The Founding Myths of the West

The Rape of Europa (and other founding myths that explain a lot)

As both the title and subtitle say this blog is created to give a possible explanation as to why sexism is ingrained in Western Culture. Although sexism stems back much farther than Ancient Greece and Rome, these two civilizations are the foundation of Western society and so they myths, beliefs, and opinions of the prominent figures in these two cultures have shaped our own right down to the social mores that explain the general conceptions of thought.

This is not meant to be all encompassing of the universal western experience. As I am American I am writing solely of the American experience as far as I can gauge it. This is a compilation of my knowledge of Ancient History, European History, and modern sexism in the hopes of finding evidence that sexism pervades our world today because it rooted in the framework on which we base our ideas. Sexism is not innate; it is taught.

I’m taking a European History class this semester, and the first assignments were to read ‘The Rape of Europa’ by Ovid, understand the myth of the Sabine Women, and read  ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ by Livy.

One of many paintings, although one of few where she is fully clothed.

To start with the myth of the founding of Europe, Europa was picking flowers with the nymphs when Zeus fell in love with her. He transformed himself into a bull and when she was comfortable that the bull would not attack her, he led her into the ocean on his back and swam to Crete. Once there revealed himself as a God and  raped her, or seduced her, or had intercourse with her, depending on which translation you read and what you can surmise from Greek culture and the Greek language. She became a Queen of Crete and had multiple sons. Europa’s side of the story is barely considered. She is only described as beautiful, virginal, and afraid.

On to the Sabine Women then and the myth of the founding of the city of Rome. Unlike the story of Romulus and Remus, this is a lesser known tale. Led by Romulus, the Romans established themselves as a city, but had no wives to marry. There was a neighboring tribe called the Sabines and the Romans asked that the men give up their daughters in marriage. The men refuse. To retaliate the Romans hold a festival and when the Sabines attend, kidnap the women. The Romans defend themselves to their distraught captives: you’ll be our wives, not our whores. think of your status. think of joining our families.  The women agree to be married. Their fathers do not.

A war is started over the kidnapped women and it is up to the women to bring peace. The women of the tale act as mediators between their fathers and their now-husbands. Peace is achieved where the women are the property of their Roman spouses. This myth also focuses on violence against women and the purity they possess to control men’s wicked desires.

In the Rape of Lucretia by the Roman Livy, the story is bit different than the previous ones, but ultimately holds the same messages. Rome is still a monarchy and the noblemen of the time are unhappy with the monarchic rule. There is a beautiful, chaste woman named Lucretia,  who is of the utmost in womanly virtues and is  married to a nobleman. Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the King, lusted after her and wanted to hurt her for her perfection and loyalty.

Tarquinius comes to Lucretia’s house as a guest when her husband is away. When everyone is asleep, Tarquinius comes to her bed chambers and with a knife to her throat tells her of his intentions and his lust. She rejects him. It is only when he threatens to disgrace her by killing her and killing a slave and laying the slave’s body next to hers, that she relents.

She immediately calls upon her father and her husband. She relates her rape and calls upon them as men to act in her defense. They swear to do so and then Lucretia kills herself. In an effort to be a role model for Roman woman to be chaste in all matters she stabs herself in the chest. Her male relatives carry her body through the streets-the male sphere of Roman society. The rape of Lucretia is an attack against the honor of all the men of the city and their families. As such, they rise up and form the Roman Republic. Again we see violence against women as the major theme, the significance of men to move society forward even if it is through a woman that it is achieved.

All three stories are foundation myths, showing what the Greeks and the Romans thought of themselves and their societies. Aside from being written or told by men, the androcentricism permeates further. The basis of Europe, because western society is founded on Rome and Rome is heavily influenced by Greece, is grounded in the suppression of women and the exploitation of women’s sexuality. The men are the actors in these myths, the women are acted upon. They are passive and so since the 8th Century BCE (approximately the first mention of the Rape of Europa) and more than likely long before that as well, women have been depicted as inferior.

Is it surprising then that sexism is so prominent in western society and America specifically?

But the point can be made that no one believes in these myths anymore. No one believes in Zeus, and no one can prove the Sabine tale or the tale of Lucretia. Yes, but when Poland was entering into the EU, they had a painting commissioned of the Rape of Europa to prove that Eastern Europe was just as European. These myths hold standing today even if they are not believed word for word. In this way, sexism is not innate. Women are not born inferior; we are taught that we are inferior because the foundations of male superiority and female oppression are the very foundations of western civilization.


2 thoughts on “The Founding Myths of the West

  1. I really loved this it is excellent – the history here is so true I do recall the paintings depecting the events you describe. I saw them in France and England. I can not begin to tell you how proud of you I am.

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