The mythology of rape

It’s been an interesting time to spend two and a half weeks in the USA – though of course it’s hard to find a time that isn’t interesting in one way or another these days. On this occasion, as I was travelling the country telling the old Celtic story of the Rape of the Well-Maidens, yet another smug, privileged politician was being accused of sexual abuse, whilst his (male-dominated) establishment protected him, and the only recourse women had was to fall back on rage again.

If you don’t yet know about the old story of the Rape of the Well-maidens and the lost Voices of the Wells, click here, and discover how one of the oldest stories in what we now refer to as the Grail canon tells us that the coming of the Wasteland was caused by a king raping the maidens who tended the sacred wells – not a wound in the groin of the Fisher King, as later Grail romances insisted (reflecting a very clearly documented tendency as the centuries progressed for everything that gave authority and meaning to women to pass over to men). ‘The Kingdom turned to loss, the land was dead and desert in suchwise as that it was scarce worth a couple of hazel-nuts. For they lost the voices of the wells and the damsels that were therein.’ So says the unknown author of ‘The Elucidation’, a prologue to Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval: le Conte du Graal. They lost the voices of the wells, the source of the land’s life, and the voices of the women who tended them. As a consequence they lost the land’s spiritual heart: the court of the Fisher King. And so we came to live in a Wasteland, barren in body and soul.

Other mythologies have more than their fair share of rape and its consequences. I tend to steer clear of Greek mythology these days; it’s vastly overdone (and often equally vastly misunderstood). I’ve focused in more on my own native mythology. But there’s one character I’ve kept coming back to down all the years: Medusa. Remember Medusa? And what is it that you remember about her? Everyone, it seems, remembers the eyes that could turn you to stone, the writhing, venomous snakes for hair. What a monster she was, we all shudder prettily, caught up in the story and relieved in our hearts that the great man-hero Perseus had the good sense to decapitate her and put a stop to all that nonsense. And what a fine thing came of her death, surely: the beautiful winged horse, Pegasus, emerging from her gaping neck.

But hang on a minute – what abut the backstory? Even a monster deserves a backstory. And according to Ovid, Medusa was once a beautiful young woman, one of three sisters known as the Gorgons. Unfortunately for her, those weren’t the best of days to be a beautiful mortal woman: she caught the eye of the sea-god Poseidon, who didn’t think twice (as the gods rarely did) about raping her in the temple of Athena. But it’s easier, for sure, to demonise the woman. Furious at this act of desecration in her temple, it was Athena (never the most sympathetic of Greek goddesses, with a tendency to be utterly merciless to human women who get in her way) who proceeded to transform Medusa into that monster with the power to turn to stone anyone who looked at her face.

Good old Perseus; after taking Medusa’s severed head and using it to defeat his enemies in battle, he presented the head to Athena, who subsequently displayed it on her shield. And, through yet another manly, swashbuckling hero narrative, the name Medusa became a byword for monstrosity. (Yes indeed: as we’ve seen in the case of Kavaunagh and his tight-lipped Republican biddies, and as we’ve seen with Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale, women can be complicit in the patriarchy too.)

So many stories about women who are raped. The great father-god Zeus committed more than his fair share. Leda, raped by the swan into which he transformed himself; Europa, raped by Zeus in the form of a bull. He raped Calliope, and Antiope; he raped his daughter Persephone. His mate Poseidon got in on the act, raping her mother, Demeter. What fine role models they all made, these gods: the finest of role models for our powerful men.

The truth is, these are less ancient myths than contemporary realities. Because when it comes to raping women, patriarchal cultures the world over have had centuries of practice. The #metoo movement has pulled a handful of them up short, but we’ve a long, long way yet to go. It’s time to restore Medusa’s voice, and it’s time to restore the Voices of the Wells. The day of the Hero is done. It’s time to take back our own stories; time to refashion them for a new mythology which remembers the days when women had wings – and uses those newly fledged wings to rise.

‘If women remember that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted, like trees. And if we rise up rooted, like trees … well then, women might indeed save not only ourselves, but the world.’

from If Women Rose Rooted.

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10 thoughts on “The mythology of rape

  1. I’m sharing this on Twitter. So sadly, so devastatingly true. Myths are mirrors, aren’t they? And we convince ourselves they’re not true. Thank you for holding up the mirror, Sharon. It’s a heavy thing to hold.

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  2. After several years at home with my small children I was ready to go back into the world of work but also rather scared to do so. My husband bought me a picture of a small bird on a reed stem with the caption ‘One day I will wheel and soar through uncharted seas of air’ and with his support and encouragement I did. Now he is dead, I am retired and a home bird and the picture has been passed to my daughter whose husband is less generous. Yes we need to take back our power and reclaim our stories but my fear is we will simply swop roles and become the perpetrators instead of the victims. Our culture is patriarchal but let us not forget that there are some good men out there. We need a society where both women and men are respected, valued and equal.

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    1. It doesn’t follow that we will swap roles at all. That’s why I hated Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’. It lacked imagination, lacked subtlety and insight, assumed there was only one way for it all to go. We can do better than that. We can imagine better than that. There’s so much defeatism in the world. Let’s not be defeated. And let’s never be defeated enough, and never lose sight of what’s seriously bad whilst loving (always) the good.

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  3. Thank you for reminding me of Women’s power. I am feeling more and more powerless, sadly with all that is happening here in the US and all over the world.

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  4. Everything that is happenning on a collective level right now is triggering everything that has happened to me, personally. I have struggled with the question of why our voices are lost after sexual trauma in particular, and how this silence is then used against us. When I reach down inside myself to seek answers, all that comes out is poetry. I wrote a poem right before I read your post, and I am struck by the parallels…at least they seem to me to be born of the same wellspring. And in that spirit, I will (shyly) share:

    My memeory of that time
    Is the left wing of a Blue Butterfly
    Cloaked in a black coat
    perched on a sliver of light
    like dew evaporating on a fragile morning.

    Its’ right wing is a key
    slipped beneath any available object
    potted plants or well used doormats or
    statues of Gods
    an insidious shell game;
    constantly shifting sands.
    A scavenger hunt with cryptic clues
    whispered in clipped and foreign tongues and hidden always
    just beyond the next horizon.

    What becomes of the Blue Butterfly
    In her Blue Dress in the Blue light
    wearing her Black coat in morning?
    The door to her chrysalis has clicked shut behind her,
    Along with the details of her long initiation
    The ritual of her harrowing Meta Morphosis
    came with no receipts.

    What will she say when The People ask her
    As they will ask her, while she is Blue,
    What became of her?
    Her story, like her black woolly coat,
    is eaten with holes;
    Its’ felted edges tufted with
    Loose threads.
    It is this loosness that she is blamed for-
    unkempt and unbecoming.
    Unable to remain consistent in Time:
    All of this exaggerates her Blueness.

    Blue Lady,
    Monarch of Mourning,
    If I offer to hold open your heavy, dark coat
    up against the moon, like mid-night
    will it help you to see yourself in reflection
    through the spaces
    where the Blue- lit stars burn through?

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  5. It’s amazing to me, how in America in particular, politics are above all else. Even in the case of rape the last two weeks. It’s completely shook me – to realize that 27 yrs after my rape – absolutely nothing has changed.

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