A dark part of Greek Mythology was the normalization of rape. Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, even Dionysus, are all guilty of sexually assaulting humans using dubious means.
Danae receiving the Golden Rain, Tizian, 1560-5, Prado; with The Abduction of Ganymede, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Greek Mythology is rife with stories of transformation. The ancient Greek gods were able to shapeshift in order to approach mortals without getting noticed. However, more often than not, the motives driving these transformations were dubious at best. In this article, we will examine 14 cases in which the Greek gods shapeshifted to rape and abuse mortal humans.
Ancient Greek Gods And Rape
“At first, they say, Demeter was angry at what had happened, but later on she laid aside her wrath and wished to bathe in the Ladon . . .”
With these words, Pausanias describes the reaction of goddess Demeter to her rape from Poseidon. It is evident right away that Greek mythology holds little sympathy for the victims of sexual assault. Instead, they are expected to “lay aside their wrath” and go on with their lives.
Demeter was a goddess of fertility whose beloved daughter Persephone had also been abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. When Demeter protested Persephone’s abduction, Zeus, the king of the gods, kindly asked Hades to leave the girl. Worth noting here is that Zeus was also said to have raped Persephone in the form of a snake which perplexes things even more. Coming back to the story, before letting Persephone leave, Hades tricked her into eating food from the Underworld. Unaware of the consequences Persephone tried the food only to realize afterward that this food had a special power; it bound her to the will of Hades who reached a new agreement with Zeus and Demeter. Persephone would be forced to spend half of the year below the earth with the dead and half of the year above with the living.
If goddesses, as important for Greek mythology as Demeter and Persephone, were abused and disrespected in such ways, one can only expect that mortal women could not hope for something better.
Transformation In Greek Mythology
Daphne and Apollo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622-5, Borghese Gallery
Transformation or Metamorphosis is the act of changing one’s form into something else. Cases of transformation in ancient Greek and Roman mythology are more than frequent; they are abundant. From Homer’s Iliad to Virgil and Ovid, transformations were a topic that must have surely provoked the imagination of the ancients.
Animism, the belief that inanimate things are alive, was a major aspect of paganism, and not only. According to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, animism has deep roots in the psychosynthesis of the individual which may explain why it is present in societies from every part of the world throughout the millennia. This seems to be related to the fascination of the ancient Greeks and Romans with shapeshifting, as all objects could potentially become devices for a god to communicate with a human or even host a human soul.
This article is interested in very specific transformations, that is transformations of ancient Greek gods in order to rape or abuse a mortal. As mortals, we will also consider the nymphs, who were minor deities with extremely long lifespans.
Part of this list of transformations was inspired by the Greek myth of Arachne as presented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In that story, Ovid described Arachne as a master weaver who had the nerve to proclaim that she was better than the gods at weaving. When Athena challenged her to a contest, Arachne weaved a legendary tapestry presenting 18 stories of ancient Greek gods shapeshifting in order to rape and take advantage of mortal men and women. Arachne’s tale clearly showcased that these stories of transformation and rape could be perceived as problematic by the ancients. In fact, they could have even inspired terror. What other feeling could someone experience in the thought of a malevolent god able to transform into virtually everything in order to abuse powerless humans in order to satisfy his capricious nature?
The rape of Europa, Titian, 1562, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum.
Europa was the daughter of Agenor, the king of Phoenicia. Zeus took a liking to the young princess and adopted the form of a white bull to approach her.
Europa, unaware of the bull’s true identity and astonished by his beauty, climbed on the animal’s back. Zeus took the opportunity and abducted Europa carrying her all the way to the island of Crete, where they had two children together. This mythological episode was known in antiquity as the rape or abduction of Europa.
Diana and Callisto, Titian, 1556-1559, National Gallery
According to Apollodorus, Callisto was the daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia. She had taken an oath to remain a virgin since she was a devout follower of the Greek goddess Artemis.
To get her, Zeus assumed Artemis or Apollo’s form and, having earned Callisto’s trust, raped her. As if that was not enough, Zeus turned the unfortunate woman into a bear to save her from Hera’s jealousy. While still a bear, Callisto gave birth to a child named Arcas.
Finally, Hera did get her revenge by having Artemis kill Callisto by convincing her that she was a wild beast. However, there is also a version of the myth in which Artemis killed Callisto for having lost her virginity.
Jupiter and Antiope, Antionio da Corregio, 1524-7, Louvre
Antiope in Greek mythology was the daughter of King Asopus of Boeotia. Zeus, enchanted by her beauty, transformed himself into a satyr and raped her.
Antiope’s rape by the father of the ancient Greek gods was only the beginning of her misfortunes. Soon after it became evident that she was pregnant with Zeus’ child. Afraid that her father would react badly to the news, she ran to Sicyon and married the local king. However, she was dragged back to Boeotia by her uncle.
In a version of the myth, Dionysus cursed Antiope to become insane after killing her uncle’s tyrannical wife. In the end, Phocus of Tithorea broke the enchantment and married Antiope.
Jupiter and Alcmene, print by Nicolas Tardieu, after Perino del Vaga, 1729-1749, British Museum
Alcmene was the wife of the king of Tiryns, Amphitryon. While her husband was away in a military expedition, Zeus conceived a truly disturbing plan. The Greek god took the form of Amphitryon and spent three nights with Alcmene, who was unaware that this was not her husband.
From this union, the greatest Greek hero was born, Hercules.
Danae receiving the Golden Rain, Tizian, 1560-5, Prado
Danae was the daughter of Acrisius, the King of Argos. According to a prophecy, Acrisius would die by the hand of his daughter’s son. Unable to accept his fate, Acrisius decided to imprison Danae and forbid all men from approaching her.
To his bad luck, Danae attracted the interest of Zeus. Even though she was locked in a bronze dungeon with no possible entrance, Zeus was the King of the ancient Greek gods, and nothing could stop him. Finally, the god of thunder became a rain of gold and infiltrated Danae’s cell from the roof. In the end, Danae gave birth to Perseus, and Acrisius realized that no one can control his fate.
Aegina visited by Jupiter, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, ca. 1767–69, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“but he carried you to the island Oenopia and slept with you there, where you bore Aeacus, the dearest of all men on earth to the loud-thundering father.”
Pindar, Isthmian 8
Aegina was the daughter of the river-god Asopus and the nymph Metope. Zeus abducted her in the form of an eagle and carried her all the way to Oenone, an island near Athens. Asopus followed them and attempted to retrieve his daughter, but Zeus repelled him with his thunder.
In Oenone, Aegina gave birth to Zeus’ son named Aeacus, who later became king of the island, which received Aegina’s name.
***(To be continued)