I was not paying full attention when I heard a news report on CNN saying that archaeologists had uncovered an “ancient erotic fresco” in Pompeii. Hmm, I thought to myself, this story deserves further investigation.
I had heard whispers about frescoes that only men were allowed to see when I visited Pompeii as a student years ago. I now know that these were idealized pornographic wall paintings in brothels of handsome young men engaging with beautiful prostitutes in variety of sexual positions. In real life prostitutes in Pompeii were slaves who worked in appalling conditions in dark, dank, windowless cells. No doubt many of their customers were unwashed toothless dirty old men.
The fresco in the news turned out to be an image of the rape of the Spartan queen Leda by Zeus disguised as a swan; it was found in a bedroom of a house or villa in Pompeii.
The archaeologists “overlooked” the fact that this is an image of a rape. Note that the perspective situates the artist in a position to look up Leda’s crotch, while minimizing her head and upper body and that the folds of cloth between Leda’s legs bear an eerie resemlance to a hand reaching to “cop a feel.” Here is how the archaeological team described the fresco, “The scene — Full of Sensuality — depicts the union of Jupiter [the Roman name for Zeus], transformed into a swan, and Leda, wife of King Tyndareus.” The Director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park gushed, “Leda watches the spectator with a sensuality that’s absolutely pronounced.” Does he imagine that Leda not only enjoyed being raped but also welcomes also the objectifying pornographic gaze then and now?
Does Leda look like she is in the throes of ecstasy to you?
When I put myself in Leda’s place, mimicking her facial gestures, it seems to me that her eyes are wide open in expression of surprise, shock, or fear. To me she is not conveying: “wow, this is great,” but rather: “what the fuck is happening to me?”
I am not suggesting that the fresco artist had any real sympathy for a woman who was being raped. He (I assume the artist was a he) does not portray her as resisting, but rather as passively accepting her fate.
This is what rape culture looked like in ancient Pompeii.
But what about the twenty-first century archaeologists? They “ignore” the fact that they uncovered an image of rape and describe the look on the face of Leda as “sensual,” a term indicating that they view Leda as positively enjoying being raped. Did they also know that they would garner headlines by portraying the image as sexy, but might find their discovery ignored if they called it a rape fresco?
This is what rape culture looks like today.
The news outlets followed suit, penning headlines like this one: “New Pompeii Finds: ‘Full of Sensuality’ Fresco Uncovered in Ancient Roman City.” Journalists did not find it necessary to “fact check” the archaeologists’ story in order to inform their readers that Leda was raped. Nor did they notice that the archaeologists’ description of Leda’s look as “full of sensuality” may have been produced by dirty old male archaeologists or manufactured to capture the attention of the press.
This is what rape culture looks now.
One journalist questioned the assumptions of the fresco painter, the archaeologists, and her colleagues. In an article in Quartzy titled, “An ancient fresco discovered in Pompei isn’t “racy”—it depicts a rape,” Sangeeta Singh Kurtz writes, “The resurfacing of the Leda myth [in the era of #MeToo] would seem a good opportunity to take what we’ve learned in the past year—a time when sexual assault has been at the forefront of our national discourse—and revisit it with more nuance.”
High time indeed! Unless, that is, we wish to continue to perpetuate the rape culture we have inherited.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Greece. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parilament of World’s Religions.