Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rape in Greek Mythology?

From Elani Temperance's quote in the Mythology Taken Literally? topic, I was moved to make a topic with this as the focus (with Elani's permission to quote):

Quote Originally Posted by Elani Temperance
No easy answer for this one. Let me try from a Hellenic standpoint. Myths, in the olden days, were mostly used to transfer messages beyond the actual story of the myth. Even now, many Hellenics take the myths of our Gods and use them to understand the Theoi better (as they do speak of Them and give a glimps into their day-to-day life) but it doesn't stop their. We study the hymns, archeology and the many epithets of our Gods to get to know Them. Myths help, but even way back when, they weren't taken literally.

An example; Greek myth featured a lot of rape. Gods like Apollon, Hermes, Dionysos and Pan are famous for chasing Nymphs. Yet, these Gods were revered side by side with Nymphs in the ancient temples and they did so amiably.

So the myths can be an inspiration, but they're not to be taken literally. Rape didn't mean rape as we know it; often it was the transferance of divinity or a blessing. Quite a different meaning.

A PM exchange led me to this blog post by Elani about gender in Greek mythology. In a link to Susan Cole's paper on Greek sanctions against sexual assault, we find that:

Ancient Greek has no explicit term for "rape" in the sense of "sexual intercourse committed by force" but several expressions used in Greek to mean assault can, in certain circumstances, denote rape.

Abduction was one of these words, and seems to be the most frequent English translations. Etymologically, the English word "rape" has its word origins in describing thievery. In the context of a time when women were property, consent wasn't a factor... which means that in some cases, women may have consented to "rape" in the sense of that they volunteered for abduction that wouldn't be okay to their fathers or husbands.

It made me think about the opening of Herodotus' histories, referring to the wars that came about when Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen were abducted:

Now as for the carrying off of women, it is the deed, they say, of a rogue: but to make a stir about such as are carried off, argues a man a fool. Men of sense care nothing for such women, since it is plain that without their own consent they would never be forced away.

By then it's more history than mythology, but the attitudes of the time read still read as gray to me. They speak of women's consent, in the same sentence that they use the word "forced". Either the efforts of abduction ultimately as a matter of course hinged on the consent of the abductee... or the ancient Greeks really were so misogynistic that whatever came of a woman from (what was described in The Histories as) ambush and violent abduction, would be the woman's own fault.

Back to the myths, I can see some transfer of divinity or blessing being possible in consenting sexual intercourse, that is only considered rape by the vice of being unlawful or unholy to others outside of the couple.

Elani and I discussed the Medusa myth. I confessed that I (a 21st century, non-Greek, cis-gendered woman) had difficulty reconciling the idea of a goddess of wisdom punishing a victim of sexual violation. So, to my mind it would have been a conscious decision on Medusa's part to take Poseidon's blessing where Athena would take offense.

Quote Originally Posted by Elani Temperance
In the older versions of this myth, it's clear that Medusa consents to the sexual acts. As she is a priestess of Athena, she was supposed to remain a virgin. Failing this, she was punished. In my opinion, and I state no sources for this because I have none, Athena also punished Medusa for the desecration of Her temple instead of Poseidon (who was equally to blame) because She wasn't in a position to punish another God.

One can also argue that Athena transformed Medusa into what she is so she would never have to deal with the violation of her body again (i.e. giving her the power to take care of herself--something much more in line with Athena's persona), should the sex have been non-consensual.

So... modern paradigm criticisms, historical cultural contexts to consider, all welcome. But mainly I wonder: What did each of these mythological stories of abduction and rape symbolize?

Here are some myths I'm thinking of, feel free to add:

Medusa's rape by Poseidon in the temple of Athena
Aura's rape by Dionysus after offending Artemis (with conspiracy by Nemesis)
Arethusa's attempted rape by the river Alpheus (with Artemis intervening for the preservation of Arethusa's autonomy)

Callisto's affair with Zeus (with double retaliation, from her virgin patron Artemis, and from Hera)
Persephone's abduction by Hades
Demeter's rape by Poseidon (during her search for Persephone)

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