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Path 3 – Women in Greco-Roman Mythology

The third path sheds light on the roles of goddesses and women from classical mythology, on their depiction in art and their interpretation in their respective contexts.

Many of us are familiar with the figures of Greco-Roman mythology, such as Venus, Diana, Hercules or Odysseus. The role of classical myths in the visual arts enjoyed a real highpoint during the early modern era (15th to 18th century). In the process, their stories were altered and adapted to suit the ideas of the time. Even today, they continue to shape the imagery and ideas of European culture. At the same time though, these images have reflected traditional, patriarchal gender roles for millennia.

Proserpina, a Victim of Sexual Violence

A motif that recurs time and again in mythology is sexualised violence against goddesses and mortals at the hands of gods or men. In the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–17 AD), a well-known text that has been extremely influential in the artistic reception of the classical world, made up of stories from mythology, 50 of which deal with forms of sexual assault. One of the best-known stories is the “rape” or “abduction” or Proserpina. The myth tells of the virgin Proserpina, daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, who is abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld. In Renaissance and Baroque art, compositions typically portrayed the violent embrace of the love-crazed Pluto, from which the naked Proserpina desperately attempts to free herself. What is left out in these depictions is the continuation of the story, in which her mother finds Proserpina’s belt, a symbol for virginity, and thus a reference to her rape. Wracked with rage and sorrow, Ceres then turns the country into a desert. In order to put an end to the starvation that ensues, Proserpina is allowed to return to her mother, but she has to spend half of every year with Pluto.

Switching Roles

In classical mythology, however, there are also stories in which the traditional gender roles are inverted, such as with Omphale and Hercules. After Hercules has completed his famous Twelve Labours, in a fit of madness, he kills his friend Iphitos. As punishment, he is to serve Omphale, the queen of Lydia, as a slave. They fall in love and ultimately marry. Blinded by love, Hercules is said to have worn women’s clothes and engaged in spinning and weaving. Omphale, on the other hand, wears Hercules’s lion’s skin and carries his wooden club  – attributes that can be found in the ivory sculpture Omphale with Cupid (17th c.) in the Bode-Museum. When his sentence ends, Hercules moves away and returns to battle. This satirical story served primarily as a cautionary tale about the loss of power and the softening of men under the “rule of women”. A theme that has often appeared in artworks since the Renaissance, the story can today be read as an example of alternative gender roles.