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Female Plumbers in the Metamorphoses: Women Talking Water

Bridget Langley

The hydraulic infrastructure of Augustan Rome was female -- according to Ovid. Of the seven aqueducts that supplied the city during his lifetime, the only one to interest Ovid is the “water maiden”, the Aqua Virgo (A.A. 3.385-6; Fast. 1.463-4; Tr. 3.12.21-2; Pont. 1.8.37-8), and he consistently personifies the city’s monumental fountains and natural pools as female nymphs (e.g. A.A. 1.81-4, 3.451-2; Fast. 1.707-8, 2.603-4). This is perhaps unsurprising, as this is also how Ovid treats natural landscape in his Metamorphoses, where, as Alison Keith has demonstrated, women are violently assimilated into the landscape and become the passive ground for male heroic action (Keith 2000: 50-52). But there is another current in the Metamorphoses, wherein the built waterscape (pipes, fountains) is presented as passive and male. This view is exclusive to female narrators in the poem. The plurality of female voices in the Metamorphoses has garnered much scholarly attention (cf. Cahoon 1996; Liveley 1999; Salzman-Mitchell 2005), but the distinctive attitude they have towards water has not been explored. In this paper I consider how water is described both by women and by female waters, and assess the implications for our understanding of gender and of the environment.

Female narrators who talk about water discuss hydraulic technology in explicit terms which are entirely at odds with Ovidian practice. The programmatic instance of this occurs in the very first human internal narration to be quoted in full in the Metamorphoses: the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, as told by the first of the daughters of Minyas (Met. 4.55-166). At the story’s climax, she likens Pyramus’ suicide by stabbing to the bursting of a lead pipe (fistula) which hisses and spurts liquid high into the air (Met. 4.121-4). This emphasis on human technology has been a motif of her narrative, and is highly appropriate for a narrator who devotes herself to the craft of Minerva (Newlands 1986: 143-50). The simile also replaces the metamorphosis of Pyramus into a river god which concluded the traditional version of the tale (Knox 1989; cf. Nonnus Dionysiaka 6.347-55). The daughter of Minyas thus diverges strikingly from the story’s original account of water, introducing an image connected with her own particular concerns, that is unparalleled both in the Metamorphoses and in Ovid’s broader oeuvre: fistula refers to a water pipe only here in Ovid’s poetry, where hydraulic structures are never described in technological detail, and are always figured as young women. Although the daughters of Minyas are silenced by Bacchus through metamorphosis into squealing bats, their distinctive account of water resurfaces in the stories of later female narrators. So, Galatea’s account of the Cyclops’ unfortunate obsession with her concludes with her own transformation of Acis into a river god. Her still and silent river god resembles an architectural fountain (Barchiesi 2006: 422), and is marked by a reed-pipe which perhaps channels a second meaning from one female narration to another.

Session/Panel Title:

Women and Water

Session/Paper Number

82.5

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