Culture Tracing The Origins Of Rape Culture In Mythology

Tracing The Origins Of Rape Culture In Mythology

There is a prominent presence of rape culture in some of the oldest and so called glorious civilisations of the past.

Trigger Warning: Repeated reference to rape, various forms of sexual violence, abduction and a reference to suicide. 

It would not be any exaggeration to assume that ever since early human beings were hunter-gatherers and the roles of men and women got defined according to their gender. With men’s roles in procreation and bringing up the progeny, patriarchy was established in its most basic form. Ever since then, it seems that the control over women’s sexuality and their “ownership” by the men of their clan, led to first their objectification and later on led to the significance of sexual conquest in all human conflict.

However, the term ‘rape culture’ came to be used extensively as late as the 1970’s in media and the public. First by feminists to explain the shameful state of normalising sexual violence by modern societies. This also highlighted a prominent presence of ‘rape culture’ in some of the oldest and so called glorious civilisations of the past. A documentary titled Rape Culture was released in January 1975 (produced by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich) which clearly established the relationship between rape and culture’s sexual fantasies propagated in modern popular culture and media.  

Almost all mythologies have stories of women/youth being “taken” by Gods as punishment, pleasure or as a conquest, thereby making “consent”, agency and/ or “sexual identity” of the victim/survivor almost redundant in the whole scheme of things.

Greek and Roman Mythology

The glorious stories of Ancient Greek mythology are deeply sexist and misogynist and seem to not just verify the existence of brutal sexual violence therein, but almost justify it. It is evident that rape culture existed as far back as 900 BC. The rape of women was a common theme throughout Greek mythology. The chief Greek God Zeus himself is part of many rape stories – he is believed to have ‘sexually violated’ several women, namely, Antiope, Europa, Hera, Leda and several others.  Medusa was raped by Poseidon and was subsequently also punished for being raped in Athena’s temple.

In the Roman context, The Rape of the Sabine Women, which was nothing other than forceful sexual violence perpetrated by Roman men, is often normalised as an important step in Roman history that helped them achieve a fairly “blended” population where some kind of consent and treaty was achieved after the said incident.

Almost all mythologies have stories of women/youth being “taken” by Gods as punishment, pleasure or as a conquest.

Medieval society

In Medieval England, both the crimes of abduction and rape were surprisingly punished as the same according to the then prevalent Raptus law. The word Raptus in Latin literally means “seized”, from the word rapere meaning “to seize”. In ancient Roman law, the term was used for several crimes of property, and women were also considered to be the property of men back then.

The misogynist Roman legacy seemed to suggest that the victim’s consent was of no consequence in cases of rape since raptus meant both a successful seduction as well as abduction or forced sex. This led to complete confusion in medieval society, and also later on regarding the ideas of consent and rape. Women’s agency was seen by the legal system then as only effective in terms of her inability or “not preventing” a crime against her.

The Rape of Lucretia by Tarquinius is one that brings to focus the notion of chastity and consent among women back then. During those times, adultery was punishable by death for women, whether they willingly participated in it or not. After her rape Lucretia committed suicide, a choice that is often made by several victims of sexual violence even now, due to the lack of laws in their favour and the gross societal notion of being ‘defiled by rape’. Lucretia was blamed by several historians for having committed the ‘sin of involuntary sexual pleasure.’

The first Christian emperor Constantine redefined rape as a public offense rather than as a private wrong, though he ordered that if a woman had provided consent, she should be punished with her male abductor by being burnt alive. But even if she had not provided consent, she would be still convicted as an accomplice. The onus of “saving herself” was put on the woman.

Indian Mythology

In Indian mythology, there are several instances of sexual violence. Ahalya’s story is one of the most known ones where Indra disguised himself as her husband Gautama, had sexual relations with her, for which both of them were cursed by Gautama when he found out. She was turned into a stone. Danda, son of Ikshavaku, raped Araja, and the sage Shukracharya cursed the kingdom to be destroyed and transformed it into a wilderness. Araja was told to do tapasya and “purify” herself. 

Then there is the story of a demon called Jalandhar. He used his special powers of disguise to meet women as their respective husbands and thus deceived them into having sexual relations with him. However, when the husbands found out and raged a war against him, none could kill him because of his loyal and chaste wife Vrinda. Finally Vishnu decided to use Jalandhar’s own method to defeat him. He assumed Jalandhar’s form and seduced Vrinda, thus ‘destroying’ her chastity and making Jalandhar vulnerable to be killed in war.

Also Read: Overcoming Self Blame Is Not Easy: A Rape Survivor’s Account

Vrinda, it is believed cursed Vishnu and turned him into a stone before jumping into the pyre of her husband, and was later reborn as Tulsi, a holy plant. Tulsi and the stone Vishnu, called Shaligram, were then married to free them both of their penance.

Influence of these stories on rape culture

Each of these stories depicts how patriarchal standards appropriate the character of a woman to her sexual relationships, and reduces her purpose to child-bearing. Most cultures are so obsessed with the lineage of progeny, chastity, and virginity that imposing restrictions on women’s sexual freedom and agency became a norm and continues even today.

Even in the modern world sexual violence is often shamefully considered a way to avenge any kind of insult or injury. This notion mostly led to women being treated as “property” and their perceived sexual purity being held synonymous with the family/clan ‘honour’. 

Misogynist classification of rape

The classification of rapes in mythologies and ancient legal systems further elucidates their misogynist, sexist and extremely insensitive stances. In most cultures, rape was not considered a sexual crime against a particular woman but as a theft/insult against her “owner” or against her chastity. Consequently the rape of a virgin girl was considered a more serious crime than that of a non-virgin. Furthermore the rape of a sex worker, slave or an “unchaste” woman was in some laws considered not even a crime because it was believed that she had no chastity that could be damaged.

The penalty for rape was also often a fine, payable to the ‘owners’ – father/husband of the defiled woman. In some cases the woman would be married to the rapist instead of any penalty, like the Tusli-Shaligram story. Rape, in the course of a war, also dates back to antiquity, and finds mention even in the Bible, several times. In the Bible, there are passages where Moses encourages soldiers to “take” the virgin daughters of the enemies as wives after killing them. 

Each of these stories depicts how patriarchal standards appropriate the character of a woman to her sexual relationships.

Modern times

In contemporary times, the clichés set by mythologies are often subconsciously followed to justify/normalise sexual violence. Often just like the mythological stories of the past, the victim/survivor is reduced to be a symbol of bravery, face of activism or a subject of popular media.

The rape victim/survivor is converted into some kind of a “beacon” for symbolic activism, vigilante justice or just publicity marches and protests. The victim is even sometimes denied her name and is granted a forced nomenclature, like Nirbhaya in the case of Jyoti Singh.

Referring to even the clichés used in news stories of rape, Heather Timmons in an article in The New York Times states, “…almost inevitably, the art to go with a story about rape depicts a “shamed woman.” Sometimes, this woman also happens to be somewhat scantily clad.” The article further rightly suggests that the woman is depicted as “disgraced” rather than wronged. Deriving precedents from mythology only, the woman is blamed for “crossing the Lakshman Rekha”, the symbol of restrictions put on women in the name of “protecting them”.

Destructive modern derivatives from mythological sexual violence can be multi-fold, and often shape how young men/women see virginity, chastity and honor and form opinions about sexual violence.

  • Sexual violence against a woman must be avenged by sexual violence against the offender’s women family members.
  • A woman’s “purity”, “virginity” and “chastity” determine the honour of her male relatives – father, brother, husband, son and even extended family and clan/caste.
  • In today’s society in India, it is common that a woman should always have the image of a virgin while a man can have complete sexual liberty.
  • Rape is almost always the “responsibility” of the victim/survivor, what was she wearing, where was she, when and why. Men get “enticed” to commit sexual violence.
  • Since a rape victim is believed to have been “damaged” for life, it is often resolved in community courts that she should marry her rapist, because no one else would marry a “defiled” woman.

Thus it is evident that across cultures there are instances of women being subjected to sexual violence with dominant narratives either trying to “victim blame” them or trying to justify the man’s act of violence on some pretext or the other. Its time these clichés are changed and reversed to create a less misogynist and sexist world.

Also Read: The Historical Journey Of Rape Laws In India


History of Rape Culture – Weebly

History of Rape – Wikipedia

Rape in the Bible – Daily O

Reporting Rape in India – The New York Times

Rape and the Crisis of Indian Masculinity – The Hindu

Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton – Goodreads

Featured Image Credit: Social Indy


  1. Manmeet says:

    Exhaustive and insightful write, Pooja. All the best

  2. TEJAS SHAH says:

    I want to ask author about bringing in more practical and natural references regarding the subject.

    What do you call a Male Lion taking over a pride of Lioness to have offspring. Does this act of nature is rape ?

    Groups of Male Dolphins regularly abduct young female from her group to mate and procreate. Does this be considered as Rape ?

    Even Primates like Chimpanzee have tendencies of attacking estrous female days before he tries to mate with her. Does this acts are counted as Rape ?

    My comment her is to ask the columnist to include more natural references of tracing origins of rape culture because at the end of the day “Mythology” is pure fiction.

    • psharmarao says:

      Mr.Shah yes mythology is not fact but it is fiction created on belief and feeds social perceptions. There is a difference between humans and animals, we have social structures and civilisations which they don’t and that defines a lot.

  3. A.S. says:

    This is a critical and quite exemplary insight on origins of rape.However it is a shame for people to regard it as an act of pleasure for men & considering women as their ‘property’, after all sex is an act of pleasure for both the parties with consent not a ‘submission’, not at all.

    & dear writer I think ‘Rape’ is the only inhumane act which does not distinguish between humans and animals, still animals do it because they don’t have any civilization and humans do it even though they have one. “I hope once come a day, there shall be no crime. Not the one you just read in the newspaper this morning.”

  4. Arjun says:

    What about a woman Urvashi trying to rape a Man Arjuna as described in Mahabharata? You must mention both ends:
    The beautiful Apsara Urvashi told Arjuna that if the Paurva Vansh’a any son or grandson wants to have sex with any woman of her family including her, it is not insulting religion. However, Arjuna denied the offer which resulted in Urvashi and cursing him to become impotent for no reason and is an attempt to rape and assaulting him. Most of the rapes of men/male children goes unreported in Asian countries but thats not the case in western nations.
    The Most SHOCKING Female Sex Offenders!

    • Arjun any other instance you can come up with?

      Yes child abuse also has a lot of incidents in mythology this was from a woman’s perspective doesn’t mean it denies alternative experiences of sexual violence. Thanks.


    Let us be more precise to define what is rape and differentiate between deceit and violent rapes. From what we have read in history, India had practically unheard violent rape cases and there is no equivalent word in Sanskrit dictionary. First time it had been mentioned widely is during attacks from west and gradual erosion of values due to their influence. In olden times the very act of touching a woman against her will was a serious crime and often led to wars.

  6. Nivrutti says:

    The story of Jalandhar is found only in Shivpurana (in other Puranas he is Shankadachud) but it is not mentioned that the Demon king disguised himself in a husband of any lady with whom he wanted to have an affair. From which source have you taken this info ?

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