Argentinian activist Ivana Rosales at a Ni Una Menos march, 3 June 2016 (Tati Arregui, Creative Commons)
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the most famous of Roman poems, an enormous and magical history of the world told through hundreds of stories of transformation, as men and women become animals, birds, stones, and rivers. I’ve been rereading it over the last few weeks in preparation for the new teaching term, and have found little of the witty, facetious style that many find in Ovid’s other poems, and indeed in the Metamorphoses. Instead I thought of Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest and The Happy Prince; moments when an artist’s technical brilliance and politically-engaged imagination find themselves perfectly in sync. What I discovered was a history of the world told as a history of the body, and, within that, a sustained exploration of what women put up with in an effort to live their lives. Read in this way, the sexual violence that is a theme throughout the poem is not something to be censored or ignored, but seen simply as a reflection, however bleak, of reality. Da ne femina sim – ‘Make me not a woman’– prays Caenis after being raped by the god Neptune in book 12, echoing the recent film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in which a young woman asks her cousin, ‘don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?’. Women make up most of the poem’s cast and are its primary storytellers; they are often found spinning thread by hand and weaving on handlooms, independent artisans like Arachne. They are mothers and goddesses and lovers and sisters and daughters, harassed and abused, vilified and distraught, vocal and powerful, vengeful and rebellious.
At the court of King Pentheus, King of Thebes, the daughters of Minyas refuse to take part in the Bacchic rituals overtaking the city: they are heretics, and instead spend their time weaving and telling stories. In doing so they give us the tale of the Babylonian lovers Pyramus and Thisbe (the ancestors of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) and the story of Leucothoe, buried alive by her father when he discovers that she has been raped and then, pitied, turned by her rapist into the frankincense-bearing Boswellia tree. As one of the sisters finishes her story, and as Bacchus overwhelms the city, the women are amazed to find their looms starting to sprout leaves, their spindles turning to vines, and their arms growing feathers and becoming wings. They have been turned into bats, who fly by night and take their Latin name, vespertilio, from the evening, vesper.
In book 6 of the Metamorphoses a group of unnamed men and women take refuge from troubling times by telling old stories, including that of the goddess Latona. Tired, thirsty, and nursing her two newborn twins, Latona stops by an icy pool to take a drink. But her path is blocked by a group of locals who harass and insult her. She tries to explain to them that everyone has a right to water (usus communis aquarum est, in a lovely evocation of the commons) but they respond by jumping up and down to muddy the pool from which she hopes to drink. Losing patience, Latona decides that they can stay that way forever, and has them turned into frogs, big-bellied, slimy, and green.
Then in book 9 there is the story of Dryope, told by her sister Iole to Alcmena, the mother of Hercules. Dryope (dry-oh-pea) makes a completely random and blameless mistake in picking some lotus-flowers for her young son to play with, from a tree, that, unbeknownst to her, is sacred to the local gods of the place. Immediately she feels her feet stick to the ground and harden into roots, the change gradually moving up through her body. While this is happening, she can still speak, and she gives a heartbroken final speech of farewell to her helpless sister and husband standing by, asking for her son to be held up to her face so she can kiss him goodbye.
Human emotions are huge, the feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote, and so is Ovid’s poem. What I’ve tried to give here is a personal snapshot written in the present moment. Gender-based violence against women is endemic across the world, and is being fought across the world with differing degrees of success. In Ireland is it no different, and we are shocked and saddened far too often. In his essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’, Italo Calvino writes that ‘a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’, words that would appear to ring true about Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
- Calvino, Italo, ‘Why Read the Classics’, The New York Review of Books 9 Oct 1986, reprinted in The Literature Machine (London, 1987) pp. 125–34.
- Dworkin, Andrea, Intercourse: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
- Hittman, Eliza (dir.) Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Netflix, 2020).