Rape, Marriage or Death?: Gender Perspectives in the Homeric 'Hymn to Demeter.'

Article excerpt

Much attention has been given recently to the problem of understanding the societies of ancient Greece and Rome from a woman's point of view; the problem is a particularly difficult one because virtually all of the evidence available is the "product of men and addressed to men in a male dominated world. It takes the assumptions of the masculine order of things for granted."(1) Even the extant corpus of Attic tragedy, which provides "what seems to be a highly articulate and prominent, not marginal, presentation of women, and their role in society," a world in which, "it seems, women `speak' and share the centre of attention with men," is a "mirage."(2) This evidence, too, is produced by, and largely for, men. It shares the same androcentric: bias.

An important exception is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter of the 7th or 6th century B.C., in which the unknown author presents the story traditionally known as "the Rape of Persephone" from a feminine as well as a masculine perspective, with emphasis on the feminine. As Foley says, "in contrast to the Homeric epics, the Hymn puts female experience at the center of the narrative by giving the privileged place to the point of view of the divine mother and daughter on their shared catastrophe. The (nevertheless critical) actions of the gods Zeus, Helios, and Hades occur at the periphery of the narrative and receive relatively little attention or sympathy."(3)

The author of the Hymn accomplishes the change of perspective from masculine to feminine in part by manipulating the recurring images of rape, marriage, and death. Although images are "only one of the poet's means of communication ... as such they are important, and they provide a rewarding means of entry" into the structure and interworking parts of a literary work.(4)

After the conventional opening of the Hymn to Demeter, which introduces the goddess as the principal subject of the song, there appears in the next two lines of the poem an odd fusion of three seemingly disparate images:

[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

(2-3)(5)

[... and the slender-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus abducted, but loud-thundering, far-seeing Zeus gave.]

The three words in succession at the end of line 2 and beginning of 3--[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Aidoneus or Hades), [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (abducted), [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (gave)--suggest the images of death, rape, and marriage that are interwoven throughout the Hymn. Aidoneus, the god of the underworld, is the personification of death, and Persephone's union with him, even if expressed in terms of a wedding, means at least symbolic death. As an immortal, Persephone cannot die, but her `marriage' to Hades places her in a world which is inhabited only by him and the Dead, and which is inaccessible to her goddess mother: "Demeter cannot, as in some later versions, descend to Hades to bring back her daughter, because in the Hymn, Hades' realm is initially inaccessible to anyone, god or mortal, except the god Hermes.(6) The separation of Persephone from Demeter "is the closest that a divinity can come to experiencing the suffering of mortals when a loved one dies; though Persephone is immortal, she is as lost to her mother as any of the pitiful dead below."(7) Moreover, "in all of Greek mythology, no marriage precipitates a drama like that caused by the marriage of Hades and Persephone, none tears asunder a young bride and her mother to such a degree, because the normal marriages of the gods do not separate them permanently."(8)

The verb [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] denotes abduction; it is used almost exclusively in archaic Greek literature to mean the violent seizing and carrying off of someone or something. The connotation of the term, when the abduction is carried out for sexual purposes, is `rape.' Although Foley avoids translating the word as `rape' and refers to the event as a "marriage by abduction,"(9) Sowa offers justification for translating it in this context as `rape,' which she defines as "a violent abduction . …