Women and Beasts in Mythology

This semester, I decided that it would be fun to take a Classics class.  In it, we have read a ton of books, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid…  While we read, I couldn’t help but notice how often women and animals interact with each other.  Now, while you might think I’m referring to women petting animals and stuff, I mean more than that.  I mean women getting ravaged by animals, being treated like animals, and feeling attraction for animals.  It was really shocking, and I needed to find a place to discuss it… Therefore, here it is…  Prepare for the worst… and possibly a very paper-y sounding post.

The Iliad doesn’t actually have much woman/beast interaction, unless you consider Helen, the woman for whom the entire war was fought.  Did you know how Helen was conceived?  Zeus looked down onto Earth one day, and noticed a beautiful woman named Leda.  Deciding that he absolutely had to have sex with her, Zeus turned himself into a swan, rushed down upon Leda, and raped her, thus conceiving Helen.  There’s actually a poem titled “Leda and the Swan” by William Butler Yeats, if you’re interested.  (I read that this semester too.  Funny how sometimes classes overlap sometimes, isn’t it?)  That is horrifying in itself, but it seemed almost normal to the Greeks.  In the Aeneid, though, it’s even more noticeable.

There’s a moment in the Aeneid when Pasiphae is mentioned, and since I didn’t know her story, I looked her up.  Her story is that her husband, the king, asked the gods for a bull to sacrifice to them.  He got a beautiful white bull from Poseidon, but didn’t sacrifice it because it was so great.  In revenge, Aphrodite made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull.  Eventually, through a fake cow machine thing, Pasiphae managed to have sex with the bull and the Minotaur was born.  There’s also a mention of Circe, who apparently turns Picus into a bird with her magic when she’s feeling particularly lustful.  And a wolf-mother raises both Romulus and Remus when they’re born.

The most shocking moment in the Aeneid, however, has to be when Apollo’s priestess is possessed by Apollo and foretells the future.  I’m going to quote a little here, so bear with me.  “But she has not yet given way to Phoebus: / she rages, savage, in her cavern, tries / to drive the great god from her breast. So much / the more, he tires out her raving mouth; he tames her wild heart, shapes by crushing force (…) So Apollo urges / the reins as she raves on; he plies the spurs / beneath her breast.” (Aeneid, Book VI: 109-141)

It’s not only normal  for women to be bestial and sexual with animals, whether by choice or by force, but it’s also normal for them to be treated as such.  Or, at least, that’s what I got out of this.  It was awkward to read, although the rest of the epic was very enjoyable, and I wanted to share my discomfort, as weird as that is, with everybody else.

So, why is it that the women in these epics were treated like this?  Are there any instances of men doing the same?  What might this show about women in that time?  Thoughts?

Source:  Virgil, and Allen Mandelbaum. The Aeneid of Virgil: A Verse Translation. Berkeley: University of California, 2007. Print.


2 thoughts on “Women and Beasts in Mythology

  1. I thought this would be connected to a link between man and animals. But that the sexualization comes back to woman. I suspect that because men view themselves as controllers and animal-like, and myths that have beasts and women would be similar to the relationship they assumed as male humans and women. That would be over-simplifying it though because of the violence that comes to mind when a beast is in the picture. Also, why would a beast be best portrayed in a male role? I assume there are female beasts, otherwise procreation to continue their beast lineage would be a problem.

    This comment probably makes little sense but I just want to say that this is a very interesting post. It is something that I have personally not questioned. Which is also sad because in my mind, I must have equated man to a beast.

  2. Bestial imagery is quite common in classical literature and mythology, and not just in reference to women. In the ancient mythological hierarchy of the world, gods reign above men reign above beasts, and the separation of man from beast is the defining quality of humanity. But men are also called beasts (in myth and philosophy) if they do not seem to be functioning citizens as men should be.

    Now the question of women become more complex when we consider the place of women in classical antiquity. For one, there is the public/private divide, and there is also the question of political power – which women do not have. But in mythology, women and goddesses are just as powerful as men, some exhibit the same savageries and violence and appetites, and it becomes complex whether this is read as empowerment or denigration. Circe, for instance, is definitely not just another bestial woman; she is a powerful witch, goddess in her own right and unbowed by anyone. She is a terrifying figure in ancient mythology.

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