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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Judgment of Paris and Imposition by the Gods

 After I published last night's blog post about consent as it relates to rape, and the divine, I started thinking about Paris and his Judgment. When those three goddesses appeared before him and told him it was his job to pick one--it wasn't like he could refuse the task. Not without risking offending them, and there was no way that FULFILLING the task didn't risk offense of at least two of them, too. It was an entirely no-win situation for him.

And he had no real choice. He had to do as the gods asked. He couldn't say no without endangering himself. And not just because it might offend the three goddesses, but since ZEUS had commanded it, Paris risked offending HIM, too.

Angelica Kauffman - El juicio de Paris
Angelica Kauffman's The Judgment of Paris via Wiki Commons

Then again, if we're to believe that Zeus basically organized and orchestrated the entirety of the events that would lead to the Trojan War (as some sources allege), then Zeus had to have known exactly what he was doing, sending those goddesses to Paris to begin with--including the outcome of Paris's choice.

Paris was set-up to be the fall-guy for the gods.

All that disdain with which his character is treated basically plays right into their hands. Like a magician's flash of distraction, while he springs the trapdoor in a disappearing act. We have spent three thousand years blaming the victims of Zeus's machinations--between Paris, Helen, and Achilles (the only person who seemed to wake up and recognize the injustice of the whole situation, and we act like he's a sulky teenager and scorn him.)

The idea of Fate and everything it implies is totally WILD (and so is the idea of a omniscient, omnipotent power, because one can't really exist without the other.) And I'll grant you, it's hard to wrap our minds around it all as mortals living a finite existence. Personal responsibility for one's actions is also a thing that matters, a means by which we hold members of the community accountable in the present--In The Present.

But when we're engaging with these myths, we aren't only engaging with the present. We're engaging, also, with the past. And a past that played by different rules than we do, now, in relation to the divine and the gods, the tension between the mortal and the immortal. Acknowledging that the mortals involved LACKED a certain amount of choice, recognizing their limitations, and the role and power of the gods over their lives seems critical to me.

And this is part of why I dislike retellings that excise the gods from the story. Because removing them unravels the entire tapestry when peoples lives and fortunes are dependent upon their engagement and interference.

Without the gods, Paris is a coward who fled the field when facing off against Menelaus in a challenge he couldn't win.

With the gods, knowing he isn't likely to win the challenge, Paris faces Menelaus anyway, and it's ONLY because Aphrodite whisks him from the field that he lives.

(Sidenote: when Hector breaks and runs from Achilles, we give him a pass and treat him still as a hero, but not Paris, who is physically stolen from the field--Paris just gets trashed as a worthless coward. Interesting to consider which characters we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to and which characters we are inclined to assassinate.)

And all of this brings me back to the question at the heart of my last post:
If you are chosen by a god for ANY reason, can you ever really say no?

Paris sure couldn't.

In the PAST, the periods from which these myths come to us, the answer seems clear.

But what should that mean for the stories we're REtelling in the present?

Tamer of Horses Helen of Sparta By Helen's Hand Daughter of a Thousand Years A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus
Amazon | Barnes&Noble | IndieBound

Monday, August 19, 2019

Can We Ever Give True Consent to a God?

In response to an article/essay that made the rounds a while back (Rape, Lost in Translation), I found myself thinking, again, about the relationship between mortals and the divine.

I should be clear: I spend a LOT of time thinking about the relationships between mortals and the divine. A LOT. How does a relationship with a god change us, whether that relationship is sexual or otherwise? And I've done my share of eliding what may or may not have been a rape in a myth, too, no question. Sometimes because I think it is absolute B.S. and if the woman in question is that FREAKING AWESOME there is no way she did not kick the hero's butt instead. Sometimes because I just want there to be something else besides rape and violence, because I believe very deeply that the gods (and our understanding of the morality of the gods and ourselves) evolve with us and in our retellings, we should allow for that evolution.

But when it comes to the relationships between gods and mortals, this line in particular is a little bit haunting: "It is indeed doubtful that clear consent can even be offered in such a situation."

I'm not sure it applies to only sexual relations. And it isn't limited to the Greek Myths. The story of Jonah and the Whale, for example, lays out the difficulty in refusing big G. (And this again, calls into question Mary's "yes" when the Archangel comes to tell her that she'll carry and birth God's chosen son, as well.)

If you are chosen by a god for ANY reason, can you ever really say no?

For me this question is more than just academic. It isn't only about translation, but speaks also to my spirituality. Though my patron god is Norse, these women in Ovid's Metamorphoses, from my perspective as a polytheist, are not just literary constructs. That makes the stories told in these myths that much more difficult, and in some cases, more critically important to parse.

Are their experiences and fates, the violent nature of these encounters, a reflection of the society in which they lived--or an imposition of authority, a warning sent by a higher power? Are the events that transpired only a mortal interpretation of an actuality that could not be fully understood or perhaps misconstrued? Is that doing the same work of eliding the truth, erasing a violence perpetuated against women across time and space, even by the divine?

And much more personally, did I choose my relationship to my god or was it chosen for me? The moment the divine revealed itself to me, how much choice did I really have in embracing it? (Because there are times when it sure does not feel like much, if any. And I certainly would never have gone searching for a pagan god, having been raised a Good Catholic Girl, but a pagan god came into my life all the same. Never mind that he gave me time and space to get used to his presence--allowed me to set the pace. It still turned my life upside down.)

Just as faced with the Lay of Harbarth and Thor's laughter and eagerness at the idea of helping Odin hold down and rape a woman, I found myself questioning, so, too, should we all be questioning these other, more common myths in which so often the violence done to women has been overlooked or erased. (Is this a function of male wish-fulfillment? That just the wanting of a woman paired with power and beauty can win their hearts and minds and make them return that want vs acknowledgment of imposition and violence upon their person? In my own retellings, am I doing the work of the patriarchy in imagining, here and there, an alternative? Or is there room, too, for the hope that the divine might have treated us with greater respect? Might STILL grant us the opportunity to consent, and model that behavior for the mortals among us who require the reminder?)

Also, all of this is part of why I am desperate to write a book about Aethra. In Helen of Sparta, it is clear (I hope) that Leda was raped by Zeus--not once, but twice. But Aethra's story of Poseidon is different--it FEELS different, to me, even in the sources, and I was glad to be able to offer that contrast--that assurance that the gods are not ALWAYS cruel to women they find beautiful (Poseidon himself DID certainly rape Medusa before his affair with Aethra, even), because I think THAT is true, too. But understanding why they might be cruel to SOME and not others? Maybe it's an exercise in futility, but I can't help but want to try.

(Of course what constitutes cruelty from an immortal perspective vs a mortal one is another kettle of fish altogether and something that also needs to be interrogated. Can we hold the gods accountable at all? Do they exist outside of mortal concepts of justice? How do we reconcile the difference? The power differential, as well as the gulf of what constitutes our existences? I don't know the answers to any of those questions, either, but I'm absolutely sure I'll keep thinking.)

Tamer of Horses Helen of Sparta By Helen's Hand Daughter of a Thousand Years A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus
Amazon | Barnes&Noble | IndieBound