I have long comforted myself by saying the definition of rape was different for the ancients. As we found last week, it simply meant abduction, or kidnapping.Now, Greek mythology is no stranger to our modern definition of rape. You could say that Zeus’s exploits are the antithesis of consent. There is no shortage of jokes about Zeus not being able to “keep it in his pants”, or chiton, if you will. Pan, Poseidon and Apollo might also be accused similarly. However, there aren’t many myths about Hades forcing himself on whatever female he happens to find attractive in that moment. (Though one could say he just doesn’t get out much, and you wouldn’t be wrong.)
I believe that an important part of understanding myth is understanding the culture and circumstances at the time. Essentially, we cannot judge myths from our place of modern morality. Baring the Aegis has a fantastic article breaking down the understanding of rape in ancient Greek culture:
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.
…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 [Apollon] had laid claim to Her, I am sure He would have been unsuccessful, and perhaps would even have been punished.
Looking at the myth in this context, there was definitely no rape involved. Hades and Zeus made a contract. Persephone was exchanged from Father to Husband as part of that contract. Hades was definitely above Persephone in the hierarchy, so he wouldn’t even have needed to ask for Zeus’s permission to marry her. And yet he did ask permission.
Asking permission for marriage isn’t something we often associate with rape. Granted, there are cases of domestic violence that start out innocent enough. Yet, when Hermes comes to Hades relaying Zeus’s order that Persephone be returned to her mother, Hades states:
“Persephone, go to your dark-robed mother,
with a gentle spirit and temper in your breast,
and in no way be more dispirited than the other gods.
I shall not be an unfitting husband among the immortals,
as I am father Zeus’ own brother. When you are here
you shall be mistress of everything which lives and moves;
your honors among the immortals shall be the greatest,
and those who wrong you shall always be punished,
if they do not propitiate your spirit with sacrifices,
performing sacred rites and making due offerings.”
~Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymns, 1976 The John Hopkins University Press
“I shall not be an unfitting husband…” implies that he has not yet consummated the marriage. A few lines earlier, “He [Hermes] found the lord inside his dwelling, sitting on his bed with his revered spouse; she was in many ways reluctant and missed her mother, who far from the works of the blessed gods was devising a plan.” Again, nothing here says Hades has forced himself on Persephone.
Next week I’ll look at the argument of Stockholm Syndrome. Until then,