Caenis, famous for her beauty, refused all offers of marriage, preferring independence and lonely walks on the beach, until Neptune, god of the oceans, seized and raped her there. Filled with pleasure and in generous mood, he offered to grant her any wish, whatever she wanted most. She replied that her greatest wish was never to be hurt again and therefore not to be a woman.
Neptune transformed her into a man and in addition made him impervious to any penetration. Now named Caeneus, he became a celebrated warrior – spears bounced off him, sword blades shattered and left him unwounded. This infuriated his enemy the Centaurs, who were disgraced that their whole army could be mocked by one who had been a woman. In a final battle these giants piled mountains of rocks and uprooted trees upon him until he could not breathe. When he tried to lift his head the mountains shifted as in an earthquake, and from a crevice flew a bird with golden wings, the like of which has never been seen before or since.
When I first read this story, I was struck by how modern it is, by the poignancy of the abused woman who adopts an impervious masculinized self as a form of protection against the world, and by the fear of the unknown that can lead to mob violence.
I thought of the horrible ending of the film “Boys Don’t Cry” and the persecution suffered by the Hilary Swank character. I painted Caenis/Caeneus, in which I envisioned Caenis shucking off her male cocoon/disguise as she transforms into the bird, a spirit liberated from her suffocated body.
The painting was exhibited in November 2006, where it was seen by my son Abe Frank, a classics scholar and writer, who was inspired by my reimagining of this tale to send me his own original translation of Ovid’s poem. His words brought out another aspect of the story: the militaristic posturing, the heedless destruction of the landscape, the ruin of war.
My response is the work shown here.