Three Stories

The story of Tiresias begins with an argument between Jupiter and Juno, whose playful discussion of sex turns heated when Jupiter speculates that women enjoy it more than men. To settle the score, the gods defer to the judgment of the prophet Tiresias, who, under miraculous circumstances, had lived for a spell as a woman. Tiresias sides with Jupiter in the debate, earning Juno’s ire. She curses him to live without sight, which Jupiter eventually subverts by granting him the ability of clairvoyance.

In the tale of Philomela, the King of Thrace, Tereus, lusts after the sister of his wife Procne, the titular Philomela. Convincing her father to let her return with him to Thrace, he rapes Philomela upon their arrival and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the crime. Philomela writes to her sister, who becomes frenzied when she discovers her captive sister. In a fit of rage and distress, Procne kills her own son Itys, cooking him into a soup that she later feeds to her husband. While in flight from the King, all three party members are transformed into different species of birds.

Weston chronicles the “Medicine Man,” an archetype found in Indian plays and Greek tragedies, responsible for the restoration of the ailing or the dead. The Grail Legend goes on to use some elements of the character, with Gawain taking the title of a healer in some versions of the tale (the protagonists invariably set out to restore the kingdom of the Fisher King, essentially a task of healing as well).

The Waste Land makes sly allusions to all three. I think the physical representation of Philomela in “A Game of Chess” works as a metaphor for European womanhood when conflated with the WL’s preceding passage, one concerned with the visage of a Cleopatra-type figure. The image of the ancient Egyptian queen, cloaked in fine fabrics and strongly perfumed, recalls Ovid’s earliest impressions of Philomela; her beauty is said to be that of “the Nymphs, the Naiads and Dryads.” Ln. 99, referring to “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king…”, designates this woman’s fall from grace within the confines of British social structure; she formerly possesses legendary status and intoxicating beauty, but the image of Philomela alongside Cleopatra indicates that recent events (probably the war) have turned the system on its head and left her powerless (her own sort of “raped”). This corresponds with the burden placed upon the post-war woman, who are expected to comfort their men at any cost (cf. the bar scene in “A Game of Chess”), and with Eliot’s adaptation of the story of Tiresias. The blind prophet makes an appearance in “The Fires Sermon,” overseeing plain sex between a man and a woman somewhere in British lodgings. With the fertility act having been completed, the man motions to leave, and we see the woman behave strangely. Sex is no longer a conquest, but an attitude, and while the woman was not entirely complicit (she sighs with relief after the ritual reaches its end), she has not been violated in the same manner as Philomela. This destroys the classic notion that women enjoy sex more than men (@Jupiter), and seeing Tiresias arbitrate both discussions allows one narrative to flow into another.

Finally, I’d like to close on some thoughts regarding the Medicine Man. Healing is a prominent narrative in the Waste Land, as is restoration, but it is difficult to isolate a character within the poem that represents this characterization. If the grail legend resigns the “Healer” to a secondary or tertiary profession (behind Knight/Squire and Voyager/Quester), then I would say its pretty hard to define this concept in the same terms as the poem. All of those characters connected to the divine (Madame Sosotris and Tiresias, to name some) do not intervene on behalf of the shell-shocked Londoners. Instead, they oversee some of the natural processes and heavily influence the tone of the poem. They are there as these almost divine, natural forces, and when they do contribute, it is often silently (the voyeurism of Tiresias) or cryptically (Madame Sosostris’s tarot). Philomela, too, sits silently in the living room of Cleopatra, an envoy for those who have been too damaged (psychologically or physically) to contribute to the discussion. But they, like the Fisher King, await the return of some hero who will restore order to the ailing kingdom. But for the unfortunate cast of characters in the WL, I propose that help will actually never arrive; the men lost in the Great War will never return to revivify the spirit of their nation.


Sex, Violence, and the Natural Order

In The Wasteland fertility and rebirth are overtaken by the violence of WWI. The natural order of spring cannot continue and relationships are changed because of what people have experienced. In the two Ovid pieces, we read there is a similar dysfunction although both follow different structures. In the story of Tiresias, he is called upon by the goddess Juno and the god Jove to help them decide if men or women have better sexual experiences. Tiresias, having experienced life as a man and woman tells the couple that women do. Juno does not like this answer and blinds Tiresias. From this, he is able to see the future but his physical sight is forever gone. For Tereus, Procne, and Philomel the story begins with desire leads to the violent rape of Philomel by Tereus and ends with Procne feeding her own son to her rapist husband. At the end, the three of them return to nature in the form of birds.

Weston’s discussion of the medicine man or healer takes a different turn. In her chapter, she says that the healer was a part of dramatic fertility rituals as well as their usual healing practices. Weston writes of healers who helped heal knights such as Sir Gawain, wounded from violence in battle. This character then bridges the gap between violence and sex. The Ovid stories show sex and loss/violence following one another, as cause and effect. Weston shows that there had to be a resolution of violence/loss before rebirth, sex, and fertility can begin. The Wasteland shows that there has not been a resolution of violence/loss so the natural cycle cannot be completed.

Let’s Get it On

As per usual, the readings share themes we have dealt with all semester. The From Ritual to Romance Chapter closely examines the “’Fertility’ ceremonies” and the dancer which it mentioned previously. The excerpts from Metamorpheses also focuses on fertility through Tiresias, the blnd prophet who experiences both genders, and Philomela, who is herself an embodiment of sex and fertility and represents a rather arid one once she is raped. Jove says, “You women get more pleasure out of love [t]han we women do. I’m sure,” in the beginning of Tiresias, which sets the tone for conversation about sex and legacy.

This is a theme that comes up many times in The Waste Land, in fact it is one of the main themes of the poem. The title signifies that not only is this poem talking about the literal waste land on the battle field, but the waste land is also a symbol for a lost connection in terms of fertility of the land as well as in a reproduction sense. We see the two connect to the Holy Grail stories in the other book, and through the mentions of the Fisher King in the poem.

RE: Sex and Violence, Something Lost

Considering Ovid’s stories in comparison to The Waste Land it occurred to me that Eliot’s poem seems to make a progression from the personal in the first three sections, to the universal in the fifth section. The personal and the universal, or mythic, are certainly interspersed throughout the poem; but in first three sections Eliot gives us individual characters and stories to latch onto, such as, “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king” and “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives” (99, 218). Both examples are not quick allusions, but stories that continue for several lines of the poem. In the first example, Philomel’s rape and metamorphosis is summarized in 5 lines, and is referenced later by Eliot; in the second example, more than a page is taken to adapt Tiresias’ story for the modern age. As both Xandra and Caleb point out, these stories by Ovid and The Waste Land’s use of them concern sex and violence. Along that line of thought, I believe that much of Eliot’s poem, if not the main theme, is the problem of vengeance or reparations. Caleb pointed to violence’s “irrevocability” in his post, and I agree that the violent acts in these stories cannot be changed or reversed, which is why the characters’ must undergo metamorphosis, and why vengeance is important to Ovid, and as we will see, peace to Eliot.

I believe that the broad scope and universality of “What the Thunder Said,” supports my claim. We do get language that hints at the individual — “I,” “you,” “my” (360, 365, 430) — but these vague characters are cast within a story of larger magnitude, and their stories are not specific, but take place in a mythic continuity that carries through the entire section. Lastly, towards the end of the poem, Eliot reminds us of Philomel — “O swallow swallow” (428) — and in the third to last line says, “Hieronymo’s mad againe” (431). My interpretation of this is that both the personal aspects of sex and violence, and their universal implications, are presented by Eliot as an endless cycle, “mad againe,” and that the only way to break from such a cycle is not vengeance, as the ancients like Ovid would have us think, but through “Shantih,” which translates as, “The peace which passeth understanding” (433). For Eliot, this has both a personal and universal context — his breakdown and the first world war.

Something Lost

To draw from Xandra’s post a bit, I also found the relationship between violence and sex to be a significant thread that connects the two Ovid readings and the Weston chapter. Tireseas, given the particularly precarious position of being caught in the middle of an argument between two gods (even worse, an argument about sex), is blinded by Juno. Tereus’s lust results in the rape and maiming of Philomela, the death of Itys, and the ultimate transformation of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne into birds (a metamorphosis is, in itself, a type of violence against the body). Lastly, in reading Weston’s work, we learn of the connection between Greek tragedy and the vegetation cults.

However, what I would like to call attention to specifically is not just the theme of violence but the idea of its irrevocability. One of the major themes so far this semester has been the unpaid debt, the older generation’s taking from the younger generation without giving back. And without the succession of a younger generation past the older, the system, as we’ve seen in the different versions of the Grail quest, crumbles. The world becomes a waste. We might recall Sibyl, from the epigraph of The Waste Land. Without youth, there can be no sustainability.

We see this type of disruption of the natural order in the tale of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne. The end of the tale takes place during the time of the Bacchus festival. Bacchus is a god of ritualistic madness, and madness certainly seems to fit well with the violent end of this story; yet, Bacchus is also a god of fertility. Procne’s murder of her son and Tereus’s ingesting his son both go against the natural cycle. As Philomela says earlier on in the tale, “All is confused!”(Ovid 138)

In the Weston chapter, we learn that the Medicine Man was a type of precursor to the “Redeemer” in the Grail story (104). However, in the Ovid stories, and potentially in the Waste Land, there is no one who can heal the wounds that have been afflicted. There is seemingly no redeemer, as “He who was living is now dead” (Eliot 16). The damage cannot be undone. When Juno blinds Tireseas, it is permanent “since no god has right to undo what any god has done” (Ovid 61). Philomela’s rape leads to the death of Itys; thus, the patriarch takes both the innocence of Philomela and also, ultimately, steals the life of the younger generation. World War I leads to massive amounts of young men being killed. The natural order is disrupted.

Burden and who bears it.

An interesting connection between the readings that I noticed was the inclusion of an unfair or misplaced burden. The story of Tiresias has him settling a dispute between two gods, a clearly unfair burden for any mortal to carry. In the story Philomela, the burden of Thereus’ rape of Philomela are misplaced unto Itys, an innocent child. In the Grail legends often the hero is charged with curing the king (sometimes by asking a question he may not be aware he must ask)  and thus saving the country from turning to waste. This burden is far more than any one person can be reasonably expected to bear.

I believe these instances of unfair or misplaced burden can be connected to The Waste Land by paralleling them with the war dead and war survivors. The younger generation at the time, these men and women sacrificed their childhoods, their dreams, and often their lives in the war because of the wills of the older generation. The burden they carried was both unfair and misplaced.  This parallel can be further seen by noticing the power dynamic in each story and how they are similar to the power dynamic between those who started the war and those who fought in it. Tiresias, a mortal, bears the burden of the gods, Gawain bears the burden of his king and his entire country, and Itys bears the burden of the sins of his father. Itys strikes the closest chord with The Waste Land due to the age and power difference between him and his father.

Sex and Violence

These three pieces all concern classical tragedy’s relationship to sex, which The Waste Land then coopts and places in a modern setting. Within the chapter “The Medicine Man” in From Ritual to Romance, Weston inserts an assertion that from “the Agon of the Fertility Spirit, his Pathos, and Theophany,” originated Greek tragedy. It introduces this concept of the struggle of fertility as well as how is visits mankind that is more explored in the Ovid reading. In both the stories of Tiresias and Tereus, Procne, and Philomela, sex becomes tragic in the violence that accompanies it. The reference to Bacchus, god of fertility and ritual madness, in both works contributes to the close association of sex and violence that is played out in the bloody scenes that follow.

In The Waste Land, section III. The Fire Sermon, Tiresias presides over a modern tragedy that both echoes and subverts its classical antecedents. A young woman in lines 218-227 submits to sex without love. While it explicitly references both of Ovid’s poems, the young woman’s lack of sexual pleasure as well as her apathy towards what can be read as a rape scene directly defy both of them. However, the violence associated with fertility is just as present in the young man’s “assault” (239). Elliot depicts what he presents as a quintessentially modern scene (complete with gramophone and combinations) as possessing all the tragedy and more of the ancients’ understanding of sex and violence.

More Questions

After reading each of the texts a couple of times, I am still left with unresolved questions. To start, I’m not entirely sure how all these texts mesh together and what they mean for the wasteland in general. So instead of arranging all these themes together in some coherent form that I think Eliot was going for, I’m just going to spitball some things that struck me. As the most irrelevant I’ll start with that the transformations struck me as interesting and relate to other fiction of today like Game of Thrones. Now is not the time or forum for me to delve into my respect and admiration I have for the A Song of Ice and Fire series. However, it is interesting to see where some of his influences come from. Such as, a popular story in Westeros is about an evil cook who cooked up a visiting king’s son and fed the son to the king. After the king eats the son, it is revealed, and the cook is turned into a giant rat for breaking the rule of not killing someone who has been invited into their house. A very similar event occurs later in the series as one of the main characters kills and cooks a noble family to feed to their patriarch. The main character, Arya, does this as her ultimate form of revenge for what the man had done to her family. This is obviously an extremely similar story to Tereus, Procne, and Philomela. The killing and transformation in the stories are strikingly similar. But what does it mean? What does it have to do with some ultimate form of revenge or punishment? What does the transformation signify and honestly why did they transform in the first place? Was it for some sort of atonement?

Next, there is the medicine man and how that relates to the stories. From the Weston reading, I can see how the medicine man can relate to the Grail story and from earlier readings we know how the grail relates to the fisher king. So, I see all those similarities but what I’m not seeing is how that relates to these transformation tales. Possibly how this all can relate to the wasteland is some sort of atonement and revenge that is taking place from the war. To be honest, though at this point it seems like a lot of the same similarities are being drawn from multiple sources. Although it is interesting to see how this has all be derived from a base concept I am ready to see something new.


Owl and Bat Symbolism

Something that struck me while reading “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” was the owl symbolism that forecasts the impending doom of Tereus and Procne’s son.  In a Westonian fashion, the traditional marriage rituals fail to occur in their natural sequence which, in turn, interrupts the couple’s ability to raise a child to adulthood.  The following line occurs early in the text and employs rich symbolism to warn of tragic circumstances: “An unclean screech-owl like a nightmare sat above their chamber on the palace roof.  The bird haunted the couple’s union, That bird haunted their parenthood.”  The repeated phrase “bird haunted” emphasizes the owl’s synonymy with death and destruction.  Wanting to know more about the significance of this symbol, I briefly Googled owl symbolism and discovered that many ancient civilizations perceived the owl as almost a demonic figure that foreshadowed omens and the Phoenicians, more specifically, did not eat them, yet they buried them with their dead.  Since the owl foreshadows the destruction of Tereus and Procne’s family in Ovid, I questioned whether or not The Waste Land had a comparable symbol, since thematically both texts share similarities, and noticed that while owls are absent, bats are indeed extant in a similar, ominous circumstance.

The obvious parallel that exists between these symbols rests on the notion that both animals are nocturnal and share similarities in their cultural association with death.  With that being said, there are deeper connections to be made between the two symbols and their respective texts.  In book five, Elliot crafts an image of “bats with baby faces.”  Even after several reads this imagery proves challenging and almost undecipherable; however, in an article I found titled “The Owl in Phoenician Mortuary Practice, the author mentions that “The owl’s unusual face, having a semi-human appearance, and its large eyes and keen eyesight lend further mystery to the bird” (59).  This suggests that Elliot might be making a connection between the human looking owls and his fictional bats with human faces.  Also significant is the connection between the mythical belief that owls steal children and the bat, a creature representing death and sleep, being depicted as a child.  I speculate that this bat imagery in context of the stanza, which describes the physical decay and destruction present in the city, foreshadows the death and destruction that the war will create for future generations of children.  In conclusion, Elliot seems to combine characteristics of owl and bat symbolism to create a more haunting image that presages imminent disaster.

On a side note, the bat also has connections to Dante’s Inferno; “In Dante, Satan has bat’s wings in ‘deepest freezing Hell’. Supposedly when they fly upwards and then come down again swiftly, the witches’ hour is upon” (Protas).

Cited Websites


As far as this week’s texts go, a somewhat of a common thread running through Dante’s work, as well as the stories of Philomela and Tiresias, is a state of limbo or repetition.  Philomela, Procne, Tereus, are all turned into birds, and it is implied that they spend their days flying around, unable to communicate with others. In The Waste Land, these characters are trapped within the work, chirping, still unable to communicate. The state they exist in within the poem reminds me of Dante’s early circles of Hell, where souls are condemned to the same situation for all eternity.

Tiresias, Philomela, and some characters introduced by Dante, all have something in common in that they all have lost a sense. Tiresias loses his sight, Philomela her speech and for those souls trapped in limbo; their passion, meaning they are not able to accept God or denounce him. This thread is something that runs through The Waste Land as well. We discussed how there is a loss of the sense of touch, or that touch is never mentioned. Also, like the souls in purgatory, Eliot’s subjects are unable to take a kind of action, not just proper action but any kind of action at all (excluding the young man carbuncular).

The character of the Medicine Man makes more sense to me when thought of as something that re-fertilizes the land. This character is different from the others in this week’s readings and I’m not sure yet how he relates to them.