Rape in myth

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.


13 thoughts on “Rape in myth

  1. Yes, yes, everything you just wrote!

    (There is a post I may make in the next week or two about a criticised-for-these-reasons myth involving Beloved. If I do, may I link to this post as part of mine?)

  2. Another way of approaching these myths is through the opposition between “lawful” (i.e., socially regulated) marriage and unions, whether “rape” or “adultery”, that are outside that regulation. Inasmuch as the marital unions of the Gods express the ordinary exercise of their powers, their irregular unions express the extraordinary exercise of those powers. This is in accord with how Proclus interprets the adulterous relationship between Aphrodite and Ares, and how Olympiodorus interprets the theft of the divine fire by Prometheus. In many cases of “rape” in the myths, it is a question of a union, such as that of a God with a mortal, that could never be the rule, i.e., could never be universalized, but can only be an exception. Thus the product of the union of a God and a mortal is a hero, which is a one-time-only event, as opposed to the ordinary exercise of the God’s powers, which are eternal and continuous.

    The case of Hades and Persephone is a special one, insofar as it is a question of the irregular becoming a law itself, their union being the very principle of a confusion of registers, in which the immortal becomes mortal and the mortal immortal, as Heraclitus once said. In a way, this makes Hades and Persephone the patrons of heroes as such—which is why they don’t have a child in particular, unless that child be understood as each mortal, once they have undergone initiation and paid the “penalty” associated with incarnation.

    • indeed, and this wasn’t something that I had thought of (though it falls in line with my sentiment that we need to change what vocabulary we use to talk about these myths). It was broached with me that what we are often talking about in these cases is union outside of marriage. But that unions serve purposes in myth is clear, whether it is unions among gods which mingle their spheres of influence and action, or the fertilization of a human soul that is not apart of regular unions among gods in myth.
      I like your thoughts on Hades and Persephone too.

  3. Interesting that monotheists will criticize rape in this way when the three Abrahamic faiths condone it, order the victim to marry her rapist, regale the story of Lott’s daughters, and even today would force the victim to bear the child. The god of Abraham commanded that his Jewish warriors would take the young virgins captive but murder everything else when they attacked a city. Such as would criticize Hellenic myth as immoral are most probably far more immoral in their own belief. The Huffpo is full of American conservative Christian types, so it is almost certain that the author, editor etc. are full of pride about the stories in their holy texts… all while never having read them. gah!

      • LOL I do try 😉 Really I have found that keeping a polite reasonable tone usually works best, and is often quite effective. It is polite but it is to the point…they are hypocrites if they say such things, and must be utterly blind.

      • Today I suffered through a narrated torturous hour long powerpoint presentation that was so dry I’m amazed it did not spontaneously combust. The speaker had nothing more to say than what was written on the slides and delivered the bulk of the reading in a stilted monotone not entirely unlike my imagination of waterboarding. This tsunami of sleep inducing technical information was interrupted only by apologies for technical difficulties. I looked at my colleague after and asked his thoughts…. he said “It could have been better”

        When I saw your comment I burst out laughing.

  4. The root word of “rapture” is “rape.” This show how the language changed over time. So rape can refere to kidnapping, eloping, marriage without father’s permission and such. The sexual rape is just one part covered by this word but is now the common meaning today. The older meaning of rape can include the daughter’s consent which would have no bearing because she is the property of her father. So a “rape” can also be an act of rebellion against her father. A close reading of the sources is certainly required! A amusing thought is that whenever a Christian prayed for the Rapture, he is praying his God to “rape” him!

  5. Pingback: Did the Ancients actually believe their myths were facts? - Page 3 - Religious Education Forum

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