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  • Pindar's Peaceful Rapes
  • Katherine R. De Boer (bio)

The speaker of Pindar's epinician poems1 is well known for esteeming piety and religious reverence.2 The victories he celebrates were won at religious festivals, the Odes contain many hymnic elements, including prayers, and piety is a topos of praise for the victors (e.g., Ol. 3.41, 6.4–5, 6.95–96; Isthm. 2.39). There are numerous mythic examples of impiety punished, including Tantalus, Typhos, Ixion, Asclepius, and Bellero-phon.3 Moreover, the speaker often expresses a horror of irreverence and refuses to speak ill of the gods. The most famous instance occurs in Olympian 1, where the narrator repudiates the most common version of the myth of Pelops. He claims to speak "contrary to his predecessors" (, Ol. 1.36),4 who say that when Pelops was butchered by his father and served to the gods, Demeter absentmindedly took a bite before realizing that she was eating human flesh.5 The speaker concludes emphatically: "For me, it is impossible to call any of the blessed gods a glutton—I stand back" (, Ol. 1.52). In Olympian 9, the speaker rejects stories of Heracles battling the gods on similar grounds and with similar intensity, exclaiming "Hurl that story away from me, my mouth!" (, Ol. 9.35–39). The narrator, then, emphatically rejects stories that reflect poorly on the gods, for "it is seemly for a man to speak well of the gods, for less is the blame" (, Ol. 1.35).

I focus here on a less-recognized aspect of the Pindaric speaker's piety: his descriptions of divine rape. Many of the poems' mythological narratives include ktistic stories of the divine origin of the victor's family or his city, and these origin stories typically trace back to a mortal girl or nymph who is raped and impregnated by a god. Yet these rapes are described in unusual terms: language of pleasure and consent, even of marriage, is juxtaposed with the vocabulary of abduction and rape. The speaker thus refashions divine rapes as pleasurable and reciprocal sexual relationships. This representation is, I argue, related to the poet's programmatic piety. Rather than repudiate or critique stories of rape, the poet manipulates them into something quite different: stories of affection [End Page 1] and marriage. He thus participates in a long tradition of euphemizing and downplaying rape, one that continues to this day. My approach to Pindar's depictions of divine rape is, in the words of Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver (1991, 4), a "conscious critical act of reading the violence and the sexuality back into texts where it has been deflected." Through close reading, this paper aims to unmask the violence and brutality underlying Pindar's sanitized tales of mythic rape/abduction.

I. Denominating Rape

I begin with issues of terminology. As many critics have noted, the Greeks (and Romans) had no single word that corresponds exactly to the English word "rape."6 Indeed, Edward Harris—considering Athenian historical and legal sources, but also poetic depictions of mythic rape—has argued repeatedly that, because there is no corresponding Greek word, critics should abandon the word "rape" when discussing Greek literature (2006, 305–306, 331; 1997, 483–484). He suggests that, because the ancients did not understand rape as a violation of a woman's physical integrity and personal subjectivity, it is anachronistic and misleading to foist modern terminology and ideology onto their literature. Similarly, Rosanna Omitowoju (2002), in a study of rape in Athenian forensic speeches and New Comedy, emphasizes that Athenian male citizens conceived of rape solely in terms of the consent of a woman's , with little to no interest in the consent of the woman herself.7 In her opinion, the modern concept represented by our English word "rape—with its emphasis on the woman's choice and her right to make that choice—maps poorly onto the ancient view.

While acknowledging that Classical Athenian legal and historical documents present rape as a property crime against a man rather than a personal, physical assault against a woman, I follow Sharon James (2014; cf. Gardner 2012), who argues that "to consider rape only from...


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