Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a Feminist Text
This essay was written to expose the numerous ways Ovid’s myths can be understood, focusing on those from Metamorphoses. Traditionally, these myths have been analyzed through a patriarchal lens that rejects the feminist qualities of the goddesses and female characters. However, even though there are obviously examples of the patriarchy and the way it oppresses the women in these stories, there are also examples of women who defy stereotypes and defy the roles men try to place them in. For such an ancient text, being rerouted this way changes Western ideas on Ovid and his portrayal of Roman culture. This reading suggests that there are female idols in this text and Ovid provides representation of these women and their pastimes as well as their ability to support each other and defy men. By examining several of the myths in Metamorphoses with a feminist lens, it is obvious that Ovid was trying to convey more than what was typical of epics in the year eight CE; he wanted to expose female life. This essay concludes that Metamorphoses is a female epic that portrays the struggles, triumphs, strengths, and pastimes of women.
Mythology, in the form of the epic, historically focuses on male heroes or demigods who go on a quest to retrieve a treasure, save a girl, or conquer a land. The heroes of these epics are idolized and seen to carry the legacy of their society. For example, Homer’s Odysseus is seen as a great hero of the Greek world. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, however, lacks the typical structure and plot of a traditional epic. His work does not focus on a specific character or even storyline; it flows from person to person, uniting various myths along the way. Furthermore, Ovid’s versions of myths are often centered on women: those who are raped, those who defy their male counterparts, and those who are united in sisterhood. The combination of these qualities, along with others, establishes Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a female epic. Ultimately, this focus on women and the empowering ways many of them are depicted makes Ovid’s Metamorphoses a feminist text that highlights the lives and attributes (negative and positive) of women rather than men. True to the time period, however, most of these women have not been recognized as much as their male counterparts for their strength and ferocity. The main categories of feminism Metamorphoses portrays are the inclusion of women’s pastimes, women protecting/helping one another, communication between women, women taking roles men traditionally would, and women who kill their children and defy their expected maternal instincts.
Ovid’s inclusion of women partaking in weaving, singing competitions, and generally expressing a more varied selection of emotions than their male counterparts, reveals the ways in which Ovid chose to highlight female society and daily life. If we apply the Bechdel Test here—a test generally applied to film that decides whether or not the piece is inclusive of female actresses—Metamorphoses would meet the criteria. The requirements of the test include at least two named female characters who communicate with each other; and their communication has to be about something other than a male love interest. Ovid depicts these female relationships in the daughters of Minyas, the weaving competition between Minerva and Arachne, and Minerva listening to the singing competition the Muses held. All of these instances include multiple named women who tell each other stories. Using such a contemporary tool as the Bechdel Test indicates that Ovid’s inclusion of women is even more pronounced than some modern texts, even if it is only applied to the sections regarding women’s pastimes. In the cases of Minyas’s daughters and the Muses, the stories they tell do involve men, but because they are not love interests, these stories still fit the requirements of the Bechdel Test.
Minyas’s daughters’ rejection of Bacchus in support of Minerva, along with Ovid’s passing of the narratorial torch to the women reinforces the feminist aspects of Metamorphoses. These women stick together and entertain each other with myths. Not only do Minyas’s daughters reject the male god Bacchus, but they stay inside weaving, which is a typically female pastime and also an activity the goddess Minerva patronizes. These women reject this male god in favor of a female one. An unnamed sister states:
Though other women cease their works and hasten
to his concocted rites, a superior
divinity has kept us in our places:
Pallas Athena. (Ovid 4.63-66)
The sisters’ choice to worship Athena (Minerva) instead of Bacchus only exposes another level of feminism. The women also tell stories about other people rather than discussing their own love lives, thereby satisfying the Bechdel Test. Also, we are given the names of the sisters; Syria begins with the first story about Pyramus and Thisbe, followed by Leuconoë, and the last sister, Alcithoë, concludes the narrative. In the end, the women are turned into bats by Bacchus for dishonoring his feast: “Shunning the woods, they congregate in houses, / nocturnal fliers fearful of the day” (4.568-69). Though some may argue that this story doesn’t satisfy a feminist reading because the sisters are ultimately conquered by the male force they were rejecting, it is this exact detail that displays the patriarchy and the way women can be punished for refusing to acknowledge male power.
Minerva visiting the Muses is another representation of female bonding and the oral tradition of storytelling. Historically, women were often responsible for passing on traditions and culture because of their close relationship with children. This phenomenon is featured both in the oration of Minyas’s daughters and the stories the Muses weave. The Muses are generally always featured singing myths. In his epics, Homer even calls to the Muses to help him when he doesn’t trust his own ability: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” (Od. 1.1). The strength and importance of female oration is recognized here by Ovid as he dedicates whole passages to female recitation. Minerva’s time with the Muses also feeds into the Bechdel Test because of the way they describe a singing competition between themselves and nine human females. This competition can be seen as a female pastime the same way weaving is because all the people involved are women. Not only do the Muses display female activity, Calliope also recites the story of Proserpina and her worried mother, another female relationship. Overall, Ovid’s inclusion of the competition between the Muses and the Pierides shows his interest in female oration and recreation.
After hearing of the Muses’ competition, Minerva makes her way to a competition of her own with the famous weaver Arachne, and it is Ovid’s representation of female sport that brings feminism into Metamorphoses. Arachne is said to be “a girl renowned not for her place of birth / nor for her family, but for her art” (Ovid 6.11-12). The recognition of Arachne’s talent rather than her beauty or status in and of itself is enough to deem her story as feminist. Mentioning Arachne’s talent rather than her familial relationships is rare for this time, as Mary R. Lefkowitz writes in Heroines and Hysterics: “In the [Roman] Empire, women with professional careers were praised first for their service to family and home” (26). Ovid himself points out that Arachne is known merely for her art, emphasizing her attributes as an autonomous woman rather than a woman who exists only in relationship to a man.
Again, this woman-centered story passes the Bechdel Test by displaying two named women who communicate through competition. The fact that Arachne and Minerva are, indeed, competing does not take away from the feminist aspects this myth presents, because they are competing to see who the better artist is, not competing to see who will be chosen by a man. Minerva even acknowledges that Arachne’s weaving is better than her own; the goddess admits defeat to the mortal. Though Minerva loses her temper and hits Arachne, when she finds the mortal girl trying to kill herself, she immortalizes her in species and mythology. Ovid writes, “she now continually spins / a thread, and as a spider, carries on / the art of weaving as she used to do” (6.207-08). Rather than let her die, Minerva turns Arachne into the first spider, and she is able to weave beautiful art the rest of her life.
Not only does the inclusion of typically female activities and the satisfaction of the Bechdel Test make this text feminist, women, goddesses and mortals alike, are also seen protecting one another. The display of female pastimes gives representation to the work women did in their societies during the time in which this epic was written. Aside from Ovid’s portrayal of everyday life, he also provides examples of women protecting each other or goddesses protecting mortal women and other goddesses. The portrayal of male characters in this text is often one-dimensional and shallow—they, for the most part, are only concerned with sex. As I mentioned above, women in Metamorphoses are multidimensional in their emotions and their compassion, or lack thereof, for each other. So many of the men in this text attempt to rape the women, and it is during these times that other women intervene, usually through some sort of metamorphosis, though not always. Minerva and Diana are the virgin goddesses and, as a result, are the ones most likely to protect women who pray to them and keep them from being raped. There is also an occasion of a mortal woman helping a fellow mortal woman in the story of Procne and Philomela. Though Procne cannot prevent Philomela from being raped the way a goddess would, she helps Philomela enact revenge on her rapist. Also, in the story of Iphis and Isis, Telethusa keeps Iphis’s womanhood a secret in order to protect her.
Diana, as the virgin goddess and a huntress, is the greatest protector of virginity and is seen transforming either the women or their attackers in order to prevent them from being raped. The goddess transfigures Actaeon for seeing her and her fellow nymphs naked: “she elongates his neck, / narrows his eartips down to tiny points, / converts his hands to hooves, his arms to legs” (3.245-47). This description of Diana’s punishment—where she turns the offender into a stag—whether to protect herself and her nymphs or not, displays her power. Diana also conceals Arethusa when the river god, Alpheus, tries to rape her. The compulsive manner in which Alpheus pursues Arethusa is repeated throughout Metamorphoses by various rapists and supports the notion that there is a lack of dimension in the male characters. Diana conceals the naked nymph in a cloud of mist while Alpheus looks for her. The cloud doesn’t keep the nymph completely safe, however; Arethusa states, “I turned to liquid—even so, he recognized me / . . . reverting to river, so that our fluids might mingle” (5.814-17). This mingling of fluids is meant to represent the final rape of Arethusa; nevertheless, Diana cracks open the earth so that the nymph may escape her captor. Diana’s interference with a fellow god’s lust isn’t typical, especially when said god isn’t her husband (Juno is always meddling in Jupiter’s affairs), but it displays the lengths women in Metamorphoses are willing to go to for each other.
The goddess Minerva, though more controversial, is arguably also a defender of women, depending on how Medusa’s myth is interpreted by the reader. Medusa is described as once being romantically desirable. Perseus says, “She was at one time very beautiful, / the hope of many suitors all contending, / and her outstanding feature was her hair” (4.1083-85). Perseus then explains how Neptune raped Medusa in the temple of Minerva, and how Minerva punished Medusa for this. However, the reliability of the male narrator comes into question here. In her essay “The Fearsome and the Erotic,” Miriam Robbins Dexter argues, “[Medusa] reminds us we must not take the female ‘monster’ at face value”; we must, instead, “take into consideration the worldview and sociopolitical stance of the patriarchal cultures which create her” (41). Of course, to a male character of this time period, the removal of a woman’s most attractive attribute must be a punishment. However, to Minerva and Medusa, this may have been a form of protection. If it was Medusa’s hair that attracted Neptune’s attention, and it is her hair that “justifies” her rape, then she should want to be rid of it. A feminist reading of the text suggests that Minerva doesn’t just change Medusa’s hair to snakes; she gives her the ability to protect herself by turning people who look at her to stone.
Medusa’s power to turn people to stone can be seen as a defense mechanism rather than a random occurrence, and the notion that she used her power at random was created by a patriarchal society that feared the power of women. Naturally, Medusa is going to turn people like Perseus to stone when they are trying to kill her. Medusa’s garden of statues contains no women, or at least they are not described by Ovid: “[Perseus] witnessed the sad forms of men and beasts” (Ovid 4.1064). Surely if the poet’s goal is to make the reader disgusted and terrified by Medusa, he would include statues of women and children. However, the only beings described as statues are those who could potentially hurt Medusa. Her power is a direct reflection of the trauma she experiences when she is raped—Neptune’s gaze is what first caused his lust for Medusa and led to the violation of her body. Therefore, turning men who look at her into stone is the gift Minerva gives Medusa to protect herself. Much like the character Caenus in book twelve, Medusa wished to be given power, so she’d never be raped again, and so it seems that Minerva actually protected and empowered her fellow female.
Mortal women are also seen protecting one another in this text. Although they are unable to change form on their own, they often defend each other by enacting revenge and keeping secrets. In the story of Iphis, the girl is protected by her mother from her father’s disdain for daughters. Before Iphis is born, her father says he cannot take care of a girl: “[should you] be delivered of a girl, / unwillingly I order this, and beg / pardon for my impiety—But let it die” (9.979-81). So, Telethusa keeps her daughter’s gender a secret until it is time for her to be married. Telethusa lies to her husband and the world when she dresses her daughter as a son, but it is this protection that saves Iphis’s life. Procne and Philomela are another set of notable mortal women who protect one another. After being raped by her sister Procne’s husband, Philomela weaves a depiction of what happened to her so that she may communicate with her sister even after she has had her tongue cut out (6.832-34). Once Procne sees this story, she approaches her sister and says, “No weeping now—it is time for swords / . . . my sister, there is no abomination / that I am unprepared to undertake,” as she plots revenge against her husband (6.885-88). She is willing to destroy her husband in defense of her sister, a decision that was not common for women of the time. Not only does Procne enact revenge against her husband, but she does so by killing her son and feeding the boy’s body to him, furthering the idea that the bond of sisterhood comes before any bond with a man.
Furthermore, communication plays a vital role in Metamorphoses because Ovid creates female characters who find innovative ways to communicate despite their rapists’ attempts to silence them. Speech, like weaving, is another act typically associated with females, although most of the time men’s voices are given greater importance. Ovid’s inclusion of the silenced woman communicating after trauma represents a greater issue that many rape victims face: the accusation that they are lying. Being unable to speak—whether from tongue slashing like in the case of Philomela, or from being turned into an animal like Io—is equivalent to one speaking the truth and not being believed or gaining support for the trauma one has faced. Philomela, Io, and Cyane all represent women who find their voices through some other means, women who are able tell their stories regardless of their rapists’ attempts to silence them, or, in the case of Cyane, to report the rape of someone else.
Jove attempts to silence Io after raping her in order to conceal his crime; however, Io uses other means to tell her father what has happened and, in doing so, furthers the notion that women will not be silenced. Io’s metamorphosis into a cow takes place, also, because Jove does not want Juno to catch him with a woman and Io, who is only able to moo, can’t tell her what happened. The girl is in despair when she realizes she has lost the ability to speak: “when she tried to utter a complaint / she only mooed—a sound which terrified her” (1.883-84). However, Io won’t settle for being Juno’s pet without at least being able to tell her father what happened. She follows her family along the river and is eventually able to communicate: “with her hoof, she drew lines in the dust, / and letters of words she could not speak / told the sad story of her transformation” (1.899-901). In this instance, Io is telling her father and sisters what has happened to her, though the text does not state who interprets Io’s drawings. From the themes the other women display, however, Io’s sisters were more likely the ones to interpret her words and tell their father. As is the case with Philomela, only other women can understand the silenced woman.
Uniquely, the silencing of Philomela is done in a much more violent manner and even reflects the rape she experiences. Tereus cuts out Philomela’s tongue after she threatens to tell the world the crime he has committed, and then proceeds to rape her yet again. In her essay “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela,” Elissa Marder argues, “Tereus’s act of cutting off Philomela’s tongue horrifies not only because it prevents Philomela from speaking, but also because it repeats metaphorically the literal rape that has just occurred” (159). A metaphorical representation of the literal rape occurs when Tereus sticks a phallic sword into Philomela’s mouth to violate her body by cutting off her tongue, leaving her bleeding from yet another orifice. In all, then, Tereus rapes Philomela three times, twice literally, and once in a metaphorical sense. Even the silencing aspect of rape, in this story at least, takes on a sexual connotation. However, despite all the trauma Philomela experiences, she refuses to let her rapist silence her.
Not only does Philomela’s rejection of her silencing come in the form of weaving (a typically female activity as discussed above), but her sister is also the one to receive the message, which establishes, again, the role females play in understanding silenced women. Philomela, like Io, doesn’t settle for the situation her abuser places her in. Philomela creates her message,
And yet from suffering
comes native wit, and often cleverness
is born of misery. Upon her loom,
she . . . starts to weave
threads of deep purple on white background,
depicting the crime (Ovid 6.829-34)
This package reaches Procne, and she understands her sister’s meaning, a feat even the poet is impressed by. Procne’s ability to understand the weaving her sister did is directly related to her femininity because weaving is a woman’s pastime in this age. If a man were to open Philomela’s piece, there is no guarantee he would even know where to start or how to decipher it. However, because Procne most likely weaves herself, she is able to decipher her sister’s code and concoct a plan for revenge against her husband.
Unlike Philomela and Io, Cyane’s silencing occurs because she is trying to protect the virtue of another, fitting her into the categories of feminist protector as well as feminist communicator. The god Dis does not directly silence Cyane but rather pushes her into a fit of tears that results in her becoming part of her own fountain (5.598). By abducting Proserpina and then breaking the base of the fountain, Dis violates her home as well as Cyane’s friend, the same sort of metaphorical rape Tereus’s performs when he cuts off Philomela’s tongue. Also, because Cyane is literally reduced to tears, she is unable to communicate. Proserpina’s mother, Ceres, comes looking for her, and, when she arrives at Cyane’s fountain, Ovid relates, “[Cyane] would have told her the story / had she herself not been changed; but, though willing in spirit, / her mouth, tongue, and vocal apparatus were absent” (5.636-38). The fountain is unable to speak physically, though she is obviously sentient—according to the descriptions we get of how she wants to tell Ceres what happened. Like the others, Cyane is able to communicate despite her physical limitations, but she does so by merely floating Proserpina’s girdle in front of Ceres (5.639-40). Again, only a woman is able to understand the silenced woman’s story; somehow just seeing Proserpina’s girdle, “the goddess knew that her daughter / had been taken” (5.642-43). Ceres’s understanding of Cyane’s simple gesture supports the phenomenon of female communication—a language all on its own—and the ways in which voiced women have to help those who have been silenced.
The resilience of women is displayed by Ovid not only through their determination to communicate after tragedy, but also in the way many women take the roles men traditionally would in Metamorphoses. Including representation of female pastimes, allowing women to narrate, and giving silenced women voices are all feminist examples, but Ovid’s depiction of women in male roles or being stronger than men is where he truly supports women. Metamorphoses is packed full of women who switch roles with their male counterparts, and, for a text first circulated in the year eight CE, that’s extremely noteworthy. From Echo’s resounding voice to Myrrha’s cunning, women are often shown as having the upper hand when compared to men in this text. Echo and Salmacis take on the male role of pursuing. Medusa and Medea show their power as they are the only reason the men utilizing them succeed. And finally, the cunning of Telethusa, Erysichthon, and Myrrha reveals the ways women use their wit against men.
In their stories, Echo and Salmacis take on the roles that many of the male rapists take: that of the pursuer. Narcissus is introduced as being the most beautiful man alive, so it is no wonder that Echo falls in love with him. Her pursuit is described in a similar manner to Apollo’s desire for Daphne. At the sight of Daphne, Apollo, “went up in flames / until his heart was utterly afire” (1.683-84). When Echo sees Narcissus, “at the very sight of him [she grows] hot” (3.480) These similar descriptions of becoming hot with lust place Echo, a female, in the same position as Apollo, a male. The reversal of these sexual roles gives Echo the power over Narcissus. However, when he denies her, she merely withers to nothing, unable to have him the way Apollo tried to have Daphne. Salmacis, on the other hand, does force herself to be united with Hermaphroditus. Again, Ovid uses the same imagery to describe the lust she feels for Hermaphroditus: “[Salmacis] burns with passion for his nakedness” (4.478). Once more, this female takes the role of the male rapist. As Vanda Zajko writes in her essay “‘Listening With’ Ovid: Intersexuality, Queer Theory, and the Myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis,” “The narrative clearly emphasizes the dominance of the female and her capacity to be the aggressor: there is no equality of desire in the stalking, nor is it possible to identify the female with passivity” (191). Through imagery used to describe both female and male lust, and the inclusion of female pursuers, Ovid provides representation of powerful (and forceful) females.
Echo not only takes on the role of the male in sexual terms, but also in the way she is immortalized versus the way Narcissus is: Echo pines away into a resounding voice (typically male) while Narcissus becomes a beautiful flower (typically female). Alexis Wick explores the idea of Echo’s remnants, making her the more dominant character in his essay, “Narcissus: Woman, Water and the West.” In this article Wick writes, “it is Echo, in the end, who, having disappeared from sight, still retains the power of speech, a typically male feature. By contrast . . . Narcissus is metamorphosized [sic] into a beautiful flower, the passive object of the gaze” (46). Echo’s voice gives her strength after death: “[she is] heard by all; / for only the voice that lived in her lives on” (Ovid 3.515-16). Though Echo dies because of unrequited love, her story is feminist in the way she possesses the ultimate power in the end. This reversal of the passive and dominant coincides with the reversal of the pursuer and the pursued, making Echo the dominant character even in death.
Aside from simply taking male roles, many of the women in Metamorphoses actually become crucial to the success of the men who utilize them. Medusa, after being beheaded by Perseus, becomes his main (if not his only) means of success in battle against Atlas and the suitors. Perseus is able to kill the serpent that holds Andromeda captive, and why he doesn’t utilize Medusa goes unanswered. However, perhaps Medusa is unable to harm snakes because of her connection to them, and, as the creature is described as being a serpent, Perseus is forced to kill it himself. In the case of Atlas, though, Perseus doesn’t even try to fight him man to man: “he [turns] his back / to Atlas and [raises] up in his left hand / the unkempt horror of Medusa’s head” (4.897-99). The weaker man is forced to surprise Atlas by using Medusa to turn him into a mountain. He employs the same use of trickery to kill Medusa herself; she is asleep when he beheads her. Furthermore, when Perseus battles the suitors (who are mere mortals), he “[sees] that the mob could overwhelm him,” before lifting the head of Medusa (4.255). It is logical in both instances for Perseus to recognize his own weakness and use his strongest weapon, which is exactly the point. Medusa is Perseus’s last-ditch effort to save himself and harm whom he wishes. To do this, Perseus must admit his own weakness to Medusa and use her help, giving the female Gorgon more power than the son of Jove, Perseus himself.
Like Medusa, Medea’s extreme power is also used to benefit a man, although she has a choice where Medusa doesn’t. Medea using her powers to benefit a man doesn’t take away from Ovid’s recognition of her feminine strength. Her use of witchcraft, which are powers generally at the disposal of women, allows her to help Jason retrieve the idolized Golden Fleece (7.224). Not only does Medea aid Jason’s retrieval of the fleece, but she protects his life with potions and incantations as well. When the serpent’s teeth turn into men ready to attack Jason, Medea “[murmurs] incantations / and [summons] secret powers to his aid” (7.198-99). It is this recitation that saves Jason’s life and even allows him to continue his quest. She doesn’t take any of the credit, though, and even gives Jason’s father more years so that he won’t die, aiding her ungrateful lover once again. The acknowledgement Medea’s power and independence receives from the poet is enough to recognize her as Jason’s reason for success. However, the addition of details about the murder she practices on Jason’s new wife, as well as the children she had with him, complete Medea as a representation of feminism in the text. The act of killing itself is not feminist, but these actions represent Medea’s denial of traditionally female roles such as mother and wife.
There are also examples of women taking on traditionally male roles within their families and exhibiting strength as caretakers. Erysichthon’s daughter serves him as a shape-shifter when he is cursed with famine for cutting down a tree/nymph of Ceres. With her father in a weakened state, the daughter allows herself to be sold as a slave repeatedly so that she can provide food for him. Then she transforms herself into an animal and slips away from her new master. Even though the daughter does all that she can to take care of her father, eventually, “his illness had consumed / all that she brought him” (8.1232-33). Telethusa also takes part in dishonesty in order to protect her daughter from being killed for her gender. In doing so, Telethusa takes the dominant role of decision-maker that her husband thinks he has. Finally, with the help of her nursemaid, Myrhha tricks her father into having sex with her, an act that categorizes her not only as reversing familial roles, but also as becoming the pursuer, as we discussed above with Echo and Salmacis. All three of these women reverse roles with their male family members, whether by becoming the bread-winner, the decision-maker, or by controlling the actions of a parent. Each way that these women assert dominance also asserts a feminist depiction of women being more powerful than men in Metamorphoses.
The role reversal featured in many of Ovid’s myths displays the ways females can be on the same level as males rather than beneath them. This portrayal of equality is the ultimate goal of feminism, but some women go even farther than that step by completely denying the role women are traditionally supposed to take. These roles include that of a wife, homemaker, and mother. In Metamorphoses, along with all of the other representations of females, comes women who kill their children—a complete defiance of what a woman is “supposed” to be. Now, this argument is in no way meant to justify the killing of an innocent child. However, as part of mythology, filicide plays a role in the female’s rejection of female roles. Also, the mothers all kill their male children, which in turn punishes the legacy of their fathers. The women in this text who do take part in filicide are Agave, Althaea, Procne, and Medea, and, in doing so, they assert their dominance and rejection of female roles.
Medea and Procne kill their children in order to enact revenge on their lovers, an act that not only defies motherhood, but also the passivity of women who are supposed allow their husbands to cheat on them. Procne’s revenge also acts as a form of protection for her raped sister, Philomela. In order to punish her husband, Procne decides to kill her son and feed him to his father (6.950). Disturbingly, her resolve fluctuates when her infant son hugs her: “she felt her sense of purpose falter / out of an excess of maternal love” (6.910-11). Ovid’s inclusion of Procne’s love for her son only makes her action of killing him to defend her sister more impactful, the same tactic he uses later in the epic with Althaea. Here, Procne places her relationship with her sister over being a mother and wife. Medea similarly punishes Jason for marrying another woman by killing her and the children she and Jason had. Medea poisons the woman and stabs the children: “the blade that dripped with her own children’s gore / enraged their father” (7.559-60). She succeeds in punishing Jason for his actions and then flies off to marry another man, completely unfazed by the death of her children. Both Procne and Medea murder their children to prove a point: women are strong, and men shouldn’t think they can get away with everything. Though Medea’s children aren’t named or even mentioned as anything but gore on a knife, following the theme of the other women, it can be assumed that she kills her sons. (In his tragedy, most likely the source for Ovid’s material, Euripides specifically refers to the children as sons.) Therefore, not only do these women kill their children and leave the fathers alive, they kill their sons, which destroys the legacy of name and vocation that was so necessary in this time period.
Agave and Althaea kill their adult sons, a difficult task that portrays the strength and determination of the women. Agave is arguably controlled by Bacchus when she murders her son, Pentheus. In the beginning of the myth, a great seer tells Pentheus, “if you fail to show [Bacchus] fitting honors / the god will tear your mangled corpse to pieces” (3.672-73). However, in the end it is the deranged Agave who thinks her son is a boar and tears him, literally, limb from limb. Though Agave may not be aware of what she is doing, the act of a mother killing her child is enough to represent her denial of the motherly role. Althaea, on the other hand, is fully aware of killing her son because she does so in revenge. Meleager, Althaea’s son, kills his uncles after they deny Atalanta the victory of killing the boar they were all hunting, because she is female (8.623). Upon learning who her brothers’ murderer is, Althaea is at once filled with the need for revenge. However, like Procne, she wavers in her motherly affections: “Here before my eyes / is the image of my brothers’ bloody wounds, / and now the mother in me melts my heart” (8.723-25). Eventually, she chooses sisterly devotion over motherly protection and kills Meleager by burning the log his life is tied to. Althaea’s wavering dedication to kill her son is much like what Procne experiences; she ultimately chooses her sibling over her son and defies the expectations of motherhood.
The defiant mother plays a role in Metamorphoses that solidifies the female presence in the epic and gives examples of women who violently defy their stereotypes. These women most often kill their children in order to get revenge and show their strength, a very drastic length to go to in order to receive recognition. Ovid’s descriptions of these deaths become very gruesome as well, except in the case of Althaea, because she doesn’t physically kill Meleager the way the other women kill their children. The gruesome deaths of the children as well as the way the women simply walk away reveals their extreme defiance and resistance in fulfilling their motherly duties. Procne and Althaea do hesitate, but the way they follow through and move on makes them ruthless traitors to their families. The traitorous, but not negative, depictions of mothers in this text is shown to highlight the ways these women deny the boxes they’re put into and reinforces the feminist qualities of Metamorphoses.
Ultimately, Ovid’s epic displays representation of women and the overall realistic qualities they embody more than it displays these qualities in men. The men in Metamorphoses are generally one-dimensional characters who are only concerned with sex, violence, and, most times, both. In her essay “Gender and Sexuality,” Allison Sharrock states, “Metamorphoses . . . which constructed (and deconstructed) the ideal of Roman masculinity . . . structured itself around the heart-rending force of sexual love” (104). However, it is not merely “sexual love” that Metamorphoses structures itself around; it is female representation. Sharrock herself discusses the ways in which the epic, if looked at traditionally, is interrupted constantly by female myths, but she equates this to “sexual love” rather than what it really is: a female epic. Though Metamorphoses doesn’t follow the story of a single character, it does represent a culture, and that culture is a patriarchal society that ignores the lives of females. Ovid rejects this model by portraying female pastimes, women protecting each other, women taking on male roles, and women who deny their stereotypes by killing their children. The poet represents a side of Greco Roman culture that has barely received recognition: the female culture. So, in summary, Ovid’s unconventional epic that doesn’t feature the story of a single hero, describe a war, or display male society is, in fact, an epic. It’s just a female epic.
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Feature Image Credit: Titian, Diana and Actaeon, National Gallery of London, 1556-1559 (Public Domain)