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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
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