Thursday, August 23, 2012

It's Time to Listen

I don't generally like to let harsh realities invade this blog. It's my happy space where I get to blather about stories, not a soapbox from which I shout what I think you should be thinking. But then Todd Akin opened his idiotic mouth, and I remember how little has really changed since the days of the stories I love. Rape is a huge plot point in so many myths, but so often the victim's story is rarely even listened to. Worse, his or her experience is mostly brushed aside, with the rape-conceived child being seen as justifying the assault.

It all sounds a little too familiar.

The Rape of Europa, Noel-Nicolas Coypel
Take, for example, Europa. Really, you could take any of Zeus' conquests, including his wife. But Europa's the one who gets the word "rape" in the title of her story. Search for "Europa" on its own, and you get images of a moon and the official EU website. Search "Rape of Europa" and you get stories, pictures, and a film about stolen art treasures that turns the seizure and assault of a girl by a god-turned-bull into a metaphor for the loss of Europe's artistic identity. In our cultural mindset, Europa is nothing without the rape. Before, she's not even a blip on the radar; after, she's only important because she conceives from that rape, and gives birth to the future king of Crete and the greatest judge of mythological Greece. The only story we tell about her - the only one we know about her - is that she was raped by Zeus in the form of a bull. Oh, and did I mention stolen away to a freakin' island afterwards, by her rapist? And then handed over to the current king of Crete like a door prize once Zeus gets bored?

The Rape of Europa, Felix Edouard Vallotton
It actually gets worse. When her father, showing a unique moral and familial affection, sends his sons out to look for his missing daughter, Zeus distracts them by giving them their own cities, thus barring them from ever locating their sister and depriving Europa of anything from her pre-rape life. But this ban isn't forever; when Europa's sons Minos and Sarpedon clash over a boy they both love, Sarpedon flees Crete for his uncle Cilix's kingdom. Obviously he can leave the island; obviously he knows, or has been allowed to discover, where his mother's family is. A young man who's never seen his uncle is easily permitted to take up residence with him, but a rape victim torn from her home is flatly denied even a glimpse of her brother. "Double standard" doesn't begin to cover how appalling this is.

Sun, Moon, and Talia, Chris Beatrice
We've been over the arguably-worse horror that is "Sun, Moon and Talia," the original Sleeping Beauty. But it bears repeating. While in the grip of an enchantment, Talia is raped while unconscious and left pregnant by an already-married king. She only wakes up when her newborn son mistakes her finger for her nipple and sucks the spindle splinter out. Again, it gets worse; when King Rapist returns to his perma-sleeping sex doll and finds that, whoops, she's awake and he has twins, he doesn't even have the guts to own up to what he's done. He keeps her in her castle and goes about his life, blissfully unaware that his actual wife (or sometimes his ogress mother, depending on whether it's Perrault or Basile telling the story) is trying to serve him his children for dinner. It is purest luck that Talia and her children survive; the only time the king ever takes responsibility for what he's done is when he marries Talia at the end, which is both a foregone conclusion and a horrifying ending.

Talia, like Europa, does literally nothing to deserve or earn the fate she gets. Both are victims of passing proprietary lust. Both bear children conceived in rape. Both are cut off forever from their families, and from any support system to help them cope with the upheavals in their lives. Their stories are ones that we've heard many times. They're the realities that too many women live with every day. And if they were real and alive today - a kidnapped young woman and a teen mother - they would be among the many that Todd Akin suggested were not "legitimately" raped.

While you let that sink in, let me introduce you to Chrysippus. Because surely you don't think only women get raped.

The Rape of Chrysippus, KidaGreenleaf
If Talia's and Europa's stories make me think of faces on milk cartons and sexual slavery, Chrysippus reminds me of the also-too-common priest scandals in the Catholic Church. Chrysippus, an athletic young nobleman, sets off for the Nemean Games (basically the Olympics), accompanied by his tutor Laius. He never gets to compete in the Games, because Laius abducts him, rapes him, and carries him to Laius' home city of Thebes. Stories vary on the precise details of the ending, but in all of them Chrysippus dies: sometimes by his own hand out of shame, sometimes by his half-brothers, afraid that he would inherit their father Pelops' throne. In all of them, Laius feels no guilt or remorse for his hijacking of the life of a young man whose well-being is his responsibility. In all of them, only Chrysippus bears the burden of what has happened to him.

Chrysippus and Laius, KidaGreenleaf
And as so often happens, the victim does not see justice done. Chrysippus dies long before Laius meets his fate at the hands of his son Oedipus (you might have heard of him). Typically for Greek myths, divine vengeance for Chrysippus' suffering comes too late and very over-the-top: the family of Laius, from Oedipus to Jocasta to Antigone, all pay an impossibly high price for the sins of the father. But Chrysippus is long dead when that happens, and his life in tatters even before his death. What can it matter to Chrysippus that the children and grandchildren of his rapist suffer agonizing moral and physical torment? What difference can it make now? It can't. Nothing that the Theban royal house endures can change or heal Chrysippus in any way. It's an empty vengeance, and the rapist who set it in motion gets off lightest of all. Laius is allowed to marry, to have a child, to rule for decades after he destroys Chrysippus' life. And worst of all, he wins. Chrysippus' is a forgotten story. Even though his tale jumpstarts Oedipus', you never hear it when you hear the story of the fall of the house of Thebes. Laius successfully spins the story to make himself essentially an innocent bystander, a victim of Oedipus' irrational wrath, rather than the root cause of such destruction.

Math Son of Mathonwy, Margaret Jones
I can think of precisely one rape myth with a somewhat happy ending. The Welsh king Math lives under a spell that requires him, whenever he's not in battle, to rest with his feet in the lap of a maiden. Being a king, he chooses Goewin, the most beautiful virgin at court. Things go swimmingly until Gilfaethwy, a warrior kinsman of Math, falls in lust with the king's designated virgin. Gilfaethwy's sorcerer brother sets up a smokescreen war to distract Math, and the two men together rape Goewin while Math is away fighting.

Appalling as this is, Goewin has, crucially, what Europa, Talia and Chrysippus do not: access to a support system. When Math returns, she confides in him that he can no longer put his feet in her lap, since she's no longer a virgin. And Math responds in a manner that makes him a strong candidate for Best Human Being Ever: he comforts Goewin, marries her, and makes her his co-ruler, with as much authority and power as he himself has. And he punishes Gilfaethwy and his brother
Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, Margaret Jones
Gwydion by turning them into paired animals for three straight years, alternating who is male and who is female so that by the end of their punishment, they have both experienced rape firsthand.

We never hear from Gilfaethwy again. But Gwydion, the enabler and co-rapist, is one of the greatest and most popular figures in the Mabinogion, the great Welsh collection of tales and sagas. He's a consummate trickster, on par with Loki and Coyote; he wins praise and accolades for his magic and his skillful manipulation of his enemies; and after his three-year punishment is over, Math welcomes him back to his court and relies on his skills just as he always did.

Olwen, Alan Lee
You wonder what Math's queen had to say about that. You wonder how many women have to look their rapist in the eye every day. You wonder how many bite their tongues and keep quiet for fear of disturbing the peace, sacrificing their own inner peace in the process. You wonder how long it's been going on.

What stories like these tell us is that it's been going on forever. This has been happening all around us, basically since humans figured out what they could put where. We're supposed to learn from the past, from the stories we tell. Why haven't we, yet?

Because, for as long as it's been happening, we've been excusing it. It's okay that Uther raped Igraine; it produced King Arthur. It's no big that Zeus raped Europa; she got to be queen of Crete. Todd Akin is the latest in a long line of whitewashing assholes who have been telling us for millennia that the experience of a rape victim does not matter.

But what seems to shut them up, or at least make them think twice, are stories. The stories of the victims, not the rapists or the narrators; the stories told by the people whose experiences are routinely dismissed and belittled. It takes courage, in such a cultural climate, to speak; to insist that your experience is "legitimate"; to demand recognition from those who would prefer to shrug you away. The victims in legend have been used to justify one way of looking at the world; the victims of today, more and more, are refusing to be so used. It's astonishingly, heartbreakingly brave of them.

And we all need to listen.


  1. "The only story we tell about her - the only one we know about her - is that she was raped by Zeus in the form of a bull. Oh, and did I mention stolen away to a freakin' island afterwards, by her rapist?"

    Europa was playing with her handmaidens on the beach of the lands that lie at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean (that which the ancients called Phoenicia) when out of the sea emerged an enormous bull. The bull approached Europa, who was entranced by the bull's size, beauty and apparent gentleness. When the bull knelt on the sand beside her, Europa mounted the bull.

    As soon as Europa had climbed on the bull, the bull returned to the water and began to swim away from the shore. Europa's handmaidens screamed out their warnings to Europa who took no notice of their cries of alarm, instead allowing the bull to carry her further and further out to sea.

    Through day and night the bull swam steadily across the ocean. Eventually, the bull made landfall on the eastern shore of the island that today we call Crete. There the bull and Europa mated. Some say that Europa was taken by the giant bull against her will. Others say that Europa yielded readily to the magnificent animal behind whose brown eyes shone the hot fire of the king of the immortal dwellers on Mount Olympus.

    Doleful and trembling with fear, Europa's handmaidens reported forlornly to Europa's aghast parents that a giant bull had snatched their darling daughter from the seashore and that, despite their many cries, Europa had gone off across the sea clinging to the bull's back. No matter, the girls' forebodings were entirely justified, for despite their innocence in the affair all the girls were stripped of their garments, beaten cruelly and then put to death in the most savage manner.

    After their bloodthirsty reprisals against the unfortunate girls, all that Europa's grieving father and mother had left to console themselves was the belief that their daughter must have been taken by one of the Gods.

    The moral of this story, dear reader, is that, while a princess or prince may get to gamble with the gods, it is your handmaidens and your other slaves (of both sexes) who will end up having to pay the price of your recklessness.

    1. Fair point. The handmaidens always get shafted. Even awesome Odysseus hangs the handmaidens who were colluding with the suitors. It's enough to make you wonder why anyone took that job.

      Also, what is it with Zeus strewing havoc in the wake of his conquests/rapes? Danae gets uprooted from her home and thrown to the winds, Semele's burned to death, poor Io gets transformed and imprisoned and literally has to run for her life, and now even Europa's handmaidens are collateral damage. Probably his cavalier disregard for anyone but himself is one of the main reasons why I don't find him sexy at all.

  2. Tsk, 'gambol' not 'gamble', of course, though this was one gambol that was surely a gamble.

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  4. I ended up here while doing research on the philosopher Chrysippus. Just though I'd comment on this very well considered and written blog that enlightened my interest in mythology. I hear you. The message has comes through loud and clear.

    "colenso" offered the slant to the story that is still called, "The Rape Of Europa: "The bull approached Europa, who was entranced by the bull's size, beauty and apparent gentleness. When the bull knelt on the sand beside her, Europa mounted the bull." A slant that sounds much like a kind of "grooming" on steroids.

    The Bull, as magnificent as it was, is still the symbol of (P)ower. A power introduced into the play of human relations as one will over another's. The fundamental definition of rape.

    And the story includes the isolation of Europa from her usual environs of handmaidens and family. All of this is a perfect example of mesmerism by charisma gone decrepit: often practiced by rapists and pedophiles.

    Mr. Akin's slant (backed up by pseudoscience) suited his and his party's empty agenda. If you don't have substance, make it up. And look, you can get a baby out it that may rule the world. No matter that you, your sense of sovereign self, are obliterated in the process. How criminally obtuse!

    Thank you for "filling-the-spaces" so passionately and creatively.

    1. "No matter that you, your sense of sovereign self, are obliterated in the process." You said in one sentence what I took the whole blog to say. Thank you for that.

      I also love your point on "mesmerism by charisma," which too often successfully masks predatory behavior (and in terms of myths still does). A photogenic attacker with a good PR team can get away with a frightening amount of abuse, be he OJ Simpson or the king of the gods. It's much easier to gossip and ogle than to pay attention to what's actually happening.

      Your comments on the Bull are making me think of the prevalence of bull symbols in Minoan Crete, most obviously for Theseus and the Labyrinth. In addition to Europa being surrounded by a culture that quickly deified the animal (not just the god) that raped her, I wonder about the power, both symbolically and sexually, that transfers from the Bull to Theseus, who himself is no slouch when it comes to virility. Does he inherit by conquest the mantle of the Bull? Maybe the Minotaur's death at his hands is a metaphorical rape of the Bull (as you point out, in terms of power, which is the key to the whole horror anyway), of the mainland retaking the agency that was stripped from Europa. (In which case, it's another over-the-top vengeance that comes too late.)

      Thanks so much for your comment, and for making me think of interpretations that never occurred to me before!

  5. Thanks for your response.

    Have you read Nathaniel Hawthorne's story of Theseus. You might find the description of the Bull (and narrator's asides) interesting if you have not. I read it for the first time today after reading your response. I tend to read some works from inside, i.e, as essential aspects and projections of my psyche. Means I play the mythological gods and full cast of characters (extras included). I've found it helps to decide what to contemplate further, and what to discard as non internalizable (word?): those one's are just for kicks.

    I do think now that the confrontation with the Bull was Theseus' confrontation with
    his future self as a King: being just or unjust. Along with all of his virtues, there existed the possibility that truly being in a position of power might "go to his head" so to speak, the King of Crete was the perfect archetype. The maze, I don't know, being the Self? But not to worry, he lopped of that possibilities head. Kind of reminded me of the last thing the Buddha had to face before his enlightenment.

    1. Sorry for the delay - I didn't want to reply until I'd read the Hawthorne. But his description of the Bull is marvelous. I've never before read any version of that story that summons empathy for the Minotaur, let alone encourages people to identify with it. Thanks so much for putting me on to that!

      I do agree with your idea that the Crete adventure is Theseus' apprenticeship in being a king. Between his experience of bad kingship (Minos), his taking responsibility for his people, and the lesson in restraint and even loss that he gets from Ariadne, he's gotten the basics all in one go. In a way, Aegeus has to die when Theseus gets back; having served his apprenticeship, it's time for Theseus to be king. (And as long as we're trading Theseus recommendations, Mary Renault's "The King Must Die" is a great counterpoint to Hawthorne; they make the same point about Theseus discovering himself as a king, but in very different ways.)

      I loved, by the way, the fact that in Hawthorne, Ariadne has total agency in her own destiny. This is the only version I've ever read where she doesn't flee with Theseus, and I absolutely adore that she gets to save the Athenians AND choose to stay in Crete on her own terms. Hawthorne's Ariadne is the total antithesis of poor trapped Europa. It's pretty magnificent.

  6. "I've never before read any version of that story that summons empathy for the Minotaur, let alone encourages people to identify with it."

    I'm commenting further because your original post struck a tone to which I resonated. And every tone has overtones. So here I am. After this I'm going to move on to your archive, because your thoughts are so well organized and your points of view help me to mine my own.

    Healing from traumatic experience seems to require a personal confrontation with a kind of gatekeeper at the heart of ourselves: life circumstances lead some there through an obvious and deep transgression of self. There the dilemma of all humans lies: the beast within. Odd now that I'm thinking not so much of identifying with the "Bull", as in sympathy, but in empathy with the human condition. The raped, or those that feel transgressed in any way, in order to recover imo, must also swallow a pill that has the effect of recalling its bitterness in the process. The only real recourse is to crossover to ones King hood (male or female, but not about gender really). But how can you tell the transgressed, that who, or what they really are, can never actually be transgressed?

    I'm thinking now that the words I used, "the obliteration of sovereign self" may be just that same "Bull" that dispatches the youths to the semblance of the death of self, being ceremoniously vanquished, instead of indicating the path that all must take, for the full flowering of their potential as humans: the apex of creation..

    Ah. If we could only remember our Ariadnes, having "total agency in" our own destinies, offering that slight and consistent tug that instills the virtue of courage and recall of our eternal worthiness, regardless of the vicissitudes of space and time.

    The Greeks, in my opinion, were a real Culture, upper case C emphasized. Their mythology is so intimate. I'm still on the journey.

    Thank you for being.