Friday, January 21, 2011

Affairs of the Gods: Zeus and Callisto

Thanks to Valerie for reminding me of this particular myth!

Pretty commonly, when Zeus wanted to get it on with a lady forbidden to him (either by his marriage to Hera, or parental control, or virginal vows), Zeus took the form of something else to disguise himself. Sometimes this disguise was for the benefit of those who might be watching for his next infidelity, but sometimes it was to deceive the woman he wanted, grant her a false sense of security, and then do the deed once she was in his power.
François Boucher 012
One such instance was the rape of Callisto. But this time, Zeus pulled a different trick. He didn't take the shape of an animal, or come to her as her husband. Callisto was a sworn virgin, a nymph of Artemis. So what did Zeus do?

Seriously followers and friends, this is by far the most underhanded of Zeus's tricks in my opinion, and I find myself slightly outraged by even reading about it. Zeus took the form of Artemis herself in order to get close to Callisto, and then when he had her in his grasp, he took her virginity and impregnated her. A sworn virgin and devotee of a virgin goddess!

Oofda. I'm not even sure I can find a way to swing that into something less than terrible! Holy Buckets, Zeus!

Apollodorus (3.8.2) presents the story this way:
Now Zeus loved her and, having assumed the likeness, as some say, of Artemis, or, as others say, of Apollo, he shared her bed against her will, and wishing to escape the notice of Hera, he turned her into a bear. But Hera persuaded Artemis to shoot her down as a wild beast. Some say, however, that Artemis shot her down because she did not keep her maidenhood. When Callisto perished, Zeus [...] turned [her] into a star and called it the Bear.
I'll say this-- if he approached her as Apollo, it's slightly less offensive. But notice here that nobody has minced words about the nature of Zeus' conquest. This affair was most definitely rape.

Bad form, man. Bad form.

The real tragedy of this whole situation is the fact that Callisto was the one who suffered for it, ultimately paying with her life. And this is also pretty typical of these kinds of affairs. Zeus sweeps in, has his way, and leaves the woman to deal with the consequences on her own. When Hera decides to go for blood, Zeus rarely prevents it, and why is Hera going after these women anyway, when it's Zeus who is the instigator?

What the behavior of the gods says about the treatment of rape in ye olden days and the culture of the Greeks is pretty awful. Granted, these were the gods, and as such their morality was-- well-- they weren't expected to behave in a civilized manner, it seems. Yet, in other instances we see the gods punishing men for cannibalism (Zeus, even), or smiting men for the murder of immediate family members. One moment, they are so reasonable in their behavior and expectation, their morality, and in the next...

In the next, Hera and Artemis are killing a young woman for the bad luck of capturing the carnal attention of Zeus, and suffering his imposition without consent.

I have to remind myself that we can not hold the divine to human standards, but I always kind of expect/hope that it's because the divine are something better and greater. In this case, Zeus and the Olympians prove me wrong.


  1. I've always felt bad for Callisto- she definitely got the short end of the stick, even if she did get to be a nifty constellation.

    And Zeus is a punk. In this one he's worse than a punk, but then I've never really loved Zeus. Artemis is kind of persnickety in this one too.

    Makes me glad to be a human. :)

  2. I feel like the Greeks treated their gods as a whole other echelon of behavior that was by no means meant to be imitated. Gods could get away with stuff that people couldn't because they were, well, gods. They had raging tempers and their vengeance was typically brutal, no matter how small the slight against them. At the same time, their justice was also thought to be swift and merciless, at least until the idea of trial by jury was established, at which point they gained a certain measure of flexibility.

    But yeah, humans were never meant to mimic the gods. That would be sacrilege!

  3. Could the other gods shape-shift like Zeus? I think they could but I don't remember any of the others... ahem, using it to their advantage to the extent Zeus did.

  4. Stephanie: I agree. this is maybe the most horrific of Zeus's conquests. Or at least the most devious.

    Valerie: Yeah, but-- they did! Look at Heracles and Theseus and even, one might argue, Romulus with the rape of the Sabines. There are some definite parallels between how Zeus behaves toward women and how they do.

  5. Matthew:
    Good question! I wouldn't be surprised if Apollo made it work for him. Aphrodite shape shifts a lot in the Iliad, but not to get it on with anyone... I think all the gods that went to war in the Iliad took the forms of other soldiers or commanders to rile/encourage/discourage their heroes.

  6. First, yes Zeus was a bastard. But, perhaps he was so in myth as a sort of cautionary tale to mortals the way many religions operate. I agree with Valerie that the gods were not created for mortals to mimic or imitate. I also know that the the Greek gods were not created to be perfect and thus entities to emulate. They were intended to possess the sins and vices of mortal man.

    As to shape shifting, I think they all could shapeshift, even if it was something as slight as becoming and old man/ lady and not necessarily an animal of some sort. Because, the gods often appeared to an interacted with mortals. And I believe mortals could not look upon a god in their deity form.

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  8. YEAH, I'm with you on this. Zeus is a pig. But here's what disturbs me most of all...the poets always say that Zeus "fell in love" or "loved" the woman (or boy) he attacked. Please. He fell in lust, not love. The use of the word love is disturbing to me because it softens what he actually does, which is rape. Good post!

  9. I agree completely with you on the reflection of Zeus and other divine behavior on Greek culture and mores. Stealing women was acceptable, after all-- and why wouldn't it be when their gods did the same!

    It's not only sickening to think of Zeus and his behavior (which must have been to some extent the behavior some aspired to, being that he was their highest god), but also of Hera as the model of wifeliness in Greek times; an example of women's expected response to finding out of their husband's infidelity. Grrr!


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