Recently I read huffington post article/blog (which can be viewed here) in which the author essentially tore down Hellenic myth as immoral, and one of the biggest points she made was on the subject of rape. So that is what I wanted to address in this blog, because I have spoken many times about the allegorical nature of myths and how they are teaching tools that contain certain messages that should not be taken literally. So I am not going to rehash all that right now, I am just going to focus on this message of rape that bothered her so terribly much.
Now I know that myths can be a difficult subject to teach children, particularly when the myths are no part of their spiritual life, of neither the teacher or the children she is teaching usually. Therefore, this makes it doubly difficult to talk to children about myths, because there isn’t this fundamental groundwork for understanding the myths. In fact the teachers who are instructing children of this subject often know no more about the myths than rudamentary textbook information. It is unlikely that they have read any of the big mythographers of the ancient times such as Apollodorus, and Diodorus Siculus, or the religios history works of Pausanias and the bits found in the Geography of Strabo. Therefore, they are learning from what other people have summarized about the myths rather than reading any primary source material of the myths themselves. I can’t fault them too much because teachers of young students typically are not specializing, and don’t always have the time to read all of these texts, but they should get familiar with the subject a bit more than the worn out view of the myths as barbaric examples for pre-christian religions, and therefore passing on the myths in a completely mischaracterized manner. Though it does amuse me in some ways that they are so aborhant of the myths of other cultures when their own christian myths are often more bloody and brutal, and certainly filled with images of rape, incest and murder. The only difference is that in the new testament the interaction between Mary and Yahweh is played down that the holy spirit descended upon her and she is miraculously pregnant.
In reality this is no different than what we see in the rape myths, and even in some early christian iconography such as the passion of Theresa which is remarkably akin the descriptions of Cassandra in Agamemnon as she is possessed by Apollon. This seizure by the embrace of the divine is the essence of the rape myths. However, ancient Hellenic myth relates the event in quite pragmatic terms. The sexual becomes the allegory for the union with the god, because it is procreative/transformative. Rape is non-consentual sex, therefore serves as an allegory of being seized by the god which is awe-inspiring, terrifying on some level, and quite overwhelming to the senses…and it is done without permission, it just happens. Even the christian god does not ask for permission, so this should hardly be shocking or surprising to anyone. But it has nothing do with sex. Rather is symbolic of the penetrative nature of the gods (which is a reason that most goddesses are related as having sex with mortals in myths) that it can cause a reaction from their union with human souls. Yet, because the gods are so much more than humanity, it can be a shocking, though not unwelcome experience. You very rarely see bitter laments of the lovers of the gods after the fact, the only exception being Creousa in Ion, but this was more about her child she left exposed out of fear of her family in the play, and in fact, many of them end up receiving some kind of divine status as they became “more” from joining in the union with the gods. Morever, it was honored. Europa was honored, Ganymede was honored, Io was honored, Leda was honored, and so on and so forth.
To be embraced by a god and pentrated, was to become more than what you were, just as through marriage, you may become more….and in ancient societies it was an expected duty that one married, because to be a bachelor or bachelorette was to be less. So much so that in ancient Sparta unmarried men were not permitted to attend certain festivals such as the Gymnopaidia. Marriage, was a transformative and procreative union..it transformed two people into a unified whole, and created a new oikos (household). And the young people in question often didn’t have any say in the matter, or very little say depending on how indulgent families were. It is difficult to imagine now-days when most people are accustomed to the idea of love-match marriages and can’t even imagine the idea of marrying a virtual stranger via an arranged marriage. From there we proceed to what is classified as “rape” myths which are actually of a marital character such as that of Persephone and Hades who are joined in union by Zeus for a function together.
The problem is when teachers are teaching such things literally as rape, and then of course they are going to be hesitant about it because teaching it is rape almost takes the image to them of condoning forced sex. This is, of course, not the message of the myths…and in fact rape was very frowned upon (see Ares who killed the rapist of his daughter, the son of Poseidon, and won his case in the court of the gods). Therefore, what is needed is a change in language in how the myths are talked about to distinguish between what is rape and what is the transformative union of the gods (which is also quite obvious in the story of Medusa). Quite honestly, in the translations of the original texts I never even see the word rape when it comes to such descriptions.
The bottom line is that if teachers aren’t willing to look more at the myths and look deeper into them, I really don’t think they should be teaching them at all.