I don’t know if being turned into a bird was a good thing in Roman times, but it would probably not be my choice. So many in the Met suffer this fate. We in the modern age may wish to fly on occasion–on the other hand, there is the question of whether your mind would remain yours in such a small skull. The story of Caenis, for I call her here by her original name, is very disturbing.

The other most beautiful woman in the world is raped (of course), but afterwards she gets to make a wish

and so, in order that she not be raped again, she wishes to be turned into a man. This perhaps indicates, as does the story of Acteaon, that the mind is not preserved in metamorphosis, for she wishes to remain human in a frame which does not tolerate (usually) being raped. This so-called desire she has is filtered through Ovid’s narrative choice.  

Caenis, now Caeneus, “went away happy and spent all his time pursuing manly arts in Thessaly’s fields” (12, 245-6), as if a woman wants only to be manly. 

Then, in a demeaning exchange in battle, Latreus asks them (or was she a her? he is?) “What are you doing here Caenis? You’ll always be a woman to me” (12, 543, 544), “And go pick up your distaff and basket of wool, Go spin thread with your thumb, and leave war to men” (12, 548, 549). 

If that does not seem enough, in the next pages she is found inadequate in battle and, after being covered with lumber from which she cannot otherwise escape, morphs into a bird.

What does this story say to women? Escape those who persecute you by becoming one of their ranks–but even then you will not be good enough. There is no hint at a change in men’s mentality, only escape in morphologics which become progressively more demeaning.

5 thoughts on “The Re-Maled Fe-Male

  1. Honestly, the first thing I thought of when reading this was today’s society towards trans people and how homophobic people make fun of the trans community more than any other LGBTQ group. It’s sad to see that this depiction of the gods in the Met is somehow still represented in today’s society when people tell trans men or women that they will never be their gender because they will always be known as their gender assigned at birth.


  2. You bring up an interesting point about the mind as being permanent feature of someone’s identity. Caenis could have chosen to be anything else on her first wish like a lion or a tiger, but she chose to be a man. It is almost as there is longing to know what it is like to be in control as a human being and be able to have the freedom that woman themselves cannot have.


  3. I was never a fan of how Greek myths treated women. They always had the short end of the stick. They could be doing absolutely nothing and the next thing they know, here comes some male figure who apparently can’t control himself and rapes her! For Caenis to become a male is more than enough evidence to prove that women were treated poorly as objects. Caenis, along with other female figures in Greek myths, don’t deserve any of the foul treatment they received.


  4. Really good commentary, and it is really disturbing! I wonder though if she doesn’t ask to become a man in an act of complacent-ness but in an act of power, challenging them rather than bending to them. It almost reminds me of Arachne in a way, though their metamorphoses are very different, they both seem to me to stand up to a power they know they are not meant to win against. Even after she is changed into a man she becomes virtually indestructible, something to fear rather than be feared by. For me that’s an act of power, but I also see how it can be seen as conforming.


    1. I also saw this as an act of power. I was wondering though if the “weakness” shown was not a critique of women and more a critique of the men of the Era. Ovid has has some moments where we saw some very progressive thought. By becoming invulnerable, perhaps the other men treated our hero poorly because they were jealous? A Jab at fragile masculinity?


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