Goddesses and Sexual Assault in Greek Myth

Ancient Greek Tragedy as Rape Culture?

The Abduction of Helen (oil on canvas)

Getty Images/Luca Giordano

Everyone knows the stories of Greek gods' sexual encounters with mortal women, such as when Zeus stole Europa in the shape of a bull and ravished her. Then, there was the time he mated with Leda as a swan, and when he turned poor Io into a cow after having his way with her.

But not only human women suffered violent sexual attention from the opposite sex. Even the most powerful females of them all — the goddesses of ancient Greece — fell victim to sexual assault and harassment in Greek myth.

Athena and the Snake Baby

Patroness of Athens and all-around brilliant divinity, Athena was rightly proud of her chastity. Unfortunately, she ended up enduring harassment from fellow gods — there was one, in particular, her half-brother, Hephaestus. As Hyginus recounts in his "Fabulae", Hephaestus approached Athena — whom he says agreed to marry her brother, although that’s doubtful. The bride-to-be resisted. Hephaestus was too excited to keep control, and, “as they struggled, some of his seed fell to earth, and from it, a boy was born, the lower part of whose body was snake-formed.”

Another account has Athena coming to her blacksmith brother for some armor, and, after he attempted to rape her, he “dropped his seed on the leg of the goddess.” Appalled, Athena wiped his sperm off with a piece of wool and dropped it on the ground, inadvertently fertilizing the earth. Who was the mother, then, if not Athena? Why, Hephaestus’s own ancestress, Gaia, a.k.a. Earth.

The child resulting from Hephaestus’s attempted rape of Athena was dubbed Erichthonius — although he may have been one and the same with his descendant, the similarly-named Erechtheus. Summarizes Pausanias, “Men say that Erichthonius had no human father, but that his parents were Hephaestus and Earth.” Dubbed “earth-born,” as in Euripides’ "Ion", Athena took an interest in her new nephew. Perhaps that was because Erichthonius was an interesting fellow — after all, he was to be king over her city of Athens.

Athena stuck Erichthonius in a box and wrapped a snake around him, then entrusted the child to the daughters of Athens’ king. These girls were “Aglaurus, Pandrosus, and Herse, daughters of Cecrops,” as Hyginus says. As Ovid recounts in his "Metamorphoses", Athena “ordered them not to pry into its secret,” but they did anyway…and were either repelled by the snake and baby snuggling — or the fact he might've been half-snake — or were even driven insane by Athena. Either way, they ended up committing suicide by jumping off the Acropolis.

Erichthonius wound up becoming king of Athens. He established both his foster mother’s worship on the Acropolis and the festival of the Panathenaia. 

Hera's Hardly on Cloud Nine

Not even the Queen of Olympus, Hera, was immune to disgusting advances. For one, Zeus, her husband, and the king of the gods may have raped her to shame her into marrying him. Even after her wedding, Hera was still subjected to such horrible incidences.

During the war between the gods and the Giants, the latter stormed their rivals’ home on Mt. Olympus. For some reason, Zeus decided to make one giant in particular, Porphyrion, lust after Hera, whom he was already attacking. Then, when Porphyrion tried to rape Hera, “she called for help, and Zeus smote him with a thunderbolt, and Hercules shot him dead with an arrow.” Why Zeus felt the need to jeopardize his wife in order to justify his murder of a giant — when the gods were already slaying the monsters left and right — boggles the mind.

This wasn’t the only time Hera was nearly raped. At one point, she had an ardent mortal admirer named Ixion. In order to satisfy this guy’s lust, Zeus created a cloud that looked exactly like Hera for Ixion to sleep with. Not knowing the difference, Ixion had sex with the cloud, which produced the half-human, half-horse Centaurs. For presuming to sleep with Hera, Zeus sentenced this man to be strapped to a wheel in the Underworld that never stopped turning.

This cloud-Hera had a long career of her own. Named Nephele, she ended up marrying Athamas, a king of Boeotia; when Athamas’s second wife wanted to harm Nephele’s children, the cloud lady popped her kids onto a ram — who just happened to have a Golden Fleece — and they flew off.

In a similar episode to Hera and Porphyrion, the giant Tityus lusted after Leto, the divine mother of Apollo and Artemis. Writes Pseudo-Apollodorus, “When Latona [Leto in Latin] came to Pytho [Delphi], Tityus beheld her, and overpowered by lust drew her to him. But she called her children to her aid, and they shot him down with their arrows.” Also, like Ixion, Tityus suffered for his misdeeds in the afterlife, “for vultures eat his heart in Hades.”

Holding Helen and Pursuing Persephone

Apparently, sexual assault on the divine ran in Ixion’s family. His son by a prior marriage, Pirithous, became best friends with Theseus. Both guys made vows to abduct and seduce (read: rape) daughters of Zeus, as Diodorus Siculus notes. Theseus kidnapped a pre-teen Helen and may have fathered a daughter with her. That child was Iphigenia, who, in this version of the story, was raised as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s kid and was, of course, sacrificed at Aulis in order for the Greek ships to get good winds to sail to Troy.

Pirithous dreamed even bigger, lusting after Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter and wife of Hades. Persephone’s own husband kidnapped and raped her, ending up forcing her to stay in the Underworld a good part of the year. Theseus was reluctant to try to abduct a goddess, but he had sworn to help his friend. The two went into the Underworld, but Hades figured out their plan and chained them down. When Heracles trotted down to Hades once, he freed his old pal Theseus, but Pirithous remained in the Underworld for eternity.

Ancient Greece as a "Rape Culture"?

Can we actually identify consent or rape in Greek myth? In some colleges, students have requested trigger warnings before discussing particularly violent Greek texts. The incredibly violent circumstances that appear in Greek myths and tragic plays have led some scholars to deem ancient Greek tragedy a “rape culture.” It’s an interesting notion; a few classicists have argued that misogyny and rape are modern constructs and such ideas can’t be used effectively when evaluating the past.

For example, from one perspective arguing for terms like “seduction” and “kidnapping” over “rape,” negates the character’s anguish, while other scholars see "rape" as an initiation rite or identify victims as the aggressors.

The above hypotheses can be neither confirmed nor denied but can present different arguments for the reader to consider both sides and to add a few more stories to the repertoire of "seduction" or "sexual violence" in Greek myth. This time, there are stories of the highest ladies in the land — goddesses — suffering as their female counterparts did.

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Silver, Carly. "Goddesses and Sexual Assault in Greek Myth." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/goddesses-and-sexual-assault-greek-myth-119904. Silver, Carly. (2020, August 28). Goddesses and Sexual Assault in Greek Myth. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/goddesses-and-sexual-assault-greek-myth-119904 Silver, Carly. "Goddesses and Sexual Assault in Greek Myth." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/goddesses-and-sexual-assault-greek-myth-119904 (accessed January 26, 2021).