In Greek mythology the Pleiades were seven nymphs, daughters of the Titan Atlas who followed Artemis around in the woods. One day they were bathing in the wilderness when the hunter Orion came upon them. He was overcome by lust and chased them. They fled from him and he continued his chase for seven years. Finally Zeus heard the nymphs’ cries for help and he intervened. He turned them into seven doves which flew up into the sky and then transformed into stars – the constellation we still call by its ancient name.
But there is another constellation right next to the Pleiades, which hints that the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Orion was eventually killed and ever-capricious Zeus granted his last wish, placing him in the sky right behind the Pleiades so he could continue his pursuit. Every night as the stars rotate across our sky Orion chases the nymphs from horizon to horizon.
There are so many layers of rape culture in this story.
To begin with, the scenario illustrates common misconceptions about rape. The scenario is a rough, masculine man encountering strange women in an isolated place. This is how we think rape happens: a stranger attacks a woman alone in an alley, in a parking garage at night, in a park, but over 2/3 of all sexual assaults on women are committed by men they know. Most of those are committed by close acquaintances: boyfriends, husbands, fathers, uncles. Most rapes happen in private, not public settings.
Next this story perpetuates a lie about masculinity and the roots of rape. Orion is “overcome with lust”. He is portrayed as going out of his mind, losing control, so bad that he chases them for seven years, but men are not such helpless puppets of our sex drive. Such a portrayal of masculinity is deeply damaging to men. Sometimes this is described as if women had supernatural power over men and were therefore to blame for sexual attacks against them. In Greek myth, as in rape culture, some women (particularly nymphs and goddesses) were regarded as so sexy that they couldn’t be safely seen or heard without men going mad with desire. Contrary to myths of sirens leading men to their doom, victims of sexual assault are never to blame for “inciting” rape whether by how they dress, or by flirting, or through their sexual history. There is no such thing as implied consent. No means no.
We have to keep repeating this point: rape is not about lust. It is about power. Men rape women to demonstrate control, to humiliate and hurt women, and prove their own strength and virility. Orion doesn’t chase those nymphs because he is horny. He chases those nymphs because by denying his advances they have enraged him. He isn’t driven mad with lust, but with insecurity and entitlement. His pursuit is about putting those women in their place. Sex is just the weapon he intends to use.
This myth reveals some further uncomfortable truths when the nymphs have no choice but to turn to Zeus, a famous philanderer and rapist himself, for protection. There are precious few safe places for victims of intimate violence in our society. The police and the courts are often just sites of further humiliation for women. For this reason 60% of sexual assaults are not even reported to police and 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail. Zeus does whisk the Pleiades to safety temporarily, but Orion is never punished.
In fact, the whole problem is just sort of quieted down and transferred elsewhere. Orion is allowed to continue his sexual predation eternally. This last part of the myth should be painful to the church in particular. Isn’t this exactly what we’ve done over and over: remove perpetrators of abuse without any kind of public reckoning, punishment, or rehabilitation, and quietly allow them to continue their behavior in a new setting?
I’m no believer in astrology. I’m not saying that the stars create rape culture. I’m saying that this story functions the way myths do: to reveal truths about ourselves. Rape culture is so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that we literally project it onto the heavens. We write it into the stars, then we look up and say, “see, it has always been this way.”