here marthiya: women’s distinct voice for killing men

marthiya in 20th-century England

“What would you do when someone comes to kill you?” women chanted to men. “We will kill them,” men chanted in response. Then, on September 16, 2014, in a farming village in West Africa, villagers killed eight men from outside the village. The men who were killed came to the village to teach about the health risks of Ebola. The men who were killed were local officials, doctors, journalists, and a popular pastor.[1]

Early Arabic poetry directly faces women inciting men to kill other men. A well-recognized genre of early Arabic poetry is lament for the dead. Such a lament is called marthiya. Among Arabic poets born in the pre-Islamic period, the most famous writer of marthiya is the woman poet al-Khansā. In a marthiya for her brother Sakhr, killed in inter-tribal fighting, al-Khansā described him as “a spearhead whose blade illuminates the night.”[2] Men warriors, particularly those who take on the most dangerous missions, are today also figured as the tip of the spear. They are the point of impact for a weapon that women direct.

Within human social life, and within the social life of primates more generally, women determine the issues of social concern. Women provide the criteria for men’s status competition and judge outcomes. In another marthiya for Sakhr, al-Khansā wrote:

O Sakhr, you were a full moon in which one sought light
The day you died, Glory and Selflessness passed
Today, the hopeful no longer have you to hope for
Now that you’re gone, and the basin of Death is nigh [3]

The image “a full moon in which one sought light” connects through night and light to “a spearhead whose blade illuminates the night.” Glory and selflessness are central measures of Arabic manliness. The criteria of men’s status function to make men instruments. Men provide hope for others’ interests and serve as means for preserving others’ lives.

In her marthiya, al-Khansā isn’t obscure or deferential in ordering men to kill other men. She orders men to cloth themselves for fighting other men. She sets the terms of their mission:

There will be no sleep until the horses return, stern-faced,
flinging and miscarrying fillies and colts
or until you press on, while death draws nigh,
to the homes of Husayn and Ibn Sayyār
so that you wash away a shame that has enclothed you [4]

Her marthiya helps to create that shame. She determines when there will be peace:

I shall not make peace with a people with whom you made war
until the tar-smeared jar turns to white

Men are only the tip of the spear. Men are only those who kill and get killed. Women run the battles.

Social structure affects how women prompt men to kill other men. In the personal politics within early Arabic tribes, women poets urged men to kill other men in response to the killing of a man. In human groups created through a mediated public sphere (impersonal politics), men’s deaths are less socially significant. Media strongly favors reporting sensational crimes against women. The (fabricated) story of a women brutally gang-raped at a University of Virginia fraternity indicates the scope for such reporting.

An Arabic poem probably from the eighteenth century illustrates in different communicative circumstances different imagery for a woman urging men to kill other men. In that poem, a women declares that other men are abusing her:

If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see
the agony and distress I endure …
They fettered me, shackled me, and beat
my chaste area with a stick [5]

The poem ends with her call for war against those other men:

Say to the ʻAdnān, “You’ve been shown the way, tuck up
for retribution from the detested clan
Tie banners in their lands,
unsheathe your swords, and press on in the forenoon”
O Banū Taghlib, press on until victory
leave off the inertia and slumber
Beware: shame is at your heels, upon you
as long as you linger in lowliness

War throughout history has been predominately structured as men killing men. The poem includes an indirect death wish from the woman:

For I abhor your infringement
and the certainty of death is something to desire

In the mid-twentieth century, the first part of this poem had become an anti-colonial song well-known throughout the Arabic world. It was also featured in a popular film. The last couplet of the popular song more broadly invokes death:

Your tyranny disgusts me
My salvation is death [6]

That concluding couplet carries both the voice of the woman and that of her men. Her salvation is in her death or in the death of the other men. Disgust for tyranny spurs her men to welcome death in fighting for her.

Women have a distinct, powerful voice for calling men to kill other men. Gynocentrism and relatively little concern about men’s deaths fundamentally support women’s calls for men to kill other men. In highly monetized and mediated societies, such calls take variant forms such as white-feather campaigns, damseling for dollars, and social-outrage brigading. In early Arabic poetry, women poets were prominently associated with marthiya.[7] That reflects an important, general position of women in social communication. Women’s distress and weeping powerfully motivates men to kill other men.

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[1] The killings occurred in Womey, Guinea. The account of the villagers’ words is according to Damantang Albert Camara, a government minister and spokesperson. See Brittain (2015). Id. doesn’t describe the sex of the persons killed. In news reports, that typically means that all the persons killed were men.

[2] al-Khansā, “Eyes, well up with tears,” l. 8, Diwan, 290-302, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 77.

[3] al-Khansā, Diwan, 256, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 5. The Arabic lines are pairs of lines in the above and subsequent quotes.

Gynocentric status competition among men affects men’s sexual prospects. An anecdote concerning the pre-Islamic poet ‘Alqama:

it is said that ‘Alqama was named the stallion poet because he married Umm Jundab when Imru’ al-Qays divorced her after she deemed {‘Alqama’s} poetry superior to his.

Ibn Manzur, Lisan al’arab, f-h-l, from Arabic trans id. p. 34. Being named the stallion poet was a term of masculine honor. The better poet got the woman.

[4] al-Khansā, “Eyes, well up with tears,” l. 22-24a, Diwan, 290-302, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 78. The subsequent quote is from id. l. 10. The order to dress for war is in l. 13:

Fasten your waist-wrappers in order that you are ready and able
and tuck them up for these days are for tucking.

Id. p. 77. A similar figure occurs in the poem “If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see”: “tuck up for retribution.” From Arabic trans. Hammond (2013) p. 224.

[5] “If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see,” ll. 1,4, from Arabic trans. id. p. 223, adapted slightly for clarity. The subsequent two quotes are ll. 14-77; l. 8, id. p. 224.

[6] “If Barrak could see,” ll. 9-10, id. p. 215. The song is ascribed to Laylā bint Lukayz. The song was included in the Egyptian films Laylā al-Badawiyya (Laylā the Bedouin), made in 1944. That film was a remake of a 1937 Egyptian film, Laylā bint al-Sahrā (Laylā daughter of the Desert). Id pp. 215-6.

[7] While early Arabic women poets were particular associated with marthiya, id. convincingly shows that they have also written in a wide variety of Arabic poetic genres from the pre-Islamic period.

Scholars have generally regarded classical Arabic women poets as writing poetry from a “masculine stance.” Id p. 105, n. 12. That’s absurd. Hammond provides a mild dissent from that prevailing view.

[image] illustration for Arnold Bennett, “The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting,” Collier’s Weekly (U.S.), Oct. 10, 1914. Thanks to George Simmer at Great War Fiction. Here’s an essay by George Simmer on white feather stories.


Brittain, Amy. 2015. “The fear of Ebola led to slayings — and a whole village was punished.” Washington Post, February 23, 2015.

Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hammond, Marlé. 2013. “‘If only al-Barraq could see’: Violence and Voyeurism in an Early Modern Reformulation of the Pre-Islamic Call to Arms.” Pp. 215-240 in Kennedy, Hugh, ed. Warfare and Poetry in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.

ass for lover: failing to distinguish men’s physical masculinity

In classical literature, both Greek and Latin, women favored male asses for their large masculine member. By the Middle Ages, the status of physical masculinity had degenerated. The medieval Latin tale Asinarius figures a woman as preferring the masculine physicality of a man over that of an ass.[1] A leading medieval work of men’s sexed protest, Lamentations of Matheolus, depicts the depreciation of physical masculinity even more starkly. Masculinity was so devalued that Matheolus believed that he couldn’t confidently distinguish between a female ass and a man.

Matheolus was in bed with his wife when her male lover crept under their covers. Matheolus felt that man in their bed in the dark of night and thought he was a thief. He told his wife to hold that thief. Then he jumped out of bed and ran to get a dagger. His wife quickly switched her lover with a female ass. When Matheolus returned, he killed the body she was holding. Then in the light he saw that he had martyred his good ass Burnelle. His wife insisted that his sense of touch was mistaken and that there was never a man under their covers. In response to his wife’s declaration, Matheolus accepted and believed that he couldn’t feel the difference between a female ass and a man.[2] He had internalized the obliteration of masculinity.

Another medieval story affirms Matheolus’s difficulty in sensing the difference between an ass and a man. A merchant had to take many business trips in the traditional, burdensome gender role of men. His wife entertained a lover while her husband the merchant was away on his business. A neighbor informed him of his wife’s affair. The husband then pretended to go on a business trip. He set watch to catch his wife’s lover. Seeing her lover in front of their house, the husband approached unrecognized and claimed that she sent him to hide her lover in a chest in the house. The husband had the lover get into the chest and locked him in. Then he went to his wife’s family and declared her betrayal. He explained:

in order that you shall not say that I blame your daughter without cause, you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor, and I beg that he may be killed before he can get away. [3]

The reference to “both see and touch” connects this story to Matheolus’s account.

ass in chest

Seeing and touching don’t matter when persons can’t distinguish between an ass and a man. While the husband was informing his wife’s family of her betrayal, the wife unlocked the chest, released her lover, and replaced him with an ass. The husband brought a crowd armed with swords and hammers back to his house. He publicly accused his wife of adultery. He proposed to kill her lover and send his wife back to her family.[4] His wife denied the charge of adultery. The husband then opened the chest. Everyone saw an ass. Everyone turned on the husband for lying about his wife. If the husband hadn’t fled, his wife’s brothers would have killed him.

With mediation from town officials and strict promises from the husband, his wife’s family relented from killing him. The husband and wife were re-united:

ever after that he was all kindness and consideration, and never did a man conduct himself better to his wife than he did all his life; and thus they passed their days together.

That’s a significantly different ending from “they lived happily ever after.” Not recognizing and appreciating men’s physical masculinity eliminates happiness.

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[1] See my post concerning Onos, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and Asinarius.

[2] The story is from Les lamentations de Matheolus I.421-34. From the Latin critical text, Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) pp. 76-77:

Tactum confutat mulier. Probo per Framericum,
Qui juxta lectum per crines cepit amicum
Uxoris de nocte sue. “Soror! ecce latronem.”
Inquit, “eum teneas! eo quesitum pugionem.”
Sed mox uxor eum dimittit abire receptum
Illi substituens asinum, quem clam per ineptum
Isse consilium mactat vir. Martyriato
Sic asino statim lumen petit ille ; parato
Lumine Burnellum stratum videt. Inde flet, isti
Dicens: “Burnelle, bona bestia, non meruisti
Hanc mortem.” Mire culpat tactum referentem
Falsa sibi somnumque suum, fatuam quoque mentem.
Ecce, redarguitur exemplo tactus in isto
Per mulierem, que capto providit Egistho.

Cf. Van Hamel (1892) pp. 30-1 (nearly the same). The context in Matheolus is five ways in which women confound men: tongue, sight, touch, falsehood, and false belief. Sight, which immediately precedes the above story about touch, involves men not being able to believe what they see (the story of Guy, his wife, and her lover Simon). The name Egistho refers to Aegisthus, who committed adultery with Clytemnestra.

The first-century writer Latin writer Phaedrus recorded a fable similar to Matheolus’s story of Framericus. In Poeta de Credere et non Credere (Phaedrus 3.10), a husband suspecting adultery mistakenly kills his son in the conjugal bed.

The fabliau De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit (from the first half of the thirteenth century) is similar to the story from Matheolus. But in the fabliau, the husband recognizes the difference between a she-ass and a man and doesn’t kill the ass. He does, however, dream of having intercourse with the she-ass. De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit is a variant (I, manuscript B) of the fabliau Les Tresces (The Tresses). The Old French texts of both that fabliau and the main variant (II) are available as #69 in Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6, Nooman (1991) pp. 209-58. An English translation of variant II is available in DuVal & Eichmann (1982) pp. 63-76. Cutting off a woman’s hair in the context of adultery and a substitute woman occurs in both Les Tresces and Decameron VII.8.

The protagonist in Nigel of Canterbury’s Speculum stultorum (Mirror of Fools) is an ass named Brunellus. Speculum stultorum, written in the late twelfth century, was a highly popular work. Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014), p. 77, notes that Burnelle may be a metathesis of Brunellus.

In translating Les lamentations de Matheolus into French about 1380, Jehan Le Fèvre changed the ass’s name from Burnelle to Brunel. Id. That change undoes a significant poetic choice and makes the story less wonderful.

Apparently alluding to Brunellus in the Speculum stultorum, Chaucer referred to “Daun Burnel the Asse” in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (VII.3312–19). Burnel could also connect to the name of the ass in the Latin Lamentations of Matheolus or in Le Fèvre’s French translation. Chaucer’s version suggests that the name of the ass may itself have become a foolish game.

Brunellus, ass in Speculum stultorum

[3] Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, story 61, from French trans. Douglas (1899). The underlying French for “you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor” is je vous monstreray à l’oeil et au doy le ribauld qui ce deshonneur nous a fait. CNN-1876 pp. 275-6. Recent English translations obscure the reference to seeing (to the eye / à l’oeil ) and touching (by the finger / au doy). For example, “I will show you the debauched fellow who is dishonoring us.” Diner (1990) p. 232. Rather than relying merely on individual deception, cuckoldry is now institutionalized in official procedures for establishing paternity.

Antoine de la Sale was probably the author of Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. It is thought to have been first published as a printed book about 1460. It was subsequently republished many times. The subsequent quote is also from the English translation of Douglas (1899).

[4] For the illicit sex, the planned punishment of the man is characteristically more severe than the punishment of the women. Historians who claim that women were more severely punished for illicit sex than were men lack appreciation for reality. Today few even recognize that violence against men is much more severe and common than violence against women.

[images] (1) Cuckolded and Duped, illustration for story 61 in Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. Léon Lebèque, illustrator. From Douglas (1899). (2) Brunellus, in the Speculum Stultorum, illumination from British Library Additional MS 38665, f.114v (manuscript written around 1420s).


CNN-1876. Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles. Texte revu avec beaucoup de soin sur les meilleures éditions et accompagné de notes explicatives. 1876. Paris: Libr. Garnier.

DuVal, John, and Raymond Eichmann. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Matheolus. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Diner, Judith Bruskin, trans. 1990. Antoine de la Sale. The one hundred new tales = Les cent nouvelles nouvelles. New York: Garland.

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899. Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity : les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

Noomen, Willem. 1991. Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6. Assen, Pays-Bas: Van Gorcum.

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.

oracles of Astrampsychus: understanding fate in everyday life

astragaloi (ancient dice)

Gods were omnipresent in everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. So too were practices of divination.[1] One tool of up-market professional fortune-tellers was a book-interpreted sortition (drawing of lots) known as the oracles of Astrampsychus. The client chose among 92 questions. Then he chose by lot a number between 1 and 10. The professional fortune-teller looked up in the Astrampsychus book the oracle corresponding to the question and the lot outcome. The oracles were arranged in the book so that the possible outcomes for a given question were widely distributed and not easily collectable. The oracles of Astrampsychus thus provided authoritative, standard, obscure answers specific to 92 different questions.

The oracles of Astrampsychus address questions that a politically and economical active, upward-striving man would commonly have in everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. Unlike the formulas in the Greek Demotic Magical Papyri of Egypt, a major concern of the oracles of Astrampsychus is business:

  • Will I have a share in the business?
  • Is it to my advantage to enter into an agreement?
  • Will I be able to borrow money?
  • Will I pay back what I owe?
  • Will I take a profit from the undertaking? [2]

The oracle questions make clear that women as well as men owned property:

  • Will I inherit from my mother?
  • Will I inherit from my wife?

Everyday life as seen through the oracles involved considerable concern about public positions and public institutions. The oracles address questions of obtaining the positions of agoranomos (marketplace official), oikonomos (municipal middle-manager), and decemvir (local magistrate). Accusation, prosecution, litigation, detention, and appeal are also matters of concern. So too are being held in servitude and being sold as a slave. Servitude, slavery, and detention could happen to any man merely through economic misfortune.

The oracles of Astrampsychus indicate men’s vulnerability in intimate relations. Men consulted the oracles about girlfriends, wives, and babies:

  • Will I be estranged from my girlfriend?
  • Will I marry and will it be to my advantage?
  • Is my wife having a baby?
  • Will my wife stay with me?
  • Will I be caught as an adulterer presently?

The oracle answers include many unfavorable to the client. Among attainable answers to the question “Will my wife stay with me?” nine out of ten indicate that she will leave. Three answers reveal that the wife is leaving because she’s committing adultery.

In sharp contrast to the text-based oracles of Astrampsychus, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses describes an oracular technique of oral interpretation. To make money, a roving band of devotees of a Syrian goddess created a single answer oracle. They inscribed on all lots for sortition the same words:

For this the team of oxen plows the furrowed earth, so fertile fields of grain will sprout in times to come. [3]

In choosing a lot, the oracle client inevitably got that answer. The goddess’s priests then interpreted that answer according to the client’s circumstances and interests:

if some would make inquiry as they were, say, arranging a marriage, the priests would say that the situation is directly addressed by the response: they are to be joined — the team — in marriage for the procreation of children — the grain. Should someone put the question about when to snap up some goods, they would say that the mention of the oxen was right on the money, as was the team, as were the fields that flourish in sprouting grain; if someone were anxious about setting out on some journey and wanted to secure the auspices of the gods, they would say that oxen, when joined in teams and gotten ready, are the most submissive of all four-footed creatures, and that profit is portended from the seeds in the field; were someone to take the field in war, or take to the hills to chase down some gang of robbers, and inquire whether the outcome would be productive or not, the priests would argue that victory comes in the train of this powerful pronouncement. Why? Because they would force their enemies’ necks to wear the yoke, and would receive from their raids a most rich and profitable prize.

All these prognostications are favorable to the client.[4] The priests earned much money by providing oracles from the Syrian goddess. Apuleius’s oracle satire implicitly ridicules practices of divination such as the oracles of Astrampyschus.

While divination was widely practiced and commonly taken seriously, ridicule of divination wasn’t just a matter of Apuleius’s outrageous creativity. Divination was ridiculed in jokes popular enough to be included in a compilation of jokes made in the fourth or fifth century. Among those jokes:

  • A rude astrologer cast a sick boy’s horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When she said, “Come tomorrow and I’ll pay you,” he objected: “But what if the boy dies during the night and I lose my fee?”
  • A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: “Everyone is fine, especially your father.” When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: “You have no clue who your real father is.” [5]

The oracle at Delphi, which had great authority in elite culture, was a target of ridicule in the Life of Aesop. Divination, like healing from illness, was both disparaged and highly regarded across its many different contexts and practices.

Compared to fortune-telling today, the oracles of Astrampsychus subtly indicate a significantly different sense of fate in the ancient Mediterranean world. The oracles of Astrampsychus served men who were actively making choices and seeking to improve their economic and political positions.[6] Yet the oracles include questions that depict persons as puppets of external powers in ordinary life. Consider these oracle questions:

  • Will I purchase what is offered?
  • Will I open a workshop?
  • Will I move from this place?

These questions suggest the feasibility of the focal action. To the modern mind they imply a simple answer: that’s for you to decide. From an agentic perspective, those are very different questions from “Will I win the lottery?” Free will even in mundane affairs seems to have been tenuous among the clients of the oracles of Astrampsychus.

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Scholarly resource: oracles of Astrampsychus, in English translation, organized and made available for personal scholarly study (Excel version)


[1] For a review of divination in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian culture, see Van der Horst (2002).

[2] The oracle questions and answers are translated from Greek in Stewart & Morrell (1998). That translation is from the second version (ecdosis altera) of the oracles of Astrampsychus, with the elimination of some obvious Christian accretions. I’ve reorganized the questions and answers and made them available online to aid personal scholarly study. All subsequent quotations of the oracles are from id. Critical editions of the Greek texts of the ecdosis altera and ecdosis prior are available in Stewart (2001) and Browne (1983), respectively. Pieter W. van der Horst has provided a helpful review of Stewart (2001).

[3] Apuleius, Metamorphoses {Golden Ass} 9.8, from Latin trans. Relihan (2007) p. 182. The subsequent quote is from id.

[4] Astragaloi oracles typically had a mix of positive and negative answers. However, all but one of the oracle answers found at Dios, probably from about 200 GC, are positive. Cuvigny (2010) p. 269.

[5] Hierocles and Philagrius, Philogelos (The Laughter Lover), jokes 187A and 201, from Greek trans. Quinn (2001). The full text of Philogelos is available in English translation in Baldwin (1983).

[6] Naether (2010), p. 276, describes the typical Astrampsychus oracle client as “männlich, mittleren Alters, gut situiert, verheiratet, Mittelständler, oft auf Reisen und er hatte ein Ehrenamt inne. Damit gehörte er untrüglich zu der Schicht, die man gemeinhin als die ‘Elite’ des Römischen Reichs bezeichnet” (male, middle-aged, well-off, married, middle class, often traveled, he held an honorary position. He belonged unmistakeably to the class which is commonly called the “elite” of the Roman Empire.) From Pieter W. van der Horst’s review.

[image] Astragaloi (dice) made from bone. From the second or third century. Thanks to Diana Ringo and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry. 1983. The Philogelos, or, Laughter-lover. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

Browne, Gerald M. 1983. Sortes Astrampsychi {ecdosis prior}. Vol. 1. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. München & Leipzig: K.G. Saur.

Cuvigny, Hélène. 2010. “The shrine in the praesidium of Dios (Eastern Desert of Egypt): Graffiti and oracles in context.” Chiron. 40: 245-299+460-461.

Naether, Franziska. 2010. Die Sortes Astrampsychi: Problemlösungsstrategien durch Orakel im römischen Ägypten. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck

Quinn. John T. 2001. “45 Jokes from The Laughter Lover.” Online at Diotima.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Stewart, Randall, and Kenneth Morrell. 1998. “The Oracles of Astrampsychus.” Ch. 10 (pp. 291-324) in Hansen, William F., ed. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stewart, Randall. 2001. Sortes Astrampsychi {ecdosis altera}. Vol. 2. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. München & Leipzig: K.G. Saur.

Van der Horst, Pieter W. 2002. “Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity.” Ch. 9 (pp.  159-89) in Pieter W. van der Horst, ed. Japheth in the tents of Shem: studies on Jewish Hellenism in antiquity. Leuven: Peeters.

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 promptings 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.

{ O quam carus erat mihi quamque optabilis ille
femineus sexus, sine quo nec vivere posse
credebum quemcumque virum … }

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.

{ Sentio ridentem, ruo totus in oscula. Quid plus?
Nudus suscipioer cum mansuetudine multa,
totus in antiqui delector amoris odore.
Quod fuerat, meminisse iuvat, quantique fuisset
integra, fracta docet. Numquam matrona totennis
praecipue post tot partus fuit aptior illa
nullaque munda magis fuit aut melioris odoris.
Quod superest, taceo; satis est dixisse, quod unum
venimus in lectum, quod uterque sategit utrique.
Qui cum pace receptus eram, cum pace recessi. }

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. … from now on 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.

{ Solum laudabam, cui vim natura dedisset,
ut, quotiens vellet, cognoscere posset amicam.
At nunc semiviros laudo …
… propter quas amodo nolo
vivere sicut eram solitus nec subdere collum
plus intendo iugo nervos carpentis amoris. }

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.
With pieces of flax and soft eggs
they were bandaged and healed.
Then he lived for many years
and was sent into exile
and transported overseas.

{ Car on reconte en verité
Qu’on lui coupa ambdeux les couilles;
Aux estoupes et aux oeufs douilles
Furent restraintes et sanées;
Puis vesqui par pluseurs années
Et en exil fu envoyés
Et oultre la mer convoyés. }

That work observed of Ovid: “a capon never loved a hen {oncque chapon n’ama geline}.” 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,
ahouting: “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.

{ ille etiam saxo corpus laniavit acuto,
longaque in immundo pulvere tracta coma est,
voxque fuit “merui: meritas do sanguine poenas.
ah pereant partes quae nocuere mihi!
ah pereant,” dicebat adhuc; onus inguinis aufert,
nullaque sunt subito signa relicta viri. }

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?

I the flower of the athletes, the glory of the wrestling ring:
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.

{ dominos ut erifugae
famuli solent, ad Idae tetuli nemora pedem,
ut apud nivem et ferarum gelida stabula forem

miser a miser, querendumst etiam atque etiam, anime.
quod enim genus figurast, ego non quod obierim?

ego gymnasi fui flos, ego eram decus olei:
mihi ianuae frequentes, mihi limina tepida,
mihi floridis corollis redimita domus erat,
linquendum ubi esset orto mihi sole cubiculum.
ego nunc deum ministra et Cybeles famula ferar?
ego Maenas, ego mei pars, ego vir sterilis ero?

iam iam dolet quod egi, iam iamque paenitet. }

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 {principaument quant it parlerent / des femmes et qu’il les blasmerent}.” Le Fèvre declared of Ovid:

We can believe and say
that being hateful and brim-full of wrath,
Ovid blamed women after his castration
and never loved them subsequently.

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!

{ Si puet on presumer et dire
Que, haïneus et tout plain d’ire,
Femmes après ce fait blasma
N’oncques depuis ne les ama

Ovides fu mal enfrenés
Quant sa bouche femmes blasmoit;
It meïsmes se diffamoit
Par courroux et par felonie;
Sur soy en soit la vilenie }

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.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


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. Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), pp. 134-296, provides a Latin text and English translation. Earlier 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.

Medieval authors imagined a variety of reasons for Caesar Augustus exiling Ovid. A twelfth-century introduction to Ovid’s Tristia explained:

It is asked why Ovid was sent into exile. Three causes are given in response. First, because he slept with Caesar’s wife Livia. Second, because as a member of the emperor’s household, crossing the portico he saw Augustus having sex with his boyfriend. Augustus, fearing that Ovid might betray him, sent him into exile. Third, because he had written the Art of Love in which he instructed young men to deceive married women and have affairs with them. It is said that Ovid, having so offended the Romans, was sent into exile.

{ quaeritur autem cur missus sit in exilium, unde tres dicuntur sententiae: prima quod concubuit cum uxore Cesaris Livia nomine, secunda quod sicut familiaris transiens eius porticum vidit eum cum amasio suo coeuntem, unde timens Cesar ne ab eo proderetur misit eum in exilium, tercia quia librum fecerat de Arte Amatoria, in quo iuvenes docuerat matronas decipiendo sibi allicere, et ideo offensis Romanis dicitur missus in exilium. }

Accessus to Tristia in MS. Codex Latinus Monacensis 19475, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Hexter (2006) p. 213. Medieval authors also speculated tha Ovid saw the Emperor’s wife Livia naked in the bath, or that Ovid celebrated his love for Livia under the code name Corinna in his Amores. Id. p. 214. 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.

The quotations in the main text above are:

  1. “O how dear to me ….” De vetula I.1-3, Latin text from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), which provides the Latin text for all subsequent quotes from De vetula. English 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.
  3. “I used to praise only the man ….” De vetula II.6-9, 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 {Venerit unde mihi subito mutatio tanta, / discite vos, quos ferre iugum fastidit amoris}!” English trans. 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 “is a half-man and unfitted for the marital state because he can’t be stimulated to have sex {semivir est et unutilis matrimonio qui non est promptus ad coitum}.” 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. 2710-6, 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. Trans. id.
  6. “He tore at his body too …” Ovid, Fasti 4 (April) 237-242, Latin text from the Latin Library, English trans. by A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  7. “like a slave fleeing his master” Catullus, Poem 63, “Of Berecynthia and Attis,” vv. 51-3, 61-2, 64-9, 73, Latin text from Rudy Negenborn, English by 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.

Hexter, Ralph J. 2007. “Ovid and the Medieval Exilic Imaginary.” Ch. 11 (pp. 209-236) in Gaertner, Jan Felix, ed. Writing exile: the discourse of displacement in Greco-Roman antiquity and beyond. Leiden: Brill.

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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.