My high-school teachers have an odd habit of seeing rape in everything. With the sole exception of an art-history teacher discussing Rembrandt’s The Rape of Lucretia, I have never heard a teacher of mine use the word “rape” when referring to actual rape. A film professor will refer to a kiss as “rape,” and a social-studies teacher will call fairies staring at a nymph in an Irish folk tale “rape,” yet I don’t ever recall being assigned to read something in which an actual rape happens.
I found myself needing an English credit this semester. My only responsible choice was to take “Mythological Lens,” a course taught by a very nice (yet angry) gay Christian in which he permanently destroys any potential enthusiasm for Joseph Campbell that high-schoolers could have ever had. This teacher is the best serial-misunderstander of Jung I’ve ever met. We started off the year by spending an inordinate amount of time on the myth of Artemis and Actaeon. Artemis is a resident of Mt. Olympus known for being tough and beautiful, a virginal goddess who was probably asexual but possibly gay. Actaeon is a guy who’s most famous for being in the Artemis and Actaeon myth. How this is supposed to represent sexism toward women in Greek mythology, I’m not sure. In this case, I’d probably rather be the chick.
In the story, Artemis has decided to bathe with fairies and is shocked to find Actaeon the hunter to have stumbled in on her. Violated by his having looked at her, Artemis does what any woman in distress would do—she throws some of her handy stag-water at him, turning him into a stag. Artemis is therefore no longer able to describe what he saw in the thicket where Artemis was bathing, because he is now a stag and no one listens to stags.
Unfortunately for Actaeon, he and his hunting dogs were looking for stags to spear. Upon leaving the thicket, deer-boy is torn to pieces by his dogs. Artemis continues to bathe in peace now, knowing that she’s free of worry that some guy who’s a pile of flesh will talk about her disparagingly.
When I read this, it seemed a kind of metaphor for the silencing of dissidents. Actaeon sees what he isn’t supposed to see, and because of this, his social better silences him by turning him into a victim of the system to which he once belonged. I could bullshit my way through this one. He was a victim of McCarthyism. He was a victim of Stalinism. He was a victim of capitalism. I could do that for hours, partially because I could believe each one. But this myth isn’t about any of those things. It’s about rape.
You see, when Actaeon came into the thicket, he was raping Artemis by looking at her. Actaeon, as it happens, is not a victim of totalitarianism, and Artemis is not a figure of authority. In actuality, Actaeon the jock is a campus rapist, and Artemis is an innocent victim.
There are some problems with this. How, for instance, can Artemis be a victim when she is a figure of authority? She’s an anthropomorphization of the concept of hunting, which in itself is about dominating another living thing. And, more importantly, how did Actaeon accidentally rape a goddess without touching her?
This was answered quite eloquently by my teacher with these words of wisdom that any high-school student can recognize:
“Well, it’s symbolic.”
And thus, all of my questions are answered.
Funny enough, there are a couple of stories in Greek mythology where this more obscure, less-symbolic variation on rape appears, where one of the myth’s characters might kidnap and force another character into sexual acts. There’s this Europa chick at one point, even, who is abducted and raped by Zeus or Jupiter. She became somewhat famous as a heroine in Greek mythology—so much so that some guys named a continent after her.
I remember at one point in English class even, we read a somewhat obscure piece of drama called Oedipus, which you may have heard of. The story is pre-dated by this teacher fellow named Laius kidnapping and raping a male student, which angers the gods so much so that they curse his entire family in the aftermath. It culminates in his own son, Oedipus, murdering him, then screwing Lauis’s wife—who, unknown to Oedipus, is his own mother, Jocasta—and starting a family with her. This ends in Jocasta killing herself, Oedipus blinding himself, and all of Lauis’s grandchildren killing each other. In fact, you don’t need to really go far in Greek mythology to find many instances of rape-rape. This guy named Poseidon does it to pretty much everyone, along with his aforementioned brother Zeus, who tends to kidnap his victims before doing so.
But I’m sure that with the guiding light of a comparative religion class, it would be much easier to identify the real rapes in mythology. Not the ones involving sexual contact, or any kind of physical contact at all, but the symbolic rapes.
Go on Tumblr; you’ll find many defenders of this strange faith—not of Greek myths, but of no-contact rape, which is sort of like no-contact football except it’s not actually rape, whereas no-contact football is still a form of football. Apparently, looking at pornography can be a form of rape. Making eye contact when someone who didn’t want to make eye contact with you can be a form of rape.
So many things can be rape that I’ve had to start keeping a notebook with lists of “symbolic behavior” in which not to engage. While most of these “symbolic rapes” that we’re familiar with from mythology are not criminalized, they do weird out some sensitive chicks at high schools and colleges. I once inadvertently raped a girl when I made fun of her dress. But don’t worry, I’ve been getting better.