[I’m proud to host Dr. Shyama Rajendran, Academic Professional Lecturer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, this week. This powerful meditation on gender and violence, and rage and sisterhood, is a strong rebuttal to those who would dismiss the #metoo movement as overblown or the work of a few malcontents. It is also a rejoinder to those who argue that the past has little to say to the present, as Dr. Rajendran shows us how thoroughly the themes in Ovid’s story of Procne and Philomela suffuse our present moment (including the way Ovid himself characterized those themes). I’d like to thank Shyama for agreeing to post this important and compelling essay here.]
[CW: rape, violence]
The story of Procne and Philomela from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of my favorite texts to teach. The tale features a brutal rape scene, in which the king of Thrace, Tereus, rapes Philomela in the forest while he’s meant to be escorting her to visit her sister Procne, Tereus’s wife. After he rapes her, she says,
“I shall declare your sin before the world,
and publish my own shame to punish you!
And if I’m prisoned in the solitudes,
my voice will wake the echoes in the wood
and move the conscious rocks. Hear me, O Heaven!
And let my imprecations rouse the Gods—
ah-h-h, if there can be a god in Heaven!”
Tereus, afraid of being exposed, cuts out her tongue and rapes her again. He lies to Procne, claiming that Philomela is dead, while keeping her imprisoned in a house in the forest.
The fact that Tereus is afraid of exposure, rather than seeing anything reprehensible about his own actions, seems terribly relevant to the current conversation around sex and consent. As we continue to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual coercion, and male entitlement that often turns violent, I cannot help but think of the men who want to defend other men’s reputations rather than find justice and healing for the women who have been harmed. I watch as men try to defend their right to remain unchanged, rather than choosing a world in which male pleasure doesn’t mean female pain. I see men I think of as good men staying silent on social media while women put in the time and effort to make men understand their realities, despite the fact that women have been doing similar work for years and yet not very much seems to have changed.
Ovid’s narrative also includes a scene of what one might describe as “women’s labor,” telling us that Philomela eventually escapes her hell by getting word to her sister. Philomela “wove in a warp with purple marks and white,/ a story of the crime” which she sends to Procne. I have always found Philomela’s tapestry fascinating, because even after Tereus literally silences Philomela, she finds a way to speak. The ambiguity of the tapestry- it’s unclear whether she tells her story via words, via images, or both- reminds me of the contemporary tapestries that women have built: our whisper networks, our shitty media men lists, our anonymous sexual harassment in academia surveys, and so on. These are the tapestries we weave to protect ourselves and to protect other women from the same fate.
While I grieve for Philomela and the harm done to her, and admire her ingenuity, it is Procne that I find truly empowering. Upon receiving Philomela’s message, Procne goes into a “mad rage” and becomes “intent upon revenge.” She “rushed/ through the dark woods, attended by a host/ of screaming followers…wild with rage” to her sister. Philomela and Procne return to the Thracian king’s palace, murder Tereus and Procne’s son, and feed him to Tereus at a banquet. Tereus attempts to kill them when the sisters’ revenge is revealed, but the gods transform all three characters into birds. Procne’s pure unadulterated rage appeals to me. She tells Philomela, while rescuing her, “This is no time for weeping! awful deeds/ demand a great revenge—take up the sword,/ and any weapon fiercer than its edge!” She says they must “Slaughter [Tereus] with every death/ imagined in the misery of hate!” Ovid means for us to read Procne’s revenge- the murder of her son- as just as horrific as the rape itself. As a woman, however, Procne’s desire for violent revenge, like listening to contemporary country women artists who sing about poisoning their husbands and burying them, is cathartic to read. It reminds me that there is power in rage. As Jess Zimmerman asks, “What if men tell us to smile not only because they feel entitled to our docility, but because they fear our rage?”
My students are often uncomfortable with Procne’s murder of her son, but always see the power in Procne choosing sisterhood over her husband. To choose sisterhood over patriarchy is a radical act. It is all too easy to remain complicit in patriarchy and the violence it visits upon women. Lindy West writes “My world had taught me that feminists were ugly and ridiculous, and I did not want to be ugly and ridiculous. I wanted to be cool and desired by men, because even as a teenager I knew implicitly that pandering for male approval was a woman’s most effective currency. It was my best shot at success, or at least safety, and I wasn’t sophisticated enough to see that success and safety, bestowed conditionally, aren’t success and safety at all. They are domestication and implied violence.” Procne’s decision to choose revenge, to choose sisterhood, to murder her son, are the rejection of the domestication and implied violence that West describes. Ovid wants us to see this choice as monstrous, describing the sisters working together to murder the child:
“Then they together, mangled his remains,
still quivering with the remnant of his life,
and boiled a part of him in steaming pots,
that bubbled over with the dead child’s blood,
and roasted other parts on hissing spits.”
Choosing sisterhood, according to Ovid, is a monstrous thing that begets monstrous acts. However, Procne’s choice is actually a rejection of how their social world is structured. She is expected to choose her husband and son over her sister, despite how the world has completely failed the sisters. The only way that either of them can find power in the world they live in is to reject it entirely. That we as readers are supposed to find this violent act unnatural, or equitable, to the rape is similar to the way in which feminism and other movements designed to combat structural oppression are portrayed as equally or more destructive than oppression itself.
Men would rather that we be Philomelas, so that they can abuse us, silence us, and never face consequences for those actions. As the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) points out on their website, only six percent of rapists will ever be imprisoned. As more men everywhere are exposed for the Tereuses they are, however, I will continue to find my strength in Procne’s all-consuming fury, in her choice of sisterhood, and the power in both. Procne’s wild rage and her host of screaming followers certainly seems to be how many men see the #MeToo movement and the increasingly loud voices of women saying that this is not the world we want. Those men might be right, and they should be rightfully afraid, because women are not Philomela anymore, silently weaving their narratives to communicate with other women. We’re Procne, and our rage is what drives us.
*All quotes are from the 1922 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Brookes More, available at the Perseus Digital Library (www.perseus.tufts.edu).