TL;DR: POSEIDON IS NOT A RAPIST, DAMMIT!
This topic has come up frequently enough recently that I feel addressing the subject of rapist gods is needed. Specifically for this I’m speaking of the use of ‘rape’ within a Hellenic context, and also I’m speaking of the myths of such events. Even more to the point, I want to challenge what we may think of when we see the word rape. I want to challenge myself and my readers to think critically; that is, I want us to remember that for all that language can seem static and stable, it’s really not, and even the words that seem to be concrete to us can, and do, morph in meaning over time.
The most famous ‘rape’ story from the Hellenic myths is, of course, The Rape of Persephone. The oldest extant version of this tale comes to us in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Hades wants a wife, Zeus gives Him Persephone who, in this version, is His daughter to give away, never mind that He is also the King of the all the gods. In this envisioned society of the gods, patriarchal as it was, Persephone was twice Zeus’s to give away. Is Demeter’s permission necessary? Is Persephone’s? Do they even have to know about it before it happens? No.
This is one of these things where language informs how we think of things. Language even informs how we are able to think of things. I find myself, when contemplating this topic, wondering how much of our modern morals and ethics we’re placing onto people in the past. Of course it is always wrong to rape someone, just as it’s always wrong to take someone’s life in cold blood, just as it’s always wrong to decide people of a different ethnicity are somehow subhuman. Of course. Of course.
But there are things to consider. In a time and place when women were property, issues of consent become irrelevant in this context. Also, words matter. Even glancing at the English versions, I’m seeing most versions talk about Hades abducting Persephone, and fewer even using the word ‘rape’. Then there’s the etymology of the word. ‘Rape’ and its various forms once had a wider meaning than they do today in English. This, above all else, is something to bear in mind when considering the stories.
I don’t think one should have to be a scholar, or even an armchair scholar to forge relationships with our gods. That said, I do believe that study, and reading critically – that is, learning about the cultural contexts our myths arose from and viewing said myths while keeping those contexts in mind – is important. Even when a lot of this material was getting translated into English, women did not have the agency that we have today (though admittedly what we have today still isn’t enough). That’s something else to keep in mind.
Clearly I have a bias. Poseidon has two famous rape stories to His name. But there’s so much to consider here. How do we talk about the overwhelming, raw, naked awe that our gods can inspire? What language do we use to talk about it? What about the power of our goddesses? Persephone is seen as Hades’ Queen, and in many peoples’ experience, this is a role She’s embraced. Who among us can imagine Her as anything else? My own experience tells me there is much love between the Two of Them, however it may have started – and what of those ancient pagans telling a story the only way they had words to tell it?
Maybe I’m trying to put a nice spin on things, but there is no part of me that can believe Poseidon is a rapist in the way that we mean it when we use that word. I think looking at the word ‘rape’ in the context of the Hellenic myths and believing it to have always meant what it means now shows ignorance that critical reading can correct. And for all that I don’t believe we have to be armchair scholars to follow our gods and to love our gods, I’ll readily admit that study adds such depth to understanding and opens so many possibilities to ponder that I can’t imagine not studying. But then I’m a bookworm, so then I’d study anyway.