Literary Analysis Of Philomela's Rape Scene In The Metamorphoses

Power is parasitical. It is destructive and dehumanizing for the both the victim and perpetrator. One can envisage this ideas through the illustration of rape in the Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In these Greek retellings, however, Ovid never seems to glorify the act of rape or sexual misconduct. It seems like a normative practice: almost an ongoing torment that all women eventually succumb to. His stories suggest that female consent can be taken for granted, and there is little difference between seduction and rape. Moreover, Ovid’s explicit use of the word “rape,” even when referring to divine beings, is indicative of his casual and candid attitude towards female abuse. This contrasts other authors like Lefkowitz who are hesitant about using the term so openly. However, in the grotesque rape scene of Philomela in Book 6, Ovid’s striking descriptions try to summon more than just a socially accepted convention. This scene presents an empathizing female perspective of the victim’s suffering and a baser, vile and merciless projection of the perpetrator. More than the display of Teres’ wrath and hunger, this scene presents a microscopic illustration of the roles of men and women and their power dynamic in this patriarchal setup. All this is achieved using vivid animalistic imagery, similes, varying sentence lengths, use of lists and asyndetons, and the theme of prey-predator.

The selected paragraph is from the Book 6 of The Metamorphoses, describing a rape scene of Philomela by King Teres, her soon-to-become brother-in-law. This book involves scenes of cannibalism expressed both in a literal and a metaphorical sense that make it particularly disturbing and unpleasant.

Ovid’s chooses to offer numerous descriptions in this scene. These various imageries, therefore, are able summon more than just Philomela’s plight. They are essential to understanding the character of Philomela and Teres, and also invigorate a sense pity for the victim. Philomela’s physical movement is described using a sequence of verbs that are emblematic of her growing tensions. She is first described to “shake” then “tremble” and finally “shudder” as Teres tries to assault her. Understanding this ascending order of dread and despair in every verb can deeply involve the reader who can accurately visualize Philomela’s situation. On the contrary, Teres’s is described rather heartless and undeterred. During the assault, there is not even an ounce of sympathy or remorse in his eyes that “stare” at Philomela and are “fix[at]ed” on her beauty. It suggests how women are in effect treated as objects that men own and “stare”. Most men can only appreciate their outer appearance, and not understand the inner emotions. Women, like Philomela, are left bereft of any humanity or subjectivity. Their purpose seems to live up to the desires and desperations of men. Next, Philomela is described as a “dove smeared with its own blood.” Such a sight is a particularly shocking representation of aggression and violence. Dove’s are generally symbols of innocence and purity, and seeing them in their own blood yields a very depressing and disgustful sight for anyone. One could relate the dove’s innocence to the Philomela’s condition who faces cruelty of an equal magnitude when her tongue is severed and most importantly, when her virginity is taken away from her by force. These images broaden ones understanding of a sexual assault as they’re directed from a female point of view and makes the readers sympathize with the Philomela’s situation.

The theme of Prey vs Predator broadens our understanding about the cultural context in which these stories were written in. In this scene, it elaborates on the power dynamic between the two genders. Teres is compared to a frightful eagle with “clutching claws” and conversely Philomela to prey like a hare, a lamb, and a dove. Philomela’s association to weak animals are emblematic of her character and women in general. More so, the image of the eagle iterates Teres’s sick predatory hunger for perverted consumption of capturing weaker animals to prey. These depictions are suggestive of the male-female power dynamic in the patriarchal system. It suggests that female assault under patriarchal rule are a form of cannibalism, an instinctive cue for men to exercise their power over females by one of the most hurtful means – by consuming them and their livelihood. The fact that Philomela “cannot feel safe” here indicates her insecurity. And as it depends on the whims and fancies of men, it illustrates the distribution of power and control. This is further accentuated in the book when Teres “drags her” and later in the book cuts her tongue. It suggests that Teres has not only physically overpowered her but has robbed also Philomela’s power to even express herself. One can also argue the animalistic associations for King Teres are a form of an author bias. The animality does reflect Teres’ aggression, but also to remind us that he is below a human and his lust for power isn’t certainly humane. However, it’s surprising why even the victim, Philomela, is compared to animals. Is she too is less than a human? One can say that in this hierarchal divide of power, Ovid is trying to suggest an commonality between the victim and the perpetrator. Power and in turn violence reduces both Philomela and Teres to less than humans. It damages them both – Philomela’s lack of power makes her a pawn to stronger individuals and Teres’ abundance of power makes him a monster. Therefore, Ovid can in way be summoning a moral from this scene that power in fact is parasitical: destructive and dehumanizing for both the perpetrator and victim. Hence, Ovid’s portrayal of the theme of Prey and Predator does make us cognisant about various ideas revolving around the power dynamic between the 2 genders.

Lastly, Ovid has employed many structural techniques that make this rape scene even more disturbing and disconcerting. Overall, one can see no rhyme scheme in this scene. This can be a deliberate effort that maintains the focus of the passage on the sheer brutality of the rape scene that is expressed without poetic constraints. The passage seems to have many breaks and dashes like in the line “/and rapes her – she’s a girl, and all alone/” The line following the dashes almost seems like commentary the author is proving directly to the readers. He wishes to remind the readers about entire context before he delves into the description, so the readers can absorb magnitude of this calamity entirely. The sentence lengths is also very prominent in contributing to the overall effect of the paragraph. The long length sentences with numerous enjambments slowdown the pace of the text. This way the author is able to put the reader in the victims shoes. By stretching this description, the readers also struggle to read and can get a flavour of the struggle Philomela’s going through. Ovid stretches sentences by using long lists – e.g. “lamb that’s terrified, …caught it.” These long lists spills numerous similes that allows one to understand the Philomela plight from a broader, more perspectival lens. Lastly, the use of an asyndeton in the list “Again, again, she calls” gives a sense on continuity. The missing conjugation in the expression makes it seem that list is in fact not complete and is going on indefinitely, much like Philomela’s struggle. In totality, the Ovid’s structure and form play a key role to making this rape scene to starkly different that moves the readers.

In summary, with the different literary devices and themes Ovid is able to give a heart rendering impression about female assault and help understand more about the prevalence of power which comes entitled with ones gender. However, later on in the text, we see a seismic shift of power when Philomela and Procne take revenge by delving into similar means of literal cannibalism. This can a question for a another close reading in the future.

Works Cited

  • Kathrinechristy. “A Close Reading of Ovid's ‘Procne and Philomela.’” Kathrine Christy, 6 May 2017,
  • Bloch, Nikki. “Patterns of Rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” CU Scholar, 2014.
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Transalated by Mandelbaum, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993         
16 December 2021
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