Do you read ancient texts differently today than 20, 50 or 100 years ago? The answer is as simple as the banal question is: of course, because every reader inevitably brings the horizon of their own experience and the norms of their presence into the reading.
So today, in times of #metoo and omnipresent debates about sexualized violence, one will also reread the story of Tereus and Philomela, which Ovid tells in “Metamorphoses” and to Katharina Wesselmann, professor for the didactics of ancient languages in Kiel , alludes to in the title of her book.
Tereus locks his sister-in-law Philomela in a lonely hut in the forest and rapes her. So that she cannot betray her tormentor, he cuts out her tongue. In the end, Philomela’s shrewdness brings the matter to light, and the sisters take cruel revenge on Tereus.
Wesselmann begins with three Homeric female figures whose path she traces through world literature: that of the slave Briseis, whom Achilles has to cede to Agamemnon, whereupon he withdraws into the pout and from the Trojan War; that of the wife Penelope, who waited 20 years for Odysseus, and that of the beautiful Helena, who was awarded Paris by Aphrodite because he had declared her the most beautiful of all goddesses.
In the Homeric epics “Iliad” and “Odyssey” the three women are mere extras who only serve to give the plot a new twist. Only in later works of world literature – Briseis in Ovid, Penelope only in Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiade” (Berlin Verlag 2005) – do these figures become real protagonists.
There are still men who perceive “powerful women” as an anomaly, even if they belong to a species that is dying out in the west. Wesselmann draws the arc from Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton back to the tragedy figure Antigone and the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, who stand for “exclusion” and “demonization” respectively. In the case of Sophocles, this equation does not quite work out, because the tragedy poet Antigone, as an advocate of timeless morality, protects against all attempts at exclusion by the state.
It continues with the Carthaginian Dido, abandoned by the hero in Virgil’s “Aeneid”, and the king’s daughter Medea, who plays Jason badly, with Daphne and Io, the mythical victims of Zeus’ exaggerated sexual instinct, and finally with the story of Philomela and sex in what Paul Veyne called “legal rape”.
Then the book changes perspective and turns to men: as victims of sexual violence, spurned lovers, machos and those who have lost their way. Wesselmann empties a cornucopia of partly disturbing, partly abstruse, and in parts also amusing stories that make them think. They are written down with a light pen, only the intentional gesture of speech today (“maximum”) is sometimes annoying.
On the other hand, it is sympathetic that the author never rises to judge the distant past, but always makes it clear how time-bound every reception of antiquity is and how oppressively close to us Greeks and Romans are sometimes. Your book can be understood as an appeal not to lightly reject the old canon, but to learn new lessons from it. Anyone who rereads old texts may experience surprises.
Review: Prof. Dr. Michael Sommer
The severed tongue
Reread sex and power in antiquity
Verlag wbg Theiss, Darmstadt 2021, 224 pages, € 22, –