Mythological and Historical Rape in Early Modern Art and Literature
(with an index of classical rapes)
Associate Professor of Art History
New London, CT 06320
(This essay was written in 2003 and revised slightly in 2006 and 2008.)
DIVINE RAPISTS, WOMEN, OFFSPRING
Aesacus and Hesperia [Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI]
Alpheus and Arethusa [Ovid, Metamorphoses, V] – river god tries to rape a nymph after she bathes in his waters
Apollo tries to rape Daphne
Apollo and Cyrene (daughter of a king himself descended from the gods by rape) [Pindar, Pythian Odes 9] [added May 2006]
Apollo and the nymph Clymene (Phaeton)
Apollo and the nymph Dryope (Amphissus)
Apollo and Hyacinth
Apollo and Cyparissus
Bacchus rapes the nymph, Nicaia (Nonnos, Dionsiaca, XVI)
Bacchus rapes the nymph, Aura (Nonnos, Dionsiaca, XLVIII.563-665)
Bacchus rapes Erigone
Boreas rapes Oreithyia: Calais and Zetes (heroes who joined the Argonauts) [Ovid, Met. VI]
Centaurs and Lapiths [Ovid, Metamorphoses, XII.210-535]
Faunus tries to rape Omphale [Ovid, Fasti]
Janus and ???
Jupiter rapes Aegina: Aeacus
Jupiter rapes Alcmene: Hercules
Jupiter rapes Leda: Helen and Castor (or his half brother, Pollux). Helen was married to King Menelaus and abducted by the Trojan prince Paris, setting off the Trojan War. Castor and Pollux were heroes who raped Phoebe and Hilaira, the daughters of King Leucippus.
Jupiter rapes Europa (daughter of King Agenor): Minos, Sarpedon, Rhadamanthys [Ovid, Achilles Tatius, Lucian]
Jupiter rapes Danae: Perseus (hero, slays Medusa)
Jupiter rapes Io: Amphion
Jupiter rapes Semele: Bacchus [Nonnos, Dionysiaca, VII.166-367; Ovid, Met. IV]
Jupiter rapes Callisto: Arcas [Ovid, Metamorphoses, II]
Jupiter and Antiope
Jupiter and Proserpina [Nonnos, Dionysiaca, V.600-621]
Mars rapes Silvia: Romulus and Remus [Ovid, Fasti, III.1-40]
Mercury Rapes Herse
Mercury and Penelope (Pan) (the mother sometimes said to be the unnamed daughter of Dryops)
Neptune rapes Aethra, daughter of King Pittheus: Theseus (also said to be fathered by Aegeus, King of Athens)
Neptune rapes Amphitrite
Neptune rapes Amymone
Neptune rapes Demeter: Despoina. (Demeter tried to escape by turning herself into a mare but Poseidon turned himself into a horse and mounted her.)
Neptune rapes Medusa: Pegasus, the winged horse, tamed by Bellepheron (another rape child of Poseidon) and Chrysaor, a monster who fathered another monster, Geryon, slain by Hercules [Ovid, Met. IV]
Neptune rapes Eurynome, wife of Glaucus, king of Corinth: Bellepheron, tamer of Pegasus, born of Poseidon's rape of Medusa
Neptune rapes the earth goddess, Ge: Antaeus, the Libyan giant killed by Hercules
Neptune rapes the Nereid, Thoosa: Polyphemus (the cyclops who courted Galatea and was later blinded by Odysseus)
Neptune rapes Europa (daughter of Tityus): Euphemus (fleet-footed Argonaut and hero, founded Greek colony in North Africa (Cyrene)
Neptune rapes Lysianassa, daughter of Epaphus: Busiris, a brutal Egyptian king later killed by Hercules [Apollodorus 2.5.11; Hyginus, Fabulae, 31, 51]
Neptune rapes Calyce, daughter of Hecato: Cycnus, king of Colonae. Poseidon made Cycnus invulnerable to weapons. He fought undefeated with the Trojans until Achilles strangled him with his helmet thongs.
Neptune rapes Euryale: Orion, the hunter giant (according to some sources)
Neptune Rapes Doris
Neptune’s less famous rapes include nine other women
Neptune rapes the young Pelops, later king of Pisa
Nessus tries to rape Deijanaira
Pan tries to rape the nymph, Syrinx, who is turned into a stream, and escapes
Pluto rapes Persephone [Ovid, Met.; Claudian]
Priapus tries to rape the sleeping nymph Lotis, [Ovid, Fasti, I.390-440]
Saturn and Philyra
Satyrs and nymphs [Sanazzaro, Arcadia, ch. 3-4; Ronsard, ]
Tityus and Latona, mother of Apollo. This giant, son of Elare raped by Zeus, was killed by Apollo and Artemis after he tried to rape Latona. Punished in Hades where his heart or liver was devoured by snakes or vultures every lunar cycle. [Homer, Odyssey, 7.321-324; 11.576-581; Pindar, Pythian Odes, 4.46; Apollodorus 1.4.1; Ovid, Met, 4.457-8; Hyginus, Fables, 55; Pausanias 10.4.5-6]
Vulcan rapes Ceres
Vulcan (Hephaestus) tries to rape Minerva (Athena). His semen spilled on the acropolis and produced Erichtonius, progenitor of the Athenian kings. [Ovid, Met. 2:553-563]
Zephyr rapes Chloris [Ovid, Fasti]
GODDESSES WHO ABDUCT MALES
Eos and Kephalos
Eos and Tithonos
HERO RAPISTS, WOMEN, OFFSPRING
Achilles and Deidamia [Statius, Achilleid]
Ajax and Cassandra (virgin daughter of King Priam) [texts in Reeder, Pandora, p. 89, notes 71-72]
Castor and Pollux rape Phoebe and Hilaira [Ovid, Fasti]
Peleus and Thetis: Achilles (a nuptial rape; Achilles then rapes Deidamia and cites his own origin.) [Ovid, Met. XI.235-287]
Paris and Helen [Ovid, Heroides; Ovid, Met. XV; Dio]
Romulus / Romans Rape the Sabine Maidens [Livy, History of Rome; Plutarch, Life of Romulus; Ovid, Art of Love, I.89-134]
Theseus and Antiope
Theseus and Helen[Plutarch, Theseus]
Theseus and Persephone, Queen of Hades (a failed rape attempt)
Homosexual Rapes (already listed above)
Apollo and Hyacinth
Apollo and Cyparissus
Hercules and Hylas (and a half dozen other youths)
Jupiter and Ganymede
Neptune rapes the young Pelops, later king of Pisa
Bridal Rapes (already listed above)
Pluto and Persephone
Zephyr and Chloris
Boreas and Oreithyia
Peleus and Thetis
Paris and Helen
Romans and Sabine Maidens
“Heroic rape” tied to classical mythology and history was a major theme in Western court culture, especially during classical antiquity and the early modern period. Given the hostility of medieval Christian culture to classical sexual narratives, “heroic rape” largely disappeared in medieval court culture, only to reemerge with Renaissance humanism and the revival of antiquity. For three centuries (1475-1775) when court values ruled within the larger arena of European culture, “heroic rape” was a staple of European literature and art. Even the highest church officials commissioned grand images of mythological rape for secular spaces. Examples include Pinturricchio's Pluto Raping Persephone commissioned by Pope Pius II as part of a larger set of Christian allegories for a library in the Siena Duomo, Cardinal Bentivoglio's cycle of rape frescoes for his villa in Rome, 1 and Cardinal Scipione Borghese's two, life-size, rape sculptures commissioned from Bernini for Villa Borghese. 2 After 1775, “heroic rape” gradually disappeared as courtly elites lost their cultural hegemony and court culture moved away from the public spectacle of seventeenth-century absolutist mythology (Bernini) to the private realm of eighteenth-century sensibility (Watteau, Boucher, Rousseau).
The following essay attempts to map out a broad spectrum of meaning for “heroic rape” in early modern European culture. I have used classical texts alongside early modern sources because the former were rediscovered, edited, and translated by early modern humanists and printed for a book-buying early modern public.
Classical rape narratives appealed to early modern (and classical) courtly elites for at least nine reasons which I have loosely grouped under five larger categories, each marked below with an asterisk for easy digital location. (Find *)
Cosmic Empire, Harmony and Rebirth, Good Government, Martial Victory and Valor
Princely Genealogy and World History
Salvation-Apotheosis, Divine Love and Marriage
Burgher Tyranny and Bestial Passion
The first four categories were involved in most early modern depictions in so far as mythological rape generally signaled the divine power, ancestry, passion, and fantasy of princely rulers in early modern Europe. In a marriage poem written for the emperor Honorius, the fourth century Roman court poet, Claudian, saw the rapes of Zeus as images of divine love, imperial marriage, and Roman imperial conquest. (See below the section on rape as marriage.)
In general, mythological rape was a patriarchal metaphor for princely power over all lesser beings. In so far as these mythic rapes were committed by gods "in love," mythological rape allowed princely elites to show political power as a benevolent, even sacred force bringing concord and fertility to the universe. The fact that medieval Christianity had interpreted the rapes of Europa, Ganymede, and Proserpina as allegories of divine love ravishing the human soul only made it easier for Renaissance elites to use mythological rapes as emblems of virtuous, god-like power and rule.
If mythological rape was a common image of patriarchal power in early modern court culture, female court patrons such as Isabella d’Este provided a minority view rejecting the politics of rape. In mythological paintings commissioned from Mantegna, Isabella saw Daphne placed alongside the triumphant Minerva as a pair of chaste women who had triumphed, respectively, over the rape attempts of Apollo and Vulcan respectively. To underscore the defeat of rapacious gods, Mantegna placed Apollo and Vulcan in the lower margins of the pendant Parnassus where they submitted compositionally to a triumphant Venus ruling with a benevolent cosmic sexuality tied to love, marriage, restraint, the humanist liberal arts, and a Golden Age civilization. 3 Educated viewers would have also seen Venus’s triumph over Mars in the Parnassus as another victory of female reason and love over masculine violence, savagery, and rape. (Mars fathered Romulus and Remus by raping the temple virgin, Silvia.)
I. RAPE AS COSMIC EMPIRE, HARMONY, AND REBIRTH, GOOD GOVERNMENT, AND MARTIAL VALOR *
1. Cosmic Empire, Harmony, and Rebirth
The gods and goddesses competed for influence on earth. One way to establish early dominion was to leave semi-divine offspring in place as kings or, less often, queens. Zeus, Poseidon, and Mars all accomplished this through rape. Ovid begins his account of Pluto Raping Proserpina by describing how the universal rule of Venus surpassed the dominions of the three most powerful gods – Zeus, Neptune, and Pluto, who presided, respectively, over the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. 4 As sons of Saturn, these three gods displayed their cosmic dominion in multiple acts of rape. When later rulers like Cardinal Bentivoglio commissioned a rape cycle focusing on this fraternal trio (discussed below), he used rape to signify a universal political and spiritual dominion.
Among the more famous heroes and early rulers, Hercules came from Zeus' rape of Alcmene, Helen and Castor (or Pollux) from Zeus' rape of Leda, Perseus from Zeus' rape of Danae; Amphion from Zeus' rape of Io; Bacchus himself from Zeus' rape of Semele; Romulus and Remus from Mars' rape of Silvia; Theseus from Poseidon's rape of Aethra, Erectheus, the first king of Athens, from Hephaestus' attempted rape of Athena. (Erectheus sprang up from the place on the Acropolis where Hephaestus's semen landed.) Finally, Alexander the Great came from Olympia, raped by Zeus in the guise of a serpent, as described by Plutarch and Giulio Romano.
Goddesses like Venus used seduction to exert a similar influence over the earth. Venus seduced the Trojan prince, Anchises, and gave birth to Aeneas who led the defeated Trojans to greater glory in Italy. Since the descendants of Aeneas included Romulus and Remus, Venus was the mother of Rome. Mars was the father.
In some ancient texts, divine rape was closely with divine conquest, most notably in Nonnos’ epic poem on Dionysius where glowing accounts of the god’s rapes of mortal women are interspersed with equally passionate celebrations of his military victories over the Indians and his triumphal processions. No wonder the Triumph of Bacchus was a favorite theme of imperial conquest in ancient Roman art and literature and in early modern art as well. The most famous example was Annibale Carracci’s Farnese Ceiling where Bacchus and Ariadne ride in triumphal procession amid additional scenes of divine love and rape, albeit comically handled, with the gods and heroes appearing foolish in many scenes and in some, reduced to effeminate, passive lovers (Venus and Anchises, Omphale and Hercules). While the frescoes were tied to a Farnese wedding, they also figured Farnese Roman imperial pretensions and victories just as Nonnos celebrated the rapes and global conquest of Bacchus.
Many of the most frequently represented mythological rapes involved gods ruling over their dominions, "love" stories, or marriage stories tied to an orderly cosmos such as Pluto and Proserpina or Zephyr and Chloris. This explains why mythological rape was often allegorized in late antiquity and in early modern Europe as cosmic harmony and good government. With its ties to pastoral love, rape as cosmic harmony was especially popular in early modern princely wedding festivities as a cosmic image of nuptial concord, fertility, prosperity, and peace. 5 As such, it was easily absorbed into the humanist discourse of Golden Age.
The two most important imperial rapes were the Rape of Europa by Jupiter and the Rape of the Sabines (discussed below under rape as divine love and marriage). In the Augustan poets, the rape of Europa already signified the divinely-ordained rule of Europe and, by implication, of Rome and the emperor Augustus. Horace had Venus rebuke a tearful Europa in just these terms.
Cease thy sobs! Learn to bear becomingly thy great destiny! A region of the earth shall take thy name." (Odes, 3.27) 6
Because her triumphant rape involved crossing the sea, Europa took on special appeal in the sixteenth-century as an image of European empires projected beyond the great oceans. After 1500, European kings and queens made the imperial Europa into a commonplace of absolutist geography. Around 1550, Titian painted a Rape of Europa and a Rape of Danae for Philip II, the most powerful, international ruler of the sixteenth-century. While the Europa was tied to Philip’s wedding, both paintings had larger political significance. To underscore imperial values in the Europa, Titian placed the abducted maiden in a vast, cosmic landscape aflame with divine love, her body carefully framing a large, ocean-going ship set against an endless space. (Already the Master I.B. had inserted a similar ship in his engraved Rape of Europa.) Europa’s triumphant voyage to Crete became the divine example for modern Spanish conquests beyond the sea. Here was the humanist imperial dream of solar empires without end, carried on great ships beyond the rising and setting sun. 7 In 1570, Veronese painted another imperial Rape of Europa for Jacopo Contarini, legate to the Venetian Republic. At a time when Sannazaro’s Loggetta at the base of the Campanile made Zeus with Crete and Venus with Cyprus into coded images of Venetian claims to islands threatened by the Turks, Veronese’s painting of Europa carried off across the seas to Crete paid implicit tribute to the Venetian sea empire. Its later installation in the Doges Palace only underscored its imperial message, especially in a room across from a large late sixteenth-century stucco sculpture of Boreas Raping Orithyia over the fireplace.
French and English monarchs developed similar images of Europa at roughly the same time. To celebrate a renewal of the universal European empire of Charlemagne promised at the Treaty of Saint-Germain (1570) and the marriage of Charles IX of France to Elizabeth of Austria (1570), the French court organized separate triumphal entries into Paris for the king and queen. Charles and his brother were allegorized on one triumphal arch as Castor and Pollux protecting the French ship of state and the imperial Golden Age promised by the treaty and the marriage. In the entry held for the pregnant queen a few weeks later, the Dioscuri were replaced by Europa and the bull. As explained in the handbook published for the occasion, the rape of Europa signified the successful ravishment of the Queen and the future ravishment of Asia and the rest of the world by the Dauphin who would reestablish a single, universal monarchy. 8 Europa also represented British empire in the frontispiece to John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (London, 1577). Here Elizabeth rides the British ship of state, inscribed “Europa” in Greek, escorted by a triumphant Europa on the bull and guided by divine providence, a radiant sun, and the archangel Michael. 9 In the mid-seventeenth century, Claude Lorrain continued the imperial interpretation of Europa in a painting and an etching setting her rape against a harbor filed with great ocean-going ships.
Mythological rape also signified divine fertility and cosmic rebirth and could appear in depictions of Spring in cycles of the Four Seasons. In 1562, Cardinal Allesandro Farnese, nephew of Paul III, had Taddeo Zuccaro decorate four rooms in the sumptuous Villa Farnese in Caprarola with allegories of the seasons. The Sala del Primavera featured two frescoes of divine rapes: Pluto and Proserpina and Zephyr and Chloris with two additional scenes of Apollo and Daphne in the entrance salon. 10 The rape of Proserpina was depicted twice at Villa d’Este in Tivoli (1565-73), once in a fountain sculpture in the garden and again in a pastoral landscape fresco inside the villa. [added May 2006]
2. Good Government
Because Western culture imagined cosmic, political, and social order as hierarchical until the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, mythological and heroic rape was a "natural" image of good government. To legitimize his new, absolutist regime, Cosimo de’ Medici and his son, Francesco commissioned a series of mythological and historical rapes from leading painters and sculptors including the Rape of Europa and the Rape of the Sabines (discussed below). Among many mythological motifs, five rapes allegorized good government, cosmic fertility, and the divine origins of courtly elites in Falconetto’s zodiacal fresco cycle painted around 1525-30 in the Palazzo d’Arco in Mantua. 11
Some early modern rulers even commissioned cycles of rape myths to celebrate their god-like power. Four examples come to mind. In the early 1520s, Federigo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, decorated his bedroom in the Palazzo del Te with four stucco scenes of mythological rapes (Europa, Proserpina, Amphitrite, Amymone)with a painting of the Centaurs Raping the Lapith Women added below for good measure. To celebrate the coronation of Charles V as the new Holy Roman Emperor in 1530, Federigo commissioned four mythological rape paintings (Leda, Danae, Io, Ganymede) from his court painter, Correggio, who had already painted a Rape of Antiope for the duke himself. Numerous mythological rapes appeared in the frescoes at Cardinal Ippolito d’Este’s Villa at Tivoli, built in the 1560s. In 1627, the Bentivoglio family frescoed a private room in the back of their new Roman palace, inhabited by Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, with a cycle of three mythological rapes: Jupiter and Europa, Pluto and Proserpina, and Neptune and Amphitrite. For good measure, they added a fresco of Perseus Killing Medusa in the next room with two attempted rapes in the decorative margins: Apollo and Daphne and Pan and Syrinx. And in 1663, Louis celebrated his military victory over French nobles with a new garden just to the west of his villa at Versailles, its corners decorated with mythological rapes signifying the four elements and the universal power of the king. The Rape of Proserpina by Pluto signified Fire. The Rape of Cybele by Saturn represented Earth. The Rape of Orithyia by Boreas images Air. And the Rape of Coronis by Neptune represented Water. Two more rapes tied to the elements appeared in sculptures decorating the two of the corner pools. 12 Serial depictions of rape in prints also appeared in cycles on the “Loves of the Gods” discussed below under rape as divine love and marriage.
In general, mythological and historical rape figured the decisive, all-powerful, heroic will of early modern rulers in the most unambiguous terms. Here one thinks of the sexual violence employed metaphorically in Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) to represent the heroic triumph of princely will over worldly fortune.
Nevertheless, since our free will must not be denied, I estimate that even if fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, she still allows us to control the other half, or thereabouts. ... I surely think that it is better to be impetuous than to be cautious, for fortune is a woman and in order to be mastered she must be jogged and beaten. And it may be noted that she submits more readily to boldness than to cold calculation. Therefore, like a woman, she always favors young men because they are not so much inclined to caution as to aggressiveness and daring in mastering her. 13
The fact that real rape was a criminal act in early modern Europe only gave mythological and historical rape a certain legitimacy as a higher, mythic realm of gods, heroes, and decisive actions beyond all earthly laws, restraints, and fortune. In the world of heroic rape, absolutism showed its fearsome power to a world of lesser beings.
3. Martial Victory and Valor
On the human level, rape could signify conquest and manly power and was an attribute of the great warrior. In classical antiquity, women captured as war booty were routinely enslaved and raped; the Iliad begins with Prince Achilles and King Agamemnon squabbling over their beautiful captives. Agamemnon is willing to give up his captive to appease the gods only if he can claim the lovely Briseis, already distributed to Achilles.
I myself will call for Briseis at your hut, and take her, flower of young girls that she is, your prize, to show you here and now who is the stronger and make the next man sick at heart – if any think of claiming equal place with me.” 14
The fact that Briseis faces a lifetime of rape never enters the consciousness of Homer’s epic. Instead, her sexual enslavement to a Greek king or hero is treated as an honor conferred from above.
In The Art of Love, Ovid enriched this masculine ethos by developing a playful metaphoric nexus of love and war in which rape enacted by gods and heroes summed up the delights of amorous combat. The book opened with the rape of the Sabines, from which all Roman glory and power descended.
The captured women are led off, spoil for the marriage-couch, and to many their very fear had power to lend grace. If any struggled overmuch and resisted her mate, upborne on his eager breast he carried her off himself, saying, "Why do you spoil those tender eyes with tears? What your sire was to your mother that will I be to you." Ah, Romulus, thou only didst know how to bestow bounty on thy warriors; so thou but bestow such bounty upon me, I will be a warrior. And, mark you, in accord with that tradition our theaters now too are fraught with danger to the fair. 15
Statius developed the theme in his Achilleid. Dressed as a women and hidden by his mother, the goddess Thetis, among the handmaidens of Princess Deidamia to prevent him from fighting and dying in the Trojan War, Achilles laments his emasculation on the battle field before proving his manliness by raping Deidamia. To justify his action, he cites the his own origins in the nuptial rape of the sea goddess, Thetis, daughter of Ocean, by the hero Peleus.
...when Achilles, parted in solitude from the virgin train, thus spoke with himself: “How long wilt thou endure the precepts of thy anxious mother, and waste the first flower of thy manhood in this soft imprisonment? No weapons of war mayst thou brandish, no beasts mayst thou pursue. Oh! for the plains and valleys of Haemonia! Lookest thou in vain, Spercheus, for my swimming, and for my promised tresses? Or hast thou no regard for the foster-child that has deserted thee? Am I already spoken of as borne to the Stygian shades afar, and does Chiron in solitude bewail my death? Thou, O Patroclus, now dost aim my darts, dost bend my bow and mount the team that was nourished for me; but I have learnt to fling wide my arms as I grasp the vinwands, and to spin the distaff-thread--ah! Shame and vexation to confess it! Nay more, night and day thou dost dissemble the love that holds thee, and thy passion for the maid of equal years. How long wilt thou conceal the wound that galls thy heart, nor even in love--for shame!--prove they own manhood?”
So he speaks; and in the thick darkness of the night, rejoicing that the unstirring silence gives timely aid to his secret deeds, he gains by force his desire, and with all his vigour strains her in a real embrace; the whole choir of stars beheld from on high, and the horns of the young moon blushed red. She indeed filled grove and mountain with her cries, but the train of Bacchus, dispelling slumber’s cloud, deemed it the signal for the dance; on every side the familiar shout arises, and Achilles once more brandishes the thyrsus; yet first with friendly speech he solaces the anxious maid: “I am he--why fearest thou?--whom my cerulean mother bore wellnight to Jove, and sent to find my nurture in the woods and snows of Thessaly. Nor had I endured this dress and shameful garb, had I not seen thee on the seashore; ‘twas for thee I did submit, for thee I carry skeins and bear the womanly timbrel. Why dost thou weep who art made the daughter-in-law of mighty ocean? Why dost thou moan who shalt bear valian grandsons to Olympus?...16
Male athletic victory could also suggest rape, as in Pindar’s Ninth Pythian Ode hailing a victor in the Pythian games, held in honor of Apollo, by comparing him to that’s god’s triumphal bridal rape of Cyrene.
I proclaim Telesicrates, the victor in the Pythian contest with the brazen shield, a happy man and the crowning glory of chariot-wielding Cyrene; whom he of the flowing hair [Apollo], even the son of Leto, erstwhile carried off from the windswept glens of Pelion, and bore away, a huntress maiden, in his golden car to the place where he made queen of a land rich in flocks and in fruits. 17
The tradition which intertwined martial and amorous conquest continued in later classical writers such as Claudian and Nonnos and in medieval and Renaissance romances and chivalric literature. 18 In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, his mother rejoiced at the birth of a boy whose genitals and physical stature already promised great feats.
When the Queen had regained her senses and taken her babe to her arms she and the other ladies studied the little piddler between his legs. And what a fuss they had to make of him, seeing him shaped like a man! In course of time he grew to be a smith – with swords! – and he struck many sparks from helmets, since his heart was of manly mettle. 19
Here we also see the analogy between sword and penis which reappeared in later literature and art, even Christian art. 20 Fulfilling the phallic promise of his birth, Parzifal displays his heroic nature by molesting a beautiful noblewoman discovered sleeping alone. 21 It was a rare literary voice which objected to this ethos of victory and rape. Writing against the idea that women want to be raped and the tradition of rape as the reward for valor, Christine de Pizan assembled three rape narratives in her Book of the City of Ladies (1405) to prove that rape was a brutal violation. She tells the story of the Sicambrian women who fought a losing battle against the Roman army. They “resolved that it would be better to die defending their chastity than be dishonored, for they knew that, following martial custom, they would be raped if they lost to the Romans.” 22
Western literature was also replete with heroic combat for the sake of a sexual prize. Examples include the mythological story of Perseus and Andromeda and its later chivalric variations, St. George and the Dragon and Ariosto’s Ruggiero and Angelica. 23 While rape does not appear in these texts, the consent of the woman is never really an issue for Perseus or the author. It is simply assumed Andromeda is the legitimate prize for her rescuer and that Perseus’ noble qualities make him worthy as a lover or husband. While St. George remains chaste in many but not all medieval accounts, the damsel rescued by the knight usually becomes his wife in later medieval chivalric literature. The theme of women as the sexual trophy of combat also informed the late medieval theme of the castle of love discussed below.
In Camoens’s humanist epic of Portugese empire, The Lusiads (1572), all late medieval decorum vanishes with the island of sexual delight created by Venus to reward Portugese explorers for their heroic achievements. 24 Though inflamed with Cupid’s arrows, the many nymphs selected for this island remained sufficiently modest to flee their Portugese lovers, setting up a chase and mass rape amidst a lush, pastoral utopia. The nymphs set up the chase by pretending to hunt in the fields when they are first discovered.
… It was thus their expert instructress [Venus] had counseled, that they should scatter over the fields and begin by awakening desire in the mariners with the fleeting view of an uncertain prize. Some … had laid aside the enhancement of attire and were bathing naked. … The nymphs fled through the foliage; but, more cunning than swift, little by little and with many a smile they allowed the hounds [mariners] to overtake them. … One stumbled, by design, … as she picked herself up again, her pursuer fell over her and made escape impossible. … that was compensation in full for all their arduous experiences. 25
In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532), the heroes end up shipwrecked in an all-female country ruled by man-hating female warriors. Any man discovered in this realm is killed or enslaved unless he can slay ten female warriors in a single day and satisfy ten more in bed in one night. 26The prize for this supreme test of masculinity is ten wives and the right to rule, thereby restoring a natural patriarchy. 27
“confident was every cavalier
As in combat with a lance or spear. [IX.69]
The hero, Guidone, proves himself worthy of this challenge, first dispatching ten female warriors.
And one by one they fall beneath his hand.
Left with ten women, naked and alone,
So valorous he proved (I do not jest)
That pleasure he partook of every one.
The queen by such feat was so impressed
That there and then she named him as her son,
And gave him Alessandra as his bride,
And the other nine by whom he had been tried.
She left him her co-heir to all this land [XIX.56-58]
Though rape doesn’t appear in many of these texts, the identification of martial valor with sexual conquest fueled the larger willingness to use rape to depict a higher, heroic kind of love worthy of gods, heroes, and warrior-knights.
The close association between mythological rape, martial valor, and conquest allowed even homoerotic rapes to represent absolutist victory. In Fulgentius’ influential handbook of mythology, the rapes of Ganymede (and Europa) were interpreted exclusively as images of Roman military triumph.
For Jove, as the ancient author Anacreon has written, when he had started a war against the Titans… as a sign of victory he saw close at hand the auspicious flight of an eagle. For so happy an omen, especially since victory did ensue, he made a golden eagle for his war standards and consecrated it to the might of his protection, whereby also among the Romans, standards of this kind are carried. He seized Ganymede in battle as these standards went before him, just as Europa is said to have been carried off on a bull, that is, onto a ship carrying the picture of a bull. 28
When Duke Cosimo de' Medici seized control of the burgher republic of Florence and installed himself as an absolutist ruler in what had been the town hall, he decorated one large room with scenes of Jupiter. One painting depicted Cosimo's military victory over Piombino, inspired by the mythological example of Jupiter Raping Ganymede. 29 (As a Trojan prince favored by Zeus, Ganymede also connected Trojan and Roman glory to the triumphs of Cosimo’s regime.) In the late 1570s, Cosimo’s son, Fererico commissioned Bologna to sculpt a large Rape of the Sabines for the town square as an even more public image of Medici absolutism (alongside earlier Medici images such as Bologna’s equestrian statue of Cosimo, Cellini’s Perseus Killing Medusa, 30 Ammanati’s Neptune, and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. Bologna’s Rape of the Sabines implicitly compared Cosimo to King Romulus whose great leadership and military exploits led Rome to eternal glory and Romulus to eternal life among the gods. 31
Rape was one way the gods interacted with mortals in the early days of human history and the chief way they left semi-divine heroes to rule the earth and promote their worship and influence. Since European rulers in the Renaissance and Baroque liked to imagine themselves as descendants of families going back to these demi-gods, classical rape narratives tied to the birth of early heroes and kings created an appealing world history of great rulers and empires continuing into the present.
By producing the greatest leaders and heroes who defeated monsters threatening civilization, founded cities, built empires, and ruled kingdoms, mythological rape further justified itself and distracted attention from sexual violence. Moschus has Zeus soothe Europa this way.
“Be of good sheer, sweet virgin, and never thou fear the billows. ‘Tis Zeus himself that speaketh … And ‘tis love of  thee hath brought me to make so far a sea-course in a bull’s likeness; and ere ‘tis long thou shalt be in Crete … and there shall thy wedding be, whereof shall spring famous children who shall all be kings among them that are in the earth.” 32
In Book XI of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus visited the underworld and catalogued a number of such glorious rapes as high points in the lives of mortal women and in a larger, epic "world history" dominated by the intertwined lives of gods and heroes. As was often the case, Homer omitted any mention of sexual coercion as if these rape-unions were consensual. He began with Neptune's union with the princess, Tyro, and even quoted Neptune's word to Tyro to explain the act in lofty genealogical terms.
"Dear Mortal, go in joy! At the turn of seasons,
winter to summer, you shall bear me sons;
no lovemaking of gods can be in vain.
Nurse our sweet children tenderly, and rear them
Home with you now, and hold your tongue, and tell
no one your lover's name - though I am yours,
Poseidon, lord of surf that makes earth tremble."
He plunged away into the deep sea swell,
and she grew big with Pelias and Neleus,
powerful vassals, in their time, of Zeus.
Odysseus continued by describing other heroic offspring produced by these uplifting "matches" between gods and mortal women.
Next after her I saw Antiope,
daughter of Asopos. She too could boast
a god for a lover, having lain with Zeus
and borne two sons to him; Amphion and
Zethos, who founded Thebes, the upper city,
and built the ancient citadel. ...
And next I saw
Amphitrion's true wife, Alkmene, mother,
as all men know, of lionish Herakles,
conceived when she lay in Zeus's arms …
He then mingled these divine rapes with accounts of princely marriages, completing the construction of a single, unified, heroic genealogy.
Then after Leda to my vision came
the wife of Aloeus, Iphimedeia,
proud that she once had held the flowing sea
and borne him sons, thunderers for a day,
Never were men on such a scale
bred on the plowlands and the grainlands, never
so magnificent any, after Orion,
At nine years old, they towered nine fathoms tall
nine cubits in the shoulders, and they promised
furor upon Olympos, heaven broken by battle cries,
the day they met the gods in arms.
Some of the heroes born from divine rapes carried out important rapes of their own, thereby repeating the god-like actions of their fathers. The rape of Leda by Zeus produced the great heroes, Castor and Pollux who went on to rape the daughters of King Leucippus (painted by Rubens). After death, they rose to starry immortality as the constellation, Gemini. According to Ovid, Mars raped the sleeping temple virgin, Sylvia, that he “might bestow upon this city a great seed” in the form of Romulus, the "founding father" of Rome. 33 As Rome’s first king and its greatest early general, Romulus organized the mass rape of the Sabines to secure imperial greatness for the city he founded and his own apotheosis. In his account of the rape of Semele (described repeatedly in nuptial terms), Nonnus had Zeus comfort his victim with glorious accounts of her divine son, Bacchus, whose serial rapes are later celebrated in the epic poem.
And after the bed, he saluted Semele with loving words, consoling his bride with hopes of things to come.
“My wife, I your bridegroom am Cronides. Lift up your neck in pride at this union with a heavenly bedfellow; and look not among mankind for any child higher than yours. Danae’s wedding [rape] does not rival you. You have thrown into the shade even the union [rape] of your father’s sister with her Bull; for Europa glorified by Zeus’ bed went to Crete, Semele goes to Olympos. What more do you want after heaven and the starry sky? People will say in the future, Zeus gave honor to Minos in the underworld, and to Dionysios in the heavens! … you bring forth a son [who shall not die, and you I will call immortal. Happy woman! You have conceived a son who will make mortals forget their troubles, you shall bring forth joy for gods and men.”
Even homoereotic rape was easily interpreted as divine providence, royal genealogy, and world history as in Homer’s account of the Rape of Ganymede. Obscured in the many homoerotic accounts of this myth is Ganymede’s status as a Trojan prince, descended from King Dardanos, who was himself the son of Zeus by rape. Ganymede appears in Aeneas’s speech to Achilles boasting of the divine favor showered on the Trojans (Iliad XX.231ff)
My own claim is that I was born the son
Of Ankises, the hero, and my mother
Was Aphrodite. …
To know the story of our race, already
Known to many soldiers, Zeus, cloud-master
Fathered Dardanos and built the town
Dardanie, since Ilion’s stronghold
Was not yet walled or peopled on the plain,
And men still made their home on Ida’s hills.
Dardanos begot King Erikhthonios,
Richest of mortals in his time
Erikhthonios was the father of Tros,
Lord of the Trojans. Three fine sons he had:
Ilos, Assarakos, and Ganymedes,
Handsomest of mortals, whom the gods
Caught up to pour out drink for Zeus and live
Amid immortals for his beauty’s sake.
Virgil expanded this theme by having Aeneas, Ganymede’s cousin, award as a prize for military valor a golden cloak embroidered with scenes of Ganymede hunting and being carried up to the heavens. 34
Even in a mythological rape featuring brutal lust such as Haephaestus’ attempted rape of Pallas Athena, goddess of chastity and wisdom, historical glory mingled with moral turpitude and to some extent overshadowed it. Just as Rome’s glory originated in divine rape, so did that of Athens in Greek myth. As the semen of Haephaestus spilled on the ground, the first king of Athens, Erechtheus, sprang up miraculously from the spot.