Powerful gods and demi-gods impregnating human women—it’s a common theme in the history of religion, and it’s more than a little rapey.
Zeus comes to Danae in the form of a golden shower, cutting “the knot of intact virginity” and leaving her pregnant with the Greek hero, Perseus.
Jupiter forcibly overcomes Europa by transforming himself into a white bull and abducting her. He imprisons her on the Isle of Crete, over time fathering three children.
Hermes copulates with a shepherdess to produce Pan.
The legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus are conceived when the Roman god Mars impregnates Rea Silvia, a vestal virgin.
Helen of Troy, the rare female offspring of a god-human mating, is produced when Zeus takes the form of a swan to get access to Leda.
In some accounts Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus are sowed by gods in the form of serpents, by Phoebus and Jupiter respectively.
Though the earliest Christians had a competing story, in the Gospel of Luke, the Virgin Mary gets pregnant when the spirit of the Lord comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her.
The earliest accounts of Zoroaster’s birth have him born of a human father and mother, much like Jesus; but in later accounts his mother is pierced by a shaft of divine light.
The Hindu god Shiva has sex with the human woman Madhura, who has come to worship him while his wife Parvati is away. Parvati turns Madhura into a frog, but after 12 years in a well she regains human form and gives birth to Indrajit.
The Buddha’s mother Maya finds herself pregnant after being entered from the side by a god in a dream.
The impregnation process may be a “ravishing” or seduction or, as in the cases of Buddha and Jesus, some kind of nonsexual procreative penetration. The story may come from an Eastern or Western religious tradition, pagan or Christian. But these encounters between beautiful young women and gods have one thing in common. None of them has freely given female consent as a part of the narrative. (Luke’s Mary assents after being not asked but told by a powerful supernatural being what is going to happen to her, and she responds with language emphasizing the power differential. “Behold the bond-slave of the Lord: be it done to me according to your word.” L 1:38)
Who needs consent, freely given? If he’s a god, she’s got to want it, right?
Whether or not the delectable young thing puts up a protest, whether or not seduction requires deception, whether or not the woman already has a husband or love, whether or not she is physically forced, the basic assumption is that the union between a god and a woman is overwhelming in an orgasmic way, not a bloody, head-bashed-against-the-ground kind of way.
And afterwards? Well, what woman wouldn’t want to be pregnant with the son or daughter of a god? That is how the stories play out. In the Luke story, Mary later exults in the honor that has befallen her (L 1:46-55).
Underneath this remarkably enduring and widespread trope lie two assumptions that, in their most primitive form, may trace their roots all the way back to evolutionary biology.
The biology hypothesis, much oversimplified, goes something like this: Males and females of each species have instincts that maximize their genes in the next generation. Among humans, females seek the highest quality sperm donors that they can attract. They maximize the quality and survival of their children by mating with high status, powerful males. Males, on the other hand, maximize the quality and quantity of their offspring by seeking young fertile females (with beauty signaling fertility), controlling some females and fending off other males while also spreading their seed around if they can get away with it.
Biology may be the starting point, but over time, human impulses are embellished and institutionalized and made sacred by culture and religion. The mythic trope of gods mating with human females embodies powerful cultural and religious beliefs about sexuality. Familiar stories of this type derive from male dominated societies, which means they legitimize male reproductive desires: Powerful men not only want to control the valuable commodity of female fertility, they should. Gods ordain it and model it. And they prescribe punishments for those—especially females—who violate the proper order of things.
The miraculous conception stories I listed may have roots in pre-history, in early religions centered on star worship and the agricultural cycle, but they emerged in modern form during the Iron Age. By this time in history, most women were chattel. Like children, livestock and slaves, they were literally possessions of men, and their primary economic and spiritual value lay in their ability to produce purebred offspring of known lineage. The men at the top owned concubines and harems, and virgin females were counted among the spoils of war. (See, for example, the Old Testament story of the virgin Midianites in which Yahweh commands the Israelites to kill the used women but keep the virgin girls for themselves.)
It was also a time when gods picked favorites and meddled in the affairs of tribes and nations, and great men were born great. Small wonder, then, that so many powerful men claimed powerful paternity. In the tradition of the ancient Hebrews, this took the form of an obsession with lineage and pure, favored bloodlines. Writers of the Hebrew Bible trace the genealogy of King David back to Abraham, for example, and the genealogy of Abraham to the first man, Adam. In the Greek and Roman worlds, entitlement claims took the form of assigning supernatural paternity to public figures. The Christian tradition, somewhat awkwardly, tries to lay claim to both of these—tracing the lineage of Jesus through his father Joseph back to King David, while simultaneously denying that he had a human father.
This is the context for the miraculous conception stories, and in this context, the consent of a woman is irrelevant. Within a society that treats female sexuality as a male possession, the only consent that can be violated is the consent of a woman’s owner, the man with the rights to her reproductive capacity—typically her father, fiancé, or husband. Many Christians are surprised when told that nowhere in the Bible, either Old Testament or New, does any writer say that a woman’s consent is necessary or even desirable before sex.
This omission is more than regrettable, it is tragic. Two thousand years after Hebrew and Aramaic texts were assembled into the modern Jewish Bible, 1600 years after a Roman Catholic committee voted books in and out of the Christian Bible, 1400 years after Muhammad wrote the Koran (which draws heavily on the moral framework of the Judeo-Christian tradition), we still struggle with the question of female consent. Our struggle is made immeasurably harder by the presence of ancient texts that have become modern idols—texts that put God’s name on men’s desires.
The most extreme example may be a document published by the Islamic State, outlining rules for the treatment of sexual slaves, rules drawn from the Koran. Closer to home for most Americans is the awkward but widespread existence of Christian leaders who teach that a woman’s glory is in childbearing, and that a woman who fails to service her husband whenever he desires is failing to serve God.
But even closer to home for many is the shocking prevalence on college campuses and in society at large of sexual manipulation and coercion perpetrated by males who otherwise seem morally intact. One can’t help but notice that a large number of high profile cases involve high status males: fraternity members, a famous actor, a radio host, small town football stars and big league professional athletes—men, in other words, who think they are gods. Convinced of their own deific qualities, it just follows that the object of their attentions has gotta want it—and if she doesn’t, well, that fine too, because when a god wants a woman, consent isn’t really part of the story.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
The Slut Shaming, Sex-Negative Message in the Virgin Birth—It’s Worth a Family Conversation
Ancient Mythic Origins of the Christmas Story
The Not-So-Virgin Birth of the Christmas Story
12 Christmas Traditions That Aren’t About God or Shopping
Is it Ok to Celebrate Christmas Even If You’re Not a Christian?
Celebrating Love and Light: Ten Holiday Tips for the Post Religious
Merry Atheist Christmas! London’s Atheist Church, the Sunday Assembly, Goes All Out to Celebrate Its First Holiday Season
In Seattle, Solstice is the Reason for the Season