Of the numerous transformation stories referenced in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most intriguing is that of the Greek hero Caeneus. The story takes place in Ovid’s so-called “little Iliad,” in which he recalls characters and themes from Homer’s epic and challenges the traditional concept of masculinity. Caeneus, or Kaineus, was a legendary warrior famed for his invulnerability in battle. Homer catalogues him among heroes of the Golden Age, “the strongest men who ever lived on earth,”1 and Hesiod identifies him as king of the “spear-bearing Lapiths,” the fabled victors over the Centauromachy.2 The identifying element of Caeneus’ mythology – that he was born a girl – is de-emphasized by Homer and Hesiod, but Ovid is enraptured by this particular transformation. Thus the question arises: how does Ovid perceive Caeneus and his place in the larger context of traditional epic masculinity?
Originally named Caenis, the daughter of the Lapith king was famed for her beauty, which drew the attention of the gods and men. As she walked along the beach one day, Poseidon, filled with lust, raped her, and then, as reward or compensation, offered to grant her one wish.3 So that she could never be violated again, Caenis wished to be a man, and so Poseidon transformed him into Caeneus. In fact, the name Kaineus plays on the Greek word kainos, “a new man.” Caeneus’ new, inviolate manliness applied not only in the context of rape, but extended to his entire being: he was now impenetrable by sword or spear in battle.4 Henceforth, Caeneus devoted himself to studiis virilibus, “manly pursuits.”5
Ovid’s discussion of Caeneus takes place during the recounting of a feast celebrating Achilles’ victory over Cycnus, another invulnerable warrior, and is used as a framework for Ovid’s epic retelling of the Centauromachy. Achilles, angered that neither spear nor sword would make a mark on Cycnus, knocks him to the ground and strangles him with his own helmet straps. Later, as Achilles brags at the feast, Nestor recalls the story of another hero who could not be killed with a blade, Caeneus. Achilles and his companions are awed when Nestor reveals the miracle of Caeneus’ original gender, and he indulges them with the tale of the legendary battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths.
Nestor begins by setting the scene of the battle, which took place at a wedding: “Now, when Pirithoüs, son of Ixion the foolhardy, married Hippodame, he invited the cloud-born beast, the centaurs, to the wedding feast. They reclined at tables set up in a cave that trees gave shade to. The chieftains of Thessaly were there, as was I myself….”6
The centaur Eurytus, drunk and lusting after the bride, seizes her and carries her off, inciting the other Centaurs to do the same. Enraged when the hero Theseus kills Eurytus, the Centaurs begin brawling with the Lapiths. Caeneus kills many Centaurs, and their brethren are incensed and ashamed that they could not kill or even mark him with their weapons. Ultimately, the Centaurs turn together against Caeneus, burying him under a great pile of tree trunks, where he suffocates.
The legends of Caeneus and the Centauromachy are intertwined, but Ovid’s motivations for including them in his Trojan episode are unclear. Outdated arguments have suggested that Ovid merely wanted an epic battle scene to conclude his “little Iliad” but refused to borrow from Homer or Vergil, and that the connection between Caeneus and Cycnus was “frivolous” coincidence.7 More recent work, however, has made clear that Ovid consciously places the Centauromachy after Achilles’ victory in order to draw out a comparison between Achilles and the Centaurs, and between Cycnus and Caeneus.8 The point of this parallelism is to contrast qualities portrayed by Caeneus from those of Achilles and the Centaurs, particularly in the realm of gender behavior.
Ovid’s portrayal of Achilles and the Centaurs is a gruesome caricature of epic masculinity. The only Homeric incident that rivals Achilles’ brutality in this defeat of Cycnus is his desecration of Hector’s corpse in the latter books of the Iliad. Further, the battles between Centaurs and Lapiths, while standard in their depth of grisly description, are farcical, particularly the Centaurs’ use of the dinnerware at hand to fight their opponents. His over-the-top approach is our first glimpse of Ovid’s attitude toward this model of masculinity. The second comes when he, through Nestor’s experienced and authoritative voice, undermines Achilles’ right to boast of his victory at the celebratory feast by turning the conversation to Caeneus. Ioannis Ziogas has written that Ovid’s depiction of Caeneus has parallels to ehoie-poetry, a distinctly female genre used by Hesiod in his Catalogue of Women.9 His claims that Ovid treats Caeneus with ehoie-formulas are not unfounded, but as Ziogas points out, the tale of female-born Caeneus has no place “at a feast celebrating the valor of men.” The Metamorphoses overall leans heavily on Hesiodic themes, but the Homeric themes and epic tone of this particular passage seem to outweigh any constructions that evoke Hesiod. Thus Caeneus’ inclusion in this context and his role in the subsequent battle tell us that, for Ovid, he does not represent a female or non-gendered heroism but a version of manhood that is set up in contrast to Achilles.
Ziogas has used Caeneus’ birth status to argue that his inclusion in the Trojan episode is an attempt to “[deflate] the ideal of epic manliness.”10 While it appears to be true that Caeneus is undermining this generic masculinity, Ziogas’ assumption rests on Caeneus’ inherent femaleness. It is by no means clear, however, that Ovid considers Caeneus to be anything other than a man throughout this passage. To paraphrase Papaioannou, “gender has a permanence in traditional epic that is absent in the Metamorphoses by its very nature.” While the possibility, and perhaps inevitability, of further shifting is apparent, Ovid fully embraces Caeneus’ current male identity.
Ovid’s recognition of Caeneus as a representation of manliness is evidenced, in addition to his incorporation in the feast discussion, by his treatment in the Centauromachy. In one incident, a Centaur named Latreus taunts Caeneus by saying that he will always be a woman and should leave warfare to the men. This is an example of the standard epic motif in which a foe, engaging the hero in one-on-one battle, questions the hero’s manhood and is promptly killed in reply. In the same way, Caeneus endures the taunt of Latreus and then defeats him with no further commentary on the gendered nature of the insult. Latreus’ speech, in this unique case, plays on what in this case is the literalism of a motif that is usually figurative, and does not seem to place Caeneus back into the realm of the feminine. With this altercation, Ovid confirms Caeneus’s maleness and heroism by giving him the same treatment as other heroes of epic.
Throughout the episode, Ovid’s description of Caeneus and stylistic manipulation of his story serve to place him among the ranks of traditional epic heroes, just as Homer and Hesiod located him. Yet the contrast that Ovid intends between Caeneus and the behaviors exemplified by Achilles and the Centaurs cannot be denied. We do not see many traits positively exhibited by Caeneus. Rather, we see what he is not: excessive, boastful, bloodthirsty. Ovid wanted to challenge the masculinities portrayed by Homer and found in other tales of the same genre by utilizing Caeneus to portray an alternative form of masculinity. There is only speculation as to why Ovid believed Caeneus should have turned out to be so different from Achilles. Perhaps this alternate masculinity stems from his female origins. It could also be suggested that some non-gendered qualities inherent in Caeneus’ personality contribute to his difference, or that the experience of transformation prevented him from taking on certain traditional masculine traits. No matter Ovid’s line of reasoning here, Caeneus represents a form of manliness that stands apart from the status quo in epic storytelling.
Caeneus is included in a number of catalogues of both heroes and heroines, from Homer’s list of god-like men to Vergil’s love-stricken women in the Fields of Mourning. Clearly, ancient writers and audiences had a nuanced perception of his gender and its values, which varied widely through time and place. Caeneus defies the strict categories of male and female, and each author’s reaction to him can tell us about his or her expectations for gender. Homer, for instance, ignores any mention of Caeneus’ female history, and we can hypothesize that he either did not know of the legend, or chose to ignore it. Hesiod briefly acknowledges his transformation and role as a ruler of men (????), yet still places him in the “Catalogue of Women.” Perhaps this indicates that, for Hesiod, gender identity is more dependent on birth sex than gender performance.
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid adds his voice to this conversation, and its implications for our understanding of the way the ancients perceived gender are significant. Ovid hints that perceptions and manifestations of gender are mutable, and he engages critically with stereotypical masculinities and their depictions in the literature that he emulated. Whether he is responding to gendered expectations in the work of specific authors or commenting on the wider cultural conception of admirable manliness, Ovid’s depiction of Caeneus demonstrates that he was actively questioning the behavior of male heroes and rewriting the mythology to reflect his own ideas of masculinity and heroism.
1 Homer, Iliad I.262.
2 Hesiod, Shield 178-179.
3 See Ovid, Metamorphoses XII.198-200.
4 For more on the Roman vir’s immunity from physical violation, see Walters, “Invading the Roman Body,” Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997.
5 Ovid, Meta. XII.208.
6 Ovid, Meta., tr. Simpson, XII.210-214.
7 See Otis, 1970.
8 Cf. Papaioannou, Redesigning Achilles. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007, p.87ff.
9 See Ziogas, Ovid and Hesiod: The Metamorphosis of the Catalogue of Women. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
10 Ziogas, p.186.
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About the Author
Benjamin Wiley is a senior from Stafford, Virginia. He is majoring in Classical Studies with a minor in Classical Languages. Upon graduation, he will apply to Master’s programs in Classical Philology.