finem respice

The Rape of Proserpina

Submitted by ep on Fri, 11/17/2017 - 00:45

The daughters of the aristocracy (such as it was) simply did not fare well in classical antiquity. Even the eldest daughters of the greatest kings seemed interminably entangled in kidnappings, hostage taking, the political machinations of the enemies of the city-state they called home, demands for sacrifice by the Gods, or simple murder. To be young, from a prominent family, and female was a daunting state of affairs in c. 400 BCE. Interestingly, at least with respect to Roman mythos, it was a state of affairs that that did not persevere into its modern analogues (today even the most ruthless Mafia leader knows that wives and daughters are strictly off-limits).

Scholars of the classical period would be tasked to name a figure more influential and powerful than Erechtheus II, King of Athens. Erechtheus II was, of course, the grandson of (probably mythical) Erechtheus I, the grandfather noted for being reared by Athena herself. Ironically, his conception was the product of Hephaestus' attempt to rape the (then) virgin Goddess when she visited him to commission several weapons. Hephaestus was beset with lust, and, unable to restrain himself, forced himself on Athena. Not content to be deflowered by a mere blacksmith (Hephaestus, who the Romans made Vulcan, was the Greek God of metallurgy, fire, volcanoes, and so forth) Athena fought Hephaestus off, but his excitement was such that his semen spilled on her leg. She wiped it off and cast it away, and from this was born Erechtheus I, the "shaker of the Earth" who would (legend has it) go on to rule early Athens.

One might think that such a lineage would insulate one from the baser instincts of men. One would be mistaken. Athens was at war with Eleusis at the time, and, consulting the oracles (as one does) Erechtheus was told that one of the virgin daughters of Athens must be sacrificed in order for Athens to avoid destruction by its vile enemies. Astute finem respice readers will realize that this did not bode well for the daughters of Erechtheus (Procris, Creusa, Chthonia, and Oreithyia). The name of the sacrificed daughter (because you just knew there was going to be a sacrificed daughter) is lost to the vagaries of history and the porousness of carved stone, but the detail is mooted by the remaining daughters, who, as one, committed suicide rather than live in grief.

Against the tendency to dismiss these feminine horrors as isolated incidents, it bears remembering that Leos' daughters were slaughtered when the Oracle of Delphi hinted that their death would relieve a great famine, and the four daughters of Hyacinthus were sacrificed to Persephone under suspiciously similar auspices (famine, plague, both... the returns on the investment of their deaths is, again, lost to the wiles of time and tide). Readers of finem respice, always excellent issue spotters, may begin to suspect that the nobles of classical antiquity may have several "intentional tort" causes of action against the Oracle of Delphi, but we digress.

Interestingly, Euripides pens "Ion" thus:

Greece hath a city of distinguish'd glory,
Which from the goddess of the golden lance
Received its name; Erechtheus was its king;
His daughter, call'd Creusa, to the embrace
Of nuptial love Apollo strain'd perforce,
Where northward points the rock beneath the heights
Crown'd with the Athenian citadel of Pallas,
Call'd Macrai by the lords of Attica.
Her growing burden, to her sire unknown
(Such was the pleasure of the god,) she bore,
Till in her secret chamber to a son
The rolling months gave birth: to the same cave,
Where by the enamour'd god she was compress'd,
Creusa bore the infant: there for death1

Creusa may well not have been a virgin in the time of the sacrifice, having, some years before, been taken by force by Apollo, and compelled to bear the child in secret after having been "compress'd" by the "enamour'd god" (as one does), but, again, we digress.

In some sense it is alarming that a Goddess as elevated as Persephone (and how much more of a noble can you be in the Greek Pantheon than daughter of Zeus, King of the Gods, and Demeter, Goddess of the harvest, fertility, and core of the Eleusinian Mysteries) should deign to accept feminine human sacrifice. True, Eleusis was at war with Athens, but Persephone was herself a victim in that she was, (rather famously) abducted by the ruler of the underworld (Hades or Pluto, depending on the particular classical persuasion of the always astute finem respice reader). In fact, even the modern depiction ("The Abduction of Persephone") ignores the true tenor of the kidnapping, though Gian Lorenzo Bernini did not blink away from it when he, at the tender age of twenty-three, crafted Ratto di Proserpina for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. What's more, no less than Howard Hibbard could argubly be said to find this unflinching gaze from Bernini his most apt trait. To wit:

Bernini's early development is crowned by three great works carved for Cardinal Scipione Borghese: the Pluto and Persephone, the Apollo and Daphne, the David. These show successive mastery and more - the brilliant series contains within it no less than an artistic revolution. These works, which all belong essential to the brief period of the Ludovisi papacy, are a tribute to the perspicacity of the Maecenas, Scipione Borghese, whose suburban villa (the present Galleria Borghese) they still decorate. The new style begins with the Neptune and achieves its first unequivocal impact with the Pluto (1621-2), which stuns us from the outset by it's amazing virtuosity. In this and succeeding works Bernini seems bent on pushing the resources of marble sculpture to their extremity. Bernini's stupendous technique as a marble cutter seemingly allowed him to model the obdurate material as if it were dough and achieve the effects of bronze, which is cast from clay or wax models. (He has been chastised for just this achievement by artistic moralists whose criteria are based on abstract conceptions such as 'truth to materials'.) The texture of the skin, the flying ropes of hair, the tears of Persephone, and above all the yielding flesh of the girl in the clutch of her divine rapist initiate a new phase of sculptural history.

Renaissance writers, basing their theory on antiquity, and contrasted the process of chipping away from a block with that of building up and modelling out of plastic material: subtraction v. addition. Michelangelo's disdain for the latter process is well known. Bernini here achieves the pictorial effects of clay modelling through the traditional methods of carving; and his startlingly realistic technique is at the service of a momentary vision. The action is depicted at the climactic moment: Pluto seems to have just snatched the voluptuous maiden, who twists, struggles, and cries aloud in vain as the triumphant god steps past the border of Hades, symbolised by the frightening form of Cerberus that also serves as a necessary support for the group.2

Modern scholars have often used the vagaries of classical language to shy away from a real examination of the bloodlust with which classical women were often viewed. The Latin stuprum may be the technical term for rape (more accurately "sexual debauchery" or "unlawful sex by force" in the Roman Republic (c. 220 BC)), but the term included adultery, and excluded sexual misconduct against non-citizens. In this sense it was not possible to "rape" non-citizens.

This leaves raptus the source of much deliberate modern confusion, encompassing a carrying away or abduction, even the seizing of a non-living tangible thing. One can be forgiven for wanting to distract from the horror of the act depicted in Bernini's work. The very mastery, the peerless craft with which he depicts the "the yielding flesh of the girl in the clutch of her divine rapist" begs us to ignore the overall. To be lost in the detail of Pluto's hand clutching, deforming, bruising Persephone's flesh is easy.

And it is this observation that brings us to the crux that inspires the instant text.

Long-standing readers will be well aware that the scribe of finem respice does not often refer to herself in the first person, but in this instance, I feel I must honor the practice in the breach. I have long made light of an incident that took place in Manhattan some years ago, not least in print (the tongue in-cheek resume I penned for my earlier blog "Going Private" was a partly-saterical offering that refers obliquely (and not so obliquely) to the very real incident, spinning it out in bullet points (as one does) thusly:

Hit on by (and invited back to the home of) Vice-Chairman of bulge bracket investment bank in dark, quiet corner during Manhattan charity fundraiser. Leveraged “soft-skills” to avoid awkward situation and limit any potential dilution to expected social capital returns. Saved by semi-famous District Attorney’s timely arrival.
Hit on by semi-famous District Attorney in dark, quiet corner during Manhattan charity fundraiser.

It was one thing to be cornered in such a way, quite another to be "rescued" by a rather senior member of the law enforcement community, only to be subjected to an (admittedly more benign) version of the same behavior by the self-same enforcer of law and order.

How, exactly, does one report such behavior when it is mirrored by such an authority figure?

In the current climate, at least, I have little doubt that recounting the former incident (which, by virtue of the hand thrust into my evening gown, may well have risen to the level of "Forcible Touching", a class A misdemeanor in New York3) could well prove a career-ending event for the then-probably-inebriated "Vice-Chairman of bulge bracket investment bank" (presently far more than a "mere" Vice-Chairman). This despite the fact that the statute of limitations is a mere two years.

Going by what seems to be the present standard for such matters (almost immediately after the event I recounted it to a friend-journalist, and to another colleague at the same event) going public (after having been "Going Private" for so long) would surely have an impact. It may well be that the behavior by these two paragons of civic virtue was (or is) habitual, and that others would sally forth from behind the walls of frightened anonymity to tell their tales and relate their stories.

But, I find I have no taste for such antics, and there is more than a little to be said for the portion of valor that is caution. My career suffered no ill-effects from the events of that crazy Manhattan night. Moreover, why should it have?

For those young women starting off in finance who will, in all probability, find themselves in such circumstances, I must counsel you thus:

There are so many wonderful people in finance, and so many men in the field have, with no expectation of reward or return, given me so much. As for the rest, though they may fancy themselves such, they are not Apollos, Hephaestuses, or Vulcans. They do not have the divine prowess of Pluto. You do not have to play the part of Persephone. But most importantly, never, and I mean never, ever forget...

...there is far more Athena in you than you may realize.

  1. 1. "Ion," Euripides (c 414-412 B.C.E.) (Potter Translation).
  2. 2. "Bernini", Hibbard, Howard (Penguin Books, 1991).
  3. 3. Penal Law § 130.52
[Art Credit: Bernini "The Rape of Proserpina," Marble (1622), Galleria Borghese, Rome. To see it in person is to revel in the pliability of marble.]

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