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Proserpina’s Pomegranate and Ceres’ Anorexic Anger: Food, Sexuality, and Denial in Ovid’s Account of Ceres and Proserpina

Sophie Emilia Seidler

University of Washington

This paper investigates the anorexic poetics in Ovid’s account of Ceres and Proserpina (Met. 5, 341-571; Fast. 4, 393-676). Proserpina’s myth exemplifies the narrow relationship between two psychosomatic phenomena, concisely symbolized by the highly eroticized motive of the pomegranate (Arthur 1994: 237): food and sexuality – and their denial. This tension is also at the core of modern eating disorders such as anorexia. Structures of anorexic behavior can indeed be traced in the goddesses’ story, for instance the toxically close mother-daughter relationship, Ceres’ shame and fury when she is seen eating, or the female resistance over patriarchal verdicts via hunger strike. But far from anachronistically ascribing symptoms of modern eating disorders onto ancient mythological characters, my de-pathologizing approach illustrates the anorexic logic inherent in the plot, which comprises questions of femininity, sexuality, motherhood, change, and re-birth. Ovid’s narration prefigures a mode of reacting and negotiating within a patriarchal community and a microcosm where grain supply has a manifestly religious significance. Since the archetypical set-up cast provides a fertile ground for Western attitudes towards food and the female body, the myth can contribute to a differentiated, non-marginalizing attitude towards eating disordered behavior,.

The paper’s argumentation draws upon three epistemic approaches towards the Ovidian narrative: textual-philological analysis (Hinds 1987, Suter 2002, Foley 1977), feminist theory (Bell 1983, Bordo 1993, Ellmann 1993), and the medical-psychiatric discourse. Especially the latter has instrumentalized the myth in an extraordinary way: Studies like “Demeter and Persephone: Fears of Cannibalistic Engulfment in Bulimia” (Marsden 1997), “Persephone, the Loss of Virginity and the Female Oedipal Complex” (Kulish & Holtzman 1998), “The Kore Complex” (Fairfield 1998) or “Die ‚ewige Tochter‘: Ein neuer Ansatz zur Konfliktpathologie der magersüchtigen Frau” (Boothe et al. 2013) use the goddesses as exemplary evidence for the occurrence of mental illnesses in ancient literature. In stark contrast, my understanding of anorexic poetics builds upon a mutual cross-fertilization of medical and cultural, more precisely feminist and comparatist, theories and emphasizes the myth’s food symbolism and hunger strategies as a necessary means to establish a sense of feminine identity within a male-dominated framework. Thus, it becomes clear that a self-imposed refusal to eat cannot simply be locked away into a strictly separated medical discourse, but should be considered as cultural practice which, unlike a pathological concept of eating disorders, already existed in antiquity and is visible in Ovid’s account of Ceres and Proserpina.

When the female adolescent protagonist is – already a highly symbolically charged activity – plucking flowers, Dis abducts her to make her his wife. The nymph Cyane is disembodied and dissolves into water when she tries to help and prevent the rape. Proserpina’s mother Ceres, the goddess of grain, harvest, and nutrition, herself once devoured and spit out, searches for her daughter, while starving herself and the earth. She is enraged when a boy mocks her emaciation and thirst and, hence, turns her derider into a lizard. Proserpina refuses to eat in the Underworld, except for seven pomegranate seeds. These become her downfall in the literal sense, since the mere fact that she has eaten in the Underworld binds her to her role as Pluto’s wife. A compromise can be found in seasonal change: Proserpina can spend one half of the year with her mother, the other one with her husband in the Underworld, thus fluctuating between and transgressing the contradicting roles of wife and daughter. Denying food, being fed, and finally the act of eating transform Proserpina into a powerful goddess of her own right. Hence, their story represents an empowering testimonial of female solidarity, sexual self-determination, resistance against patriarchal power, and body-positivity.

Session/Panel Title

What's New in Ovidian Studies?

Session/Paper Number

63.2

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