There is no such thing as pure pleasure; some anxiety always goes with it.
Ovid was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus. He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature.
Love is a kind of warfare.
Fortune and love favour the brave.
Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.
The result justifies the deed.
There is no such thing as pure pleasure; some anxiety always goes with it.
Apollo and Daphne, a marble sculpture made 1622–1625 by Bernini (1598–1680), inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Galleria Borghese, Rome.
John William Waterhouse, “Apollo and Daphne” (1908)
READING OVID IN THE AGE OF #METOO
By Katy Waldman (2018)
A new novel that reimagines the myth of Daphne and Apollo points toward the Roman poet Ovid as a seer of our current cultural reckoning.
University undergraduates published an op-ed in their student paper petitioning English professors to affix trigger warnings to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The poem’s “vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault,” they wrote, were distressing to survivors, one of whom “was essentially dismissed . . . her concerns ignored” when she approached a lecturer after class to complain. The opinion piece sparked a predictable imbroglio. Less sophisticated critics decried Columbia’s “self-centered Care Bears”; sharper observers objected to how the trigger-warning conversation disguised the larger preoccupations of the text, veiling ethical questions of force and consent in the language of personal harm. What was clear, even then, was that Ovid had the power to illuminate disturbing aspects of our contemporary culture. Students sensed something volatile and dangerous in the poem—something close to home.
Ovid feels strangely present these days, as if the country is reckoning under his riotous star. “Daphne,” the début novel from Will Boast, aims to recast the myth of Daphne and Apollo, told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Daphne’s point of view—a project for the #MeToo era if there ever were one. In the original poem, Daphne, a water nymph, resolves to stay a virgin; she runs from the lustful god, he chases, he grabs and clasps; she pleads to her father, a river deity, for help. At this point, Ovid writes (in R. Mongan’s translation), “A heavy numbness seizes her limbs, / her soft breasts are girded by thin bark, / her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches, / her foot, just now so swift, clings by sluggish roots.” Daphne becomes a laurel tree, and Apollo still can’t take a hint. “He gives the wood kisses,” Ovid recounts, drily, “and the wood shrinks from the kisses. / The god said to her, ‘Since you can’t be my bride, at least / you will certainly be my tree!’ ”
In this post-Weinstein moment, we are hungry for female-centric narratives of abuse and resilience, especially ones that flip an existing script. Oddly, though, Boast’s “Daphne” does not dramatize the source text’s elements of violence and coercion. This update interprets Daphne’s transformation as a triumph, her immobility as a kind of post-coital swoon, conjuring the masochistic surrenders of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Daphne suffers from a rare condition, cataplexy, that paralyzes her body whenever she experiences intense emotion. Here is a Daphne who is ravished by her own feelings, who directs her potent responses to the world inward—against herself. Until, that is, she meets the right guy, an emo type named Ollie. Boast’s novel is an amiable exploration of how humans might come to manage their raucous hearts; nothing about the book, apart from the characters’ names, feels especially Ovidian. It’s ironic that “Daphne” is better without the Metamorphoses—a dilatory whiff of sexual assault would not serve Daphne and Ollie’s relationship—because the #MeToo epoch is the perfect time to reread the poet. However indirectly, Boast deserves our gratitude for sending us back to him now.
Before he wrote the Metamorphoses, Ovid wrote a three-book opus called “Ars Amatoria,” or the “Art of Love”: its first two sections instruct the modern Roman man in the subtleties of seduction, while its third winkingly advises the modern Roman woman how to resist the smooth advances of the modern Roman man. In 8 A.D., six years after “Ars” was published, Emperor Augustus exiled Ovid to Tomis, on a remote shore of the Black Sea, for mysterious reasons; Ovid described his offense as “carmen et error”—“a song and a mistake.” (It’s impossible to read about Aziz Ansari, who, with “Modern Romance,” fashioned himself the scribe of woke courtship and was then banished from our good graces for sins we can’t quite agree upon, without thinking of his first-century counterpart.)
In the same year that he was exiled, Ovid began the Metamorphoses, whose teeming chaos evokes the uncertain, shape-shifting mood of a country—a world—that is reimagining its sexual mores. Ovid’s subject matter throughout the poem is a seemingly endless stream of rapes and sexual crimes. Hades abducts Persephone; Zeus impregnates Leda; Apollo pursues Daphne; Zeus violates Europa. The effect of all these attacks feels totalizing, as if women exist to be abused. But Ovid’s epic positions female pain as the beginning or the hinge of the story, not the end; victims are transfigured, their suffering made new and strange. Daphne becomes a tree. Leda hatches two eggs. Persephone’s lingering in the underworld gives rise to undreamed-of seasons. That violence against women might lead to unexpected outcomes—to a legal-defense fund for sexual-assault survivors, backed by the most glittering red-carpet walkers; to the resignations and downfalls of many powerful men; to the unthinkably moving public recital of more than forty victim-impact statements in a single courtroom—has been one energizing lesson of the past five months.
Consider the myth of Procne and Philomela, from Book 6 of the Metamorphoses. A king, Tereus, conceives a passion for his wife’s sister, Philomela, whom he has agreed to escort from her kingdom to his. Tereus rapes the maiden on the journey and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report his crimes. Philomela weaves her anguish into a tapestry that her sister, Procne, knows how to decode. Procne takes revenge by killing the son whom she has with Tereus and serving him to his father for dinner. It is hard to read this ancient tale without running into a web of #MeToo-era tropes and preoccupations: how men silence the women they violate; how women are made to feel complicit in their own violations and those of their sisters; how female rage can overflow the banks of just retribution, sweeping patriarchal taboos aside. (This last anxiety has been fretted about more than realized in our current moment.) By the end of the story, the voiceless Philomela has become the most expressive creature of all: a nightingale.
Katy Waldman is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Ovid’s Afterlife: Mythical Rape and Rape Myths
by A. Everett Beek (2016)
The story of Philomela is one of the most notorious rape stories in the works of Ovid, due to its graphic violence and gruesome resolution. As related in the Metamorphoses (6.424–674), Philomela is a young teenage girl whom her sister’s husband, Tereus, kidnaps and then rapes repeatedly, finally cutting out her tongue to prevent her from reporting him. Eventually she escapes, and she and her sister enact a grisly revenge by murdering Tereus’ son and serving him the corpse for dinner.
Ovid’s writings are notoriously riddled with rape scenes. As an academic I’ve built my career on Ovid, and I’ve taught his rape stories to undergraduates in courses such as “Classical Mythology” and “Sexuality and Gender in Ancient Greece and Rome.” I’m well aware of the conventions of scholarship on the subject: academics who discuss Ovid are expected to address the rape scenes as fictional constructs, make-believe stories that have no connection to the real world. We can’t hold Ovid to any standard of realism or sensitivity; he didn’t have access to Department of Justice statistics, and he lived in a culture that defined rape in very different terms. We restrict our discussion to subjects like poetic devices and his engagement with his literary predecessors.
But it’s time to stop pretending that these ancient fictions have no influence on real life. The same narrative outlines that appear in Ovid’s works are still being taught in schools and used in films, television, books, and video games. People accept them as realistic because they are constantly repeated and infrequently questioned. Most destructively, these ancient myths about rape fuel the modern rape myth, a body of common misconceptions about rape that affect how real-life survivors of sexual assault are treated.
With popular media constantly reinforcing these toxic rape myths, it is crucial to question them when they appear in the classroom; otherwise, academic discussion of Ovid’s rape stories becomes yet another medium from which students absorb a skewed perception of rape. Consequently, they react to real-life reports of rape and survivors in accordance with their misconceptions.
Even if you’ve never read the Metamorphoses, the story of the woman who is viciously raped and transformed by the experience into a bloodthirsty monster periodically resurfaces in more modern narratives. You may recognize it from the 2014 film 300: Rise of an Empire, which features the character Artemisia. Although born Greek, she has risen to the rank of a general in the Persian army because of her hatred of the Greek soldiers who massacred her family and kept her in chains as a sex slave for years on end. Such an experience would be, to put it mildly, a traumatic experience for anyone, but it transforms Artemisia into a soulless vehicle for vengeance.
To bring up another rape story from the works of Ovid, consider Lucretia (Fasti 2.721–846), the paradigmatic good wife who is raped by one of her husband’s friends and then commits suicide because she considers the sexual violation to have shamed her beyond recovery. Lucretia’s role is echoed in the character Gorgo from the original 300 film, the wife of Leonidas. In the midst of a political crisis in Sparta, when the Spartans are divided on whether to fully support Leonidas and the eponymous 300 soldiers, Gorgo allows a politician to rape her in the hopes that he will take Leonidas’ side. After her rape, Gorgo (in contrast to Lucretia) does not consider suicide. Rather, she murders her rapist at the film’s climax, and in the sequel reappears as the competent leader of the Spartan navy.
The 300 films are set in ancient Greece, and for that reason we might expect them to borrow from classical themes. But echoes of Ovid’s rape stories can also reappear in films set well apart from the classical world, such as Watchmen. In this film, a group of (mostly male) superheroes have formed a crime-fighting organization, and one (female) member, the Silk Spectre, attracts a lot of attention on account of her skimpy costume. Eventually, one of the male superheroes, the Comedian, propositions her, and attempts to rape her after she declines. In typical damsel-in-distress fashion, she is saved by the timely intervention of another male superhero.
Even so, the Silk Spectre later engages in consensual sex with the Comedian, and comes to romanticize her relationship with him, having chosen to overlook the rape. As a result, the Silk Spectre becomes pregnant and has a daughter. It’s easy to compare her to any number of Ovidian characters — Flora, the Sabine Women, Deidamia — who are raped but come to forgive their rapists and settle down with them into amicable long-term relationships.
Rape myth, a pervasive obstacle for survivors of sexual assault who want to report their attacks and seek justice through the legal system, is the cultural notion that real-life rapes are characterized by certain criteria or narratives that, while prevalent in fiction, are frequently absent in real life. (To be clear, I am defining rape in broad terms to mean unwanted sexual intercourse, whether it is “forcible” rape induced by violence or “non-forcible” rape coerced by non-violent threats or other means.)
Common rape myths include:
Most rapes are committed by strangers (in reality, about 76% of rapes/sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim)
Most rape accusations are false (in reality, the FBI has found the rate of unfounded reports of rape to be 8%)
It isn’t rape if they don’t say no (in reality, there are many ways in which a victim might be coerced into sex without voicing an objection: the victim might be incapacitated by alcohol or other means; the victim might be asleep, intimidated, or afraid of the consequences of saying no — for example, if the assailant is an authority figure such as a teacher, employer, or police officer)
Rape myth substantially affects the lives of sexual assault survivors in a number of ways. First, a survivor may be unwilling to report an assault because their experience seems too different from familiar narratives. A woman who is forced into sex by her boyfriend in her own bedroom might not see her experience as comparable to that of Artemisia, who is kidnapped by blood-spattered soldiers and kept in chains for years. By the same token, if a survivor confides their experience in a friend or family member, the confidant might — without intending any harm — dismiss it as not serious enough to count as assault.
Even if the case is reported and goes to trial, police, juries, and other legal authorities may be influenced by prejudices and misconceptions. Sexual assault can cause extensive trauma and affect a survivor’s emotional state and actions in ways that the average person wouldn’t expect, causing the testimony to seem suspect. To this end, rape myths that appear in modern media and classrooms reinforce toxic beliefs and behaviors.
And, crucially, those of us who teach Ovid are actively feeding these misconceptions, unless we make an effort to the contrary. Recently, there has been an enormous increase in scholarship on teaching classical rape stories (a succinct survey of which can be found at the end of James’ article in the collection From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom), which provides excellent advice for instructors designing a discussion of Lucretia or the Sabine Women, who will have to navigate the minefield of their students’ seldom broached — and often misguided — assumptions about rape.
Let’s take a closer look at these films. Artemisia’s rape leans hard on the myth of the stranger rapist, but in the real world, a rapist might look much more innocuous — a popular student in your class, a charming radio personality, a successful football player, a co-worker that you went out with once or twice. The pervasive message in fiction that rapists are visibly, unquestionably evil makes all sorts of third parties — juries, police officers, even friends and family of the victim — scoff at rape accusations directed at innocuous-looking people, and rape survivors despair of coming forward because they think that no one will believe them.
Gorgo’s story is one that, unfortunately, many women will recognize: Gorgo is raped by an acquaintance, someone who has the social leverage to extort sex from her. He retains the respect of his peers, and in fact successfully discredits Gorgo in front of an audience that sympathizes with him. The moment when she kills her rapist is a revenge fantasy, a sign of her empowerment and refusal to bow to injustice.
In my opinion, narratives that promote the resilience and empowerment of rape survivors should be encouraged. Still, Gorgo’s rape narrative is problematic because Gorgo, like Lucretia, exemplifies the “good” rape victim, the woman whose sexuality strictly follows the prescriptions of society. Gorgo’s rape is unconscionable because she is faithful to her husband and, as far as we know, has never had sex with anyone else.
Gorgo and Lucretia are so good that their rapes catalyze major political changes: Lucretia’s dismantles the Roman monarchy and raises the republic, while Gorgo’s organizes support for Leonidas and resistance against the Persian invasion. This idea reinforces the notion that “bad” women — the ones who fail to follow traditional prescriptions for their sexuality, walk down the wrong streets, wear the wrong clothes, associate with the wrong people, exercise their sexuality on their own terms — deserve to be raped. As long as this myth persists, it works against survivors of sexual assault who seem at all morally suspect.
The Silk Spectre’s experience incorporates the myth of “asking for it.” The salacious comments made about her costume evoke the old idea that a woman might be inviting rape by dressing in a particular way, and that it is her responsibility to prevent rape by dressing modestly. In light of the Silk Spectre’s status as a superhero, one would hope that she could fight off an attacker by herself, and it is disappointing that the film depicts her as being rescued by a man instead.
Most troubling of all is that the Silk Spectre eventually forgives her rapist, has a child with him, and romanticizes their relationship. At one point in the Ars Amatoria (1.663–706), Ovid spotlights the idea of “no means yes,” that is, that women say no to sex only out of a sense of propriety or convention, but despite this nominal resistance, they in fact find rape pleasurable. He gives as an example Deidamia, who was surprised to discover that the teenage girl staying as a guest in her room was actually a teenage boy named Achilles. At first, Ovid says, Deidamia complained that Achilles was raping her, but when he had to leave, she begged him to stay. It is often difficult for victims of sexual assault (particularly spousal rape or other domestic violence) to remove themselves from a toxic relationship, and narratives like this encourage them to give the rapist one more chance, to be understanding and nurturing, and generally to prioritize their rapist’s wishes over their own safety.
For a long time, it was traditional in Ovidian scholarship to assume a male reader. There were discussions of Ovid’s rape stories, but they tended to take a detached approach that downplayed the violence and coercion. This began to change in the 1970s, when Leo C. Curran published a groundbreaking article entitled “Rape and Rape Victims in the Metamorphoses,” in which he not only encouraged the readers to consider the rapes from the victim’s perspective, but more importantly, finally asked the question everyone else had been avoiding: why are there so many rapes — by his count, about fifty — in Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Curran called out the frequency and prominence of Ovid’s rapes as extraordinary, rather than treating these myths as innocuous vehicles for Ovid’s virtuoso poetics.
Since then, feminist readings of Ovid have exploded, and the male perspective is no longer assumed to be neutral or default. Amy Richlin’s seminal article “Reading Ovid’s Rapes” in the volume Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome piercingly examined Ovid’s rape stories from the perspective of female readers, and went so far as to ask why women should read Ovid at all. Sharon L. James’ article “Slave-Rape and Female Silence in Ovid’s Love Poetry” considered the perspective of ancient slaves — especially female slaves — who might have been raped frequently throughout their lives and had no means of changing the situation. This is a particularly difficult exercise because the evidence is generally filtered through the words of their owners; James stresses Ovid’s control of the narrative and the raped slave’s inability to speak to the reader.
Although scholarship that addresses Ovid’s rapes in the abstract still abounds, one can also find literature that discusses audience response, and how different life experiences among audience members might generate varying reactions to ancient rape stories. One of the most interesting articles I have found in this vein, though outside Ovidian studies, is called “Call it Rape,” by Zola Marie Packman, which discusses euphemisms for rape in old-fashioned English translations of Latin comedies (another body of literature fraught with rape stories), and how these euphemisms sabotaged her students’ understanding of the text.
In the past decade, there has been expanded academic interest in pedagogical approaches to sexual assault narratives in classical literature. In the book From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom, an article by Sharon James and another by Sanjaya Thakur each outline concrete advice on teaching rape stories: steps to take before a classroom discussion, information to provide to students (such as the contact information for counseling and survivor support services on campus), and a script to follow if a student confides in you that they have experienced rape. Yurie Hong’s article “Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature” also presents clear advice that can be applied in the classroom.
On college campuses, rape is an especially fraught topic. College women are three times more likely than the average woman to fall victim to sexual assault, and the small percentage of victims who report these assaults (around 5%) may meet serious obstacles in reporting, whether they seek justice through the police or through their school’s disciplinary procedures. Via Title IX and the Clery Act of 1990, colleges are charged with the responsibility of providing an environment that is equally safe for all students regardless of sex, guaranteeing equal access and accommodation for victims of sexual assault, and faithfully collecting and reporting data about sexual assault on campus.
But even now, colleges are frequently called out for failing to meet those responsibilities. In recent years, several survivors have gained media attention because of their dissatisfaction with how their colleges handled their complaints, such as “Jackie” of the contested report in Rolling Stone, or Emma Sulkowicz, creator of the “Carry That Weight” performance art project. Beyond these famous cases, many rape survivors have to drop out of college when forced to continue interacting with their assailant on campus, or after being bullied by their assailant’s friends.
Amid all this potential for drama, Ovid’s rape stories are nevertheless taught in college as part of the staid classical canon, and some professors may shy away from making any connection between the rapes that Ovid depicts on the page and those that could happen in a dorm on Saturday night. I understand the reluctance. Rape is an unpleasant topic, one that might stir up unwelcome feelings for people in the room — for which reason it is easier to view the stories from a comfortable distance.
The trouble is, if eleven percent of women in US colleges have been raped, if eighteen percent of women in the US will be raped within their lifetime, and if forty-five percent of women in the US will experience non-rape sexual violence within their lifetime, these aren’t just abstract stories. Some of the students in the room may be survivors of sexual assault; many will make connections to the sexual assault experiences of friends or family members. After all, the continuing relevance of classical education is often framed in terms of how students might extrapolate lessons from classical literature and apply them to their everyday lives. In courses like Classical Mythology, in which rape will be a frequent recurring motif, it is necessary to set aside some time to discuss why there are so many rapes, and why they are depicted the way they are.
For those who might lead a classroom discussion of Ovid, or any other iterations of rape myth, a great responsibility is in your hands, namely to challenge and tear down these fictional rapes. Ask your students: what sets this story apart from a real-life rape story? Ask what stereotypes the author is playing into, and whether there is any basis for those stereotypes. Ask how the idea of consent is presented, and whether the author seems to recognize consent the same way our culture does. (Even though ancient Roman law defined rape in very different terms, Ovid’s rape stories tend to illustrate not legal rapes but rather violations of consent that run on surprisingly modern lines.) Show clips from recent TV shows or films and point out how these unrealistic tropes are still reiterated. Encourage them to question their assumptions and learn the basics of rape myth. Be prepared for students to bring up their own experiences with sexual assault and to direct them toward the relevant resources if they need it.
For those who do not teach, your responsibility is to educate yourself, and refuse to perpetuate rape myths. And if anyone close to you trusts you enough to confide their personal experience of sexual assault, listen and support them without imposing harmful preconceptions on their narrative. It is the unfortunate truth that many rapes lack sufficient evidence to be prosecuted, and so many survivors will never gain greater reparation for their trauma than the sympathy they find in their loved ones. Support them as much as possible.
A. Everett Beek has taught Classics at the University of Minnesota and the University of Saint Thomas. She wrote her dissertation (“Always Look on the Bright Side of Death”) on death and apotheosis narratives in Ovid’s Fasti, and her publications include an article on the story of Iphis and Ianthe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as a forthcoming article on Anna Perenna in the Fasti.