The Boundaries of Love: Tereus as a Contrast to the Elegiac

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The Boundaries of Love: Tereus as a Contrast to the Elegiac Amator
In Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Philomela’s rape and mutilation by her brother-in-law Tereus is presented in graphic and grotesque detail. Scholars like Marder, Segal (1994), Newman, and Gildenhard and Zissos focus on the experiences of Philomela and her sister Procne, dismissing Tereus’s actions and characterization as indisputably villainous. Drawing on Richlin’s influential essay, “Reading Ovid’s Rapes,” they conclude that Ovid was essentially a “pornographer” with a sadistic interest in depicting violence against women. However, their approaches fail to consider Ovid’s other work. As Conte observes, Ovid seems to have been primarily interested in the proper performance of love - the ars and decorum of lovers. In this paper, I argue that Ovid actively alludes to his elegiac works in order to demonstrate Tereus’s gradual violation of erotic decorum. Indeed, Keith has shown that many of the amatory episodes in the Metamorphoses borrow not only themes and motifs from elegy, but sometimes even its precise language. I argue that Ovid’s allusions to his established conception of proper elegiac decorum in the tale of Tereus and Philomela point to specific transgressions against amatory conduct. Thus, the tale can be read not as an example of sadistic pornography, but rather as a negatively erotodidactic episode.

In this paper I show that the gradual change in the qualitative characterization of Tereus results from the progression of passion from the Ovidian decorum to the brutal sadism. As Siegel shows, Tereus is never described with an inherently negative epithet in the first section of the passage (VI.424-515); he is usually referred to as rex or Threicius. Prior to line 515, Tereus has yet to become a barbaric villain. An examination of his reported thoughts and actions shows that Tereus actually complies with many aspects of Ovid’s erotodidactic program. He contemplates bribing Philomela’s attendants or bribing her with extravagant gifts (VI.461-463) and pleads his case with false tears (VI. 471-474), tactics that are explicitly endorsed by Ovid in Book I of the Ars Amatoria. Although Tereus’s emphatic otherness indicates a predisposition to transgress the cultural norms of Greek (and by metaphoric extension, Roman) society; it is only once he takes Philomela away from the court at Athens that his intent to violence crystallizes (VI.519). At that point, Tereus begins to be characterized as barbarus and crudelis, and compared to predatory animals. Tereus’s cultural and physical separation from the civilizing influence of the Athenian court provides the impetus for his departure from elegiac decorum (Segal, 1969), and allows him to give into his innata libido (VI.458) and commit the nefas (VI.524).

Tereus’s physical departure from civilized society to the barbarian wilds of Thrace precipitates his behavioral shift from deceitful elegiac amator to savage erotic conqueror. The cultural disapproval inherent in Tereus’s characterization indicates that Ovid is not encouraging the brutalization of women, but rather offering Tereus as a negative example of amorous conduct. The Philomela episode, and other amatory passages in the Metamorphoses demonstrate that Ovid’s interest in erotic decorum extends beyond his elegiac works.

Conte, G. B. “Ovid.” Latin Literature: A History. Trans. J. Solodow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 340-358.

Gildenhard, Ingo and Andrew Zissos. “Barbarian Variations: Tereus, Procne and Philomela in Ovid (Met. 6.412-674) And Beyond.” Dictynna 4 (2007).

Keith, Allison. “Sources and Genres in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1-5.” Brill’s Companion to Ovid. Ed. Barbara Weiden Boyd. Boston: Leiden, 2002. 235-270.

Marder, Elissa. “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela.” Hypatia 7:2 (1992): 148-166.

Newman, Jane O. “‘And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness’: Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare’s ‘The Rape of Lucrece’.Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1994): 304-326.

Richlin, Amy. “Reading Ovid’s Rapes.” Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Ed. Amy Richlin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 158-179.

Segal, Charles. Landscape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Wiesbaden: Verlag, 1969.

Segal, Charles. “Philomela’s Web and the Pleasures of the Text : Reader and Violence in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.” Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature. Ed. I.J.F. de Jong and P. Sullivan. New York: Leiden, 1994.

Siegel, Janice Fay. Child Feast and Revenge: Ovid and the Myth of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus. Diss. Rutgers Graduate School, 1994.

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