Richard Mourdock, Rape, Pregnancy, and the Greek Gods

[I’ve been working over this post off and on for days. It’s weird and a bit disjointed. Not sure if it conveys what I want to get across, but I’m sick of looking at it in my drafts queue. It’s a weird, disgusted post about Mourdock and his perverse beliefs.]


[Poseidon] loosened the maiden’s girdle and cast a sleep over her.
But when the god had finished the act of lovemaking,
he took her by the hand and spoke to her, saying:
“Be happy, lady, in this love, and when the year passes
you will bear glorious children, for the unions of the immortals
are not fruitless. You must look after them and raise them.
Go home now and hold your peace and tell nobody
my name, but I tell it to you: I am the Earthshaker Poseidon.”

Poseidon’s rape of Tyro (Homer, Odyssey 11.245–52),
which resulted in the birth of the twins Pelias and Neleus.

Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for the US Senate from Indiana, said that a pregnancy that results from rape “is something that God intended to happen.” And, in a remarkable display of acrobatic argumentation, he later insisted that he doesn’t think the rape was intended by god to happen, just the pregnancy.

Are you trying to suggest that somehow I think that God pre-ordained rape? No, I don’t think that. That’s sick. Twisted. That’s not even close to what I said. What I said is that God creates life.

So the pregnancy was “something that God intended to happen,” but not the act that created the pregnancy.


And how precisely is this supposed to work? Maybe god really wants you to get pregnant, but you aren’t married or dating anyone, or maybe you and your man are successfully using contraceptives (which god finds so annoying—though he really does enjoy a challenge), or maybe you’re married to or dating another woman (which really frustrates god when he’s in a baby-making mood—not even giving him the option of condom failure). But then god sees a man rape you, and this omniscient and all-loving god says, “finally!—sperm!—not delivered in the manner I intended, but it’s my only chance to give her the baby I so want her to have.”

Is that how it works, Mr. Mourdock? As you said, “That’s sick. Twisted.”

And, yes, I realize that description is horrible, but if Richard Mourdock believes god intended the pregnancy to happen, that means the pregnancy was not a accident. Not just a chance biological event. It means Mourdock believes god made a conscious decision to make the woman pregnant after she’d been raped.

I study ancient Greece and Rome, so I know sick and twisted. The ancient world (like most cultures, at one time or another) could be wildly sick and twisted at times, particularly regarding the treatment of women. In classical Athens, the punishment for a man found guilty of seducing and committing adultery with another man’s wife was harsher than that for a man found guilty of rape. In the case of a seduction, the argument goes, the wife might want to continue the affair, whereas in the case of rape, she would hate her attacker. Thus seduction and adultery was more of a threat to the integrity of a husband’s household than rape was (see Lysias 1.32–33).

And Greek and Roman mythology, as much as I love it, can sometimes be painful to read. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was harshly but aptly retitled 1001 Rapes by Better Book Titles. The number is wildly exaggerated, but it feels pretty accurate when you’ve read about the rape or attempted rape of Daphne (by Apollo), Io (Zeus), Syrinx (Pan), Callisto (Zeus again), and the daughter of Coroneus (Poseidon), and you’re still in the middle of book 2, with 13 1/2 books to go.

Euripides confronted the issue of gods as rapists directly in his play Ion. The plot: Some years ago, Apollo raped Creusa, the daughter of the king of Athens, in a cave at the base of the Acropolis. She gave birth to a son in secret and then “exposed” the baby—left the baby to die in the same cave where the assault occurred. (Exposure was a form of infanticide practiced in ancient Greece; the infant’s survival was left to the will of the gods.) Apollo told Hermes to go to Athens, find Creusa’s baby, and bring it to his temple in Delphi. The boy, Ion, grew up as a servant in Apollo’s temple, unaware of his parentage. In Euripides’ play, Creusa and her husband, Xuthus, come to Delphi. Creusa is uneasy and conflicted being near the temple of her rapist. She resents Apollo for his crime and resents him because she believes he let their baby die.

Creusa condemns Apollo (Vellacott’s translation):

Here in the white light of heaven I denounce you!
You came to me, with the gleam of gold in your hair,
as I was picking an armful of yellow flowers . . .
You gripped my bloodless wrists,
dragged me, shrieking for help, into the cave,
bore me to the ground—a god without shame or remorse!—
And had your will—for the honor of Aphrodite!

At the end of the play, naturally, Creusa and Ion are reunited as mother and son. Athena appears to reveal the full story:

So, Apollo has done all things well: first, he gave you a healthy labor and so enabled you to conceal the birth of your son; then when he was born and you abandoned him, Apollo instructed Hermes to take the infant in his arms and transport him to Delphi; here he preserved his life and brought him up. . . . So, joy be with you all! Your troubles are over; from this day your good fortune begins.

Creusa, in a speech that Richard Mourdock might approve of, seems to accept this:

Before, I blamed Apollo; now I bless him, because, though for so long he did nothing, now he gives my son back to me.

Read in one way—the way this fictional Athena seems to be portraying it*—it seems to say that Apollo kept up his side of the bargain by taking care of the baby born from his crime, so all is to be forgiven. Creusa was injured, sure, but Apollo made it right by reuniting her with her child.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around that argument. Like the biblical law that a rapist is to marry the woman he raped (Deut. 22:28–29), like Athens’ steeper punishment for seduction versus rape, and like Mourdock’s belief that pregnancy from rape is a “gift from God,” there is a huge gap in the argument: the experience of the woman in question. It’s about family honor, or the husband’s household, or the fetus, whatever. . . . Whatever you choose, it’s more important that the physical and psychological well-being of the woman. The woman’s life and experience just doesn’t seem to matter.

And here in 2012, for some people—and for some people who are or might be in power—women’s lives and experiences still just don’t matter enough.

But regarding Mourdock’s absurd and abhorrent belief that a pregnancy resulting from rape was “intended by God,” I’ll end with one last line from Euripides (a line from a play that doesn’t survive in full):

If the gods do evil, they are not gods.


* Interpretation of Euripides’ plays, the Ion included, can be tricky. The Ion is often seen as a condemnation of blind adherence to religious dogma. Creusa’s story is not believed at first (the argument being that Apollo would never commit rape), and when Creusa says she wants to question Apollo’s oracle about what happened to the baby she abandoned, she is told that she shouldn’t ask such a question, since Apollo’s honor is involved, “you must respect his feelings.” Creusa responds, “What of his victim’s feelings?”

Furthermore, Apollo’s rape of Creusa is described in ugly detail and is clearly portrayed as a horrific crime. At one point the chorus calls it an act of hubris—forget what hubris means in English, in Athenian law, hubris was the term for a grievous assault. Creusa condemned Apollo not only for allowing her child to die (as she believed was the case) but also for the rape itself. Apollo restores her child to her, but nothing is said about the rape. And, rather chillingly, Apollo himself never appears or speaks in the play; he sends Hermes to give the introduction at the beginning of the play, and at the end Apollo has Athena clean up the mess he made, but he never shows his face. All of this leaves Creusa’s sudden forgiveness of Apollo at the end deeply unsettling and unsatisfactory. And Euripides was skilled enough and thoughtful enough as a playwright that that conflicted and disturbing ending was likely exactly what he was going for.

Nota bene: Euripides’ Ion does involve a woman’s concern for a child who was conceived via rape. Anyone who tries to portray this as an argument for women continuing pregnancies that were conceived via rape has missed the point.

Nota bene 2: I skipped over a number of plot details in the Ion to keep this post to the point. The whole play is worth a read.


About eteokretan

Interests include: books, art, movies, history, mythology, wandering around, people watching, being a bit weird, running, soccer.
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5 Responses to Richard Mourdock, Rape, Pregnancy, and the Greek Gods

  1. Janyaa says:

    What a fascinating post! I never thought about the similarities with Greek and Roman mythology. Thank you for pointing it out!

  2. eteokretan says:

    What can I say—I read a lot of mythology. The gods frequently “intend pregnancies to happen,” so that first passage of Poseidon’s rape of Tyro sprang to mind immediately (be happy! you’re pregnant!), especially since Mourdock seems to want to skip around the rape itself so neatly. He seems to want to have it both ways—it’s a horrible, terrible crime, and it’s a gift from god.

  3. Didion says:


    You know what this post reminded me of? The scandal involving The Family, the quasi-cultlike religious group in DC that houses large numbers of (male) members of Congress and teaches them that these men’s own religious righteousness and high power in government allows them to embrace a different set of morals than the one they preach to their constituents. No surprise that people like disgraced Nevada senator John Ensign were members. And disgraced former gov. Mark Sanford.

    Gods on earth. That’s what these men feel themselves to be. God help us all.

    • eteokretan says:

      When I read Ovid or Homer and there’s one of these rape passages, normally it’s easy to maintain a kind of professional distance from it. That’s what you do. Zeus deceives Alcmene and impregnates her with Herakles; Danae, Perseus; etc. Hades grabs Persephone and drags her screaming down into the Underworld to make her his wife. And in the myth, it almost always turns out just fine. Zeus is celebrated for his clever deceptions and disguises, Herakles is glorious.

      It’s easy to maintain a professional distance because it’s just myth and it’s from an ancient culture. The Mourdocks and Akins and Paul Ryans of the world want to re-create it in a way. They want a world in which you’re assaulted and the focus shifts instantly to the wonderful baby you’re going to have. It’s really horrifying.

      Rejoice! You were chased down and raped, but God has created this miracle baby in you!

  4. Pingback: Exams and Linkspams « A life unexamined

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