Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Abuse of Power


Publius Ovidius Naso

Published ~8 C.E.

Translated by Charles Martin, 2004

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Before anyone gets confused, we’re talking about Ovid here, and not Kafka (that would be The Metamorphosis).

Actually, I’m not at all sure what I want to write about this one. This is a literary rendition of a bunch of Greek and Roman myths, and many of them go the same way: Gods rape everyone. The victims are punished. This happens over and over again, especially in the first half of the poem. It starts with Io and goes from there. A lot of it has to do with Jupiter (but it’s very far from being limited to him) and Juno is angry, but she’s apparently not angry about the rapes, only the infidelity. Even from that warped point of view, it would appear that Jupiter is to blame, but she never takes it up with him; instead, she visits divine wrath on his victim, some woman who’d prefer to go just about her daily business, but (as Ovid explains it) is unfortunately too beautiful for her own good. Jupiter is too powerful to face any consequences for his actions, so Juno attacks those who are much weaker than herself, instead. Of course, it’s not just Jupiter committing all these rapes; Hades, Neptune, Apollo (who is most often referred to by his Greek name here, for some reason) and Aurora all participate. And it’s not only Juno who administers punishment. In fact, sometimes it’s humans. On the other hand, it’s not much better for the victims who manage to escape being raped, as this often occurs through some bizarre transformation, as when Daphne, fleeing Apollo, is turned into a plant (no prizes for guessing which one).

There’s a valid political statement here somewhere about the abuse of power and, in fact, the nature of rape. But it’s presented in such a jolly way and it moves along so quickly that such a statement doesn’t appear to be the primary objective, at least not immediately. Rather, this seems to be comedy. There’s very little attention paid to the victims—actually, they are mostly interchangeable—but the gods, although they do a lot of harm, seem to be portrayed mostly as buffoons.  For instance, you have Apollo chasing Daphne:

“Daughter of Peneus, I pray, hold still,

hold still! I’m not a foe in grim pursuit!

Thus lamb flees wolf, thus dove from eagle flies

on trembling wings, thus deer form lioness,

thus any creature flees its enemy,

but I am seeking you because of love!

Just ask yourself who finds you so attractive!

I’m not a caveman, not some shepherd boy,

no shaggy guardian of flocks and herds–

you’ve no idea, rash girl, you’ve no idea,

whom you are fleeing, that is why you flee!”

(Book I, lines 696-711)

He goes on from there about the cities he owns and the things he can do and how great he is.  It is clear from the surrounding context, if it isn’t in these lines, that we are not supposed to agree with him that Daphne is being foolish, rather, it’s Apollo who is making a fool of himself and the joke is about his lack of self-awareness. The idea here is to laugh at the would-be rapist because he is behaving in an undignified manner. I feel uneasy with the joke—at least it is at the expense of the rapist rather than the victim, but it’s the foolishness rather than the violence that’s the focus here, Looney Tunes-style—only here, they are often caught.

As the poem wears on, the human characters become more sympathetic and less prop-like.  Book Six has Arachne, who actually levels a critique at the behavior of the gods in her weaving contest with Minerva. She skillfully depicts many of the events of the poem up until that point:

Asterie is shown in an eagle’s grip,

and Leda, lying under a swan’s wing;

Arachne shows how, in a Satyr’s guise,

Jupiter filled Antiope with twins;

how, as Amphitryon, he hoodwinked you,

Alcmena; and how Danaë was deceived

by a golden shower; Aegina by a flame;

how Mnemosyne was cozened by a shepherd

and Proserpina, child of Demeter,

was ruined by a many-colored serpent.

(Book VI, lines 152-160)

Most of these are guises of Jupiter, but she also goes on to deal with the other gods. Ovid implies that part of Minerva’s rage, which led her to transform Arachne into a spider, was not only due to losing the weaving contest but also because of her tapestry’s “convincing evidence/ of celestial misconduct” (Book VI, lines 196-197).  Arachne is not an extremely likable character. The limited amount of character development that she receives consists mostly of her being quite rude to the old woman who turns out to be Minerva. However, Ovid appears to admire her craft, and of course, her project is much like his own.  In fact, she “as a spider, carries on/ the art of weaving as she used to do” (Book VI, lines 207-208). She’s very different from Orpheus, who gets many more accolades and is followed around by stones and trees who appreciate his music, but does much less to challenge the existing poetic forms and who flatters the gods shamelessly.  The translator points out that Ovid doesn’t give Orpheus’s severed head credit for the poetry of the island of Lesbos; instead, he has Apollo save it from being eaten by a snake. The translator makes the case that this betrays a certain lack of reverence for the famous bard on Ovid’s part; in this context, his attitude toward Arachne is striking. It says a lot about what he thinks poetry is and does. Interesting, too, that it is Apollo who does this.

I enjoyed Ovid’s “battle” scenes, which are told in the same style that one would normally expect for a heroic account of a major battle, but which, instead, he uses for drunken brawls and poorly executed boar hunts.  It becomes very clear that the main actors are foolish, drunken, and often incompetent jerks and we can roll our eyes at their battles and their seriousness.  So perhaps the rape episodes work the same way.

Toward the end, Atalanta becomes an important character. For those who don’t remember the myth, she is a young woman who was an excellent speed runner, and who didn’t wish to marry, so she decreed that she would only marry a man who could beat her in a race, and anyone who tried to race her under these conditions and lost would be executed. This is the diametric opposite of the story of Daphne reference above; where Daphne fled from her would-be rapist as he attacked her, Atalanta is able to set the terms under which she will run, and can run successfully whenever she doesn’t wish to be caught. She can pre-empt most such races under the threat of execution and she can punish anyone who is rash enough to attempt it. This causes a problem for her when she does want to marry, but then, it is always in her power to lose as well.  Of course, in the story as it happens, Venus intercedes and helps Hippomenes to distract her with golden apples, but the text carefully shows the doubts that Atalanta harbored before this particular race.  “Often, when she could have very easily passed him,/She lingered beside, her gaze full of desperate longing” (Book X, lines 774-775).

Atalanta and Daphne both exist in the same poem and the same universe. There are problems with both; Daphne is just a flat depiction of an innocent victim, while Atalanta in her complicity with being caught could provide fuel for rape apologists (though her running ability is clearly extraordinary). But I appreciated the inclusion of Atalanta as a representation of agency and an example of Woman as Not Daphne, while having Daphne around at the same time means that we can’t forget that not everyone can be Atalanta (reducing the potential for victim blaming).

In writing all this out, I’ve become much more convinced that this is actually an anti-rape text, and I respect it a lot more now. Still, it’s probably clear from what I’ve written above that it isn’t a perfect text in that regard—but for a poem written in the first century, it does better than I’d initially thought.

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