The Messy Matter of Divine Affairs
Someone sent me a link to this piece, asking what I thought about the whole issue addressed therein. I don’t know this blogger, but she asks a question that I have seen come up again and again and again: how do you cope/accept/deal with Gods Who, according to Their mythos have committed heinous acts, like rape. This blogger is talking specifically about Hephaestos, but there are many other Gods Who might fit into this category: Zeus, Apollo, Odin, Hades, and so on and so forth. When rape comes up in the ancient tales it’s a difficult pill for us moderns to swallow.
The author of the aforementioned page asks what Godspouses think bout all of this and notes that it’s not something one ever really sees addressed. Well, I’m going to address it here. Firstly, I’ll be right up front in acknowledging that this is non-issue for me. It’s never been something with which I’ve struggled in my devotional life and I belong to Odin, who is known to be particularly ruthless (and for Whom there is a story of His raping the Giantess Rind). While I would happily see human rapists flayed alive, it’s never bothered me in the least when it comes up in a myth. I deal with the Gods one on one with respect and allow that personal relationship to guide my devotions and interactions. That being said, I think it’s important to approach the sacred stories — the myths—that we have, in a fluid and nuanced fashion.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that they’re not scripture. We are not ‘religions of the book’ in the way that the Abrahamic faiths are. The plethora of writings that we have may tell us things about our Gods, may contain lovely prayers, may inspire us, but they’re not assumed to be the literal ‘word of god.’ They’re not authoritative texts in the same way that Christians view the bible to be. This bears contemplation. Most of us are converting from one of the Abrahamic faiths and even if we’re not, for Americans at least, the dominant “secular” culture is still deeply informed by Protestant Christianity. This unconsciously shapes the way we approach certain aspects of religion, particularly our expected engagement with written texts. We’re pre-programmed, essentially, to want a holy book. It’s important that we do not approach the myths in this way. That is not, nor was it ever, their purpose.
Secondly, the myths are polyvalent. There are many, many different ways they can be interpreted. Surely one can interpret them literally, but this would barely be scratching the surface. Myths are containers of our Gods’ mysteries, clues to Their nature, and symbolic of greater principles which our Gods govern. I’ll touch on that again in a bit. We do ourselves and our Gods a disservice by insisting on a solely literal interpretation of the myths. They are so much more than that!
The myths were also adapted and redacted by generations of poets. There never was one authoritative version of a particular myth; there were many, possibly as many versions of a given myth as there were regional cultus to the Gods about Whom the myth was told. This adaptation was not something that even ancient polytheists were unaware of or fully comfortable with. Plato wrote that poets would have no place in his perfect republic and there were even philosophers and writers who considered Homer impious because of the way he wrote about the Gods. These poetic adaptations were not free of propaganda. For instance, 5th Century Athens was very invested in a mythic presentation of Athena as an inviolate, Virgin Goddess. (She was their state Goddess, and it was important that the state be considered inviolate). She wasn’t always though and if one explores the various regional cultus to Her, there are those wherein She is even married. What we have in the writings that have come down to us, are in large part, a conglomeration of the most popular presentations for an elite audience. I have always thought that when a God is described as raping someone, that first and foremost we’re dealing with the poet’s bias. Most of these poets were writing for an elite audience and that would largely be your military men. This was a culture in which one seized women as a matter of course as booty in war. There never was in the ancient world one monolithic country “Greece.” There were numerous independent regions and city-states, often in conflict with each other. The same holds true for many of the myths.
Also, in many cases, when we have an interaction between two Deities what we’re really being given is a metaphor for how Their power functions. In the blog I link to above, the author specifically notes Hephaestos and HIs attempted rape of Athena, which resulted in the birth of Erikhthonios (Athena fought Hephaestos off, He ejaculated on Her leg, she wiped it up with a bit of wool and tossed it on the ground. From this, Erikhthonios was born). On a purely symbolic level, what we have are two Gods with power in the same realm: craft and creation. The way They both engage with Their power in this field is very, very different, perhaps one might even say, diametrically opposed. Athena rules over weaving and textile crafts, crafts of the domestic sphere. Hephaestos governs metallurgy and smith craft. This is not only not a domestic art, but it is one that involves violating the earth (for metals, ores, gems, etc.). There’s a violence that precedes the application of skill. From Their “union” (of sorts) comes a child whose name is a combination of the word for ‘wool’ and the word for ‘earth’….this child became a great king. So from the union of two disparate types of craft, of creative power and skill, we have the birth of sovereignty and civilization, embodied in Their offspring. To me, that level of reading the myths is particularly profound.
Our myths tell us very important things about the Gods. When we encounter a myth of rape, there are a couple of things we may consider. Both the Latin and Greek words for ‘rape’ originally meant to seize or to snatch away. The meaning of sexual violation came later. So what we have first, is the forcible movement from one state of being to another. .. on a purely symbolic level. It’s the catalyst for transformation. When Persephone was taken up by Hades, it began a process that transformed Her from a girl, to a Queen. Often, even for us mortals, the process of coming into our own, claiming our own power and dignity and self-hood is a difficult one, fraught with conflict and violence. I think this is mirrored in the myths. I’ve often thought that many of our sacred myths are plays the Gods enact for our benefit, at least in part. We’re meant to ponder them, wrestle with them, and each time we do, our understanding of the Gods in question, and our relationship to Them in devotion has a chance to deepen, to become more complex. Of course, we’re also meant to enjoy the myths — there are many layers to how we can choose to interpret and engage with them.
One of those ways is to read them literally. Whenever I read a story of a God raping someone, I look at that and I see a vigor, vitality, creative power, and *Force*, a violence that is so strong and so cataclysmic, so devastating in its ability to both create and destroy that this is the closest thing we have to describing the force of engagement one on one. It’s no accident that the Latin word for rape (raptus) is also the word later mystics used to describe the ecstasy of being taken up by one’s God. There is an element to such encounters that, no matter how consensual the encounter may be, is like being taken up, seized, ripped away from yourself and enveloped, engulfed, penetrated to the core of one’s soul by a Being so much more immense than we are able to fully consider or comprehend. i think these stories serve as a warning that no matter how much we may seek it, there can always be an element of violation when we engage with the Gods because it can never, ever be made safe. It’s a reminder to us that the encountering the Holy Powers One -on-one can be a traumatic experience, even when it is positive and it is always potentially life-changing. It reminds us not to take the engagements for granted, even though we have with our stories safely anthropomorphized our Gods. These stories give us a hint , a reminder, that it is not a human being with which we engage.
Of course in the end, for me, I don’t believe it is our place to judge the Gods or to pin them down into the little boxes of our morality. They are beyond that and for me, I’m ok with that. I don’t need anything else: the hierarchy is a comfortable thing for me. I’ll close by quoting 4 C. Roman writer Sallustius:
“Now the myths represent the Gods themselves and the goodness of the Gods – subject always to the distinction of the speakable and the unspeakable, the revealed and the unrevealed, that which is clear and that which is hidden: since, just as the Gods have made the goods of sense common to all, but those of intellect only to the wise, so the myths state the existence of Gods to all, but who and what they are only to those who can understand.” (—Sallustius, Five Stages of Greek Religion, section III).