierarchy between gods and animals, subject to the former but ruling over the latter. Or, in the alternative version, we are the most pervasive threat to this hierarchy, prone by our very nature to defiance. Here it is instead Prometheus who creates humankind by blending together the various elements, thus recombining what the Demiurge has just separated.

Unlike other animals, we look defiantly at the heavens. Time and again, the gods punish such defiance by demoting us farther down the hierarchy, from human to animal, or from human to object. Human defiance is similarly double-edged. It might be regarded as impiety and thus deserving of punishment. Or, we might read human defiance as righteous indignation against gods concerned not with order and justice but cruelly protective of their own often abusive power.

The psychology of women in love is especially intriguing to Ovid, who, like many Greco-Roman writers before him, presents women’s libidos as destructive.

Indeed, if there is a sustained thread, apart from transformation, it is power. Ovid is keenly interested in the way power transforms us, both those of us who have it and those of us who do not. Again and again it is raw power that motivates both gods and mortals: Venus wants to expand her empire into the Underworld, which leads to the rape of Proserpina; Minerva sets out to punish Arachne as a message to anyone who would defy her power; Minos is motivated by imperial ambitions.

Ovid is interested not only in the workings of power, but also—and perhaps especially—in the psychology of being disempowered. The epic gives us tale after tale of people brutalized and traumatized, and transformation is often the outward manifestation of their inner emotions. There is perhaps no more salient a figure of disempowerment than the grieving parent, and bereft mothers in particular show up repeatedly: Clymene, Niobe, Hecuba, and more. It is not only parents who grieve but also lovers, friends, and siblings.

Sometimes grief leads characters to continue the cycle of violence that victimized them, as in the tales of Procne or Hecuba. Powerless to undo trauma, these characters metamorphose first into a potent brew of wrath, grief, and vengeance before losing their humanity, and form, altogether. Ovid is also keenly aware of the gendered dynamics of power—being a woman in this cosmos often means existing on the brink of disempowerment.

Ovid in fact continually explores women’s points of view and lets them be moral agents every bit as complex as epic’s traditional men. Heroes such as Perseus and Achilles, in contrast, become rather onesided representatives of a macho masculinity reduced to its most basic drive, that of penetration, whether in fighting or in sex. It is instead the women who pulse with emotional depth as Ovid considers how virtues usually gendered masculine are transformed when they are applied to women.

Rather than tell us at length about Hercules’ famous labors, for instance, Ovid lets his mother, Hecuba, tell us about her own famous labor, that of giving birth to the hero. Whereas Vergil had crafted his Aeneas as a man of pietas, Ovid asks instead what such “duty” or “loyalty” means for women, torn as they often are between natal and marriage families that might have opposing interests. For women, loyalty to one’s beloved might necessitate murderous disloyalty to one’s father or state, as in the tale of Scylla, daughter of Nisus; or one’s marital and filial loyalty might incestuously converge on the same person, such as in the tale of Myrrha.

The psychology of women in love is especially intriguing to Ovid, who, like many Greco-Roman writers before him, presents women’s libidos as destructive. Medea, for instance, describes erotic love as a vis, a “violent force” that she cannot resist. Women such as Byblis and Myrrha lose their humanity as love makes them powerless to resist incestuous desire. Again, two readings are possible: Ovid’s interest in women might be sympathetic, or it might confirm long-standing misogynistic attitudes about women’s lack of control.

Women much more often, however, suffer violent force at the hands of men in love, specifically the force of rape. Around fifty of the epic’s tales involve rape or attempted rape. As Sharon James has recently written, “If it is not a truth universally acknowledged that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is much occupied with rape, it should be.” Yet it has only been in the last few decades that scholars have started really to reckon with the sexual politics of the text.

In a landmark 1978 article, Leo Curran could still say that “rape is the dirty little secret of Ovidian scholarship.” Curran blamed a contemporary culture of reticence around rape, which he argued had led to the use of euphemism by scholars to describe the epic’s sexual dynamics. The tide has now largely turned, and recent scholarly work on gender and sexual violence in Ovid has improved our understanding of the poem enormously.

Rape fits well into Ovid’s overall focus on power, victimization, and trauma. The specific language that Ovid employs to designate rape is consistent with Roman legal terms denoting forced sexual penetration. The key word is again vis, “violent force,” which is perhaps the closest Latin can come to a one-word correspondence to the English “rape,” though the meanings do not overlap entirely—vis could cover various acts of public and private violence, such as armed assault or rebellion.

Sexual vis was most definitely a crime, and the rapes the epic presents would certainly not have been considered normal or acceptable acts—they would have been as horrific to the Roman mind as they are to ours, especially since they are regularly perpetrated against young virgins who would otherwise have been able to marry and bear legitimate children. Ovid’s language of “force” nicely illustrates how rape is fundamentally an abuse of power, a connection he is at pains to make clear.

The Thracian king Tereus’ rape and mutilation of his own sister-in-law, Philomela, for instance, goes hand in hand with his abusive tyrannical sway. Rape is by no means a theme incidental to Ovid’s larger epic project. Rather, it sits right at the heart of what it means to lose one’s bodily autonomy to forces beyond one’s control. It is itself a kind of metamorphosis perpetrated by those in power that forever changes its victims.

Bound to the power dynamics of sexual violence are those of the gaze, itself a tool of masculine violence. Rape is one link in a chain of events that the epic repeats in numerous variations: A beautiful virgin (usually a girl but sometimes a boy) is caught in the gaze of someone more powerful, who rapes or tries to rape them, and they ultimately are turned into a tree or a lake or a stone or a bird, and so on. The victim’s objectification is clear: They are first a visual object, then a sexual object, and finally simply an object.

The initial gaze anticipates the sexual violence to come, as when Tereus at 6.504–505 “looks at [Philomela] and through his gaze / rehearses his assault.” Both the gaze and the subsequent transformation frequently break the body down into an assemblage of dehumanized parts. In the Apollo and Daphne episode, for instance, Ovid mentions Daphne’s body parts more than twenty times, first as Apollo’s eyes linger over her, and then as she becomes a laurel tree. Women too can wield a dangerous, objectifying, masculine gaze in this epic as they encounter beautiful (and often feminized) male bodies. The gaze of Salmacis or Medea, for instance, foreshadows their looming violence, though other women, such as Echo, lack the physical strength to overpower the beautiful young men they see and desire.

Gender is one of the many human characteristics subject to constant vacillation in the epic, and Ovid is interested in exploring the relationship between gender and the body as well as that between gender and the mind. Does, for instance, the gender of Tiresias or Caenis/Caeneus change when their body does, or does gender instead reside in nonphysical mental and emotional realms?

Gender is often tethered to other social constructions, such as sexuality, power, and beauty. Visual beauty is indeed a constant source of danger for those who possess it, whether male or female, and often prefigures transformation. The word Ovid most consistently uses to designate “beauty” is forma, the same word he uses in the epic’s opening lines to state his theme: “shapes (formae) transformed / into new bodies.” What makes a man lovely in the epic is precisely what makes a woman so: softness, smoothness, youth, a pale but also rosy complexion—and virginity. Indeed, the victims of rape are often androgynous or gender fluid and eschew “normative” sexuality.

They frequently have no desire to court the eyes of others and are instead figures of defiance who spend their time hunting in pastoral landscapes that quickly take on dangerous and sinister associations. And like other figures of defiance, they pay through the loss of their bodily autonomy. The new bodies that the beautiful acquire are no longer subject to violent sexual penetration, yet they often retain their original beauty, now totally subject to another’s visual control.

Art indeed becomes the most significant means whereby individuals can assert agency.

Yet not all of the epic’s tales of erotic desire or gender nonconformity are tales of rape. The story of Iphis and Ianthe is perhaps Ovid’s most triumphant love story, and in it Ovid shows enormous sympathy for Iphis, born a female but raised as a boy. The love between Iphis and Ianthe has one of the few happy endings in the epic. Ovid, in fact, includes several stories that feature mutual love, such as those of Cephalus and Procris, Baucis and Philemon, and Pyramus and Thisbe, reminding us that love itself has two sides.

The most moving gaze of the epic is probably that of Alcyone, who watches her husband, Ceÿx, watch her as he sails away to his doom, then gazes at him again as his corpse washes ashore. One story that is simultaneously a tale of mutual desire and rape is that of Pomona and Vertumnus. This tale largely conforms to the established pattern of sexual violence, and Vertumnus is even preparing to use vis against Pomona, until she gazes at his beauty and feels mutual passion. This is the epic’s final erotic tale, and it can be read simultaneously as a rejection of rape and as a demonstration of its lingering threat.

One frequent consequence of rape, disempowerment, and/or transformation is the loss of the voice—and the agency that the voice grants us. Io, for instance, is as distraught by the loss of her voice as she is the loss of her body when she is changed into a cow. No doubt the most disturbing instance of voicelessness in the wake of violence is Philomela. After Tereus rapes her, she threatens to make his crime known to anyone or anything that will listen. Fired with fear and anger, Tereus puts her tongue in pincers and cuts it out.

Yet both Io and Philomela craft ways to reclaim their voices. Io uses her hoof to draw her name in the sand, so that her father will know what has become of her, while Philomela weaves a tapestry that reveals her rape, then instructs a slave woman to take it to her sister. In both instances, it is creative expression, either through writing or through weaving, that allows these victims to recover their lost voice in defiance of those who have harmed them.

Art indeed becomes the most significant means whereby individuals can assert agency. Perhaps the most transcendent artist in the epic is Daedalus, whose art seems capable of defying the natural limitations imposed on humanity as he takes to the air like a bird. But the loss of his son Icarus shows how each attempt to transcend nature or defy power through art brings danger.

This is the lesson learned by the many disempowered artists in the epic, most of whom suffer enormously as their art ultimately fails to bring them triumph: the Pierides, Arachne, Marsyas, Orpheus, Byblis. And for almost every artist who defies power, there is another in power who uses art to shore up the established hierarchy—for each Arachne, there is a Minerva. Already in the epic’s opening cosmogony, as we have seen, there are two competing artists at work: Prometheus, who defiantly “sculpts” his human from clay, and the Demiurge, whose process of separation and ordering is also a type of sculpture.

Whether we see Ovid’s own poem as art that challenges power or reasserts it depends, in many ways, on how we ourselves feel about power and art and how we choose to read his tales. It is not always clear whose side Ovid himself is on—that of the abusers or that of the abused. At times, he seems sympathetic to those who are transformed; at times, he seems positively gleeful to describe their victimization in excruciating detail.

At one moment, he seems deferential to power; at another, deeply irreverent. The textiles of Minerva and Arachne illustrate well the two-sided slipperiness of Ovid’s own text. Minerva’s tapestry gives us a narrative about those in power rightly punishing the impious, while Arachne’s offers us a defiant catalogue of divine abuse in what Jia Tolentino has called an example of #MeToo journalism. Both tapestries nicely reflect Ovid’s prismatic narrative, depending on how we ourselves hold it to the light.

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Metamorphoses

Excerpted from Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Stephanie McCarter and published by Penguin Classics.

Stephanie McCarter

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