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Gendering Anna Perenna

A. Everett Beek

University of Minnesota

            Ovid’s Fasti relates a wide variety of apotheosis narratives, from the catasterisms of characters like Callisto and Orion to the miraculous assumption of Romulus. Throughout the Fasti, most of the narratives of supernatural transformations are some species of apotheosis (in contrast to the Metamorphoses, in which most supernatural transformations are punitive transformations into subhuman forms (see Salzman (1998))), and moreover most of these transformations are catalyzed by violence. In particular, the apotheoses of female characters tend to be prompted by sexual assaults (see Murgatroyd (2005), Kötzle (1991)); for example, Lara is raped by Mercury in her transformation into the goddess Tacita, and Chloris is raped by Zephyrus before she is promoted from a minor nymph to become the powerful goddess Flora. Apotheosis in the Fasti is not a pleasurable process, and is fraught with the potential for irreversible violence.

            Anna Perenna stands out among the apotheoses in the Fasti because she is one of the few female characters who are deified without suffering an overtly sexual attack. Anna, as the sister of Dido and leader of a band of Carthaginian refugees, is presented as a political figure; the audience sees much more of her leadership role than her role in sexual or romantic drama. The sexual violence that is typical of women’s apotheosis narratives is set aside, and the difficulties Anna suffers in the process of gaining divinity consist of her trials at sea and struggles in finding a new home for her people. Her final ordeal before she is transformed into a nymph does have a sexual aspect to it--Lavinia attacks Anna because she reads her as a rival for Aeneas’ sexual attention--but this attack is described in scant detail compared to the lengthy narrative of Anna’s troubles at sea. On the whole, Anna’s transformation into Anna Perenna, in the context of the Fasti, reflects masculine more than feminine experience.

            Anna’s transformation into the nymph Anna Perenna can be closely compared to the transformation of Arethusa in the Metamorphoses. Arethusa flees from an attacker whose motives are implied to be sexual, although they are conveyed in little detail; she escapes by praying to Diana, who turns her into a stream in attempt to avert this sexual attack. Crucially, she retains an anthropomorphic form (unlike most other victims of transformation in the Metamorphoses; Ino’s apotheosis in the Metamorphoses is another useful comparison) and is able to participate in divine society after her transformation. Anna likewise flees from an attack engineered by Lavinia and becomes a water nymph. Her nocturnal escape from Aeneas’ home is conveyed in few words, and no overtly sexual details are provided. A reader may suspect that the sparse description of the attack on Anna veils some sexual aspects: it may be that Numicius’ adoption of Anna as a nymph requires her sexual subordination to him. Even so, the fact that Anna’s transformation is narrated without reference to any sexual aspects allows the audience to see Anna as a less feminine character. As has been noted by McKeown (1984) and Porte (1985), her quasi-epic role in the Fasti bears many strong connections to that of Aeneas in the Aeneid, and her identity thereby acquires some masculine-gendered aspects. Her gender presentation is highly complex: while attempting to find a new home for her people, she adopts the masculine role of Vergil’s Aeneas, even as characters such as Iarbas or Lavinia persist in assigning her the role of Vergil’s Dido. In a context where femininity is othered and thereby degraded, Anna’s downplayed femininity accords her greater respect within the narrative, and frees her from the sexual assault visited on so many other apotheosed women in the Fasti.

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Representing Gender

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