Texts of Terror in the Humanities Curriculum by Carol P. Christ

Carol in Crete croppedWhen I began to study Latin in my freshman year in high school, one of the first texts we were asked to translate concerned the “rape” of the Sabine women. Even though the Latin text used a word that looked and sounded like it should be translated as “rape,” we were told that the Romans “abducted” the Sabine women and that the word should be translated as “seized.” Not long afterward, we read a story from Ovid in which a nymph named Daphne was turned into a tree in order to escape being raped by a God. I found both of these stories puzzling.

I had not heard the term “rape culture” which was coined much later, but the fact that I can still visualize the words “virgines” and “raptae sunt,” as well as the pictures that accompanied both stories, suggests that I was aware that something was wrong in these texts and in the way they were being taught.

When, as part of my first full-time teaching job, I was asked to teach the Iliad as the foundational text in the required Humanities course at Columbia University, I was able to find words to criticize it. I understood that even if Homer mourned the “tragedy” of war, he also celebrated it, and seemed to view war as an inevitable part of “heroic” culture.

I was also able to see that the central human drama of the epic, Achilles’s “metaphysical dilemma “ of whether to choose to stay and fight in a war in which he would be killed yet immortalized in memory, or to choose to return home and live a long, yet uneventful life, was set in the context of his quarrel with Agamemnon over a woman my colleagues referred to as a “spear captive.” In fact, Briseis, like the Sabine women, was a “spoil” of war, a captured and captive woman, who might more accurately have been called a “raped captive.”

When I tried to discuss the moral failings of a work that celebrated rape and war in the seminar for teachers of the course, I was told that I had missed the point of a beautiful and complex text that was at the heart of “civilization.”

This spring at Columbia University, student members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board posted an op-ed titled “Our Identities Matter in Core Classrooms” in the campus newspaper Columbia Spectator stating that:

Students at the forum [called to discuss problems students were having with readings in core courses] expressed that they have felt that Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization’s curricula are often presented as a set of universal, venerated, incontestable principles and texts that have founded Western society.

Sounds like not much has changed the teaching of these courses in the past four decades.

The students stated that there should be “trigger warnings” attached to the courses, so that students who have been raped would be forewarned that they might have difficulty with the assigned texts. For me, the requirement of a “trigger warning” is a red herring. When I taught women’s studies and women and religion, the subject matter of my courses and the way in which I taught them, frequently “triggered” women to come into my office to tell me that they had been victims of incest, rape, and abuse.

The problem is not that feelings are triggered by course materials. The issue is how students are treated when they bring up questions triggered by the material. Will they be told, as I as a student and a teacher was, that these questions are trivial and miss the mark?

Or will their professors respond as the authors of the op-ed piece suggest they might, acknowledging that:

While these founding principles [found in “classic” texts may] have been liberating in many ways, instructors should more consistently acknowledge during class discussions that many of these same principles have created an unjust, unequal, and oppressive existence for many.

The op-ed piece provoked a response—published in the New Republic—titled “Life is ‘Triggering’: The Best Literature Should Be Too.” In it Jerry A. Coyne ridicules the student op-ed, stating that:

After all, what body of literature, including the Bible and the Muslim hadith, doesn’t mention violence and sexual assault? The Bible even sanctions rape. Should divinity schools put trigger warnings on the Bible?

What Coyne perhaps does not know is that in non-fundamentalist divinity schools, certain Biblical texts are now, following Phyllis Trible, labeled and taught as “texts of terror.” In liberal divinity schools moral questions about foundational and even allegedly revealed texts can be asked—at least in some classes.

My response to Coyne is a simple one. If all of the so-called “great literature” of the world places “violence and sexual assault” along with war and slavery at the “heart” of civilization and culture, then why are we not asking how “great” this literature really is? Why are we continuing to teach students that if they want to be considered intelligent they must fall into a lock-step in which they too learn to ignore the “great injustices” enshrined in the texts they must learn to call “great literature?”

As long as we teach students that the criteria for judging what is “great,” “civilized,” and “cultured” require all of us to celebrate or turn a blind eye to rape, genocide, and war—what are we teaching after all? Why are questions raised about the morality and humanity or lack of it enshrined in these texts still being silenced?

My suggestion is that if moral questions about foundational works were seriously considered and answered, the whole house of cards that we call “western civilization” would fall.

We would be forced to recognize that what Mary Daly called the Unholy Trinity of Rape, Genocide, and War, really is at the center of what we have learned to call “culture.”

"Great Art" celebrates rape as heroic

“Great Art” celebrates rape as heroic

800px-Nicolas_Poussin_-_Apollo and Daphne

“Great Art” suggests it is beautiful for a woman to be turned into a tree to escape a rapist God

At the end of the recent Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a woman who had come on the tour simply because she wanted to travel with women confided to me that what she had (unexpectedly) learned was that “we have been brainwashed.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!


Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol: Maureen Murdock.


Categories: Abuse of Power, Academics, Academy, Art, Feminism, Feminism and Religion

Tags: , , , , , ,

29 replies

    • I’m not sure desiring ‘the whole house of cards that we call “western civilization” ‘ to ‘fall’, because it appears to ignore its baser roots, is all that sensible.

      Surely the impressive aspect of Western Culture (note the absence of insulting quotation marks) is that, despite its crude beginnings (like every other civilization), it has achieved the moral, social and technological heights it has.


      • I would not assert without qualification that western culture has achieved moral, social, and technological heights. I believe that “high” cultures would not be built on military might, nor would they view warfare as an inevitability. They would not have the social inequality of the 1% owning the vast majority of wealth. There would be no rape. Just to begin.

        Such societies have existed. I believe ancient Crete was one of them.


      • (In response to Carol’s reply) It may be that the people of ancient Crete were devoid of warlike and rapacious inclinations… but since their written language remains undeciphered I’m not sure how it is possible to be very certain of this idea.

        As for your belief that ‘high’ cultures should not have anything to do with warfare, or view it as an inevitability. One can try to imagine a world where this is true, where every country has given up warfare and every country is pleasant to their neighbours.

        I’m afraid this is just not a stable system. As soon as anyone picks up a stick (with a mind to take the property of their neighbour. Perhaps that year’s harvest failed and with the options of starving to death or stealing food, the second seems preferable)… that person or group becomes dominant.

        Essentially, in a world of limited resources, i.e. anywhere in the universe, conflicts of interests over resources very easily and predictably evolve into armed conflicts.

        But this is not to say that all dominant cultures are equally bad. Given that Western Civilization has developed ideas of the rule of law, representative government, some idea of environmental protection, fairly sophisticated medicine, rockets to the Moon, Scientific observation of the universe from the scale of subatomic particles to the afterglow of the Big Bang… etc, I think it can be viewed has having lifted itself to some height (there’s still plenty of improvement possible, but to ignore the development so far is unfair)


    • I am not going to address the question of whether or not western culture is just or equitable or has a harmonious relationship with nature, here.

      On the question of ancient Crete, there are other indications that ancient Crete was not a patriarchal warrior culture among them: 1) the lack of “big man graves” characteristic of patriarchal warrior cultures; 2) the lack of artwork or sculptures celebrating the “larger than lifesize” warrior king; 3) the lack of celebration of warriors in art or scultpture; 4) the lack of warrior graves.. These “facts” might be considered “negative proof” but in fact they are quite “definitive.”


      • I am not very familiar with the ancient history of Crete, so thanks for the examples you mention, they are certainly interesting and, to some degree, do point away from a patriarchal society.

        However, it is worth trying to imagine the features of an ‘ideal high society’ towards which to aim.

        I would say that quite apart from the particular details of that society, it is important that it should aim to last for as long as possible (after all if you have an ideal society, you can do the most good if you last for a long time).

        So, what can be said for the particular case of the the people of ancient Crete. Their civilisation was overtaken by the fairly war-like Mycenaean Greeks and therefore can be seen to have had a problem of longevity and was less than the ideal. Notably though, their civilization had been around for a while and this collapse was likely strongly affected by the nearby eruption on Santorini… or perhaps environmental damage through deforestation.

        But, whichever of these were the dominant reason for the collapse of ancient Crete, being more militarist/expansionist would certainly have helped their longevity problem – either by being better able to withstand the attacks of the Mycenaeans, or having a larger territory, better able to recover after the volcanic/environmental damage to one bit of it.

        Simply, militarism and an expansionist tendency (while certainly possible to take to undesirable extremes) are useful faculties for any would-be civilization, and refusing them opens one’s civilization to a shorter lifespan.


  1. A very thoughtful article.

    “Over Her Dead Body” by Elisabeth Bronfen confronts and explains these moral issues centered on the relationship between the founding of western civilization and the harm and death that accrues to women, not as a result, but as a foundational condition. I would like to comment on the caption of the second illustration. The story of Daphne is one I have written about and taught many years, from a feminist viewpoint. Great art does insist that Daphne become an object as a tree. In the illustration, notice that Apollo seems to be still a good deal interested in Daphne even while she has transcended this world, ignoring him; she doesn’t seem particularly unhappy. In her state as a laurel tree, Apollo’s presence no longer makes a difference to Daphne as she has become one with nature. Everything in nature is female, literally. Apollo, since he couldn’t have Daphne, plucked, or plundered the laurel that Daphne had become and crowned himself. The laurel symbolizes accomplishment in the arts. According to received Western culture, a woman cannot, therefore, be an artist herself, but must provide the means of elevating the artist/male through being his model or his muse.

    It was first noticed in the nineteenth century that the reader/listener of this story was supposed to be sympathetic with Apollo, as he was wronged by Daphne’s actions. It was a woman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who brought out the point that rape is morally wrong, a sin, and that Daphne is innocent. (I believe this was “Aurora Leigh,” but it’s been a long long time since I’ve written about this). In the poem, “A Musical Instrument,” (I believe is the name) Barrett Browning points out that “the great god Pan” used the body of Syrinx to make music, and this follows the logic of Apollo’s use of Daphne’s transformed body to provide him with his laurel crown. In other of her pastoral poetry, she describes the locus amoenus as a safe place where women can create art. They only have to be there and appreciate the art of nature. They do not create as men do. Women inhabit, then, the body of Daphne when they create. They don’t use nature to reap produce as men do when they approach nature; they don’t inhabit it and they are unable to create there without taking. They enter the locus amoenus as destructive enemies of nature. See the Romantic Poets for that story. I believe the story of Daphne reinforces the essentialist perspective that women and nature are one, and that what they create from the state of nature is perceived as inartistic by the greater world of men, who had become the sole creators of art. Women’s literature and art were perceived as inartistic because it didn’t conform to the idea of genius. The female muse comes to the artist and together they have a child, a work of art. Women can’t create art, it was believed, because if the female muse and the female artist had a sexual relationship, no child could ever ensue. Women, therefore, could not be geniuses.

    The point, I feel, is that Daphne remains unraped. She created her own culture for herself and for women who came after her. You don’t have to take something from someone in order to create; you don’t have to give anything to anyone in order that they may create; you don’t have to defile nature in order to be successful; the presence you bestow is your greatest creation. Your very body is, in itself, a work of art. It creates children and produces milk, or, as Helene Cixous has put it, women live in the realm of the donee,while men live in the realm of the propertee, in this case, the harvesting of nature for their own use and glory and the rape of nature for the production of art.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

    I agree with you that Daphne escapes her rapist which is a victory of sorts–but unfortunately this victory comes at the expense of losing her humanity. As a woman human being, she would not have escaped, which is a sad commentary on “Apollonian” culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Carol and deluiseny for a feast of thought! Excellent points, both of you.


    • Thanks for your reply.

      Nymphs lie low on the scale of divinity, so they are not, consequently, human. One of the important points in the story is that Daphne is described as being free to roam and she loved her freedom. I find a subtle irony that, in her transformed state, she was also free. She gave up one kind of freedom for another. As a lesser divinity, she provides hope for women who want to control their own lives with respect to sexuality. She also provides inspiration for women who want to create as women and not as shadows of men.

      I have taught literature over thirty years along feminist lines of thought, and frequently point out these instances of violence, in classical literature and not-so-classical literature, as manifestations of a society built on violence and the subjugation of women. I think teachers like you and me have managed to change the thinking of a generation. I know my former young male colleagues (ret) were all very sensitive to feminist issues and didn’t teach from the perspective you describe. They, in turn, are teaching the next generations. Although I agree with all you say, I am a bit more optimistic about the outcomes.


  3. Thank you, Carol, for speaking the truth. I wonder what a culture would be like, were it not based on the glorification of violence.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol, I love your anger!! I love your leadership!!

    But as regards the visual arts, I just want to add one bright note, which is that “the whole house of cards that we call “western civilization” did fall, when abstraction began to be celebrated in painting, beginning in the early 20th century. There was a shock at that time, and no small amount of patriarchal frustration, when all those classical themes were dropped, very purposely, and the mood of light, geometric forms and color became the language of a painting. There were many women who took up that movement, called “modernism,” and who rejoiced in such a powerful, artistic liberation. A few examples include the great Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), the “Dada” artworks of Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) and the much beloved, American nature-abstractionist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).


  5. Yes! “The problem is not that feelings are triggered by course materials. The issue is how students are treated when they bring up questions triggered by the material. Will they be told, as I as a student and a teacher was, that these questions are trivial and miss the mark?” Great piece, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Absolutely! If this is the heart of our culture and our “great” works, we’ve got some serious changes to make…


  7. Brava! I don’t remember issues of rape when I was taking Latin in high school, but I learned long, long ago that the literature–written by men–celebrates war and crimes committed “with great honor” by men. Most of the Greek and Roman gods are beastly fellows. There’s no honor there at all in the Greek and Latin epics.

    BTW, does anybody else remember that the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is based on the “sobbin’ women”? That’s the Sabine women, of course. The 1950s musical movie has kidnapping but no sex at all. Great dancing, though.


  8. Thanks, Carol, for a great post. I remember that as a young child, I was appalled at all the different kinds of violence found in the Bible (the only text given any “credence” in my family of origin). Because those around me were not outraged with killing, raping, pillaging, etc. (as long as all that took place in God’s name), I learned (temporarily) not to be outraged as well. But, one can stifle only so long. When I grew bold enough to speak up, I discovered there was no discussing different ways to resolve conflict, for example, with those steeped in patriarchal ways of being and doing. Sadly, to many people’s ways of thinking, violence (war, especially) is the only way to peace.


  9. Fascinating post and comments! Thank you, all.


  10. Excellent post, Carol. Many feminists are quick to point out that rape affects men, too. Men and boys are victims of rape, as well as victims of genocide and war. This is indeed true. However, this perspective can have the counterproductive effect of disguising another, perhaps more urgent truth: the long history of rape (and threat of rape) used specifically as a tactic of terror against women. As your post illustrates, rape of women has been valorized and normalized throughout history. It is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that it is inseparable from culture itself. All who wish to eradicate rape (all rape) would benefit from seeing the deep roots of rape in cultural celebrations of entitlement, greed, and conquest. If ever there has been an Original Sin, it’s rape.


  11. Reblogged this on MAGO ACADEMY.


  12. Fascinating commentary. Let’s also take a second look at another rape story: The Eve of St. Agnes by Keats.


  13. ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” celebrates in contemporary form the rape of the Sabine women. Celebrated as entertainment in a Broadway musical in the 1950s I think, and a movie of the same name. Yes, the whole idea of heroic Western Civilization, the Aenid, the Illiad— etc., however, even as a high school student, I read about lesbian amazons in my Latin class, from Caesar’s commentaries. It was electrifying to read about those women warriors, a kind of opening to women’s power. I could very much identify with the great detective story all radical feminist authors have had to come to terms with in decoding and revealing the past — that rape, war, genocide and the colonization of all women is what it is all about.

    It must be harder and harder for these men to teach this stuff. It’s why the women’s liberation is such an extraordinary thing–half the human race rises up, there is no rape, no murder, no bombs blasting in mid-air— so when women rise up we get freedom in a way men never seem able to manage. The revolutionary impulse of women is something the world needs. And like the woman who came on your tour Carol, she discovered we have all been brainwashed in patriarchy!

    How to deal with the truth of massive rape for thousands of years?


  14. The myth of Persephone and Hades always bothered me, and no less so when it is sanitized in order to make it “empowering”. The Bible is unfortunately not the only source of “texts of terror”. I’ve met some Hellenic Pagans, and I admit to feeling confused when Christianity is dismissed as wholly patriarchal in conversations – there’s definitely a LOT of patriarchal messages in Christianity that need to be unpacked, but I don’t really get how Greek myth became such a go-to for a modern female-positive religion.


    • I agree with you that ancient Greek myth is highly patriarchal, celebrates rape and war, etc. That is why I do not base my understanding of “the rebirth of the Goddess” on Greek mythology, and I cannot for the life of me see why anyone else would want to revive the mythology of Zeus and the other Greek Gods. Instead I am inspired by prepatriarchal “Old Europe” as described by Marija Gimbutas.

      I too am bothered by the rape of Persephone, and even more so when it is written that “Persephone had to be raped.” This myth is not an archetype of the way things should be and could be. I prefer Charlene Spretnak’s retelling in Lost Goddesses of Early Greece.


  15. Brilliant and thank you. As it happens, I was reading “Reviving Ophelia” by therapist Mary Pipher when you posted this essay, and the horror of how the past is still present was nearly overwhelming. We have to stick with bringing rape into public awareness.


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