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The Sisters of Semonides' Wives: Rethinking Female–Animal Kinship

Margaret Day

The Ohio State University

This paper argues that classical literature denies women access to the freedom human– animal kinship and transformation provide in non-Western traditions. Encounters with animals in Ovid and Apuleius, for example, reveal a deep-seated, uneasy recognition that our supposedly natural, “human” bodies are imperfect, flawed, and potentially non-human (Payne 2010, Gilhus 2006). With the mind of a bitch and the belly of a drone, Hesiod’s Pandora, our earliest female, is a fundamentally non-human creature who arrives not to help but to harm men (King 1998, Franco 2014). Semonides goes so far as to suggest that women, created separately from men, are simply animals masquerading as humans, and in doing so, he places women squarely on the animal end of the human–animal spectrum (Payne 2010). When women like Io, Scylla, and Arachne transform from humans into animals in Ovid, they are punished for their inherently deceptive bodies and have no recourse to transform back into humans (Hopman 2012). Likewise, only “bad” women (i.e., witches) shape-shift in Apuleius (Montiglio and Pinheiro 2015), and others who cannot simply lust, à la Pasiphae, after animals in an abomination of pure, human love (Haskins 2014).

Outside of Greece and Rome, mythology and folklore draw on women’s unique position between man and animal to explore female–animal kinship, intimacy, and alliance. In the Hindu Brhad-arayaka Upanishad, Brahma’s female half changes first into a cow and later a mare, donkey, ewe, etc. to escape an incestuous relationship with her other, male half. Although she is ultimately unsuccessful, she briefly finds escape and release from male violence in animal form. Whereas in classical mythology women are transformed into animals as punishment for their transgressions, women like Brahma’s female half use their kinship with animals to escape violence. Others use it to help people in need. The First Nations Carrier tribe recount that men learned how to care for beavers, bears, salmon, and other animals by marrying beaver-, bear-, and salmon-wives (Abram 2010). The union between human male and animal female in the Carrier tradition brings forth not monsters like the Minotaur but useful and valuable information passed down through generations. Unlike Pandora, these first wives help rather than harm men.

By examining the classical tradition comparatively, we can reimagine what human– animal kinship and transformation may have looked like for women in Greece and Rome. With no divide between humans and animals, the sisters of Semonides’ animal wives have the power to reveal women’s true, authentic selves.

Session/Panel Title

Global Feminism and the Classics

Session/Paper Number

55.2

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