On Thursday, Vassiliki Panoussi, a former member of the College’s classics department, returned to campus to give a lecture based on her upcoming book, Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Women’s Rituals in Roman Literature, in which she explores “vehicles of female empowerment.”
Panoussi earned her B.A. in classical studies from the University of Athens in Greece and a doctoral degree in classics from Brown. She now works at the College of William & Mary, where she was named the Robert and Sarah Boyd distinguished associate professor of classics. Panoussi has published one book and numerous articles on Greek and Latin literature.
In her lecture, titled Mourning Orpheus: Poetry and Women’s Rituals in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Panoussi discussed the “important dialectic taking place between women’s imagined and actual access to public life.” She argued that “Roman authors consistently use women’s religious agency to articulate broader concerns over issues of individual empowerment or disempowerment in the social political context.”
Traditionally, classics scholars have believed that women played a primarily “peripheral” role compared to men. Female characters are usually thought of as secondary characters in men’s narratives, present mostly in cultural rituals such as weddings, funerals and Bacchic revelries. However, Panoussi claimed that these religious ceremonies provide women the opportunities to exercise “agency and authority” and “articulate a different point of view often ideologically opposed to those of men.” While rituals are typically thought of as enforcing the status quo, they also seem to challenge cultural norms in Roman literature, she explained.
Orpheus himself seems to challenge gender norms in his behavior toward love and lament. After his wife’s death, Orpheus mourns by turning away from women and transitioning to romance with men. When he journeys to the underworld in search of his wife, he sings a love song that rejects the traditional portrayal of a hero in Roman literature.
Men traditionally grieved reservedly, while women lamented more openly and emotionally. His open and traditionally feminine response redefines traditional gender roles and marks the beginning of his gender reversal, Panoussi explained
She also discussed the poetic contest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, focusing on the confrontation between Orpheus and the Bacchanals. The women’s lamenting song, characterized by percussion, breast-beating and screams, drowns out Orpheus’s song in a dramatic power struggle.
The women proceed to rip apart the animals in Orpheus’ procession, a fertility ritual meant to affirm the value of civilization. The women’s ultimate destruction of Orpheus and his procession makes their ritual song superior to that of Orpheus.
Most importantly, the women’s song is sung in complete contrast to traditional Roman poetry. Therefore, Panoussi concluded, the women’s victory overpowers the male poetic narrative and articulates the female ability to destroy men.