The Darker Side of Greek Myths

When I tour school children through our museum's classical galleries, I tread carefully around some of the uglier aspects of Greek mythology. I might say something like, "Zeus fell in love with Europa and took her to Crete." Or, "Zeus loved Leda and came to her as a swan, etc., etc."

In other words, I tiptoe around the fact that the head god of the ancient Greeks was actually a serial rapist. After all, whenever, Zeus "fell in love" with a beautiful young woman (or young man), he "took" her (or him) without asking. Because he could.

Of course, it's not my place to shatter the illusion that the Greek myths are anything other than outrageously fascinating and fun stories from worlds long gone. (There's college for that!)

Yet by telling these stories without pointing out their inherent violence against (mostly) women, I wonder if I'm somehow contributing to a culture that continues to blame the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators.

Imagine, for example, Europa in a court of law trying to gain justice.

Zeus' defense lawyer: "You were out alone, were you not?"

Europa: "No, I was with my ladies."

Defense: "But not under the protection of your father or brothers."

Europa: "No, but I'm allowed to go outside and pick flowers aren't I?"

Defense: "And you were wearing a tunic, right?"

Europa: "Excuse me, but tunics were all there was to wear. We didn't have any other clothing options."

Defense: "Oh, so clothing was optional?"

Europa: "No! That's not what I said. I was wearing a tunic -- "

Defense: "And it was quite short wasn't it?"

Europa: "No! But even if it was, what would that have to do with anything?"

Defense: "And when Zeus turned himself into a bull, it was you who came over to admire him."

Europa: "I came over to investigate, not admire it."

Defense: "So, what you are telling us is that you wore your silkiest, shortest tunic, sashayed up to a bull you did not know and began flirting with it. What did you think was going to happen?"

Poor Europa. And Leda. And Ganymede, and Io and Danae, and all the others.

Once a kid asked me how Medusa came to be a monster. "Medusa started out as a beautiful young woman," I began, wondering how I was going to tap-dance around this one. "She served the goddess Athena as a priestess."

"Then one day, the god Poseidon... attacked her while she was in Athena's temple. Athena got so mad over the sacrilege, she turned Medusa into hideous monster so ugly that she could turn you into stone with one look."

The kid knotted his brow. "Wait. Why did Athena punish Medusa? Shouldn't she have punished Poseidon?"

"One would think so," I said.

"Except that Poseidon was stronger than Athena," another kid said. "She didn't dare make him angry. So she punished Medusa instead. Cause she couldn't do anything else."

Exactly, I thought.

"Well, THAT'S not fair," a third kid added.

"No, it is not," I agreed.

Perhaps, I remember thinking, I shouldn't underestimate kids' abilities to grapple with the darker side of the Greek gods. Or of human nature.

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