By Samrat Pradhan
When reading WB Yeats’ poem on Leda and the Swan, what fascinated me most was that, in the early 20th century, his writing was considered a new revelatory way of thinking about this fable. While the story itself had not changed and was always very morally dubious, it was before, thought of, rather, as an idyllic ancient erotic fantasy.
The story of Leda and the Swan first resurfaced from Ancient Greece during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and many others funded by Medici patrons made art about this ancient Greek classic. The poem, however, wasn’t thought through the lens of a dark and gross misuse of power, but rather as an alluring and erotic sexual fantasy. Ironically, these pieces of artwork were considered morally precarious; not because it glorified rape, but rather because it showed bestiality. Many of these Renaissance pieces were later destroyed by their moralistic successors.
This history made me ponder, was this fable treated the same way in ancient Greek time? While rape and the trauma that comes with it very much did exist, academics aren’t confident people in power ever thought it was a concept that was morally wrong. It was commonplace for people to be considered objects: masters had power over slaves, husbands had control over wives, etc. Since men in power believed that women were rightfully theirs, the notion of consent, in many instances, sadly was never a need for sex. That is why in Ancient Greek mythology, rape is very commonplace and acceptable. Rape was only punishable by gods if it resulted in violence or was among groups prohibited from having sexual relations with each other. So, the fable was written about rape while also presenting an idyllic romantic scene of lavish playfulness. That sentence makes no sense in our current society.
By looking at how problematic the past was, it reminded me of how much our society has grown. I even have seen change through my own eyes. When I was in middle school, girls got called into the office every week because their clothing was too revealing. When my sister went to middle school three years later, the dress code was more or less gone. James Bond movies from just 50 years ago LITERALLY have scenes in which James Bond RAPES girls. The Me Too movement has called out hundreds of men in positions of power on their disturbing sexual advancements. I often feel disillusioned by how frustratingly slow and excruciatingly painful change is. However, I keep reminding myself that each action our society takes is imperative to diminish the power rape culture holds. So whenever I feel disheartened, whenever I see a Christine Blasey Ford being treated exactly like an Anita Hill 30 years later, I try to focus on the immense progress our society has made. It gives me the motivation to keep pushing forward.