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Reporting an Underreported Crime: Arethusa in the Metamorphoses

Anna Beek

            Ovid’s Metamorphoses is famous for its extraordinarily high incidence of stories of sexual coercion (Curran, Richlin, Murgatroyd, and Raval are essential background). Throughout these stories, the reader sees a common motif in which victims are disempowered by sexual force; when pursued by a sexual predator, those who are not actually raped are frequently “saved”--transformed into subhuman figures like plants, birds, or geographic features--such that they remain vulnerable to their attackers. As a consequence, although the Metamorphoses contains a vast number of rape victims, it contains few rape survivors.

            Among these few survivors is Arethusa: although she is transformed into a stream to prevent a sexual attack by Aristaeus, she nevertheless survives in an anthropomorphic form retaining her mind, ability to communicate, and place in divine society. Moreover, she is one of the few Ovidian rape victims granted the privilege of narrating her own rape (Met. 5.577-641), in contrast to Ovid’s general practice of silencing rape victims. Many (including Raval, Feeney, de Luce, Keegan, and James) have previously discussed the general silence of Ovid’s rape victims, but few have discussed the rare Ovidian rape victims who do speak out, such as Flora or the Sabine Women in the Fasti. Arethusa is even in this company: when Flora and the Sabine Women speak, they attempt to justify and endorse their own rapes, acquiescing to them after the fact and (ostensibly) settling into an amicable marriage with their rapists. Arethusa, on the other hand, makes no such effort to portray herself as forgiving of the violence that was perpetrated against her; she describes her rape as a rape, and devotes extensive attention to the terror she experienced during the episode. This paper discusses Arethusa’s uniqueness as a rape survivor and the reasons behind her uniqueness.

            Arethusa’s uniqueness is bolstered insofar as she retains an anthropomorphic form. Many victims of rape or attempted rape in the Metamorphoses suffer transformations that remove them from human (or divine) society and render them unable to communicate with others. Cyane, for example, is transformed into a body of water that, unlike Arethusa, is incapable of communication. Moreover, although many characters in the Metamorphoses, such as Daphne or Syrinx, are “saved” from rape by transformation into sub-humans, such transformations are ultimately indistinguishable from punitive transformations inflicted upon the characters who sin monstrously, such as Tereus or Lycaon. In contrast, while Arethusa is transformed in a sense into an inanimate object (a stream), she takes on an identity as an anthropomorphic water nymph and even improves her status, describing the new honors she receives from the local people of Sicily. Thus the normally disempowering transformation into a body of water, in this case, has taken on an empowering aspect.

            Arethusa gains these unique characteristics by the designs of Calliope, the internal narrator of her story. As Zissos has demonstrated, Calliope (a master storyteller) pragmatically plays to her audience. She tells the story first as her effort in the contest of artistic superiority between the Muses and the Pierides, for which a group of nymphs are judges; later, Calliope recapitulates her story for Minerva. In effort to please the judges, Calliope adjusts the well known story by placing nymphs in some of the crucial roles. I argue that by allowing the transformed Arethusa to retain her form and faculties (unlike other victims of ostensibly-salutary transformation), by empowering Arethusa to speak baldly about a rape attempt she escaped, Calliope is fashioning a character who is relatable to those who have suffered attempted rape, not only Calliope herself (who, as Minerva hears upon arrival, also recently escaped a rape attempt), but also to the nymphs who act as judges and who, if the Metamorphoses reflects their everyday experience, endure rape attempts frequently. The way Calliope constructs Arethusa’s story, and the way she has Arethusa tell it, reveal a feminine perspective on rape that is seldom allowed to dominate Ovidian narratives.

Session/Panel Title:

Gender Trouble in Latin Narrative Poetry

Session/Paper Number

77.5

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