Ovid castrated & called misogynist for defying goddess Cybele

Ovid, the great teacher of love in medieval Europe, today still offers men profound lessons in seducing women for mutual love satisfaction. Those lessons start with appreciating women-in-the-flesh and not worshiping women as divine. Yet foregoing women worship means defying the great goddess Cybele, who has always ruled men’s fate. Ovid was castrated and called a misogynist for that daring impiety. Men today risk being denounced by dour, dogmatic-sex moralists and being attacked by apologists for rape-culture culture. Yet as Attis and Vivek Wadhwa learned to their regret, self-castration is a mistake.

introduction of cult of goddess Cybele

With Hannibal threatening to overrun the Roman Empire, the Roman general Scipio Africanus planned a desperate attack on Hannibal in Africa. The Delphic Oracle instructed the Romans to welcome and worship Cybele, the great mother goddess of the earth, also known as Gaia. So they did, and Hannibal was defeated. Worship of the great goddess Cybele, which early in history arose from childish urgings of men’s hearts, thus became fully institutionalized in public life. Roman men began to turn away from sex with women. They increasingly avoided marriage.

Ovid, in contrast, wanted to love all women — blondes, black-haired ones, young women, old women, tall women, short women. He wanted them all. He later recalled:

O how dear to me and how desirable was the female sex, without which I believed it was impossible for any man to live.

He understood the importance of men’s self-confidence for seduction, so he convinced himself that the only chaste woman is one who hasn’t yet been propositioned. He loved many women. Women, even if they pretended to resist initially, came to love him.

At a bar one night, after drinking enough to be seeing double, Ovid was brought home by a lovely young woman. She embraced him tightly in her dark bedroom. Like a blind man who cares nothing for the light of day, Ovid perceived by touch that she had become a hideous old hyena-cougar. He had been taken in a bed trick, without affirmative consent, with a blood-alcohol level that now defines rape, if he were she. He was a rape survivor. But no one believed his story. That’s because the great goddess Cybele decreed that only women have eyes that can see double, and only women can be raped.

Ovid objected not to the woman’s age, but to the deception. He knew that old women are more skilled in bed because they have had more men. Old women typically know a thousand different positions for love-making, practiced to perfection. They will fake sexual satisfaction without stimulation to prevent any suspicion that they can’t feel it. Old women are promising fields for amorous pursuits. All that Ovid knew and taught.

As an old man, worn out with his long, busy love life, Ovid met again the lovely young woman, now an old woman. She again showed amorous interest in him, but regarded them as too old for an affair. Ovid seduced her into his bed:

I feel her laughing and my whole body rushes into her mouth. What more can I say? Naked, I am received with much gentleness. My whole body delights in the smell of old love. What she was like, it is a pleasure to recall; and she demonstrates, in her reduced state, how fine she was in her prime. Never was a woman of such an age, especially after so many births, better than she. None was cleaner or better smelling. I am silent about what remains; it is enough to have said that we came together in bed, that in peace I was received, and in peace departed.

Ovid wished for the old woman the fullness of life in a mixture of fortunes. That’s what he had, too. Delight in old love comes from the pleasure of recalling a woman when she was young and in her prime. Memory of passion makes in old age peaceful loving.

As an old man, Ovid turned to a new life of scholarly pursuits. He explained:

I used to praise only the man to whom nature had given potency, so that as many times as he could wish, he would be able to have sex with his girlfriend. But now, I praise half-men. … I no longer wish to live as I was formerly accustomed, nor do I intend to submit my neck any longer to the yoke of all-consuming love.

Ovid called a half-man (semivir) a man who is physically unable to have sex with a woman. So, for example, a man castrated as a result of social hostility to men’s sexuality would be a semivir. But not only a semivir turns away from women. Because of gender inequality, pursuing love is much more burdensome for men than for women. Some men for that reason turn away from pursuing women. Ovid himself as an old man turned from the burden of seducing women to study of mathematics, music, astronomy, cosmology, and theology.

The great goddess Cybele convicted and punished Ovid for dishonoring old women. Cybele convicted him for insinuating that young women are more sexually attractive than old women. She also convicted him for studying books rather than servicing women sexually. Cybele ordered the Roman Emperor to relegate Ovid to the city of Tomis on the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire. That’s well known. The rest of Ovid’s punishment was revealed only in the late fourteenth-century French work of Jehan Le Fèvre:

For the true story is that he had both his balls cut off. They were bandaged and healed with pieces of flax and soft eggs; then he lived for many years and was sent into exile and transported overseas.

That work observed of Ovid: “a capon never loved a hen.” But roosters love hens. Ovid was a great rooster before he was made a capon. The great goddess Cybele had Ovid castrated merely because she envied Ovid’s women and was bitter that she never had him.

Cybele preferred boyish men. She enrolled in her service the handsome Phrygian boy Attis. His job was to protect her temple, service her without raising his masculine-patriarchal head, and remain a boy forever. Soon Attis, however, fell in love with a lovely young nymph who had neither title nor temple, but who raised Attis’s head. They made carnal joy with each other.

The great goddess Cybele, widely regarded as frigid, burned in anger at Attis’s love affair with the lovely nymph. She killed that girl. Cybele’s abuse internalized within Attis became self-hate. He blamed himself, not Cybele, for the girl’s death:

He tore at his body too with a sharp stone,
And dragged his long hair in the filthy dust,
Shouting: “I deserved this! I pay the due penalty
In blood! Ah! Let the parts that harmed me, perish!
Let them perish!” cutting away the burden of his groin,
And suddenly was bereft of marks of manhood.

In the purifying light of the sun, he looked out on the sea waves pulsating against the soft, sandy shore. He came to regret his self-castration. With tearful eyes he bemoaned his lost masculinity:

like a slave fleeing his master, so am I among
snows, and the frozen lairs of wild creatures, …
Sorrow on sorrow, again and again now complaint in the heart.
What form have I not been, what have I not performed? …
my doorway frequented, my threshold warm,
my house was garlanded with wreaths of flowers,
at the dawn separation from my bed.
Now am I brought here priest and slave of divine Cybele?
I, to be Maenad: a part of myself: a sterile man? …
Now I grieve for what I did, now I repent.

The time was too late, and the great goddess Cybele, too strong. Cybele unleashed her evil beasts upon Attis and forced him back into her temple.

Vivek Wadhwa probably knew nothing of Ovid, but he liked women. As an expert on entrepreneurship and public policy, he worked devotedly to promote women in technology. As a professor, he even invited women to come to his office and speak with him in person. His service to the great goddess didn’t propitiate; it ignited her anger. He was forced to cut off his male part, which was speaking for women.

Jehan Le Fèvre, forefather in spirit to Vivek Wadhwa, also spoke for women. He declared that Ovid, along with Homer, told false stories “especially when they spoke of women and attacked them.” Le Fèvre declared of Ovid:

we can believe and say that being hateful and brim-full of wrath, he {Ovid} blamed women after this {his castration} and never loved them afterward. … Ovid was out of control when his speech attacked women; he defamed his own self by his anger and wickedness. May the shame of it be on him

Professor R. Howard Bloch, a leading post-modern proponent of misandristic medieval scholarship, came to be denounced by other professors for his voice “gradually becoming indistinguishable” from medieval writers labeled as misogynists. Over recent decades, voluminous scholarship has revealed that “misogyny is a question not only of reading but of who speaks.” If a man speaks anything other than pure praise of the divine goddess, he is called a misogynist.

That’s how Ovid came to be castrated and called a misogynist. In today’s liberal democracies, Ovid, the great teacher of love in medieval Europe, is no longer welcomed to teach.

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The text above draws upon various works of Ovid, particularly his Amores, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), and Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love). It also draws upon the Pseudo-Ovidian Latin work De vetula (The Old Woman), alternately titled De mutatione vitae (The Change of Lives). It was composed between 1222 and 1268. The report of Ovid’s castration apparently originated in Jehan Le Fèvre’s Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), written from 1380-1387. Sometime before 1376, Le Fèvre translated De vetula into French as La Vieille.

De vetula was a medieval best-seller. It has survived in whole or in part in nearly 60 manuscript copies. Bellhouse (2000) p. 126. It hasn’t been translated into English. Latin critical editions are Klopsch (1967) and Robathan (1968). The Latin text of De vetula is similar in each, but the meta-texts offer different scholarly aids. Colker (1970). De vetula has been attributed to Richard de Fournival, but Klopsch (1967), p.99, considers that attribution unlikely. Le Fèvre’s translation of De vetula (La Vieille) is available in Cocheris (1861) (online) and in Huchet (2010).

De vetula probably influenced the thirteenth-century anonymous troubadour song “The other day I thought I had a lover {L’altrier cuidèi aver druda}.” In that song, a man fell in love with a beautiful woman. As was common medieval literary practice, he sent an old woman as a go-between to attempt to arrange a tryst with the beautiful woman. However, the old woman came to him at night, pretending to be the young woman. He embraced her, and then realized had been taken in a bed trick. Furious, he denounced and disparaged the old woman in physically explicit terms.

Le Livre de Leesce is available in a critical edition with English translation in Burke (2013). In addition to translating De vetula, Le Fèvre also translated about 1380 the Latin work Les Lamentations de Matheolus. That work, written about 1290, is a major, under-appreciated work of men’s sexed protests. Le Livre de Leesce presents itself as a response to Les Lamentations de Matheolus. Van Hamel (1892) presents both the Latin original of Les Lamentations de Matheolus and Le Fèvre’s (relatively free) French translation.

For general discussion of the development of biographical accounts of Ovid over time, see Ghisalberti (1946), Trapp (1973), and Godman (1995), adapted in Godman (2000) Ch. 8.

Quotations above:

  1. “O how dear to me ….” De vetula I.1-3, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2005) p. 106.
  2. “I feel her laughing….” De vetula II.666-75, trans. adapted from Miller (2008) pp. 77-8, and Godman (2000) p. 331. The first line in Latin is Sentio ridentem, ruo totus in oscula. Quid plus?; the final line, Qui cum pace receptus eram, cum pace recessi.
  3. “I used to praise only the man ….” De vetula II.6-8, III.1-3, trans. adapted from Miller (2008) p. 28, Ziolkowski (2005) p. 106.  De vetula II.200-201 declares: “Learn how such a great change came to me, you for whom it is loathsome to bear the yoke of love.” Miller (2008) p. 34. The Latin here for yoke is iugum / iugo. John of Salisbury in Policraticus, Bk. 8, Ch. 11, refers to a woman who seeks a divorce because her husband semivir est et unutilis matrimonio qui non est promptus ad coitum {“is a half-man and unfitted for the marital state because he can’t be stimulated to have sex”}. Latin text from Webb (1909) vol. 2, p. 299. John wrote Policraticus about 1159.
  4. “For the true story is … ” Jehan Le Fèvre, Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2710: Car on reconte en verité / Qu’on lui coupa ambdeux les couilles; / Aux estoupes et aux oeufs douilles / Furent restraintes et sanées; From French trans. Burke (2013) p. 97. The use of the word couilles (testicles) was a matter of lengthy discussion  in the Romance of the Rose. Lady Reason argued for plain-speaking about covered body parts. See ll. 6898-7198.
  5. “a capon never loved a hen.” Le Livre de Leesce l. 2708: Oncque chapon n’ama geline. Trans. id.
  6. “He tore at his body too …” Ovid, Fasti 4 (April) 236-242, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  7. “like a slave fleeing his master” Catallus, Poem 63, “Of Berecynthia and Attis,” excerpts, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  8. “we can believe and say….” Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2719-22, 2778-82, trans. Burke (2013) p. 97.
  9. Bloch “gradually becoming indistinguishable”: Pratt (1994) p. 57, n. 2.
  10. “misogyny is a question not only of reading but of who speaks”: Pratt (1994), p. 66. That phrase isn’t quoted in id, but is preceded by the statement “To quote Howard Bloch again (for who can resist invoking masculine written authority?)” The actual Bloch quote appears to be: “In attempting to identify misogyny one is to some degree always dealing with a problem of voice, the questions of who speaks and of localizing such speech.” The literature policing and judging misogyny has failed to localize even its own navel.

[image] Introduction of the Cult of Cybele into Rome.  Painting. Andrea Mantegna, 1505-1506. Thanks to National Gallery (London) and Wikimedia Commons. Daisy Dunn offers a good discussion of the painting.


Bellhouse, D.R. 2000. “De Vetula: a Medieval Manuscript Containing Probability Calculations.” International Statistical Review. 68 (2): 123-136.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1987. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations. 20 (1): 1-24.

Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Cocheris, Hippolyte, trans. 1861. La vieille, ou Les dernières amours d’Ovide: poème français du XIVe siècle. A. Aubry (Paris).

Colker, Marvin L. 1970. “Book Review: The Pseudo-Ovidian De Vetula.Speculum. 45 (2): 322-326.

Godman, Peter. 1995. “Ovid’s Sex-Life: Classical forgery and medieval poetry.” Poetica. 27 (1/2): 101-112.

Godman, Peter. 2000. The silent masters: Latin literature and its censors in the High Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ghisalberti, Fausto. 1946. “Mediaeval Biographies of Ovid.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 9: 10-59.

Huchet, Marie-Madeleine. 2010. De la Vieille de Jean Le Fèvre: traduction versifiée du De Vetula attribué à Richard de Fournival: étude et édition. Doctoral thesis, directed by Geneviève Hasenohr. École pratique des hautes études (Paris). Section des sciences historiques et philologiques.

Klopsch, Paul. 1967. Pseudo-Ovidius De vetula. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miller, Sarah Alison. 2008. Virgins, mothers, monsters late-medieval readings of the female body out of bounds. UNC Electronic Theses and Dissertations Collection. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pratt, Karen. 1994. “Analogy or Logic; Authority or Experience? Rhetorical Strategies For and Against Women.” Pp. 57-66 in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, eds. Literary Aspects of Courtly Culture. Cambridge:D.S. Brewer.

Robathan, Dorothy M. 1968. The Pseudo-Ovidian De vetula. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert.

Trapp, J. B. 1973. “Ovid’s Tomb: The Growth of a Legend from Eusebius to Laurence Sterne, Chateaubriand and George Richmond.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 36: 35-76.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Webb, Clement Charles Julian. 1909. John of Salisbury. Ioannis Saresberiensis episcopi Carnotensis Policratici sive De nvgis cvrialivm et vestigiis philosophorvm libri VIII. Oxonnii: e typographeo Clarendoniano.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. 2005. Ovid and the moderns. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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