Wednesday, 27 January 2010


Rape: an insidious little word. Those four letters, in that order, conjure up a variety of emotions. We’ve an unwritten, unspoken contract, drawn up between ourselves, about what words convey to us. What they signify. Rape, signifies violation; and much, much more.

The word rape itself originates from the Latin verb rapere: to seize or take by force. To us, it is much more than that. It connotes fear, anger, guilt, shame. Sadly, those emotions are burdens, carried by far too many people.

We talk about “victims of rape.” So why is rape a favourite fantasy of so many people? Why do artists paint pictures of rape? Why do writers of erotica write their carefully crafted rape stories? Why is a word that conveys that a violation, a heinous crime, has taken place, a turn on? Why do we find the paintings and stories such a turn on? We know exactly what is going on; yet still we look at the pictures and read the stories.

The tale of Persephone is a favourite subject for artists. Here is her story. She was abducted by Hades and starved into submission.

In the days when gods and goddesses walked on the Earth, the three most powerful gods were brothers. Zeus was ruler of the sky, Poseidon was god of the sea and Hades was the Lord of the Underworld.

The Underworld was a terrible place, a place without light, where the spirits of the dead went. Having entered the underworld, and having eaten there, no-one was allowed to re-enter the world of the living.

A beautiful girl lived on the Earth and her name was Persephone.
One day Hades visited Earth and rode past Persephone while she was gathering flowers in a field. He was dazzled by her beauty. He wanted her. And being one of the three most powerful gods, he kidnapped her and drove off in his chariot.

Persephone was terrified. She was pinned to the floor of Hades' chariot while he drove faster and faster, down and down, into the darkness of the underworld. In the black halls of Hades, Persephone crouched and cried, refusing all food, refusing to speak to the god who had snatched her away.

Days passed. Persephone's hunger grew. At last she could resist no longer, she ate some pomegranate seeds and, having eaten, she could not return to the world above.

Meanwhile, her Mother, the goddess Demeter, grew distracted. She knew what had happened but she could do nothing. She raged all the more because she was powerless against Hades. She went to Zeus, the king of gods, and she begged him to bring about Persephone's return. Zeus could not bear Demeter's crying. Her tears were destroying the harvest. He had to do something.

Unfortunately, he was too late to stop Persephone eating the Pomegranate seeds. The rules of the Underworld had to be obeyed. Yet, Zeus being Zeus, the rules could be stretched a little. He sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to strike a deal with Hades. The deal was this. Persephone would marry Hades and remain Queen of the Underworld, living there half the year. In the spring she could return to earth, and live there in the warm, bright light of the summer.

And this is what happened. While Persephone lives in the underworld, the days are short and dark and cold. But with her return to Earth in the spring, the flowers start to bloom, the leaves to bud, and the birds to sing in the sky.


  1. Interesting.

    You start by talking about "rape" as we understand it - a violent sexual act. Then you use as illustration the Rape of Persephone, in which "rape" is being used in the archaic sense of "to carry off" (As in "The Rape of the Lock" which is a poem about stealing a lock of hair, not about having non-consensual sex with it). In the Persephone myth the one thing that is completely glossed over is the sex act (eating the seeds is substituted instead) - which is a bit odd really, given how much straight-up sexual violation there is in other Greek myths.

    So I'm afraid I think using the Persephone myth is rather skirting the issue. Which btw is exactly how I've used it in writng my own fiction.

    I don't write rape erotica. I do write stuff sometimes about situations that come really close - or look like they come really close. Why? Because rape really troubles me. I think it's a fundamental, irreducable problem between men and women. It is about power, and injustice, and betrayal. And because it bothers and vexes me, I want to write about it. Because there's no other way for me to deal with it.

  2. Yes, it is strange, Janine, how the writers of the Greek myths seem so hesitant about writing about rape. They take every other taboo, head on. Incest, bestiality, patricide, infanticide, cannibalism. They shy away from none of these. I wonder if maybe they didn’t regard rape, with the same horror that we do? Maybe they didn’t even have a word for non-consensual sex. They lived in different times. As you say, in archaic times, the word “rape” meant something different. And they’re telling stories about kings, princes and gods -- they can all have pretty much who they want anyway.

    But you’re right; there isn’t a Greek myth with rape as a theme. Persephone’s story; her abduction and eating the pomegranate seeds, is the closest they get. And she was taken against her will and, as I read it, starved into submission. So she was forced into a relationship with Hades. She became his Queen. So why don’t they just come out and say she was forced? Because Hades is a god? They don’t hesitate to criticise the gods in other stories.

    Posting the short essay is my way of dealing with my own horror of rape. The concept of rape, I mean. The complete abuse of strength and power of one human being over another. As you say, the injustice and betrayal. I recently read a couple of rape stories in erotica anthologies. In one, the woman is turned on by the word “rape”. In the other, a gay rape, the guy is seduced into sex, by the man who had started out raping him. Both stories left me feeling sick.

    Btw. I just re-read RUBY SEEDS. Excellently done; honestly done too. Made me smile.

  3. I'm sorry, you've misunderstood me - there are LOADS of Greek myths about rape or attempted rape. Apollo tries to rape Daphne. Poseidon rapes Demeter (to produce Persephone), and Medusa. Zeus rapes Leda and Callisto. Pan rapes Selene and tries to rape Syrinx. Hermes rapes Chione. That's just off the top of my head...

    The Greek myths are strikingly mysogynistic. And you're damn right the writers of the myths didn't regard rape with any particular horror.

    What I was trying to say is that the Persephone myth is one where the sex act gets glossed over. Not sure why.

  4. I thought about Leda after I'd posted my comment. I could never understand why Zeus had to take the form of a swan, to have her. He could have just dazzled her with his godliness.

    The Greek myths are mysogonistic. The only value a woman seemed to have was in her beauty. Even Penelope, who kept herself pure while Odysseus, was away rampaging, isn't praised for her wit and skill, but for her beauty.

    A bit like today really.

  5. Both your post and this discussion have called up a number of thoughts. First, because I'm disgustingly picky, there are 2 details you left out in telling the story of Persephone which are completely irrelevant to the issue at hand but are important to the Explanation of How the World Works aspect of this myth. The first is that Demeter is the goddess of grain, harvest, fertility, all that sort of stuff. Actually, you can make some interesting deductions about the meaning of Death stealing the daughter of Fertility. But the other little detail is that Persephone ate 6 seeds. Exactly 6. Which is why the decision is that she has to stay down below for 6 months. And why those are the dark months, because Demeter is in mourning and a generally bad mood during that time - a really rotten case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I suppose - and lets things go to pot the way I neglect my house during the dark months. Then Persephone is sprung and the world comes back to life.

    Rape in old stories. We had a really interesting series of classes at my he issue with rape, of course, never had much to do with the woman herself. It's about abusing hospitality. And about power. But not power over the woman, which is how it is seen now - not just politically but also psychologically. It's an issue of power over her owner.

    It was a great course. And of course, for someone like me who loves words and symbolism and metaphor and all that, delving into just a few words to find meaning is incredible fun.

    But now to the other part of it. I admit to being one of those with rape _fantasies_, dating back to before I even knew what rape was. I remember watching a tv show when I was around 8 (back in the '50s) - some police thing, I suppose - and then asking my mother if the man was going to rape the woman he had attacked. She said yes, but then wouldn't explain to me what it meant. I really had no idea, except that i knew it excited me. I looked it up in the dictionary but still didn't really understand. It WAS the '50s, after all...

    I very clearly know the difference between rape fantasies and the reality. But that doesn't stop the fantasies. They seem to live in a different section of my brain.

    This made me stop and think about the darker erotica I write. I'm trying to remember, but I don't think they include actual rape. There is some use by a number of men which is rather unwelcome, but it not actually forced. The rape, such as it is, has been of the mental sort, so that the always unnamed female character willingly submits to whatever the dominant male requires. This, and the D/s relationship I am in, are clearly a way to deal with some powerful need I have to cede power.

    To that extent, I think, the rape of rape fantasies may be symbolism as much as the seeds in the Persephone myth. I think we need to be careful to separate the real desire to commit what is, indeed, a heinous crime from the need to play out psychologically, artistically, or in a consensual situation an act which may speak to needs other than the actual sexual act. (Sorry, I got kind of last in writing that last section. I do hope it's clear. My street is disappearing in snow, and my mind with it, it seems.)


  6. That's really interesting about what your classical classes said, OG - it makes a lot of sense.

    As for "it lives in a different section of my brain" and "the need to play out psychologically, artistically, or in a consensual setting an act which may speak to needs" - that sound so like Jung! Who of course had a ton to say about mythology, and why it still speaks to us and haunts us even in modern times. We have to give the archtypes their time in the spotlight, he would say - including the Persephone/Hades archetype - because they are a powerful part of us all. But we do it safely and sanely through art and fantasy.

  7. What a great discussion -- thanks Janine and Oatmeal Girl. It's great to dig around and try to understand why the taboo excites us.

    Why mythology speaks to us -- I remember reading Pasiphae's story. I was around 10 or 11 and feeling very excited. Not only did she do it, but she liked it. And a friend excitedly telling us about the torture chambers at Warwick Castle -- we were about 8 I think.

    I used to think my masochistic fantasies, again I was very young -- I used to think they were all my own. And then I started reading about submissives' stories in Erotica anthologies. Other people had the same dark desires -- they were even turned on by the same imagery as me. Used the same language as me.

    Weird -- it's like there's a sort of collective unconscious, starting with the Greek myths that filters down. I know that's nonsense, but it's very strange.

    I'll have to read up on Jung -- see what he has to say.

    But, yes, they are powerful needs. Frightening too. So thank goodness for art and fantasy.