I’ve always harboured a good deal of sympathy for Scylla, the Homeric monster that according to Virgil, inhabited a cave in the strait between Sicily and Calabria. According to Hyginus, she was fearful creature with four eyes and six long snaky necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp shark’s teeth. Her body consisted of 12 tentacle-like legs and a cat’s tail, while six dog’s heads ringed her waist. Of all these ghastly accoutrements, it is the cat’s tail that sends shivers of fear down my spine.
Odysseus is able to escape Scylla only with the loss of six men. That she is not whole monstrous and possesses a shred of humanity is evidenced by the fact that the sorceress Circe advises Odysseus to ask Scylla’s mother, the river nymph Crataeis, to prevent her from pouncing more than once. Scylla is therefore not a beast. She is answerable to the matriarchy, can be restrained and is capable of reason. How is it then that she has come to be so monstrous?
According to John Tzetzes and Servius, Scylla was once a beautiful naiad who was claimed by Poseidon. Jealous of Poseidon’s attention and ardour, the nereid Amphitrite turned her into the fearsome creature that she was by poisoning the water of the spring where Scylla would bathe. There is no evidence that Scylla committed any hostile act towards Amphitrite, or indeed sought the attentions of Poseidon. Instead, her crime was to be an object of lust by a male who in turn was wanted by a woman higher up in the pecking order. Scylla was thus divested of her humanity by a higher-ranking member of the sisterhood, for having the effrontery to be in the position Amphitrite wished to be in. In Ovid’s version of the myth, the punishment visited upon Scylla by the matriarchy places her in such anguish that it negates her sense of self altogether, causing her to attempt to flee from herself, in vain “In vain she offers from herself to run / And drags about her what she strives to shun.” Hers, is now a lot of perpetual suffering.
There are other ancient myths acting as cautionary tales warning against females threatening the interests or wounding the egos of more powerful members of the sisterhood. Among them is the myth of Arachne. In the age of the hashtag, where we are all called upon to break the bias and deal with all people on their merits, Arachne’s sorrowful plight serves as a reminder of the fate that was said to have befallen those who are competent, skilful and as a result, threaten the positions of their elite sisters. Arachne is not powerful. All that she possesses is her brilliance in the art of weaving, an art at which she outshines all others. Ovid describes there in the following terms: “Arachne’s distinction lay not in her birth, or the place that she hailed, but solely her art.” So adept at her art was she, that again according to Ovid, she drew the attention of the supernatural, as: “nymphs often used to leave their haunts… equally eager to watch her handiwork in progress … as to view the finished product.”
While the modern slogan proclaims, “Girls can do anything,” Arachne’s accomplishments and, more so, her justifiable pride in them, led her into a weaving competition with the goddess Athena, who demanded that she tone her exuberance down and acknowledge the superiority of her senior sister. Arachne refused to be put down, or shunted into second place. Seeking full recognition of her professional competence, she accepted the challenge. Athena wove representations of the Olympians, the power-holding ruling class that ran Arachne’s world. By way of warning to those who would challenge that rule, she also wove representations of those strong high-ranking women who challenged the divine women that purported to rule over them by right of birth: the Queen of the Pygmies who challenged Hera and was turned into a crane, perpetually at war with her own tribe, the daughter of Trojan King Laomedon, who also offended Hera by “competing with great Jove’s consort” and was changed into a stork. The subtle warning: you can never be on the same level with the divine soul sisters or threaten the family business. Know your place and be at peace, a concept underlined by Athena “adding a border of olive branches, a symbol of peace.”
Arachne on the other hand, has the honesty and the effrontery to look beyond the glass ceiling and portray those that would keep her from breaking it as they really are, divested of corporate slogans and HR buzzwords. She portrays serial rapist Zeus in the act of raping Europa, Leda, Antiope, Alcmene, Danae, Aegina, Mnymosyne, while also recording the similar deeds of Poseidon, Apollo and Dionysus.
How does Athena respond to the revelations of her whistle-blower? Does she embrace her and lament the lot of vulnerable women everywhere? Does she invite her to an afternoon symposium at a suitable neoclassical edifice where they can discuss how to empower women and destroy gender stereotypes together, after first having paid homage to the native Pelasgians of Thebes? Hardly. Instead, she takes hold of the evidence both of her family’s crimes and of her underling’s greater skill at the loom and destroys it. “The fair-haired warrior goddess resented Arachne’s success and ripped up the picture of the gods’ misdemeanours.” Then comes the most harrowing part of the story. She begins to bully and harass Arachne incessantly, even resorting to physical violence. As Ovid relates: “She was still holding her shuttle of hard Cytorian boxwood/ And used it to strike Arachne a number of times on the forehead.”
Harried and tormented, Arachne could no longer endure the treatment meted out to her by her less competent yet higher-ranking sister. In her desperation, she fashioned a noose and hanged herself, seeking escape in suicide. Yet even in death there was no escape from the wrath of the affronted matriarchy. Sprinkling her with the “magical juice of a baleful herb,” Athena sentences Arachne to a life of perpetual death: “You may live, you presumptuous creature… but you’ll hang suspended forever.” She is now a spider, no longer admired but shunned and reviled by mankind, her web weaving skills a parody of her former prowess. Most importantly, she is now no longer a threat to her more powerful sister. She no longer has a voice.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne’s dolorous tale is related as in introduction to the story of Niobe, a privileged and wealthy woman who in keeping with Kirsten Riddle’s book, decided to variously be her own goddess, or unleash an inner goddess of her own. In particular, she took exception to the hype surrounding celebrating the motherhood of the divine Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis, (presumably with physical trainer, business advisor, social media expert and nanny in tow) while Niobe herself had to contend with raising seven girls and seven boys. According to Niobe, she is just as, if not more accomplished that Leto and is worthy of equal if not more recognition.
What does Leto do upon hearing of Niobe’s arguments. Does she sigh in understanding, adding a qualifying: “yes, but you don’t know what it’s like being a divine celebrity, the pressure, the scrutiny, the paparazzi..?” Does she marvel at Niobe’s fecundity and ask her which IVF clinic she can refer her to? Does she acclaim Niobe for multitasking, ask her how on earth she is able to cope and suggest that she also set up a clothing and cosmetic range from her garage? Leto does none of these things. Instead, her own progeny are despatched upon a deadly assignment: Apollo to murder Niobe’s boys and Artemis to kill her girls. Divested of her children, Niobe is no longer a mother and cannot challenge Leto’s motherhood. Indeed, she is no longer a person. Shedding copious tears in her grief, Niobe becomes a petrified water feature on Mount Sipylus in Asia Minor where she continues to weep to the present day.
As we resolve in these times to ensure that gender discrimination becomes ancient history, let us also be sensitive to the complex manner in which intraphyletic imbalances of power, education, class and economic distinctions, as well as entrenched cultural memory can serve to disenfranchise women and deprive them of a voice, even as they purport to empower them. Let us sympathise with and be mouthpieces of those such as Io who, deprived of humanity and turned into a cow, are beleaguered by the vengeful Heras of this world, who, her power and privilege threatened through no fault of Io’s sent a gadfly to sting her continuously, driving her to wander the world without rest.