A Woman Becomes a Nightingale

Carolita Johnson reviews the ugly history of rape being weaponized — and politicized — as a means of silencing women.

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | October 2018 | 8 minutes (1,969 words)

On October 5th, 2018, the Nobel peace prize went to activists Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, for their work to end rape and sexual violence as weapons of war.

Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege

On October 6th, Brett Kavanaugh was named to the Supreme Court, in spite of multiple allegations of sexual assault against him and his shameful response to them, goaded on by a man who promotes the violation of women’s bodies as one of the wages of financial and political power, and ridicules women who speak out against and report sexual assault; I’m talking about the 45th president of the United States.

The bodies of women have historically been used to unite men in drunken fun of the type that remains, as Christine Blasey-Ford memorably said, “indelible in the hippocampus” at traditional frat parties that purportedly upstanding citizens like Brett Kavanaugh attended and organized and which continue to take place. These same men are often united in their outrage over the questioning of their right to be excused for such “youthful indiscretions” or collegiate, “boys will be boys” fun.

Though the recognition of rape as a uniter of both oppressors and the oppressed and as a weapon of war is recent, the practice of it is not. A few thousand years ago, a woman named Lucretia was raped in Rome. Rape was nothing new to Romans, as we know from the story of how the founding fathers forgot to bring “founding mothers” with them, so they kidnapped virgins from neighboring areas in the famous incident called, “The Rape of the Sabine Women.”

Around the 2nd century AD, the historian Plutarch wrote that the tradition of carrying the bride across the threshold harkened back to this abduction/rape, and that this, along with giving their wives the right of way (“ladies first”), was one of the concessions Romans made to appease their abducted brides.

Lucretia’s rapist was the son of the last Roman king, who was not a Roman, but an Etruscan occupier. Rome had at that time been ruled over by a series of Etruscans who were the actual authors of much of Rome’s fabled heritage as a beacon of progress and civilization. For example, the great sewer that is still used today, the Cloacus Maxima, was built under the reign of the Etruscan kings. Think of that when you flush a toilet in Rome today.

Etruscan women had much more power and autonomy than Roman women, and it shocked Roman men that Etruscan women participated in public events, enjoyed themselves at unisex social gatherings where wine was consumed (wine being forbidden to Roman women), attended councils and apparently participated in athletics in the nude (customary for Greek and Roman men in antiquity, but not Roman women — they weren’t meant to do athletics at all), unashamed of their bodies.

The Romans were conservative fundamentalists, particularly when it came to women. Some of their reports of Etruscan women’s behavior may have been exaggerations or stereotypes akin to today’s fear-mongering in the face of cultural change. There is no question, though, that Romans viewed the freedom of Etruscan women as particularly representative of a world turned “upside-down” by their occupiers.

The story goes that after a Roman soldier bragged about his adoring, submissive wife to his friends, one of them, an Etruscan prince, decided he had to have this specimen of feminine virtue for himself. He snuck off to the Roman soldier’s house and basically told Lucretia that she could let him rape her, or he could take her by physical force and leave her and a male slave both dead, then tell her husband he found them committing adultery and killed them, death being the Roman punishment for adultery. (Does this sound familiar?)

She preferred to live to tell her tale.

This is where I remind you that this is her story told by a Roman historian, a male, and that her story would be retold by many more men through the ages. According to the men present, Lucretia told her husband and his friend Lucius Junius how she had been raped. They told her she was not to blame. Lucretia held a dagger to her heart and said, “Though I absolve myself from wilful crime, I can’t from punishment; nor shall a woman hereafter, by the example of Lucretia, outlive her loss of honour,” and then she killed herself.

Lucius Junius, better known by his nickname, “Brutus,” which literally means “idiot,” picked up her body and paraded it through the streets of Rome, pointing to the gaping hole created by her stab wound, and used it to lend eloquence to his, “MAKE ROME GREAT AGAIN” campaign. The hole in her heart became the orifice, the mouth through which a man once considered an idiot incited the rebellion against the Etruscans, which resulted in the new, Roman Republic.

“The Oath of Junius Brutus or The Death of Lucretia,”original painting by Alexandre Evariste Fragonard

In Ancient Greece, there was a similar legend about a woman raped by a foreigner. A Greek gives his daughter, Procne, in marriage to the king of Thrace, as payment for help winning a war. The new queen of Thrace becomes homesick in her new home, and, missing her younger sister, Philomela, persuades her husband to fetch her over for a visit. On the way back to Thrace with Philomela, he rapes her, instead.

Philomela has every intention of outliving the shame of her rape and threatens to tell the world, to make even the trees and rocks weep at her story. So, the king cuts out her tongue and imprisons her in a cabin in the woods. He tells his wife that her sister did not survive the voyage.

During her imprisonment, Philomela works on a tapestry apparently to pass the time. Into it she weaves the story of her rape, mutilation and imprisonment. She tricks the servant keeping watch over her into bringing the tapestry to her sister. When her sister reads the tapestry, she learns the truth and helps her sister escape. Together with her sister, they take their terrible revenge: they cook the king’s (and Procne’s) beloved son into a stew and feed it to him. When he asks for his son, Philomela comes out of the kitchen, a spectacle of blood and gore, and Procne tells him he has just eaten his own flesh.


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He takes out his sword and chases them all the way to Athens, but on the way there, the gods take pity on them and turn then all into birds. Most notably, Philomela, who has been raped, kidnapped, mutilated, and silenced until she was able to tell her story through writing and art, is turned into a nightingale.

This was a mercy tempered nevertheless by punishment for her revenge: her voice, stolen by a rapist, is turned by the gods, not back into a human voice, but into a bird’s song. She would never speak again: the nightingale singing in the night shadows, has long since been the symbol of eloquence, depicted as the inspirer of the words and works of poets, orators, and painters, mostly men.

Keats, being inspired to write his famous “Ode to a Nightingale”

The legend of Philomela was just that. A legend. The Rape of Lucretia, and the Rape of the Sabines were rewritten and re-interpreted in writing, music and visual media innumerable times from Roman Antiquity to the Elizabethans, reported as historical fact by Plutarch as early as 2AD. Wherever there was an “Other” to be marginalized and persecuted (and exterminated or overthrown), their figures loomed again.

Never mind that Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” historically precedes the Rape of Lucretia: there were foreign rapists despoiling the virgins of the elite long before Ovid (re)told the story of Philomela. The difference between the two stories is that one is acknowledged as historical fact, and the other distills the facts and illustrates the mechanism: the weaponization of rape goes hand in glove with sublimating the pain of the rape victim into political movements and legal decisions purporting to protect potential future victims, all while robbing the actual victims of their voices.

In these stories the wages of rape and betrayal are infanticide in one and socio-cultural upheaval in the other, but isn’t that, in effect, the case in real life? Philomela isn’t the only rape victim in the legend: Procne is basically a sex slave bartered in exchange for military support; her child is not born of love or consent but of this subjugation. The resulting infanticide and cannibalism is literal in the myth, but in real life it’s more subtle — the children of rape victims are also impacted by these crimes against humanity; generations are ruined by rape because rape and sexual abuse beget rape and sexual abuse. Rapists commit their crime against their own progeny: it’s lately been found that trauma can persist in the DNA, becoming transgenerational. In this way rape-parents can be understood to metaphorically kill and eat their children.

As for the role of Lucretia’s rape in the founding of the Roman Republic, it’s not only the legendary history of a crime avenged. Why is rape also a political and rhetorical tool of war in a patriarchy? We can ask: what does a woman’s control over her right to bear children (or not) mean to the patriarchy if not the loss of their all-important power over the means of reproduction*
and surveillance over patriarchal lineage? What is birth control (or choice) — if not, as we’ve heard Judge Kavanaugh and others describe them, “abortion-inducing drugs”?

Whoever rapes a woman is pathologically or calculatedly enforcing the rules of the patriarchy they feel they belong to. If the Etruscan prince was sublimating his people’s occupying power over the Romans by raping Lucretia, the Romans were incensed enough by this act to take their patriarchy back from their foreign occupiers. Lucretia’s suicide was the perfect rhetorical device: her raped body represented occupied Rome, a patriarchy under the power of the “wrong” (Etruscan in this case) men, or even worse, under the perceived power of men “unmanned” by the autonomy of Etruscan women; by extension, an apocalyptic vision of their world ruled by women.

The victims of rape continue to be used as tools of propaganda and psychological oppression. We have seen how as soon as they speak their voices are taken up benevolently at first, but then hijacked by political movements, only to be handily muted by the patriarchy, whose intent is to own the means of reproduction, and that goes for both the raped and the rapists. They want to own them both, forever.

Politicians must not own our voices.

The story of sexual oppression and rape as a weapon of war, as a symbol of patriarchal power, and as a trope in xenophobic, racist rhetoric is well known to us: we all know that old phrase, that “the barbarians are coming for our women and children,” and we all know about the lynchings that are the lasting shame of our American history. This story has been a shadow over us everywhere, following us in alleys, harassing us on sidewalks and into our workplaces and homes, since thousands of years.

It’s time for that to change.

We will write our stories.
We own them.
We will never shut up.

I dedicate this piece to all survivors, rich, poor, of all colors and social position, in all places.

*Inspired by Michelle Goldberg’s excellent book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, which changed my life.

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Carolita Johnson is a writer, storyteller and cartoonist who contributes regularly to the New Yorker.

Editor: Sari Botton