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  • Desire and Rape in the Feminine:The Tales of Echo and Salmacis: An Ovidian Answer to Propertius 1.20?
  • Jacqueline Fabre-Serris (bio)

In this paper I offer a comprehensive study of two stories told in Ovid's Metamorphoses 3 and 4, each about the meeting between a boy (Narcissus/Hermaphroditus) and a nymph (Echo/Salmacis), consumed with desire at first glance. In both passages Ovid uses a narrative pattern recurring in many erotic tales of the Metamorphoses with male and female protagonists: the sudden sight of an erotically attractive young individual, followed by violent desire, declaration of love in vain, and attempted rape. Since the 1964 study of Hugh Parry,1 violence and rape2 in Ovid's Metamorphoses have received serious scholarly attention. In the United States there is an ongoing debate on whether and how it is even possible to teach Ovid today, since his vivid depictions of rape and sexual assaults may be offensive for some students.3 Although I will not discuss this particular issue, it seems important to keep in mind that Ovid is the ancient author most interested in examining erotic feelings and sexual situations from a female perspective. In my opinion, the two passages I compare typify Ovid's personal, authorial choice to empathize with women's point of view and behavior by giving literary space to a female voice.4

I would argue that Ovid has derived the idea of constructing two parallel stories about erotically desirous nymphs, Echo and Salmacis, from Propertius 1.20. In this text Propertius provides the exemplum of mythical Hylas's rape to support advice given to his friend, Gallus, about Gallus's beloved, also named Hylas: huic … / nympharum semper cupidas defende rapinas (Ward off from him the ever lustful abductions by nymphs, 7.11). In both narratives, Ovid refers, through a wide range of textual echoes, to various passages from Propertius 1.20. Propertius is only interested in the masculine point of view. He describes in detail the sexual advances of Boreas's sons, Hylas's fascination for his own image seen in the water, and Hercules' despair after Hylas's abduction. Only at the end, and very briefly, does Propertius mention the kidnapping of the boy by the lustful [End Page 127] Mysian nymphs.5 Unlike Propertius, Ovid focuses on the nympharum cupidas rapinas by describing how both women, although very different—one a nymph possessing extremely limited speaking capability, the other of some eloquence—fall in love at first sight, try to seduce the boy they desire by looking for an opportunity to be successful, attempt to kiss him despite his resistance, and, in the case of one of the women, to have sex with him.

I. Echo and Salmacis: Two Unexpected or Exemplary Cases?

Echo and Salmacis do not comply with the traditional picture of the 'nymph.' Both behave in ways that defy Roman literary gender stereotypes. Echo is said to have kept Juno away from other nymphs, when they were making love with Jupiter, by speaking for a long time with the goddess, and displaying considerable skill (longo prudens sermone, Met. 3.364). As Ovid points out (cum deprendere posset / sub Iove saepe suo nymphas in monte iacentis [while she (Juno) could have caught the nymphs often lying under her Jupiter in the mountain, 3.362–363]), Echo was trying to help not Jupiter but her fellow nymphs so that they might enjoy their sexual encounters without being disturbed or punished—apparently because they were her friends. Such friends make it usually easy for their friends to have erotic encounters with their beloved. Catullus attests that Allius did the same for him when Allius enabled him and Lesbia to be together in a safe place (68.41–44, 67–69). However, such behavior was not expected from a Roman woman, who was supposed to consider pudor (sexual reserve), both her own and that of other women, as a priority.

Salmacis does not enjoy what the other nymphs like to do, namely, hunt with Diana. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid has multiplied the stories in which young girls, mortals or nymphs, eager to preserve their virginity, choose to live in the woods and...


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