Generally when people think of ancient religions one of the first things that comes to mind is virginal priestesses clad in white bound to temples. In fact there is so much to do out there about the value of the statue of virginity in service to the gods that it is quite difficult to avoid the discussion for any length of time. It is part of the dialogue of what is expected among those who, like any thing that is dedicated to the gods, are expected to adhere to certain social concepts of what comes into the territory of belonging to a god as it pertains too to concepts of sacrament.
I recently had a brief discussion about the overall concept of being “set aside for the gods”, mostly in how in relates to godspouse type relationships, and the way people in general form relationship with the gods in ways that are recognized (the traditional or lawful manner) and that which falls outside the normal paradigm (the mystic or illicit manner). Much of this conversation was instigated by a post by Galina “The Messy Matter of Divine Affairs” In Galina’s post she challenges concepts of the gods in which the gods are condemned for their activity in myth, and how this influences mortal relationships with the gods. To read the article you can do so here. This discussion is particularly focused on the loaded message attached to myths regarding rape, and how when separated from our common modern perceptions of rape when taken into cultural and historical context carries a certain meaning which engages being seized (usually outside of lawful custom when compared to customs of marriage…although certain marital customs performed a seizure performance usually as part of acknowledgment of mythical or legendary legacy).
Edward Butler comments in reply in Galina’s post (is full reply which you can see there) that there is a different meaning attached to the experience of the god through untraditional channels (for which the mortal is being “raped” by the god) and those which are traditionally accepted. Again this is my imperfect summary of what he is saying. This would be the difference between exchanges with a god through the correct procedures via a priest or other acknowledged officiate at a temple with the offering of sacrifice, and the mystical individual experience of the god that was widespread but also treated with some trepidation and obscured under night time proceedings. Mystic rites of various mystery cults relied heavily on the individual experience of the gods in which the initiate experienced the god and was thus part of the sacrament through that process. In many mystery cults this accompanied by an element of frenzy and kind of violence of being….a kind of madness in some cases, which is particular to the initiates of Dionysos. It is an engagement with a god which violates the boundaries which social condition and hierarchy have determined. Thus too the rapes in myths transgress any and all boundaries, often what we would consider socio-economic boundaries that separate classes. Until Aphrodite became victim of it herself, she was said to mock the gods who fell under her sway and engaged in illicit love affairs with mortals who are status beneath the gods. This has also been reasoned as part of certain goddess remaining chaste and virginal and whose chastity was protected from offending mortals as severe transgressions comes into play. For a lesser spirit or a man to assume himself able to lay with a goddess would have been akin the presumption of a man of lower social status daring to climb into the bed of a woman among the elite. Where it is frowned upon, it is by far more socially permissible for a man to engage in liaisons with the lower class. The stigma exists, but in itself is less severe.
For a mortal engaging in a relationship with the gods, outside of permissibility of her family or by edict from officials, she is not following through the established customs which would set her aside…or a setting a part from others. In a collection of poems by Mahadeviyakka, a woman of Kashmir who devoted herself to Siva during the 12century CE, highlights this that by her relationships with Siva and the manner of her devotion she has become without caste. She no longer has any social benefit or mobility, although her person was held to esteem. Such would have been similar to the lot of Sibyls whose lot was not dissimilar to other young women who were bemoaned by their mothers for facing the potential of having to divine before temples if they could not marry. This is different from the selected practice of choosing priestesses, who often would have been selected from particular notable families and whose service was honorable. The extreme of this we would see among the Vestals in Rome who were chosen from the best Patrician families to spend a period of time of their lives as virginal servants of the goddess, for which however they enjoyed prestige. A priestess in general, unlike a young woman who merely by her own volition or by chance of circumstance found herself in service of the gods, was a position of privilege, one of few that women had access to. Therefore instances of seizure outside of this scope of privilege selection could be looked on as illicit, and while sacred, would have carried little personal benefit.
Again we find here the relationship difference between the lawfully married woman (the legitimate selected priestess) and concubine or illicit lover (the Sybil and similar like diviners…although Sybil did carry some notes of acclaim where in particular regions it was a post not unlike the Pythia, but at Cumae in the Aeneid we find perhaps how the sybils were originally conceived of, women seized by the gods, who dwelt apart from social fineries, often in some wild isolated place. The first Sybil of Delphi was distinctly different from the Pythia, whereas the Pythia was held in honor within the temple complex, the Sybil sat on a rock outside the temple (not even just before the temple but a bit down the hill) where she prophesied as the god moved her. Even Cassandra shows a distinct difference from the priestess role, as she refused the traditional lawful manner of receiving the god (in myth represented as refusing to bear the children of the god….all indicative of a lawful marital relationship where legitimate progeny is of the highest concern and motivation) and thereafter received the god in illicit fashion, but the consequence of rejecting the traditionally manner of receiving the god she was cursed with no one believing her true prophecies uttered. While this is delivered as a curse of Apollon in myth, it may be a high commentary more so of the nature of society which is more likely to place trust in a lawful wife than an illicit lover.
But to go back to lineage. One of things that was addressed in my later discussion with Edward on the subject is how this effects the relationship with the family. I would say that whereas priestesses were still very much connected to their lineage (especially given that they often chosen from specific families and for short term services or services that allowed marital relationships outside of the priestess duties, that their service was a boon to their lineage and that of any children they would have) the disassociation of lineage and family by those who are seized (“raped”) by the gods. There is a shame element in which the girl is no longer of benefit to her family, because she has been seized by the god and belongs to the god it no longer lends benefit to marital contracts of alliances. It rarely benefits men to be attached to women who belong first to the god and second to themselves, although there are a few instances in myth where heroes have welcome the opportunity to have a lover of a god. But typically there is a kind of mark that seems to set them apart as not really being part of the system. In myth we get a bit of a taste of this with Leto, who doesn’t really “belong” among the social hierarchy with the other Olympians and yet is treated with a distant respect. This non lineage is more apparent though in cases with the offspring of the gods who often are plagued with incident and rarely enjoy good fortunes and wealthy holdings of any kind….and pretty much zero inheritance from their mortal families as they are treated more or less as being not part of the family as illegitimate children. This is particular relevant in the case of Ion where Athena (on the part of Apollon) persuades Ion and Creousa to let Apollon’s illusion play out where her husband can legitimately claim Ion as a son of his so that he can enjoy some privileges of inheritance that he would otherwise have none of as the illegitimate son of Creousa and Apollon.
Of course things have changed. A lot of what has changed the dialogue about social presumptions is the fact that women are no longer dependent on their families. In fact the whole organization of families has changed so much, as well as the change in the importance of virginity and the institution of marriage that it has really changed a lot about how we talk about these things. Many of the virginal or unmarried requirements of priestesses seemed to have been hinged on a societal construct which would permit a young woman to dwell a part from her family without tarnishing her lineage, as well as give service without disruption as they are effectively married to the god they serve in the case of male gods, or a kind of a vessel or representation for goddesses. Such requirements may still be made of modern priestesses where applicable in the case of physical temples, but even still a chaste priestess in a monogamous relationship would probably still be acceptable given how much the dialogue about family and service to the family (and how much modern technology has changed that) has changed. This is in even more true for the illicit lovers of the gods, or the godspouses which are outside of social control and selection.
Which brings me back to the lovers of the gods, or godspouses, those who engage in the bridal mysticism which is set apart from traditional ways of receiving the gods. Where there in social institution or tradition that can assert influence on how we live our lives or what kind of families we have or our connection to our families, we have a lot more choices than our ancient counterparts or mythic counterparts. We each individually choose whether or not we have room in our lives for a family, whether that includes a spouse and/or children. There is a chance of being able to find a suitable partner that can live with our extreme levels of devotion, and who won’t balk at receiving a phone call to grab take out because you are going to be engaged for the next couple of hours in worship and won’t be cooking dinner that night, or weird changes in diet that may come and go or taboos that may occur for periods of time.
One thing that gives us, as godspouses/lovers/etc more options really than the possibility of social institutional expectations of priestess if temples were to rise again is the fact that typically our relationship with the god, as a mystic individual and personal experience, is not for the public. While good things may come out of it that benefit the public, the relationship itself is not about service for the benefit of the public has really nothing to do with anyone else. That is a huge plus that in this modern era really gives us a lot of different ways that our lives proceed.
This makes it all the more important to address how we are looking at these mythical “rape” scenes in relationship in worship and not malign them with human on human assault that violates the will and person of another. It is an important dialogue to keep having I think.