Ovid’s spider girl: Unravelling the female gaze

Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Arachne in Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Ovid’s epic the Metamorphoses is constantly playing with different narrative voices. In the myth of Arachne, Ovid uses myth to explore the tension between the fragility of the female voice in literature, in contrast to the authoritative male narrator.

Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva, and challenges the goddess to a contest. Minerva accepts, but when both have completed their tapestries, she can find no faults in her opponent’s work. She destroys Arachne’s tapestry in a fit of rage and, devastated, Arachne tries to commit suicide by hanging herself. At this, Minerva feels a modicum of pity and so spares Arachne by turning her into a spider. She is now sentenced to spend the rest of her days weaving webs.

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Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Female Voice

In ancient literature weaving is a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it was often used as a way to convey female messages in texts. One of the most striking examples of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

The myth is an extremely violent one. The tyrant Tereus has married Procne, the daughter of the King of Athens, and after five years away from home Procne asks her husband to accompany her sister Philomena as she travels over for a visit. However when Tereus sees Philomena he is maddened by his desire for her. He kidnaps her and rapes her, and when she threatens to reveal his crime he cuts out her tongue. He then keeps her hidden away in a forest and pretends that she has been killed. Philomena however weaves a record of what has happened to her, and through a servant manages to send this message to her sister. Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to an unwitting Tereus.

The rape and mutilation of Procne is described in a truly horrific way:

(6.527-530)

The poor child trembled as a frightened lamb,
which, just delivered from the frothing jaws
of a gaunt wolf, dreads every moving twig.
She trembled as a timid injured dove,
(her feathers dripping with her own life-blood)
that dreads the ravening talons of a hawk
from which some fortune has delivered her.

(553-558)

When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father’s name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,
and cut it with his sword —The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor.

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Euripides’ Hipploytus, 732-75: Mortal Wishes

On Wednesday I was lucky enough to see a brilliant adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytus by Antic Face at the V&A museum. It is one of my favourite tragedies, mostly because of its memorable female characters, proud but wretched Phaedra and the terrifying goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis. I had not originally planned to put any tragedy on this blog, however this chorus song is one of my favourite moments in Greek poetry. It is a dream of a divine escape from earth, a fantasy of the lands they would reach. However the imagery eventually leads the chorus back down to earth, and the beauty and prosperity of the first strophe are distorted in the portrayal of Phaedra’s wedding and the destruction it will cause.

The tragedy acts out the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. Hippolytus is a virgin and exclusively worships Diana, goddess of virginity, spurning Aphrodite, goddess of love and lust. This infuriates Aphrodite and she has her revenge by forcing Phaedra, Theseus’ husband and Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him. Phaedra tries to hide her love, but eventually reveals her secret to her nurse. The nurse then tells Hippolytus who is enraged and rails against Phaedra and womankind as a whole. Phaedra is overwhelmed by grief and shame and determines to kill herself. It is at this point that the chorus song begins.

In Greek tragedy a chorus is a group of singers and dancers who collectively comment on the dramatic action of the play in their songs. Here they build up the sense of impending doom and horror of what is happening offstage with their idyllic fantasies, a sense that is heightened as the imagery is distorted and the chorus are relentlessly dragged back down to earth.

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