Ovid and gender principles


In her essay "The Gender Principles," Marilyn French offers a feminist interpretation and measure of what has traditionally been the roles of men and women in stories we call literature. Her words, written in 1981, explore mythological and archetypal representations of the bedrooms, battlefields, and gardens of gender politics, with perspectives that are undeniably sharp, calling to my mind Carl Jung's mysterious abstractions know as the animus and the anima. However, my intention here is not to compliment French's essay, but to interpret Ovid's Metamorphoses in what will surely be an offhand way. Creative license and factual exactness are odd bedfellows, not unlike the anima and the animus--the original Odd Couple. But as it goes, I will discuss French's ideas as I make my way towards Ovid's text.

The masculine principle under primary edict moves in a quest-motif towards a goal or telos (as the ancient Greeks would say). The final outcome is an ethical change in the mental fiber of the hero; the revitalized masculine, through transformation or transcendence, claims ownership of culture and morality in all aspects--law and order and the enforcement power in the world. The extremes of the animus include the ability to kill and this killing, through inhumanity, gives men the power to name God; the heroic warrior comes complete with heroic codes and burial rituals and the bard's tales of apotheosis. And as setting, the earth, the immortal and the inehaustable, is always present. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (2700 B.C.) the bard tells the story of the first massive clear-cut. King Gilgamesh murders the forest guardian Humbaba and cuts down the cedar forest for fame and glory, the basics of figurative immortality. The king's energies are aimed at making permanence in the world.

This permanence, French suggests, is directly threatened by the cyclical forces of Nature, i.e. the feminine entity. So as to control this formidable force, Christianity, French says, splits the feminine principle in two. The stratagem: Divide and Conquer. Conquest is the centerpiece of the animus. The anima persists in actual women, persists in a man's perceptions of women as either/or--the outlaw or the inlaw.

Back much farther than Christianity, it seems, into the epics of Homer and even farther back to the beginning of the written word, the archetypes of the bad/woman and the good/woman rise out of the dialectic between the earth and the urban. The Furies are older than the gods themselves; these creatures are the true ancient ones. By the time of Homeric poetry, Clyteamnestra has committed patricide by betraying and murdering her husband King Agamemnon. In the underworld, Agamemnon tells Odysseus: "The days of faithful wives are gone forever." In Euripides' play that bears her name, Medea murders not only King Creon and his daughter, but her own two sons. These women are associated with chaos and pernicious destruction; in nature, so the male story goes, they are uncontrollable and formidable, the winged demons of castration, the old and older and ancient furies in the whirlwinds of literary time.

In Double Vision, a contemporary version takes shape. Julie Levinson discusses archetypal female characters in Cowboy Westerns: first we have the transplanted Eastern woman. She is smart, educated, and proper and she also represents all the forces that threaten to displace and domesticate the wild West. Her polar opposite is the saloon girl, the town whore, a good time gal often shunned by the guardians of the town's morality. This woman usually suffers a worse fate than the reckless and lawless men of the West. The other side of the archetypal coin is the good/ woman visible in icons like the Virgin Mary, Penelope, Nausikaa, and Donna Reed. This woman is the mentor, the prescription giver. She acts out the values intact in the masculine community, in the "good society," and supports masculine scenarios of power-in-the-world.

Ovid's Metamorphoses acknowledges, so to speak, the dimensions of the feminine principle before the split. For afterward, the cult of the goddess is driven underground, into the subculture of the earth itself. The females in Ovid tend to live beyond the either/or dichotomy that commonly defines the behavior of women in literature and Christian tradition. Daphne goes where Apollo--the god of patriarchal civilization--cannot follow. And where is this place? Ovid exalts the realm and presence of Themis, the goddess who founded the oracle of Delphi long before Apollo seized the temple. She rises out of the post-diluvian creation and teaches (through the power of riddle) Deucalion and Phyrra that the earth is the source of life. And what is so different? In Book I of Metamorphoses, after the waters have receded, Themis tells the surviving couple, "Go to the temple, cover your heads, loosen your robes, and throw your mother's bones behind you." The human soul lives inside these stones, the bones of the Mother Earth. The riddle solved, Deucalion and Phyrra throw stones over their shoulders and the children of the earth are born. "The Earth is generous with her provision, and her sustenance is very kind; she offers, for your tables, Food that requires no bloodshed and no slaughter, Meat is for beasts to feed on" (Book XV, lines 81-84). In the Bible, the patriarchal deity proclaims to Noah: "And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you" (Genesis 9:2-3). In Ovid's post-diluvian narrative, salvation is more closely associated with ecological harmony (biocentrism) than dominion and conquest (anthropocentrism), for "life came into being, generated Out of the earth" (Book I, lines 419-20). In Genesis, the law of human mastery is handed down as decree by an external, patriarchal abstraction called God. And therein lies all the ideological difference.

It is written in her biography that the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe would walk the arroyos in New Mexico day after day searching for dry, white animal bones, the spirit bones of the mother earth. For this woman artist, the soul of the earth lived in these bones, not as a symbol or alias, but literally--the soul itself, the union of the human body with the body of the natural world. O'Keeffe's paintings follow the anima into the very core of earthly intimacy. In Metamorphoses as well, Diana, the Queen of the sacred grove, lives at the core of the silent forest. For Marilyn French, Christian rivals transform Diana into the "Queen of Witches" and command her to destruction. And there is truth and fear here. "So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised and her magnificence should be destroyed, who, all Asia and the world worship" (Acts 19:27). Ovid's Metamorphoses is, in part, a written record of this ancient worship of Diana--the authentic feminine entity, the huntress, the Lunar virgin, and the creator of life.