Philomela Returns. Ancient Myth and the Public Secret of Rape. Antik mytologi och våldtäkt som offentlig hemlighet

  • Funder: Swedish Research Council

Project Description

Rape is what Taussig has called a “public secret”, something everyone in a society knows about but cannot speak of openly. What creates and sustains this public secrecy? This project examines the role of literary representations of sexual violence and their potential to both underpin and undermine the public secret of rape, focusing on ancient myths. Cast in a language of metaphor, ellipsis or euphemism, and thematizing silence and secrecy, the rapes of mythological characters like Daphne, Europa and Persephone belong to the core of Western narrative traditions and have fundamentally impacted current ideas of rape. How can we explain the enduring appeal of these stories? And how can we understand the relationship between their continual recycling and the way in which Western cultures construct rape?

This project delimits its empirical scope to thirty contemporary literary representations of the story about Tereus raping Philomela and brutally cutting out her tongue in order to keep the act a secret. It explores its typology, effects and functions. By combining methods from postclassical narratology, critical classical reception studies and rhetorical paradigm analysis, the project examines, historicizes and calls for a rescripting of the psychological scripts that guide expectations, interpretations and actions in response to events involving sexual violence.


Kvinna med gevär i händerna står med grön växtlighet upp till midjan.

Picture from the film The Nightingale (2018) by the director Jennifer Kent. Courtesy of NonStop Entertainment.

About the Project

Philomela Returns is a single-researcher project conducted by Associate professor Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed. The project has an international reference group consisting of Pratiksha Baxi, professor of Legal Anthropology in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor of English at Uppsala University Danuta Fjellestad, and Professor Helen Morales at UC Santa Barbara, expert in Classics and Gender Studies.

Project Duration



The Swedish Research Council