Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rape in ancient Hellas and Hellenic mythology

A long time ago, I promised to look closer into the act of rape in ancient Hellenic mythology, and despite that promise, I haven't written about it in a cohesive way since. It's a difficult topic and while that doesn't usually hold me back, it's also a topic about which a lot is written but nothing is proven beyond a doubt. Paraphrasing the available information leads to an incomplete picture, but I'm going to do my best.

This post is inspired by a comment on yesterday's post, where I, amongst others, describe how Zeus raped Hera so He could marry Her. Understandably, this didn't go over well. Rape is a terrible act, a shameful act, with dire consequences for all involved. It's 'the unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse'.

Dr. Susan Deacy, in her excellent essay 'The vulnerability of Athena' describes three categories of rape in myth: parthenoi (maidens--those who are unmarried) who reject normal female activities and wish to remain unmarried, parthenoi who are lured away from the paternal oikos, are raped and give birth to remarkable offspring, and rape as a representation of marriage.

I have noted before, that there is no word for 'rape' in the ancient Hellenic language. What we would consider rape, was assumably either a property crime, or an act of violence. The roles of women in ancient Hellas were a lot different than the roles of women today. In my post on suicide, I wrote the following:

"In ancient Greece, women were almost solely in charge of raising children. Their lives consisted of taking care of the hearth, her husband and her children. Any status a woman had, was tied in with her husband. Women in ancient Greece were groomed to function in pairs. It was because of this that a widow was passed on to another male as soon as possible."

A free woman could marry, and she did so when she was quite young. In my post on children, childnessness and the hearth, I wrote:

"Marriage in ancient Greece was a family affair. The father of the son--who was often in his thirties by the time he got married--opened negotiations with the family of a bride in her teens. The two families came to an agreement about dowry, a contract was signed by the father of the groom and the father of the bride in front of witnesses, and the groom met his new wife--often for the first time--before taking her to bed."

I add to this in my post about ancient Hellenic taboos:

"Prostitution was common, and men tended to have concubines. Some even lived at the house. Demosthenes, a Hellenic writer from ancient Athens, was recorded as saying: 'we have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to provide for our daily needs, and our spouses to give us legitimate children and to be the faithful guardians of our homes'."

In short, a free woman married her husband when she was in her teens. Her husband took her from her home, and into his. He introduced her to Hestia through the hearth and that was that. They were now married. From that point forward, they had sex only to produce children. Love rarely entered into the equation, although I pose that a good few of these couples eventually ended up loving each other, even if it may not be the romantic love we value today. Sex games and sex for pleasure for a male was had with prostitutes, concubines and--perhaps--with their younger male protégées.

We tend to equate 'rape' with the absence of love and mutual consent, but in ancient Hellas, marriage itself was an agreement between men about a woman. Rape in ancient Hellas was therefor not tied to the approval of the woman--any sexual act on her part was performed without love and consent anyway--but to the approval of the men surrounding her.

I find it important to pause here for an adjustment of terminology. From this point on, I will use 'rape' only when it is absolutely clear the men surrounding the women in question would object to her having sexual relations with the man in question. For all other instances, I will use terms which describe a sexual act, no matter if they are forced upon or wanted. This, to further illustrate the views of ancient Hellens.

In ancient Hellenic society, free women lived separate from men. They rarely had interactions with men not from their oikos. Still, there are accounts of women being sexually assaulted, and monetary fines that were issued to the perpetrator. From this, we know that sexual assault and rape were criminal, and shameful acts. The question is: was the sexual assault/rape criminal and shameful, or was it criminal and shameful to take someone else's property from them? And if so, could a father accuse a man of sexual assault/rape, if he married her? 

Most of the laws concerning this topic relate to adulterers; a man who caught his wife cheating, could bring the man she was cheating with to court. Plutarch, in a discussion of law, says that Solon gave 'to the one who catches a moichos (an adulterer) the right to kill him, but if anyone seizes a free woman and forces her, he assigned the penalty of one hundred drachmas’. This means that adultery was seen as a far more serious offense than sexual assault. 

In order to get married, women were encouraged to be virgins. Especially in mythology, this proves difficult when a God lays their eyes on them. Some are saved by other Deities. They get transformed into plants, trees or animals--although the latter rarely prevents the God from having sex with them--to get away from the God in question. These usually fall in the first, or sometimes second, category laid out by Deacy. Examples include Daphne--who was chased by Apollon and transformed into a laurel--and Europa--who was abducted by Zeus, they have sex, and Europa is abandoned.

Myths are educational tools. They teach morality and ethics. Through myths, we can understand the way the ancient Hellens thought a little better. In my opinion, the question of rape lies in the outcome of the mythological sexual act: does the sexual act lead to marriage or not? In cases where it does, the sexual act is not so much rape as we understand it, but an illustration of the start of a marriage. This would be the case with Zeus' rape of Hera. So what of all these mortal women who are abandoned?

To answer this, I feel we must first take a firm step back from mythology. We have seen that sexual assault and rape were criminal offenses, but they weren't punished that severely. Still, one hundred drachmas was more than most men could pay. In modern times, one hundred drachmas would equate to roughly $ 6000,-, with the day wage for a skilled artisan being around one drachma. Ancient sources also tell us that men were only punishable for sexual assault or rape if they raped a woman--or possibly a man--above their own rank. No one was punished for raping a slave, for example, and the practice was common.

So then, what of Gods? It stands to reason that hierarchical rules also apply here, as myths are formed by the men who tell them. Who is higher in rank than a God? And, above all, who is higher in rank than Zeus? If Zeus desires a woman, He is free to take her under ancient Hellenic law. It also stands to reason that a God lower in standing, say Apollon, would be punished severely for raping a Goddess above his standing. If Zeus had not claimed Hera, and He had laid claim to Her, I am sure He would have been unsuccessful, and perhaps would even have been punished.

Looking at mortals, nymphs and 'lesser' Immortals, nearly all Gods outrank them, so the ancient Hellens would have seen no problem in a sexual act between a God and these women. An exception to the rules and regulations applied to mortal adulterous men, would most likely have been made for the Gods as well. Their Divinity would allow Them to 'overrule' the mortal marriage without bringing shame to the husband, although there seems to be a threat stemming from a demi-God son (as can be seen in the myth of Perseus).

This has become a long post and it's not exhaustive in any way, shape or form. It is merely an illustration of ancient Hellenic culture and ancient Hellenic views upon sexual assault and rape. So many years later, our attitudes have changed. Women's rights have come a long way, and with them, the criminalization and social rejection of rape. Yet, in ancient Hellas, these views were different, and Hellenic myths reflect this. As uncomfortable as that may be to some or most, this does not change anything about the facts and the myths.

Yes, in a good few of the myths where a woman is raped, the sex was non-consensual. Even if it was consensual, it wouldn't reflect in the myths because a woman was incapable of consenting to anything; only her father, brother or husband could. I don't sugarcoat these facts; many say that the rape is figurative, that it is meant as an outpour of divinity upon a mortal. It may very well be, but that doesn't change the fact that myths often reflect the culture they were formed in, and that a form of non-consensual sex most likely was the foundation of the accounts which formed these myths. It isn't pretty, but there it is.

This doesn't stop me from worshipping the Theoi in any way, shape or form. I have spoken before about religion dictating the reconstruction practice, not the culture. Non-consensual sex will never be a standardized part of Hellenismos. Any follower who wishes it to be so, wishes it to be so because of his or her own desires or a blatant misinterpretation of reconstructive practices.

I hope this post clears up some of the confusion and bad aftertaste some myths seem to leave in one's mouth. It is a practice we, as humans, have left behind. These myths were formed in a time where things were very different. I don't excuse the practice of accepted rape in ancient Hellas because there is nothing to excuse. Who am I to judge an ancient society or it's myths? Especially, who am I to judge the Theoi? All I can say is that rape is not a part of Hellenismos and the Theoi are not revered because of these sexual escapades. It's a part of Them, just like their dominion over thunder, the sea, the Underworld, or love. They are not defined by it.

6 comments:

bayoread said...

Anyone who equates worshipping the Theoi with accepting rape is entirely missing the point, and as you pointed out it was the way the culture worked in that period, not the religion.

I've seen people call out with disgust worshippers who honour Zeus, because of his sexual behaviour in many of his myths, for example the one you've already mentioned. Does that mean that we support his right to rape? Of course not. Myths are myths, not truths. They're a story meant to teach, not recount fact even if the rape is a metaphor for a mortal taking in the power of the divine.

But, rape is a tricky subject to discuss and I think you did well in this post. :)

Elani Temperance said...

Thank you for your kind words. These kinds of topics are always worrisome to write about. I'm glad it came across as intended :)

Memory Walker said...

I got stuck on this post for months. I knew that if I skipped it and moved on to the next month's posts, I wouldn't come back to it. Now I've finally read it, and I'm glad I have.

You handled an extremely difficult topic with great grace and sensitivity. You provide food for thought without offering offense - which is very difficult with a subject like this.

It has led me to an awkward question, which you don't have to answer if you don't want to. Seeing the Theoi as beings who continue into this changed modern world, do you think They have/might have changed Their behaviour as Their followers have also changed? Or, are They are as unchanging as They are eternal?
Your post made me wonder about this, and whether the Gods in general learn and change...

Elani Temperance said...

@Memory Walker: I'm sorry this post proved a bit of a hold-up for you. It's very good to hear you feel I have handled it well. It was a very hard topic, and this post still stands as one of the hardest I have written to this date. It's such a controversial, painful, and sensitive subject; I wouldn't want to devalue anyone's experiences.

Concerning your question; I suspect a blog post in the near future, but for now, let me say that I feel the Theoi have changed--they were already changing lost during the reign of Hellas, so why should They have stopped afterwards?--but I don't think They have adjusted enough to keep up with modern society. If they had, it would have meant--IMHO--a corruption, and They can not be corrupted. I suspect that They have adopted new inventions and such, but have stuck to Their ethical framework, withdrawing from mankind on issues where modern societal ethics have become divorced from ancient Hellenic ones. This is also why I care so much about ancient Hellas: in order to service the Theoi to the best of my abilities, I feel I need to become a bridge between the old and the new, so the Theoi can resume Their rulership in this modern age.

This is the short answer, and nowhere near well-constructed. I think that blog post will be a must ;) Thank you!

MediumRob said...

I'd recommend reading the second edition of Mary Lefkowitz's 'Women In Greek Myth', since she points out that many of the myths that people call 'rape myths' are better described as 'abduction-seduction' myths. It would hard to summarise all of chapter four here but I think this is an appropriate section:

'The distinction between rape or forcible abduction and voluntary seduction needs to be made with some care and emphasis, since these seductions by gods are often classified as rape in modern literature… the gods do not rape mortal women or abduct or seduce them from their father's or husband's homes. Rather, the women are seduced by gods, usually outside of their homes; and the women give their consent, at least initially.' (page 56)

Elani Temperance said...

@MediumRob: That, indeed, is a very good book I would recommend as well :) thank you!