The dramatic myth of Apollo and Daphne, with its seemingly endless inspiration for uplifting works of art, impels us to comment upon the theme of rape in Greco-Roman mythology, a fertile topic in feminist criticism. What are we today to make of these many classical myths of ardent pursuit as well as those of amorous conquest. Are they religious stories, are they love stories, or are they in the end all fundamentally horrifying tales of victimization? In the brief interpretative discussion of Zeus and Ganymede (Commentary: Chapter 5), it was suggested that a story may be all or any one of these things, and interpretation depends both upon the artist and the person responding to the work of art. Gender, politics, religion, sexual orientation, age, experience and experiences—all such things and more determine the character of a creation and one's personal response. Only a few basic observations about this vast and vital subject can be made here, with the major purpose of insisting that the questions and the answers are not simple but complex.
The Greeks and Romans were fascinated with the phenomena of blinding passion and equally compulsive virginity. Passion was usually evoked by the mighty gods Aphrodite and Eros, who could gloriously uplift or pitilessly devastate a human being and a god. The equally ruthless force of chastity was symbolized by devotion to Artemis. Usually, but by no means always, the man defines lust and the woman chastity. In the case of Hippolytus and Phaedra (among others) these roles are reversed.
The motif of pursuit by the lover of the beloved with the implicit imagery of the hunter and the hunted is everywhere and becomes formulaic with the pursuit ending in a ritualistic acquiescence or the saving of the pursued from a fate worse than death, often through a metamorphosis. The consummation of sex need not be part of the scenario of this ancient motif, played upon with versatile sophistication by a civilized poet such as Ovid.
Many seduction scenes are ultimately religious in nature, and the fact that it is a god who seduces a mortal can make all the difference. Zeus may single out a chosen woman to be the mother of a divine child or hero for a grand purpose intended for the ultimate good of the world, and the woman may or may not be overjoyed. These tales are told from different points of view, sometimes diametrically opposed. For example, Zeus took Io by force, or their son Epaphus was born by the mere touch of the hand of god.
There is no real distinction between the love, abduction, or rape of a woman by a man and of a man by a woman. Eos is just as relentless in her pursuit of Cephalus or Tithonus as any god, and they succumb to the goddess. Salmacis attacks Hermaphroditus and wins. Aphrodite seduces Anchises, who does not stand a chance against her devious guile. It is possible, if one so desires, to look beyond the romantic vision of beautiful nymphs in a lovely pool enamored of handsome Hylas to imagine a horrible outrage as the poor lad, outnumbered, is dragged down into the depths.
The title for a famous story that has become traditional may be misleading or false. Paris’ wooing of Helen is usually referred to as the Rape of Helen. Yet the ancient accounts generally describe how Helen fell quickly and desperately in love with the exotic foreigner Paris and (despite her complaints about Aphrodite) went with him willingly to Troy. Of course a different version can find its legitimacy too, if an artist wishes to depict a Helen dragged away screaming her protests against the savage force of a bestial Paris. The Rape of Persephone is quite another matter. Hades did brutally abduct Persephone, who did indeed cry out to no avail. Zeus and Hades saw this as the divine right of gods and kings. Demeter and Persephone did not agree. On the other hand, a religious artist or critic might maintain that god’s will is god’s will, and it was ordained to have Hades and Persephone as king and queen of the Underworld.
A linguistic, but by no mean irrelevant observation is called for here. The designation of the abduction/seduction of Helen by Paris as the “Rape of Helen” was made at a time when the word “rape” did not necessarily have the narrow connotation that it has today. All of this is quite beside the point. What we mean to emphasize is that the word “rape” today carries only one meaning, which may not necessarily be appropriate today but was when the title of a story became canonical.
The text and this website bear testimony again and again in a multitude of ways how illuminating these Greek and Roman tales have been for our civilization. They explored countless issues and emotions (among them passion and lust), as burning for them as they are for us, in their own images, just as we explore them in ours. Critics of previous generations sometimes chose not see the rape, some critics today choose to see nothing else.