The Heroine's Journey
The Atlantic|September 2021
In Joseph Campbell’s classic study of world myths, women were in the background. A new book puts them at the center of the story.
James Parker

It’s one of the darkest and bloodiest episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King Tereus of Thrace, having lusted after his sister-in-law, Philomela, inveigles her away from her father’s protection, takes her to a forest dungeon, and rapes her. Philomela, towering in eloquence, vows to tell the world what Tereus has done; her raised voice, she promises him in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation, will “make the stones to understand.” So Tereus cuts her tongue out. Ovid, characteristically, zooms in: The wound pours; the severed tongue bounces and mutely spasms—“as an adder’s tail cut off doth skip a while,” in Golding’s version. More modern retellers of The Metamorphoses have been similarly transfixed. From Ted Hughes’s Tales From Ovid (1997): “The tongue squirmed in the dust, babbling on—Shaping words that were now soundless.” From Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren (2019): “Please imagine how it continues to wriggle, how it twitches and moves on the dirt floor.”

It barely qualifies as mythic, the story of Philomela. A sexual assault, a silencing, a mutilated testimony—there is nothing supernatural about any of this. The germ of hope in the tale is that Philomela is not silenced; still trapped by her abductor, the speechless princess secretly weaves her denunciation of Tereus into the imagery of a tapestry, which she then sends to her sister.

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