Callisto and Censorship: Voice as Power


Callisto and Jupiter

Many artistic depictions commit the same crime as the written paradigm of rape. The above painting not only tries to eroticize but even tries to “romanticize” a violent rape, by making it appear idyllic rather traumatizing. It is a harmful and offensive kind of censorship to have the reality of an act of violence and rape erased and mocked in such a depiction.

Many artistic depictions commit the same crime as the written (or narrative) paradigm of rape. The above painting not only tries to eroticize but even tries to “romanticize” a violent rape, by making it appear idyllic rather than traumatizing. It is a harmful and offensive kind of censorship to have the reality of an act of violence and rape erased and mocked in such a depiction.

Ovid’s rendition of the tale of Callisto and Jupiter displays censorship as a means to remove a perceived threat to the values of a community. Callisto is censored in various ways, but each way removes from her some power that could undermine either the structure of the entire society or the identity of the individual who censors her. The tale begins with a narrative paradigm or structure very common in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Jupiter chooses a beautiful victim, tricks her, and rapes her. This narrative paradigm of rape is the repeated use of rape as a stratagem to advance the stories in the Metamorphoses. Ovid uses the paradigm to structure stories while often “removing the rape from rape”. Frequent use of the paradigm and the often-voyeuristic descriptions of the act minimize the gravity of rape and make it barely more than a literary device. In Callisto’s case, the story is set in motion by Jupiter’s actions, but Callisto pays for his crime at the hands of three major figures. She first “loses” her voice to fear and shame because she, no longer a virgin and pregnant, must hide her condition from Diana and her band of virgin huntresses or face exile. She cannot hide her pregnancy forever, so she is exiled, and censored again by exclusion. She then physically loses her voice when Juno seeks revenge and turns her into a bear. The third act of silencing imposed on Callisto is Jupiter’s final act of “saving” her when her hunter son, not recognizing his mother in bear form, almost kills her. Jupiter transforms the two into stars, where they remain silent forever more. Callisto is silenced by the values of Diana’s community, then she is silenced by Juno’s misplaced anger, and ultimately she is silenced by Jupiter. Jupiter prevents what would be a crime in his society, matricide, after his own original crime disrupted Diana and Juno’s places in society. Throughout the myth Callisto is deprived of her own autonomy. Her life, her body, and her voice are controlled by the decisions of others, but those others are equally constrained by the rules of their societies. Callisto loses the autonomy that comes with being able to speak for oneself, but her censorship also reveals that she never had full autonomy in the first place.


 First Censorship: Diana

Diana, Guillaume Seignac 1870-1924Callisto’s first censorship is that she keeps herself silent in Diana’s group. The silence is not actively forced on her, but she knows the repercussions she will face if it is discovered that she is pregnant. Diana’s band of huntresses is defined as virginal, this is a rule that structures the band and provides order and, through that, safety. Diana herself is also defined by her virginity and her rejection of motherhood. Diana’s identity, her place in her community and the society of the gods at large, is reliant on these things. Callisto threatens the community, by not being a virgin in a band of virgins, and Diana’s own identity, by bringing pregnancy and impending motherhood to her.  When Callisto is discovered by the women she is nine months pregnant. Although her lack of virginity is a threat to the rules of the society, her pregnancy is a more direct threat to Diana’s identity. Shawn O’Bryhim explains Callisto’s threat to Diana in that women who were about to give birth were considered “ritually unclean” and that “sacred places, too, could be polluted by a woman giving birth.” In Roman tradition, Callisto was a threat because she could have “polluted” Diana’s sacros fontes (sacred fountain), but one does not need to resort to a Roman fear of the inner machinations of uteri to explain the threat. Diana’s identity is the Virgin Huntress. In order to maintain her identity, and her place in society, she is dependent on her rejection of sex and motherhood. It may seem that she is rejecting aspects of society, the patriarchal ideas that women cannot be hunters, but the rejection consumes her identity. In order for her as a woman to claim a role traditionally assigned to a man, she must reject all things her society recognizes as womanly. Rather than being independent or separate from the patriarchal ideas that she strives to reject, she is dependent on them. Callisto threatens that rejection, and without it Diana could not be the Virginal Huntress; she would be the Virginal Huntress Who Was Polluted One Time By A Pregnant Woman. Her band of virgin huntresses would become a band of virgin huntresses and one woman who was raped. Diana’s identity and her community are vulnerable and would be polluted by Callisto’s state, and thus her reaction is to exile her.

Second Censorship: Juno

Engravings after originals by Jean-Jacques François Le Barbier (1739–1826), Nicolas André Monsiau (1754–1837), and Jean-Michel Moreau (1741–1814).

Juno and Callisto, illustration for Guillaume T. de Villenave, Les Métamorphoses d’Ovide (Paris, Didot 1806–07).

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of characters who are punished by the gods for various reasons, and many of those characters are “punished” after being raped. Although Callisto’s tale is early in the narrative, the precedent of what happens to those who suffer the advances of a god is still clear. In the first book, Jupiter raped Io, who then suffers at the hands of his angry spouse. The second censorship of Callisto follows this narrative paradigm of “Jupiter rapes victim, Juno punishes victim.” Callisto gives birth to a son shortly after being exiled and for this offense Juno turns her into a bear, specifically denying her the power of speech in the transformation (Metamorphoses. 2.487-91.) Callisto herself has done no harm to Juno, and in fact Ovid tells us that her struggle against Jupiter would have evoked Juno’s pity had she seen it (Metamorphoses. 2.435-440.) Juno’s actions are not as simple as her taking revenge on a girl who was pleasing to Jupiter, they are rooted in the goddess’s place in society. Juno’s identity is “the wife of Jupiter.” Without her status as his consort, she would not occupy the same place in the world of the Olympian gods the same way. Jupiter speaks of the potential consequences for him of his actions when he debates whether or not to rape Callisto, saying that the pleasure of possessing her will offset the scolding he will receive from Juno (Metamorphoses. 2.423-24.)  For Jupiter, his actions that start all of Callisto’s miseries are worth whatever castigation he may have to endure. For Juno, however, his actions threaten her status in society. She cannot punish Jupiter, so she takes revenge on the object of his affection. But more than that, she silences a woman who threatens her, merely by existing, and by birthing a child by Jupiter. At the end of the story Juno describes how Jupiter’s actions have humiliated her, further undermining her authority and endangering her role as his wife by turning Callisto and her child into stars  (Metamorphoses. 2.513). Callisto is censored by Juno because she once again she poses a threat.

Third Censorship: Jupiter

Jupiter sends Callisto (and Arcas) to the stars to save her, but Juno takes a final action to make sure the two new constellations are never allowed to rest by sinking below the sea. As Diana exiled Callisto from the sacred fountain, Juno exiles her from the sea.

Jupiter sends Callisto to the stars to save her, but Juno acts one last time to make sure she (and Arcas) can never sink below the sea to rest. As Diana exiles Callisto from the sacred springs, Juno exiles her from the sea.

The last censorship of Callisto is Jupiter’s transformation of her and her son into the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Callisto’s son had grown up and become an avid hunter. He was about to shoot her, and she, with no power of speech as a bear, could do nothing to stop him. Jupiter saved her by sending her to the stars, but nothing can take her back to the way things were at the beginning of the story. Callisto is still deprived of Diana’s society, she is deprived of her human form, and she is still deprived of her voice. Jupiter is not “setting things right” at the end of the story so much as he is “cleaning up a mess.” At the beginning of the story Ovid describes Callisto, how she is dressed like a huntress, and then says “sed nulla potentia longa est” (Metamorphoses. 2.416.) This may be “but no favor lasts long,” referring to the favor of Diana, but potentia can mean “power.” Callisto begins the story with power, with autonomy, with a voice. One of the only times she is described as talking is here, when Jupiter has stolen Diana’s image to trick Callisto. Jupiter deprives her of her identity as a virginal huntress, his crime subsequently silences her voice in the band of huntresses, separates her from Diana, and by provoking Juno, indirectly deprives her of her voice again and then of her human form. And in the end Jupiter removes her from the earth. He sends her to the stars as a bear, a reminder of Juno’s censorship, and with her son, a reminder of why she was censored by Diana. Jupiter’s act of “saving” is a reminder of all of Callisto’s censorships, and the act itself deprives her of any further speech for as long as the stars shine.


Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, early 18th century

Jupiter striking down Phaethon

The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State by Thomas Cole

Lively Arcadia

Callisto and Jupiter’s tale follows the tale of Phaethon and Apollo. Phaethon, the son of Apollo, drives Apollo’s chariot and pulls the sun across the skies. Not himself a god, however, he loses hold of the charging horses and destroys the land and boils the sea. Jupiter kills Phaethon to stop the destruction, and Callisto’s story opens with Jupiter rebuilding the land. Callisto’s story follows this an in the same way Jupiter “secures” the land, the censorship of Callisto “secures” the people who censor her. 


The Removal of Voice or the Lack of Voice?

For a writer like Ovid, voice is power. For Callisto, the obvious victim of censorship in this myth, the loss of her voice is equivalent to her loss of power, too. She begins the myth with a place in her society and an identity of her own, and then she loses her voice, her place in society, her human body, and finally as a constellation all independent control of herself. Callisto feels safe when she is a part of Diana’s society; she is part of a stable group and has no need to fear. When she must keep silent to keep her secret, that security is compromised even though she is still physically in the group. The sense of mental security is more important than any physical security provided. When Callisto is cast out from her group and from her human form she is full of fear, even though before she did not fear the wilderness. As G.B. Riddehough says “Ovid shows metamorphosis not so much as a physically painful thing: what is terrible about it is the consciousness of being gripped by an invincible and inevitable power.” Her fear is a result of the loss of the sense of security.

Callisto’s loss of voice would be a loss of control, but whether or not she actually had any real control in the first place is questionable. As Diana is dependent on her rejection of sex and motherhood, and the society of her companions is dependent on the same things, so too is Callisto. Without her society she loses her sense of security, and so she is controlled by the rules of her society. Diana in theory controls her society, but apart from her dependence on her own rules, Diana’s own identity is violated by Jupiter at his convenience. Despite her upholding a society that rejects sex and motherhood, Jupiter steals her image in order to trick Callisto and subsequently rape and impregnate her. Although he only disguises himself as Diana and does nothing to Diana physically, his free use of her image undermines her autonomy over her own body. Juno too is subject to Jupiter, because her existence in society as it stands is dependent on her status as Jupiter’s wife. Jupiter seems the most in control, but it is because the rules of his society benefit him. He follows “what is normal,” he sees something he wants and he takes it. He cares not for Juno’s complaints because her complaints do not threaten his place in society. He cares not for the threat to Diana because his identity as ruler of Olympos will not change. He cares not for the ultimate fate of Callisto because he is not threatened. All of Ovid’s characters are controlled by something, but some stand to lose more than others. For Callisto, the loss of her voice is the loss of herself.

Callisto hunted by Arcas, Johann Wilhelm Baur, c. 1639

 Works Cited

“O’Bryhim, Shawn. “Ovid’s Version of Callisto’s Punishment” Pg 78″  
“Riddehough, G.B. “Man-into-Beast Changes in Ovid” Pg 206″ Pg 78″