Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hell Hath No Fury

It's no secret that the Greek gods had a very over-the-top idea of punishment for mortals who crossed them. Brag about your musical talent? Apollo will flay off your skin and make a drum out of it. Display pride in your vast brood of children? Whoops, they're all dead and now you're a stone because you just wouldn't stop crying about it for some reason. And gods all help you if Aphrodite catches you (or anyone close to you) even thinking you're prettier than she is.

But then there are some punishments that really cross a line. Some of the foulest monsters of Greek mythology started out as mortals or demigods who actually didn't do anything. Arguably the most memorable metamorphosis in the mythos was in fact right. And there's something else they all have in common, aside from the varying degrees of innocence: the cruelest transformative punishments in Greek mythology are all perpetrated on women, by women.

Let's start off light. Atalanta, fastest human who ever lived, has just lost the race to Hippomenes, who cleverly employed divine assistance from tricksy Aphrodite. But lo and behold, the frigid ice-queen falls head over heels in love with the man who defeated her! It's a happy ending all around, with Atalanta bending her murderous pride enough to fall in love, Hippomenes' guts and devotion being amply rewarded, King Iason getting his troublesome daughter off his hands, and Aphrodite getting plaudits for arranging the whole thing.

Except not so much with that last one. No, Atalanta and Hippomenes are way too busy going at it like rabbits to toss a nod in Aphrodite's direction. Granted, this was a dumb thing for them to forget, but it's hardly on the level of, say, Agamemnon forgetting to sacrifice to Artemis and then being forced to kill his daughter in penance. A newlywed couple forgets to thank Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire, because they're too busy having sex. Of all the sins of omission, this has got to be the easiest to forgive.

But Aphrodite, as previously stated, is a vindictive bitch. One roll in the hay too many, and poof! Atalanta and Hippomenes are now lions. "So what?" you ask. So plenty - the Greeks thought lions couldn't mate with each other. Aphrodite harnesses the pair to her chariot, furnishing them with an eternal bondage setup that, according to the wisdom of the day, they could never take advantage of.

Atalanta and Hippomenes Changed into Lions, Crispijn van de Passe
Biology saves the day here. I like to imagine the two of them in the Olympian stables, unharnessed after a long day's work, turning to each other and saying, "Oh, honey, those gods are so dumb, aren't they? Move that fine feline ass over here!" But for the Greeks, there was no happy Darwinian ending. For a perfectly understandable slip of the mind, a pair of consumingly passionate lovers are kept apart forever. And it's not difficult to interpret this as Aphrodite's reaction to being threatened. Hippomenes isn't the problem child; his petition to Aphrodite before the race proves him very aware of the gods' power. No, the stone in the sandal here is Atalanta, determined virgin, spurner of Aphrodite's gifts, the dream convert who forgets to thank her sponsor. Aphrodite likes Hippomenes, but Atalanta is the prize she's after. And when famously independent Atalanta doesn't instantly fall to her knees and thank Aphrodite for the gift of a sex drive, there are no second chances. How dare Atalanta enjoy her sexy times? How dare she imagine it's got more to do with her and Hippomenes than with Aphrodite's influence?

Circe Invidiosa, John William Waterhouse
And like I said, that's the light version. The first you ever hear of Scylla is that she's half-woman, half-monster, with six ravenous animal heads instead of a lower half, and that she gets the munchies when Odysseus' ship sails by. But this beast started out as a perfectly normal naiad whose only "crime" was being unrequitedly loved by Glaucus, the first merman. When Glaucus goes to Circe for a love potion, Circe decides that his fish tail isn't nearly the turnoff that Scylla thinks it is and puts the moves on Glaucus herself. He rejects her, which she really should have seen coming, given the whole love-potion thing. Circe's reaction? She poisons Scylla's bathing pool, turning her into the monster Odysseus meets.

Keep in mind that Circe has never met Scylla. She knows nothing about her except that Scylla's her rival, which isn't even really true; Scylla's not interested in Glaucus at all. Circe directs her anger at a completely passive noncombatant who has tried repeatedly to step offstage and live her damn life. Because one fish-legged weirdo said no, a freaking goddess destroys the life and future of a harmless would-be passerby. Poor Scylla is condemned to eternity as a hideous monster because Circe can't be bothered to vent her anger constructively. At least Aphrodite had a reason for flipping out on Atalanta and Hippomenes - a stupid and flimsy reason, but a reason. In Scylla's story, Circe behaves with all the wisdom and maturity of a fifteen-year-old nursing a first crush.

And she never suffers for it. Sure, she loses Glaucus, but she'd already done that; transforming Scylla is retaliation, not Plan B. She never gets called to account; she just goes on with her seductive witch-goddess gig. And she never gives a second thought to the innocent whose immortal life she just ruined. I never thought I'd say this, but she might be worse than Aphrodite.

Continuing the "unexpected bitch" trend, guess who makes it on here twice?

Only my favorite goddess, Athena. You know. Goddess of wisdom. The one who you'd think would be immune to all this nonsense. Dammit.

Athena and Arachne, SnittyCakez
I've already covered the reasons why Athena massively overreacted to Arachne's stupidity. But the fact remains that Arachne was right. Greek mythology's most famous metamorph arguably deserved what she got, but inarguably had a valid point. Because the only thing the gods hate more than being shown up is being wrong.

I also don't think it's a coincidence that Arachne challenges Athena on that most womanly of her talents, weaving. It's easy to forget, what with her armor and badass nature and patronage of Odysseus, that Athena also taught handicrafts to humankind. By picking a fight over weaving, Arachne issues a direct challenge to a surprisingly masculine goddess's sense of femininity. No wonder Athena gets defensive; in modern terms, Arachne is blatantly implying that even a goddess can't have it all. But it's hard to see Athena's reaction as a feminist triumph when it comes at the expense of an even more talented woman (not to mention a melodramatic tantrum that could provide a textbook case of that most female of fake diseases, "hysteria").

Medusa, Peter Paul Rubens
And what about Medusa?

This one is even sadder than Scylla, and the vindictive goddess involved is even worse than Circe. Medusa, like Scylla, started out as quite a looker (in fact, the only pretty Gorgon). Like Scylla, Medusa was desired by a god, in this case Poseidon himself. But Scylla actually lucked out in her unwanted admirer; the worst Glaucus did was try to buy a love potion. When Medusa refuses Poseidon, he rapes her in Athena's own temple and waltzes off scot-free.

Perseus, Medusa, and Athena, 5th century (artist unknown)
Again, you would think that the goddess of wisdom would understand about victim blaming. You would think that her longstanding feud with Poseidon would lead her to direct all her righteous anger at the desecration of her temple on her asshole of an uncle. Appallingly, Athena turns on Medusa instead. As "punishment" for "Medusa's" sacrilege, the goddess of wisdom turns a rape victim into Greek mythology's most famous monster, a being so hideous that the simple act of looking at her turns you to stone. And that's not even enough. She carries such a grudge that when Perseus is sent to kill Medusa, Athena actually tells him how to do it. And when he succeeds, using her tips and equipment, he gives her Medusa's head, which she promptly fixes on her shield to make herself even more invincible. That's right - not content with destroying Medusa's life and arranging her death, Athena is so committed to punishing this poor girl that she has to be the winner even after Medusa's been murdered. There are so many levels of bitter and overkill here that I don't even know where to begin.

The Medusa, CarrieAnn Reda
Okay. I know god logic follows no rules of actual logic. But can someone please explain to me exactly what Medusa did, herself, to deserve such vicious treatment?

Nothing. The answer is, she did nothing. She, in fact, is the only one in the whole sordid situation who did anything right. She said no to a guy she didn't want to sleep with. Is it her fault that she happened to be in Athena's temple? Is it her fault that Poseidon couldn't take no for an answer? The entire case against her is circumstantial at best and built on others' faults at worst.

The Despair of Scylla, Le Minh Bui
But the helpless woman is a much easier target than the righteous man, the love interest, or the powerful god. Even in stories where the whole point is their superior might, goddesses are never pitted against men. The worst of their wrath is reserved for other women, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, because the women don't fight back. Hera found that out long ago; fighting Zeus is a no-no, but plotting against the women he sleeps with is almost consequence-free.

So why isn't Hera in this post more? Well, because even she never goes to these extremes. She's persistent and vindictive, sure, and her treatment of Semele in particular is unnecessarily harsh. But all Hera wants is a quick proof that she's better than whatever hussy her husband's shacking up with today. She's not after the long-term revenge, the slow torture, the painful day-after-day agony of a life utterly blighted. She doesn't want her rivals to suffer endlessly; she just wants them gone. She's not a patch on Athena for inventiveness, or Aphrodite for cruel irony. Hera invented the technique of persecuting the defenseless woman; the other goddesses perfected it.

Athena, Leonidas Drosis
These goddesses' ultimate goal is to assert their power and regain face. In every situation, it's a goddess who's lost face somehow, whether she's been romantically rejected or ritually desecrated. And the gender code of the times guarantees that if she goes after the man responsible, she is unevenly matched and will not regain the fear and respect crucial to her worship. So she pursues the woman involved, whether or not that woman actually was responsible, because that makes the match uneven in the opposite way: the X-chromosomes cancel each other out, and we're left with immortal versus mortal (or demigod, which is just as useless sometimes). Which is not to say that goddesses don't go toe-to-toe with males and kick their ass: Artemis and Actaeon come to mind, as do Athena and Poseidon fighting over the city of Athens. But in those cases, there was no handy woman to take the blame. When there is, the goddesses come down like she-wolves on the fold. And there will never be mercy.


  1. Yay! Glad you're back. We missed you.

    I think I read somewhere that Medusa's fornicatin' with 'ol Scaly Pants was consensual. That would certainly explain why Athena felt that way she did and took such actions. But that's probably not how it went down, again d'Aulaires sanitizing this stuff for the kiddies.

    Although one could also propose a whole "Dumbledore Gambit" in which Posidon has to seduce Medusa so Athena would change her into something people would want to chop the head off of so that the world could have the Pegasus. But since the Pegasus doesn't really do anything noteworthy (he's no Galahad) that might be a stretch.

    And why was the Pegasus inside her anyway?

  2. I agree. Athena in the purest form of Greek myth wasn't so wise...and certainly wasn't very noble either. Great article! I have written a version of that myth were Medusa is not the monster.

  3. I felt so grown up when, lo these many moons, I switched my favorite-goddess allegiance to Athena instead of Artemis. At this point I can't even decide if I think the treatment of Actaeon or of Medusa is worse. Live, learn, and mourn your childhood ideals, I guess.

    Also, I would love to read your version of the Medusa story! Always game for revisiting "villains," especially villains whose evil stems directly from their appearance. Heather Dale does a fantastic song about her, too: