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Epistles For Silenced Women

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

i. for penelope

O web-weaver, you are in truth

a wily woman, couched in the demeanour

of an ideal wife. behind your loom

you may cower, shirking from the suitors

over which you have no power, these men

who wreak rack and ruin upon your kingdom,

who humiliate you in your husband’s house.

even your scarcely-grown son seeks to silence you!

Is speech not the business of men and men alone?

Return at once to

your sisyphean shroud! Let the grass grow over the

ruins of your household, all you can do now

is bide your time.

the heart of a wife is locked behind the loom,

weaving herself into her husband’s shadow.

weaving herself into the ideal woman--

to be seen, but never heard.

but beneath your facade beats

the heart of a lover devoted--

will your Ulysses return, o Wife?

the heart of a hero is transparent from his muthos--

he sleeps with goddesses, he outwits beasts,

you sing prayers and praises so that the victor may come home,

and sing in turn of fierce battles, galloping horses and guile,

fields and earth where Troy once stood.

yet the victor is absent; the hero famed for his mind

forgets more and more his own. it is you

who is left to silently pick up the pieces he left behind.

ii. for philomela

O sweet-tongued nightingale,

fair sister of Procne,

dear daughter of Pandion,

how could you and your kin have foreseen

the cruel fate that would befall you?

how could you have known

as you rejoiced when your sister was married off

to the illustrious Thracian king?

how could you have known

as you kissed your father goodbye on the docks,

the tears flowing down his face as he begged his son in law

to protect you with a father’s love?

poor girl--

it was not your sister vile Tereus truly longed for.

The wolf lunges at the lamb and claws at her jugular

The trembling dove bleeds shame and guilt,

feathers and fear stain the grass outside the tower

The woods are filled

With the cry of a girl violated,

Run through with red thread against her will.

Tereus now unsheathes his sword

Ties her hands behind her back

He will allow her no longer

to cry out for her father

for her sister

for anyone.

(her tongue’s root quivers, the rest of it lays dead on the grass.)

sweet swallow, your throat drips red with grief!

O nightingale, what has he done to you?

(Was she not asking for it?)

(Should she not have obeyed him?)

(Who is she to have refused the will of a king?)

(Who is she to have refused the will of a master?)

(Who is she to have refused the will of a man?)

O what would your severed tongue say if only it were able?

to your sister you sent a tapestry, a message,

weaving the words of hurt and anger burning inside your heart.

O tongueless nightingale, thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!

they may cut out your tongue, but they may never take your voice.

iii. for echo

O silver-tongued nymph,

(loose-tongued, Juno would call you--)

she whose gifts of speech are powerful

enough to fool even the queen of the Gods,

is it not inevitable that you are the one to suffer for her husband’s infidelity?

how tragic then--

that men may be decorated for their gifted tongues,

that men may dare to challenge their deities

and tell their own tales,

yet the power is stripped from yours.

O scorned lover!

your words belong no longer to you.

unseen and scarcely heard, in shame you trail

a man who loves naught but himself. and you

are a girl no longer, only a fleeting image

wasting away in the hills, a lost love, a shadow

of reflected form. you are garrulous still,

but gifted no longer. your body may be intact,

yet nonetheless, you have been transformed--

once a speaker, now a man’s mouthpiece.

(fear not, echo--your voice endures yet,

while the man who spurns you wilts away,

his once-beautiful body rotting into nothing.

and you?

your body may be air, your bones shapes of stone,

but you are sound itself; it is sound that lives in you.)

iv. for cassandra

O truth-speaker,

what is it the men call you?



(the list goes ever on.)

O cursed clairvoyant,

when you defied the advances of Phoebus Apollo,

you could not have avoided paying the price.

after all, is it not well-known how these stories go?

how can a girl defy a god?

(now he grabs you and spits in your mouth,)

(now your brothers are dead and your city is in flames.)

(o cassandra--i cannot help but wonder--

if women wrote the stories,

might someone have listened?

might you have met a different fate?)

v. for you

O girl,

how does it feel

to live in a world built on your bones,

to speak in a world

where stories are written in your own blood?

transform or be transformed,

for there is no justice for the victim when the oppressor holds the scales.

to them, your voice is nothing more than birdsong;

if not to please them, then only as victim or martyr are you heard.

dear girl, do the men still bar you from speaking in the forum?

for willfully does the west worship its forefathers--

but what of their foremothers?

Must we let them be silenced still?


femininity does not preclude power--

your strength is not tempered by your sex.

your body is neither weak nor feeble;

you need not the heart nor stomach of a king.


you are more than just a body

(just as you are more than a voice.)

you are a girl, yes, and a goddess too--

they shall never truly silence you.

- Talola John


‘When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice,’ the classicist Mary Beard writes in her 2017 manifesto Women and Power. The continued supression of women is a tragedy that can be linked back to the Western obsession with misogynistic classical ideals--in short, the sexism of then is the sexism of now. This epistolary poem, inspired by the manifesto, seeks to interrogate various female figures in Greek and Roman literature,--from Homer's Odyssey to Ovid's Metamorphoses--and to interrogate the role of women in the patriarchal structure that these stories were created within.



Talola is an Indian-Australian university student and an aspiring writer, illustrator and comic artist. She is deeply passionate about history, literature and the world she lives in.

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