Ancient Myths, Trigger Warnings, and Our Unsafe World

Italian Renaissance relief. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, an op-ed written by members of Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board argued that Ovid’s Metamorphoses should be taught with a trigger warning because the myths of Daphne and Persephone “include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault.” Needless to say, a lot of people had thoughts about this. In a recent essay-cum-open-letter for Oregon Humanities, poet Wendy Willis issued an unusually nuanced response.

She addressed the students on the board as a friend, sexual assault survivor, and fellow feminist, who, as she put it, “want[s] what you want—a world where injustice is chased into the night by fierce kindness and right action.” Which is why, she writes, “it made my heart sink to watch four bright, passionate young women toss Metamorphoses onto the bonfire and prepare to light the match.” Willis then offers a beautiful, intimate analysis of the myth itself, in all its darkness. She makes a case not just for the Ted Hughes translation, but also why we need access to dark stories like this one, myths that offer us companionship as we struggle with our own “great mysteries and great pain”:

The thing that is making us feel unsafe is not a collection of ancient myths; it is the fact that the world is not safe. I don’t say this to excuse violence or repression. But I do say it to wake us up. The world will never be safe enough to save us from our own deaths. By turning away from myths that grapple with pain and violence, we are turning away from the companionship of the immortals.
And in my book, the immortals go far beyond my favorite dead white guys—Ovid and Dante and Blake. When I am casting about for guides—or at least traveling companions—in the perilous swamps of the inner life, I turn not just to them but to the dreamlike novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. I lie awake poring over the numinous images of Adrienne Rich and Vénus Khoury-Ghata. I seek out the stories and poems that touch the unconscious, that hang around when confusion and despair threaten to overtake me entirely.

Read the essay