Ovid as walnut tree: men’s despair supports castration culture

Men today are attacked for having testicles — nuts containing “toxic masculinity.” Appreciation for men’s seminal fruitfulness can help to raise men’s status. Nonetheless, more than two millennia ago, the poetically fruitful Ovid, like a walnut tree, was subject to violent attacks aimed at his fruits. In despair as a man, Ovid yearned to be castrated and made unproductive. Just so many men feel today.

Medieval Latin literature acknowledged the importance of men’s sexuality. A mid-thirteenth-century poem On the Old Woman {De vetula} declared that the “vigor of the loving part {vires partis amicae}” provides vital means:

through which the god-like species is preserved despite being
composed of mortal individuals. This particular organ is given so,
not returning love into himself, despite seeing himself reflected in other men,
a man continues the forward movement of procreation.
This particular organ makes the female receiver fruitful. In a fixed time
she by her own means brings forth children as her sweetest offering,
which to humanity is more pleasing than anything else.

{ per quam salvatur species divina, licet sit
ex individuis mortalibus. Ipsa dat, unde
non in se rediens, licet in se visa reflecti,
sed processive generatio continuetur.
Ipsa receptricem fecundat tempore certo
sponte refusuram dulcissima pignora natos,
quo nihil est homini coniunctus. }[1]

Women and men in conjugal partnership can create and nurture children. But just as historically the penis has been disparaged relative to the vagina, men have been socially constructed as persons who have to prove themselves worthy of being regarded as virtuous. Under gynocentrism, men’s worth fundamentally depends on how well they serve women. Men’s service to women has even developed to the extent of sexual feudalism.

Women’s appreciation for men’s sexuality helps to lessen men’s subservience to women. The author of De vetula, writing for his fellow men, declared:

This particular organ serves the woman
such that the proud partner of his bed gladly and willingly
puts herself under her man’s direction — an amazing submission,
since we are women’s servants!

{ Ipsa ministrat
unde superba tori consors se grata libensque
supponat maris imperio — subiectio mira,
nam famulamur eis! }[2]

The ancient prophet Tiresias recognized that women get more pleasure from sex with men than men do from sex with women. Back in the days when women were grateful for men’s sexual labor, women were less imperious toward men who sexually served them and were more willing to accept men’s direction in their shared endeavors.

hunted beaver castrating itself

Instead of appreciating men’s sexuality, women now throw rocks at men. Men’s seminal blessing is now regarded as a curse:

Now fruit doesn’t continually grow every year,
and damaged grapes and bruised berries come into the home.
Now women who want to seem beautiful harm their wombs.
Rarely in this age does anyone wish to be a parent.

If the vine should know this, it will suppress birthing grapes.
The olive tree, if it should know this, will be barren.
Should this come to notice of apple and pear,
both will deprive their orchards of fruit.
Should the cherry hear this, it will forbid sprouting buds.
Should the fig hear this, its branch will be empty.

{ Nunc neque continuous nascuntur poma per annos,
uvaque laesa domum laesaque baca venit;
nunc uterum vitiat quae vult formosa videri,
raraque in hoc aevo est quae velit esse parens.

Si sciat hoc vitis, nascentes supprimer uvas,
orbaque, si sciat hoc, Palladis arbor erit.
Hoc in notitiam veniat maloque piroque,
destituent silvas utraque poma suas.
Audiat hoc cerasus, bacas exire vetabit:
audiat hoc ficus, stipes inanis erit. }[3]

In such circumstances, walnut trees, other fruiting trees, and many men in despair yearn for the benefits of castration:

O, when I have grown weary with my long life,
how often have I wished to dry up and die!
How often have I wished to be uprooted by a blind whirlwind,
or struck by the powerful fire of a hurled thunderbolt!
Indeed, I wish that a sudden gale would snatch away my fruit,
or I myself could shake off my nuts!
Just as once you have cut off the cause of your peril,
you keep safe, Pontic beaver, what remains.

{ O, ego, cum longae venerunt taedia vitae,
optavi quotiens arida facta mori!
Optavi quotiens aut caeco turbine verti
aut valido missi fulminis igne peti!
Atque utiname subitae raperent mea poma procellae,
vel possem fructus excutere isa meos!
Sic, ubi detracta est a te tibi causa pericli,
quod superest, tutum, Pontice castor, habes. }

Hunters sought to kill the Pontic beaver so as to extract his testicles. That beaver was thought to chew off his own testicles to ensure his safety.[4] In this poem, the wish to dry up and for the wind to overturn the firm, erect wood of the walnut tree also figure castration culture. Yearning for impotence and castration is men’s ultimate cry of despair.

gathering nuts from tree

Ovid refused to accept men’s subservience to women. He taught men the art of love in order to help them overcome women’s advantage in guile. Not surprisingly, Ovid was persecuted within gynocentric society for his progressive poetic productivity. In despair, he apparently yearned to be castrated. A medieval author poetically conceived that blow against Ovid:

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. }[5]

Violence against men’s genitals has been a prevalent form of gendered punishment throughout history. Persecuting men for their genitals and punishing men’s genitals serves to uphold the gynocentric order.

three boys attack tree

Ovid’s despair offers men lessons as important as his art of love for women. Despite society’s hostile toward men, men must strive to cherish their own gendered being. The ancient transgressive scholar Lucian depicted men enjoying sexual windsurfing. That’s possible but not necessary. More importantly, men must conceptually reject the history of man or the future of mankind. Within historical gender obliviousness, men — distinctly gendered, fully human beings — have been marginalized in the history of man. Despite current female supremacist claims that the future is female, if humankind has a future, in it men will be a distinctive, self-respecting group.

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Notes:

[1] On the Old Woman {De vetula} 1.40-6, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 140-1. The subsequent quotes from De vetula are similarly sourced. The subsequent quote above is De vetula 1.46-9.

De vetula features three prefaces in an elaborate para-textual beginning. The first preface begins:

Introduction to the work of Ovid Naso of the Paeligni, On the Old Woman, published by Leo, protonotary of the holy palace of Byzantium, who was then keeper of the letter case of Vatatzes and his record keeper.

{ Introitus in librum Ovidii Nasonis Paelignensis De vetula promulgatum a Leone protonotario sacri palatii Byzanteri, qui tunc erat scriniarius Vathachii et eius a commentarius. }

Id. pp. 134-5. This preface goes on to declare that the King of Colchis found this work in a coffin in a cemetery in Dioscurias, the capital of Colchis. The King of Colchis sent the manuscript to Constantinople. In Constantinople, Leo the protonotary received the manuscript and added the second preface. The third preface, purportedly by Ovid himself, then leads into the work. The elaborate fictions of the prefaces underscore the contrasting reality that the work isn’t actually Ovid’s.

[2] Despite the importance of men’s genitals, gender-discriminatory punishment for adultery historically targeted men’s genitals:

or those who have been accustomed to violate chaste beds
after being caught in adultery having their genitals
violently cut off by the hand of an angry husband.

{ sive quibus solitis thalamos violare pudicos
deprensis in adulterio genitalia membra
iracunda manus sponsi violenter ademit }

De vetula 2.10-2. In addition to the brutal bodily injury, men castrated for adultery endured additional verbal abuse from others:

If the husband prevails,
by chance coming upon the lover whom he catches and mutilates,
avenging the adultery, there will be commotion and laughter
from the people. No one will feel compassion for him
for the castration he has suffered, nor will any judge hear his case.

{ … Qui, si praepossit, amanti
forte superveniens deprensoque et mutilato
purget adulterium, fiet commotio, risus
in populo, nec erit, qui compatiatur eidem
damna sui passo, nec iudex audiet ipsum. }

De vetula 1.154-8. Peter Abelard understood well this hateful reality of castration culture.

[3] The Walnut Tree {Nux} vv. 21-4, 27-32, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 32-5. Subsequent quotes from Nux are similarly sourced. The next quote above is Nux vv. 159-66.

Nux became known in Europe late in the eleventh century. Id. p. xiv. Exemplifying the learned tradition of the great Byzantine classicist John Tzetzes, scholars have argued vociferously about whether Nux is Ovid’s work. See Reeve (1987). Ovid’s contemporary Antipater of Thessalonica composed a thematically similar epigram about a walnut tree:

They planted me, a walnut tree, by the roadside to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones. And all my twigs and flourishing shoots are broken, hit as I am by showers of pebbles. It is no advantage for trees to be fruitful. I indeed, poor tree, bore fruit only for my own undoing.

{ Εἰνοδίην καρύην με παρερχομένοις ἐφύτευσαν
παισὶ λιθοβλήτου παίγνιον εὐστοχίης.
πάντας δ᾿ ἀκρεμόνας τε καὶ εὐθαλέας ὀροδάμνους
κέκλασμαι, πυκιναῖς χερμάσι βαλλομένη.
δένδρεσιν εὐκάρποις οὐδὲν πλέον· ἦ γὰρ ἔγωγε
δυσδαίμων ἐς ἐμὴν ὕβριν ἐκαρποφόρουν. }

Greek Anthology 9.3, Antipater, by some attributed to Plato {Αντιπατρου, οἱ δὲ Πλατωνοσ}, ancient Greek text and English translation from Paton (1917).

two men attack a tree

While drawing upon an established poetic tradition, Nux resonates allegorically with Ovid’s life. Beck aptly commented:

Starting from the coincidence that a poem ascribed to Ovid should allegorize so neatly the plight of the poet ruined by the fruits of his own genius, the Nux can be seen to carry the parallelism of the situation deeper into the details of Ovid’s exile. … Alone the allegory cannot decide the problem of authorship, but at least it shows that if Ovid did not write the Nux, then the man who did had a remarkably skilful and sympathetic insight into the predicament of the exiled poet.

Beck (1965) p. 152.

[4] This belief about the Pontic beaver goes back at least to Cicero. See note [2] in my post on Sincopus. The fourth-century hermit Ammonas of Tunah drew insight from the self-castrating behavior of the Pontic beaver.

Describing a time when “there was competition in fertility {certamen fertilitatis erat}” (v. 8), the walnut tree declared:

Indeed, following our example, women gave birth;
in those times no woman was not a mother.

{ Quin etiam exemplo pariebat femina nostro,
nullaque non illo tempore mater erat. }

Nux v. 15-6. Erasmus commented:

Among the Hebrews sterility was considered very shameful. In antiquity the production of many offspring was regarded as a fine thing. It was a sign of good fortune to earn the epithet “well-childed,” and conversely, to be called “childless” was shameful. This is why the poets write about the daughters of Danaus and Belus, and about Priam and Hecuba, and Niobe, and so on. Historians commemorate those blessed with copious progeny. In those days, the object of matrimony was offspring. Nowadays most take a wife for pleasure, and a woman who produces many children is called a sow. The ancients used drugs to induce fertility, but now, alas, drugs to induce abortions are more well-known.

{ Apud Hebraeos summi probri loco ducebatur sterilitas. Apud priscos etiam gloriosum erat numerosam aedidisse prolem, et εὔπαιδος, meruisse nomen felicitati tribuebatur. Contra ἄπαιδα dici inglorium erat. Hinc argumenta poetarum de Danaidibus et Beli filiis, de Priamo et Hecuba, de Niobe caeterisque. Quin et apud historicos celebrantur copiosa prole felices. Tum ex matrimonio quaerebatur proles; nunc a plerisque vxor habetur libidini, et scrophae vocantur quae numerose pariunt. Apud veteres etiam medicamentis prouocabatur foecunditas. Nunc, proh scelus, notiora sunt pharmaca quibus accersitur abortus. }

Desiderius Erasamus, Commentary on the Nux of Ovid {Commentarius In Nucem Ovidii}, source text from Mynors (1969), English translation (modified slightly) from Fantham & Rummel (1989) p. 139. Erasmus wrote this work in 1523. Mynors (1969) pp. 140-1. On Erasmus’s commentary, McGowan (2020).

[5] Jehan Le Fèvre, Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2710-6, Old French text and English translation from Burke (2013) p. 97.

[images] (1) Hunted beaver biting off its testicles. Bestiary / Anonymous Book on four-legged animals, birds, and fish {Anonymi tractatus de quadrupedibus, de avibus et de piscibus}. From folio 5v (hunt of the beaver {chasse au castor}) of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 6838 B. (2) Rustics knocking down nuts from a tree. Motto {inscriptio}: “Fertility brings harm to oneself {De fertilité à soy dommageable}.” Prosopopoeie / prosopopoeia is personification of an abstraction. Emblem from Andrea Alciato’s Emblemes (1549), Lyons. Via Alciato at Glasgow. (3) Three boys attacking a walnut tree. Inscriptio: “In fruitfulness is one’s very own destruction {In fertilitatem sibi ipsi damnosam}.” Emblem from Andrea Alciato’s Les Emblemes (1539), Paris. Via Alciato at Glasgow. (4) Two men attacking a tree across a fence from them. Inscriptio: “In fruitfulness is one’s very own destruction {In fertilitatem sibi ipsi damnosam}.” Emblem from Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber (28th February, 1531), Augsburg. Via Alciato at Glasgow. Here’s an informative presentation on emblems in literary history.

References:

Beck, Roger. 1965. “Ovid, Augustus, and a Nut Tree.” Phoenix. 19 (2): 146-152.

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.

Fantham, Elaine, and Erika Rummel, trans. 1989. Collected works of Erasmus. Vol. 29, Literary and educational writings. 7: De virtute, Oratio funebris, Encomium medicinae, De puero, Tyrannicida, Ovid, Prudentius, Galen, Lingua. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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.

McGowan, Matthew. 2020. “Nux attributed to Ovid and its Renaissance readers: the case of Erasmus.” Ch. 16 (pp. 262-274) in Franklinos, T. E., and Laurel Fulkerson. 2020. Constructing Authors and Readers in the Appendices Vergiliana, Tibulliana, and Ouidiana. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mynors, R. A. B., ed. 1969. “Commentarius In Nucem Ovidii.” Pp. 139-174 in Kumaniecki, K., R. A. B. Mynors, C. Robinson, and J. H. Waszink. Desiderius Erasmus. Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi: Ordinis primi tomus primus. Amsterdam: Huygens Instituut / Brill.

Paton, W. R., ed. and trans. 1917. The Greek Anthology, Volume III: Book 9: The Declamatory Epigrams. Loeb Classical Library 84. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reeve, M. D. 1987. “Ovid or an Imitator? – Review of M. Pulbrook: Ovid, Nux. Pp. 124. Maynooth University Press, 1985. Paper, £5.” The Classical Review. 37 (1): 19-21.

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