Study Guide

The Metamorphoses Gender

By Ovid


"The pleasure love allots to you," he said,
"is greater than the pleasure given men."
But she contested that, and they agreed
To let Tiresias decide, for he
knew love both as a woman and a man.
Tiresias had once struck with his staff
two huge snakes as they mated in the forest;
for that, he had been changed – a thing of wonder –
from man to woman. Seven autumns passed,
and still that change held fast. But at the eighth,
he came upon those serpents once again.
He said: "If he who strikes you can be changed
into his counter-state, then this time, too,
I'll strike at you." His stout staff dealt a blow;
and he regained the shape he was before,
the shape the Theban had when he was born. (3.320-331)

Well, we don't really want to get into the deepest questions this passage raises, but we can point out that Ovid here anticipates some modern theorists who see gender as more fluid than fixed. Of course, he also views these changes as especially unusual and strange, and thus worth being talked about in his book of Metamorphoses.

"And in the face of his fair daughter's shame,
the king is cruel: though his daughter prays,
beseeching mercy, even as she claims –
her arms stretched to the Sun – that she was raped
against her will, he pays no heed, inflicts
a brutal burial in a deep ditch;
the sand heaped over her is heavy, thick." (4.237-240)

The punishment suffered by Leucothoe (not to be confused with Leuconoe, who is telling the story) reflects the gender power-dynamics in a patriarchal society. Even though she was raped, Leucothoe's father feels that his daughter's virtue has been stained, and so he takes violent revenge against her. It is very important that you distinguish the king's views from Ovid's, however. Ovid shows that he doesn't approve of this by explicitly calling the king "cruel" and his actions "brutal." He also makes us sympathetic for the victim by showing the true story from her point of view.

"As when one grafts a twig around a bough
and wraps the bark around them, he will see
those branches, growing to maturity,
unite: so were these bodies that had joined
no longer two but one – although biform:
one could have called that shape a woman or
a boy: for it seemed neither and seemed both." (4.375-379)

This story of Hermaphroditus, who is simultaneously a boy and a girl, is where we get our modern word "hermaphrodite." Once again, this story shows Ovid's interest in the possible fluidity of gender.

"Her beauty led the Ruler of the Sea
to rape her in Minerva's sanctuary
(so goes the tale). Jove's daughter turned aside
chaste eyes: the goddess hid her face behind
her aegis – but she made Medusa pay:
she changed that Gorgon's hair to horrid snakes." (4.799-801)

Here, once again, we can see a double-standard breaking down along gender lines. Even though Medusa was the victim of rape by Neptune, she is the one who gets punished by Minerva. What makes this example interesting is that Minerva, another woman, is the one who does the punishing. (We also see this same phenomenon at work in the many acts of revenge Juno perpetrates against women raped or seduced by Jupiter.) This actually isn't that surprising; both historically and in the contemporary world, the values of a patriarchal society are often so pervasive that even women take part in enforcing them.

Atalanta's robe was fastened at the neck
by a smooth brooch; her hair was simply dressed,
caught up in just one knot; her shafts were stored
within an ivory quiver, which she wore
on her left shoulder; as she moved, the arrows
would jangle; Atalanta held her bow
in her left hand. And her beguiling face
was, for a girl, quite boyish; for a boy,
it had a girlish cast – one could have said. (8.318-321)

Here we see an interesting blurring of gender lines in the figure of Atalanta, a tomboy. That said, Ovid makes no suggestion that Atalanta is in any way part man. Equally interesting is the fact that, unlike Iphis, a girl who is raised as a boy and thus takes on certain masculine traits, Atalanta is not attracted to women. (She will later become happily married Hippomenes – though things don't turn out too well for them, thanks to Venus's meddling.)

"There are two things for which I pray: the first,
that you may suffer little in childbirth;
the second, that your child may be a boy.
Our means are meager – girls require more.
So, if by chance (I pray it not be so)
you bear a female, I would have you know
that (hateful as it is – and may the gods
forgive me) I shall have her put to death." (9.675-678)

Here we see more patriarchal values in play: if Ligdus's wife gives birth to a girl, he will kill the child. This is an abhorrent idea, both to us and to Ovid (based on how he tells the story). All the same, Ovid introduces some interesting nuance into the picture when he points out that "girls require more" wealth to provide for. One major way in which girls were more expensive was that their parents had to pay for dowries.

Now, to deceive her husband, Telethusa
gave orders to the nurse (for she alone
knew of this guile) to feed the newborn child
and to tell everyone it was a son.
And Ligdus thanked the gods, and to the child
he gave the name of Ligdus' father: Iphis.
And Telethusa was most pleased with this:
it was a name that suited male or female –
a neutral name, whose use involved no tricks.
No one unmasked the pious lie. She dressed
her Iphis as a boy – and whether one
assigned them to a daughter or a son,
the features of the child were surely handsome. (9.706-713)

Long before gender-neutral names became popular, Telethusa caught a lucky break when her husband gave their daughter the name "Iphis," which was also the name of his father. As it turned out, Iphis, who was raised as a boy, ended up being attracted to girls. What, if anything, do you think this story reveals about Ovid's views on gender?

(Latreus in Nestor's tale):
"Must I, o Caenis, suffer one like you!
For me, you'll always be a woman, you
are nothing more than Caenis. Yes, you seem
to have forgotten that your origins
were feminine; you don't remember what
you had to do to merit this reward,
the price you paid to earn yourself this false
appearance of a man! Remember then
just what you were at birth, what you went through:
now go, take up the distaff – that's your due:
take up the basket heaped with threads, the wool
your thumb can twist: let men attend to war!"
But when he heard such boasting, Caenus cast
a lance that pierced the side of Latreus (12.470-478)

There's no question about Latreus's views on gender. He thinks that, because Caenus started out as a woman named Caenis, he must still be a woman to this day. Also, he seems to hold gender stereotypes about women. He quickly learns his mistake, however, when Caenus spears him in the side.

"When Thetis, Nereid mother of Achilles,
foresaw her dear son's doom, she tricked you all;
she dressed him in the clothes of a young girl,
and Ajax, like the rest of you, was fooled.
But I slipped in – among the women's stuff
that lay about – some weapons, of the sort
to draw a man's attention. While still dressed
as girl, the hero gripped a shield and lance;
I said: 'O son of Thetis, Troy must face
her fate, her fall: it's you whom she awaits.
Why, then, delay the day when she must die?'
I placed my hands upon him, and I sent
the hero off to his heroic tasks." (13.162-170)

This story about Achilles seems to send a contradictory message to that about Iphis. OK, so the situations aren't exactly the same, because Achilles is only briefly disguised as a girl by his mother, instead of being raised that way from birth. Still, it is interesting that Ulysses guesses (correctly, in this instance) that the child dressed as a girl will be interested in typical manly pursuits like warfare. Too bad for Thetis. Achilles goes off to Troy, wins great fame as a warrior, and finds an early grave.

"And if you find these things amazing, strange,
consider still another striking change –
the way that the hyena alternates:
now she's a female mounted by a male,
and now becomes herself the male who mounts." (15.408-410)

According to modern biology, Pythagoras's claim about hyenas is untrue. But this doesn't matter very much, because Ovid's poem is a work of literature, where factual truth isn't really the point. What matters is how Pythagoras's claim fits in with the work as a whole. We at Shmoop think his remark is most interesting because it offers a parallel from the natural (i.e., non-human) world for some of the human sex and gender fluidity that happens elsewhere in the poem. What's your take?

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