We Have To Talk About This

Reflections on Ovid, Anthropology, and Sexual Violence

Soon after the news broke that Harvey Weinstein had likely conducted a systematic campaign of sexual harassment and assault against young actresses and employees at his production company, and as dominoes across the news and entertainment industries, in politics, and academia began to topple, my students and I confronted the following passage in the opening pages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

…And pressing his hand
against her trunk he felt her heart quivering
under the new bark. He embraced her limbs 
with his own arms, and he kissed the wood
but even the wood shrank from his kisses. (I.584-588)

These lines describe Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, even as she transforms into a laurel tree to escape his embrace. Presented in the third person, we encounter Apollo’s actions first. “He felt her heart.” “He embraced her limbs.” If we paid attention only to the subject of these sentences, to Apollo as actor, we might even mistake them for romantic gestures. We might miss that Daphne's heart quivers—ambiguously—or that even as a tree she shrinks from his kisses. I find this passage profoundly uncomfortable, that in this moment we as readers can so thoroughly lose her voice. Where only a few lines previously Ovid had offered a depiction of a fully-formed woman with agency and desires of her own, “delighting in the deep woods,” roaming and hunting as a devotee of Diana, “without a thought of Hymen, Amor or Marriage" (I.498-501), suddenly she is only an object of Apollo’s desire: “running scared…she was still a lovely sight…her beauty augmented by her flight” (I.553-557). Finally, she becomes passive, immobile wood. This discourages the God not at all; he lays claim to the Laurel Tree as he would have laid claim to her body. Daphne, and the pain she must be feeling, escapes our grasp even as she concedes, unwillingly, to his.

Apollo was done. The laurel bowed her new branches
and seemed to nod her leafy crown in assent. (I.600-601)

There is a deliberate unseeing in the final lines of this episode. Daphne seems to assent, as creaking wood and swaying branches seem to resemble something human in their movements. Somehow, as readers, we accept this, and move on to the next story, of another god chasing another woman. Is Daphne still in there? For what other reason would she bow her head low?  Defeat. Disappointment. Disengagement. 

I am uncomfortable because I have lost Daphne to Apollo’s actions; in so slight a sketch Ovid has offered us a full depiction of a woman, and then utterly effaced her. I am uncomfortable because her resistance was her defeat, and because of the now forever inescapable association that the victor’s crown is composed of a woman’s plucked laurels. I am uncomfortable because this looks like rape. Ovid’s text takes pleasure in violence of this sort. The episode of Apollo and Daphne is followed immediately by similar scenes describing Jove’s rape of Io, and her subsequent transformation into a cow; Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx, who becomes the reeds of his famous pipe, and many more literal depictions of rape besides. The form of the narration, directing our attention through the aggressor’s actions, and the uncomfortable pauses to linger on the fleeing woman’s form, all force our complicity as readers in the act we abhor (Richlin 1992). 

We have to talk about this.

I would argue that this very discomfort makes it all the more necessary to read these scenes under the looming context of the allegations against Weinstein and his ilk. We must interrogate them in the same manner that we are currently interrogating our own culture, which up until this moment has tolerated, and even fostered the very forms of objectification, dehumanization, and violence that we see in Ovid. We need to ask ourselves. What are we really looking at? Whose voice are we hearing, whose voices are effaced? How are we made to enjoy the pain of others? 

“We have to talk about this,” I said to my class of first-year college students at the end of our first session on Ovid. The next day I opened the class with a free-write asking students to identify and explain (or attempt to comprehend) the acts of violence they encountered in any of the episodes they had read so far; these included Daphne and Apollo, Jove and Io, Pan and Syrinx, Diana and Actaeon, and Jove and Semele. Not all of these are acts are sexual in nature, nor are all the aggressors male, and yet beyond metamorphosis itself, the most constant through-line in Ovid’s work is violence, ever present but never explained, and certainly never justified within any sort of moral order. Following the free-write, students had to conduct the conversation on their own, first reading from their answers, then listening to and responding to their peers. I would take a step back and probe only when the conversation lulled, or mediate if the conversation turned tense (thankfully this didn’t occur). This is a technique I typically wait to introduce until the second semester of our two-term sequence, when my students have gained more confidence in the classroom, and understand better how to communicate and support their own interpretations of the text without depending on me to correct or confirm them. To introduce a less controlled classroom practice on a day when the content is not only sensitive, but even triggering, was to risk harming my own students for the sake of a lesson. 

However this is a topic that requires my silence as an authority figure in the classroom. There was no way I could lecture on whether or not what Ovid depicts is rape and what that means; to impose a particular way of viewing this scene would only serve to shut down the students' own process of inquiry. I was asking my students to contemplate violent actions, not only in the context of Ovid’s text, but also in context of the contemporary news stream that constantly surrounds them, and in the context of their own lives as newly independent adults on a residential college campus. I was asking them to make sense of physical, sexual and emotional violence not merely as a part of Ovid’s intellectual project, but as an ever present part of the world we all occupy.

“It’s just so creepy”, said a female student addressing the story of Daphne and Apollo. The discussion dealt with the uncomfortable and complicated nature of this episode, without explicitly naming it as rape. The students commented on the tragedy of the episode and the discomfort of playing witness to it: “This is so sad, because she’s still in there”; "Is the tree saving her or trapping her?" They addressed the questionable consent of the final lines: “So wait, is she really nodding yes?” 

Eventually, though, the conversation shifted to the ethics of Apollo’s actions. “It’s just not ok,” asserted a student. "If this is what Ovid thinks about love,” said another, "it’s sort of messed up.” Though later another asked, “but wasn’t he shot by Cupid’s arrow?” Her question attempts to lay responsibility for Apollo’s actions with Cupid, who caused Apollo’s desire for Daphne in the first place. To the objections, this student explained, “But he didn’t even know or care about Daphne before Cupid shot him, so you can’t only blame him.” They were clear that there was something inappropriate and wrong about Apollo’s actions, and yet the scene was still morally ambiguous. 

Finally, in attempting to fit Ovid’s violence into some kind of moral framework, the students were totally at a loss. Failing to find a satisfactory explanation for why Daphne’s transformation, Actaeon’s mauling, or Semele’s death, could be justified, one male student asserted “It’s just a brutal world.” While not wrong, his appeal to an inhospitable universe was incomplete to many of the other students, who saw uncaring, selfish gods, as a through-line across the episodes, or who wanted to identify come clear failing on the part of the human actors. The students could not come up with a morally or intellectually persuasive justification for the patterns of violence that occurred in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. 

Though in the course of their discussion the students never explicitly mentioned current events, they were able to employ analytical tools to parse these scenes that can and should be applied to our current cultural reckoning. Calling Daphne’s “seeming nod” into question allows them to consider the ambiguities of consent and the possibility of coercion. Drawing Cupid into the discussion of responsibility opens them up to the broader systems of power and influence that enable and protect aggressors, while silencing victims. They can practice applying the critical the lenses they will need to address real-world violence in Ovid's safely fictional universe.

This is precisely my goal. 

Given my training as an anthropologist, I approach issues such as this in a particular way. I am primarily concerned with capturing and articulating the voices of my interlocutors. (Hence my dismay at losing Daphne’s.) Ethnographic research begins with the interpersonal, and attempts to describe, from the human scale, the structures and systems that people live within. In the interpretive and semiotic schools of thought to which I subscribe, the objective of the anthropologist is to portray these structures as they are experienced by the people who navigate them, and to illustrate how individuals make sense of a world which often seems incomprehensible and beyond our control. But to examine systems of power, anthropologists must seek out voices that have been deliberately obscured, and ask why. 

This approach is the direct legacy of feminist anthropology. Since the early 1970s anthropologists have recognized that traditional methods of conducting ethnographic research—such as seeking out chiefs, elders or other such authority figures as key informants, ignoring domestic spheres of action and parallel forms of cultural expression and interpretation—have tended to obscure women’ voices and experiences (Lewin 2006). Ethnographers aimed to counter this problem by actively seeking out women’s voices and situating them within the ethnographic record, along with the various forms of power, violence, resistance and self-empowerment in which they engage. Feminist anthropology thus opened the door to a darker turn in anthropology more generally, in which we seek out voices that are marginalized by conditions of danger, oppression, or material precarity. Anthropologists now aim to unravel and understand the conditions that structure power across all human relationships, and how these structures marginalize, oppress and efface different forms of experience (Ortner 2016). 

Bringing this disciplinary background to bear on the way that I teach core texts, my aim for Ovid is first to locate the voices: whose voice do we hear, whose has been erased? If amplification and dampening are relative measures of power, how do the particular sounds of this narrative reveal how Ovid arranges the relationships of power within Metamorphoses? What do the various acts of violence, erasure and loss of control say about the world Ovid has created? We aim to retrieve unheard voices, and begin to recognize and speak to problems of differential power. In absenting my own voice from the conversation in my classroom, I was less able to lead my students to particular conclusions in this regard, but I was able to foster them in their own processes of questioning, and, more importantly, listening. Lewin writes that anthropologists must “Measure our success by our ability to convey the stories people share with us, making their motives, feelings, and hopes real to the audiences we address through our writings and in the classroom” (2006: 29). So too, in the classroom I must measure my success by my ability to open the space to voices which have not yet spoken. 


A few weeks later I had another opportunity to teach Ovid in a course on Mythology. This time we took up Medusa. In Ovid’s take on the story of Perseus and the Gorgon, Medusa is utterly voiceless. She first appears already already defeated, described only as “the snake-haired monster’s memorable spoils” (IV.683). She is already an object, a thing he has conquered and transformed through his actions into a weapon to be used against his enemies. It is through his voice we hear the story of her serpent hair:

Here’s the reason, a tale in itself. 
She was once very beautiful and sought by many. 
And was admired most for her beautiful hair. …
They say that Neptune, lord of the sea, 
Violated her in a temple of Minerva. 
The goddess hid her chaste eyes behind her Aegis, 
But so that the crime would not go unpunished, 
She changed the gorgon’s hair to loathsome snakes, 
Which the Goddess now, to terrify her enemies 
With numbing fear, wears on her breastplate. (IV.890-901)

Triply violated, Medusa was raped by Neptune and punished for his actions by the goddess she served, only then to be killed, mutilated and possessed by Perseus. Her head is his weapon, her story is his to tell. Medusa herself is utterly voiceless; transformed by these repeated violations into non-being. From a woman, with beauty and a calling of her own,  to a snake-haired monster, a terrifying weapon, and ultimately into proof of Perseus’ prowess, her very being is lost through these transformations, in which she becomes nothing more than totem of others’ power. 

This time, though, we had a strategy for how to retrieve her voice from Perseus’ clutches. Applying the principles that focus feminist anthropology we sought other interlocutors, other angles. Here, Ann Stanford, a 20th century poet takes up Medusa’s story and voices her rage. 

It is no great thing to a god. For me it was anger–
no consent on my part, no wooing, all harsh
rough as a field hand. I didn’t like it.
My hair coiled in fury; my mind held hate alone.
I thought of revenge, began to live on it.
My hair turned to serpents, my eyes saw the world in stone. (Medusa, 1977) 

Here, the symbol of the Gorgon’s terror is transformed into a symbol of her rage. The thing that makes her both monster and target to Perseus, becomes an outlet for anger that she embraces wholeheartedly. Stanford’s Medusa does not redeem this act for either victim or aggressor, but in articulating her process of survival and resistance, she opens up new ways of understanding this character and her emotional experience. 

One thing that anthropology teaches us is that there are always other entry points into a narrative. There are always other voices waiting to be heard. Bringing anthropological perspectives to bear on the teaching of “Great Books" such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses is that narratives can be taken up by new storytellers, symbols can be re-signified, and that culture, even when it is presented in the context of a literary or intellectual “canon”, is not static. The purpose of teaching texts like these is emphatically not to wow students with the mastery and majesty of a particular set of authors and texts, but rather to interrogate them, reinvent them, and make them ours again. 

Lewin, Ellen. 2006. “Introduction” in Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, edited by Ellen Lewin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 

Ortner, Sherry B. 2016. Dark Anthropology and its Others: Theory since the Eighties. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1):47-73. 

Ovid. 2010. Metamorphoses, Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett. 

Richlin, Amy. 1992. “Reading Ovid’s Rapes” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, Amy Richlin, ed, New York: Oxford

Stanford, Ann. 1977. “Medusa” in Mediterranean Air. New York: Viking Press.