Though my presentation this week centered more on the rape of Philomela and the aggression of men against women, I’d like to focus my blog post on another aspect of violence against women: woman-on-woman aggression. Although much of the literature of antiquity focuses on men-on-woman aggression, such as rape, there are also many tales of the opposite. These myths, such as the myth of Arachne, act supposedly as cautionary tales to women, a warning to not act too proud, or too beautiful or desirable, lest a goddess may act revenge on them. The theme of the “jealous goddess” I would argue is a subtle undertone for the anxieties of men we spoke of this week in class, such as men’s anxiety over women’s power through sexuality, or communication. Because these stories were written by men, we can infer these to be tales whose purpose is to “frighten” women into their place, or face the wrath of the gods.
Interestingly enough, these mortal women who “challenge” the gods sometimes do no such thing. Although Arachne purposefully stands up to Minerva, others, such as Io, are merely going along their own business, and happen to attract the attention of a powerful male god, such as Zeus, who inadvertently falls in love with them. These mortal women are then punished for merely for being desirable to other male gods; the women’s desirability and beauty are described as the women’s fault. The female goddesses punish the women, such as the jealous Hera turns Io into a cow, rather than confronting fully their adulterous husbands. Thus these mortal women are thus arguably doubly punished: first by being the object of affection, which leads them to being “seduced” (raped?), to then being victims of the curse of transformation by the female goddesses their rape transgressed. In other words, the female goddesses feel themselves to be transgressed, or violated, by this ambiguous mortal woman who is blamed for leading their husbands astray, into committing adultery against the powerful goddesses. So the goddesses lash back out at these women, and violate them in retaliation, using their powers to curse and transform them into ugly creatures, and silencing them altogether, thus solving the problem of their potentially threatening beauty and power all at once.
The cycle of woman-woman aggression and violation-retaliation is therefore also an interesting aspect of violence against women in the literature of antiquity. For it seems not only do the men violate the women; quite often, the women are guilty of a sort of violation themselves, in transforming or cursing these women so that they are no longer objects of affection for their straying husbands. The solution is always to punish the woman for being desirable, rather than the man for straying, which I believe still permeates contemporary culture. Girls’ bullying of other girls in grade school, for example, could arguably be traced to the same themes as the myths of antiquity; how much attention one girl receives from a boy, and whether that threatens another girl he is with, is a common cause of female aggression. Women are biologically competitive in their own way, though we are more used to hearing about male-male aggression.
It is an interesting thing to keep in mind as a feminist, and as a woman, that as women, we need to stand up for one another, rather than to attack, violate, and assume the worst. For the women in these myths, such as Minerva and Hera, are no better than their male rapist counterparts.