The Silence of the Girls: A Reflection on War by Carol P. Christ


Suppose, suppose just once, once in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory for his early death under the walls of Troy. . .? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know that we were living in a rape camp. (324)

In The Silence of the Girls Pat Barker retells the story of the siege of Troy from the perspective of Breseis, a captured Trojan princess who became the slave and concubine of Achilles and Agamemnon. She was among the “spoils of war” allotted to the “great heroes” to “honor” their success as killers in war. Breseis does not tell her story of terror in The Iliad, but despite her not speaking, her story and that of the other captured and raped women—many of whom fared much worse that she did–is there is plain sight.

The problem is not that we who have read The Iliad don’t know these women were living in a rape camp. The problem is not that we have read The Iliad do not know that the heroes of the Trojan war were awarded women and loot as a reward for good fighting. Nor is the problem that we do not know that in the times of the Trojan war a man’s “honor” was everything to him and that it was defined by the prizes (women and loot) that he commanded, as well as by the respect of other men his deeds and property inspired.

When I first taught The Iliad in 1972, I was appalled by the women’s story. While my colleagues spoke of the “spear captive” who was the focus of the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, I urged them to call her a “rape victim.” Needless to say, I was summarily silenced. “That is not the point of the story,” I was told. “This is a story about men, their glorious deeds, and the honor due to warriors. This story speaks of the origin of culture.” A few guffaws signaling agreement followed. And that was the end of the discussion.

Although I enjoyed reading The Silence of the Girls, it did not provide me with any new insights into the horrors of war or the pervasiveness of rape in war. These were stories I already imagined. Indeed, rape, looting, slavery, and the spoils of war are at the heart of my “A New Definition of Patriarchy.”

The question I ask after reading The Silence of the Girls is how western culture managed to “silence” the women whose stories were there in plain sight for anyone who read The Iliad to see. Breseis was forced to have sex with and wait upon the man who killed her four brothers and her husband and who treated her as a possession not as a person. (283) She learned that when Achilles tired of her, she would probably be offered to his favorite men, and when they had their fill of her, she would be sent to live with the women who were at the mercy of the foot soldiers. “But that’s war,” (284) the Trojan king Priam replied when she asked him to help her escape.

There is more than one “conspiracy of silence” at play here. The conspiracy was compounded when the first person who questioned euphemisms such as “spear captive” was ridiculed and when every man or woman who recognized that rape is an ordinary part of war was told to keep silent about that. It was justified by the phrase “that’s war.”

If The Iliad is the origin of western culture, then western culture originated in a rape camp. Let’s not keep silent about that any longer! We must name the atrocities at the origins of so-called “culture” if we wish to create a more just world. These atrocities did not end with the Trojan war. They continue up to the present day. Ask any woman who has been in the path of invading armies. Ask the soldiers what they did and were permitted to do.

Refuse to accept the aeons-old cover-up: “that’s war.” If that is war, it is time to end war.

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who lives in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. 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 a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.



Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Feminism, Feminism and Religion

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11 replies

  1. I think western culture did originate in a rape camp -WOMEN and GIRLS and CHILDREN and EARTH… The phrase ” the spoils of war” comes to mind – and I feel crazy when I hear the rationalization ‘well, that’s war” or something to that effect. It amazes me that I was socialized into such a hideous system and survived – thriving doesn’t enter the picture here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with you, Carol. The first time I read the Iliad and the Odyssey, I was young, naive, and stuck in my head enough to actually believe that these books were the truth of our culture. What nonsense! I was in college before I figured out that, yes, it’s a rape culture, and when I said so in a class, I got the same reaction you did: the teacher made me shut up. I did. For a while. Now I hate both of those books and I wish the Trojans had won the war and I’m glad Achilles died young and that Agamemnon was killed.

    And just look around today. What’s changed? War and rape culture–like a president who bragged about grabbing women by their pussies–all over the world. Soooooo sad. What can we do to change it? Maybe be kinder to each other? It’s a start. Bright blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Barbara, I don’t know how you do it but you do mange to bring comic relief into a deadly serious subject and for that I applaud and thank you – because not one damn thing has changed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think comic relief is always useful. For one thing, it puts issues into perspective. That’s why Shakespeare introduces clowns into his tragedies, like the Fool with his jokes in Lear and the guy at the door in Macbeth. And of course, not one damn thing has changed, except now we’ve got bigger, nastier weapons when we go to war. It’s awful.

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  4. I’m also working on a book that analyzes the rape culture of ancient Greece. I just last night finished Caroline Alexander’s excellent translation. The Silence of the Girls came up a couple weeks ago on a monster thread where i was talking about this very subject: Briseis and the other captive women who were forced to be sex slaves to the glorious warriors (not). Here’s the post: https://www.facebook.com/333661528320/photos/a.423118913320/10157678640928321

    Contra what the Iliad’s female defenders were saying on that thread, it is not a critique of war, only of hubris — and that only to a degree. Three quarters of it is blow by blow descriptions of battle, but with glorifying eponyms constantly added to the names of the warriors. Women hardly ever speak, when they do, the men don’t listen, and most of their speech is lamenting the dead. The Trojan women do allude to the direness of the slavery that awaits them, but rape is not mentioned. The text says things like “the fair-cheeked Briseis shared the bed of Achilles,” never ever “Achilles raped his many female captives.” And Helen is blamed for the armies sent to drag her back to the husband she jilted. Worse, she is made to blame herself. Feminist historians Fant and Lefkowitz put a name to this: “men’s words in women’s mouths.” That is what literature has been.

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  5. Silencing the voices of women and girls is essential in patriarchy. I am one of the women de-platformed by men who claim to be women. The rush to be “inclusive” of male to trans persons tramples on the sex-based rights of women and girls to female-only spaces. From locker rooms to domestic violence shelters, to women’s prisons, to lesbian feminist organizations and any large women’s gatherings, our wishes and desires for women-only spaces are ignored. The needs and desires of male persons are paramount. The needs and desires of male persons must be enforced by law and by social custom.

    Domination by coercion is the central theme of patriarchy. From bullying to explicit threats of bodily harm, any woman or girl insisting on the right to women-only spaces will be isolated and pressured to deny her own life experience as uniquely female.

    I experience this forced penetration of my women-only culture as rape. Many of my sisters and I are resisting. Visit https://xxamazons.org/ or https://womansplaceuk.org/ to join us. Resist the silencing of girls and women now.

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  6. Thank you for this essay, Carol! You are spot-on regarding this vital subject.

    Silence, the great unsayable, the open secrets … feminists confront this directly, repeatedly and, we can hope, with increasing success.

    On the legal front, there is much concerted effort to prosecute so-called “conflict-based sexual violence”, but this legal campaign puts a spot-light on how rape culture endures. (see short essay on recent anti-CRSV efforts here: https://rebornathena.com/2020/08/18/ending-impunity-for-rape-in-war-a-utopian-quest/

    Recently I blogged about Pat Barker’s short story she published in the New Yorker:https://rebornathena.com/2019/04/18/medusa-alive-pat-barker/

    I love Pat Barker’s writing, but I agree with your view that it recapitulates rather than changes or heals ruinous dynamics.

    Wishing you many blessings!
    Alice

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  7. And on it goes … WHAT SOLDIERS DO Sex and the American GI in World War II France Mary Louise Roberts. Perhaps, just perhaps this is what war is all about? Rape has been the award Of war that spans time. If we want to end war, do we not have to look at the role rape plays in war?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Do take a look too at Natalie Haynes A Thousand Ships. I found it more moving than Pat Barker’s book; you may disagree but I’m sure it is worth reading.

    And remember that, while the “heroes” may have chosen to fight, many men had no choice but to take part. Even Odysseus, who I do not like, tried to avoid taking part. Alice Oswald’s Memorial shows this. Her poem just extracts and amplifies on all the male deaths in the Iliad, showing how pointless the war was.

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  9. To the people who say “that’s war” I have to reply, “true, but why war?” I’m writing a book called The Hijacking of Humanity that looks at why war, why resource inequality, why social injustice, why the enslavement of women. In a nutshell: It’s not in our DNA as Hobbes, Ardrey, Morris and a whole load of male anthropologists, etc would have us believe. Archeological evidence points to the fact that humans didn’t “do” war for the first 250 thousand years of homo sapiens existence, and they certainly didn’t do slavery, and women were the equals of men, except where it came to providing food, and then they were WAY more dependable.

    Advanced agriculture (plough and irrigation) created a kind of specialization. Preparing the land for planting was a backbreaking job that fell to men. Women went from being winners with high status to low status drudges. Slowly over the millennia, women lost power, and as they did, they lost their ability to balance out men’s more destabilizing tendencies such as domination and aggression.

    War became a way of life as populations overcame the carrying capacity of the land, and expansion by acquisition became the relevant business development strategy. Conquered peoples’ land and goods were snatched along with their women who were given as motivators to the best soldiers….etc, etc, etc.

    War, more war, and still more war, and so it goes today. An d, it won’t ease up until women once again have equal voice with men!

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