Examining Rape in Art History
By Katie Michael
So here is the story of Medusa. If you took mythology in high school, then you probably learned that Medusa was a hideous woman with snakes on her head that turned men to stone. After hundreds of attempts by warriors and men of Greece to kill Medusa and steal her head (for its ability to be used as a weapon to turn onlookers to stone), Perseus finally beheads Medusa. After using it as a weapon, he gave it to the goddess Athena to adhere to her shield. So there is your cliff notes version…..There are different versions of the Medusa myth but this seems to be the most widely accepted. For most of us, our high school mythology class did not touch on how Medusa became a hideous woman with snakes on her head. According to several scholars, Medusa was once a beautiful priestess in the goddess Athena’s temple. In fact, she was the goddess of war’s favorite. Medusa had to swear to an eternal vow of chastity and be recognized as a symbol of purity. Along comes the god of the sea – Poseidon who rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple – the Parthenon. In doing this Medusa is no longer eligible to serve the goddess or legitimately marry. These laws or rules as you would call them also symbolize that women in ancient Greece were considered property. Athena, hearing of the incident, punished Medusa by banishing her to an island, turning her hair to snakes, and making her facial features so unattractive that it turned anyone looking at her to stone. She is isolated and banished from all society. She is silenced and punished. She is blamed.
So you’re probably asking what was Poseidon’s punishment? None. As a powerful male god – one of the most powerful, it is expected of him to take what he wants. This is not the only story depicting sexual violence in Greek mythology. Looking at other stories, there is a common theme of male gods raping women. Hades – god of the underworld raped the goddess of spring Persephone and fed her pomegranate to force her to spend 6 months of the year in the underworld. Zeus (which we have several accounts of his assaults on women) came to Danae in the form of a shower of gold and assaulted her. Often times these male gods would take on the form of a beautiful animal, for instance a swan (Zeus taking on this form to rape Leda), and other times in the form of wind (Boreas the North wind assaulting Orithyia).
Rape has been a central theme in art history since ancient Greek times. Art depicting rape and war was often the focal point and popular subject in Greek, Roman, and post-renaissance western European art. In fact, it was such a sought after theme that the term “heroic rape” was applied to these narratives. The hero(s) of the story claim victory over land and in turn also claim their opponents: women. These scenes of rape take on an almost romantic view and mask the true heinous crime committed. Often times when viewing these works you would not recognize that rape was the central theme unless you read the story behind it. There are several other pieces of art throughout history we could study that focus on themes of sexual violence. Victim blaming is the central outcome of these stories in Greek mythology. These acts are never seen as unacceptable. In fact, the gods committing sexual violence against women is glorified and seen as their divine right.
These same themes are part of rape culture in today’s society. We can take the story of Medusa and apply it to several current cases pertaining to sexual assault. Every time a survivor is asked, “Why was your dress so short?” or “Why did you leave the party with him?”… Every time a case goes to trial and the perpetrator is let go… or when a rape kit is left on a shelf and not tested, rape culture is perpetuated and reinforced. These survivors, too, are isolated and silenced. When we view the images and art of Greek Gods, we see strength and wisdom but fail to acknowledge the history and sexual violence behind these mythological stories and artworks. Women, whether goddesses or not, have to fear sexual violence and then are often blamed. Although we see these being depicted in art and in current media, we as a society need to stop blaming survivors and start providing them with the support they needs.
About Katie Michael
Katie Michael holds a bachelor in art history and a bachelor in communications from the University of Toledo. She is currently the Community Relations Coordinator for the WC SAFE program. In this role Katie often wear several different hats; visioning and coordinating the annual VOICES art show, event planning, fund development, marketing, office administration and community outreach. She helps co-facilitate the volunteer program and the art therapy group – which has been a great source of joy in her position. Katie is passionate about the arts and believes them to be a great healing tool for trauma survivors.