The Rape of Eve

Apollo and Daphne, Andrea Schiavone , via Wikimedia Commons

Apollo and Daphne, Andrea Schiavone , via Wikimedia Commons

Celene Lillie of the Tanho Center in Boulder, Colorado, and author of The Rape of Eve: The Transformation of Roman Ideology in Three Early Christian Retellings of Genesis presented “The Rape of Eve” at the Westar Institute’s Spring 2017 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 23rd. Lillie began and ended by telling a powerful story of Eve that is found in three early Christian texts: Secret Revelation of John, Reality of the Rulers, and On the Origin of the World.

First Lillie posed the question, “What do you think of when you hear Eve?” Audience members suggested a wide range of ideas, such as first woman, temptress, mother of all life, and the Garden of Eden. Then Lillie told this new, little-known story of Eve (paraphrased here):

In the beginning was a realm of harmony and concord, then something happened—a rupture occurred and the world we know was born. A chief ruler reigned in this world, and thought he was the only one. A voice came from the divine realm contested him: “You are wrong, Samael!” He and his followers were disturbed by this. They decided to entrap and control this power beyond them, so they decided to create a human to seduce it, so they created Adam but though they huffed and they puffed, they could not enliven him. Adam remained still on the ground. The divine realm saw Adam and Wisdom decided to send down her daughter, Life, to help him. Life, also called Eve, seeing Adam still on the ground, said to him, “Adam, live, arise from the ground.” And Eve’s word became a work. Adam rose and opened his eyes and said, “You will be called mother of the living, for you have given me life.”
The rulers saw Eve talking to Adam and became jealous, and they made a plan saying, “Let us grab her and rape her so she can no longer return to the divine realm. But let’s not tell Adam, so he will have dominion over her.” Eve knew their plan and laughed at them. She entered and became the Tree of Knowledge, leaving a shadow of herself behind. The powers entered her and defiled her. This was the beginning of marital intercourse. But the rulers erred, not knowing they had defiled their own body. They told Adam and Eve to eat of any tree except the Tree of Knowledge. The wise serpent came along and said, “Do not be afraid. In death you will not die but when you eat your minds will become sober and you will know the difference that exists between evil humans and good. He said this in jealousy so you wouldn’t eat from it.” Eve had confidence in these words, so she took some fruit from the tree, which the divine Eve went into and became. They ate. Then their minds opened. When they became sober, they recognized each other and loved each other and knew the rulers were like beasts and loathed them. And through their love and partnership, Eve birthed children who would become the saviors of humanity, delivering the people from the worldly rulers.

Traditionally, the three texts Lillie used to form her composite narrative are considered the backbone of the so-called “Gnostic Myth,” which claims there’s a good god and a bad god, and the gnostics believe in the good one, while the bad god is supposedly the Creator god of the Hebrews. These gnostic believers were elitists who hated the material world and believed they had divine sparks which would eventually return home to the perfect divine realm. Eve’s stories are interpreted in the same manner. She’s the one who brings sexual sin into the world, the quintessential temptress, bringing about the fall of humanity.

Hopefully, it’s clear that this is different from the story Lillie just read! The “Gnostic Myth” framework grossly misrepresents these texts. The category of Gnosticism itself falls apart because of the central role these texts have played in the very construction of the category. What type of framework might work more effectively?

Lillie finds the answer in the stories of Rome’s founding, many of which are rape narratives, including Rhea Silvia (Ilia), the Sabine women, and the stories of Lucretia and Virginia. Summaries of the stories can be found at each of the links below:

Rhea Silvia

The Sabine women



Lillie observed that in each of these founding myths, the womens’ honor is linked to successfully seizing or retaining power. For example, after the Sabine women are kidnapped and become wives of the Romans, they walk onto an active battlefield with their children to beg their Roman husbands not to make them orphans and to beg their Sabine fathers not to make them widows. Romulus becomes the overall ruler. In the case of Lucretia, her husband and father claim the mind commits sin and not the body, but Lucretia kills herself anyway as a model for what all woman should do. Tertullian later lifted her up as a model for all good Christian women. Virginia, already betrothed, attracted the interest of Appius Claudius. Crazed with love, he tried to seduce her but when she refused he turned cruel and tyrannical. He manipulated the situation in order to put her before a tribunal headed by Appius himself, but as she left the tribunal her own father, crying, “In this manner, my child, the only one in my power, do I secure your liberty,” stabbed her in the heart.

Lillie urged listeners to use a “wide-angle lens” to explore the story of Eve in the context of Rome’s vision for itself. In sculpture and other artistic and architectural forms, different nations were figured as women in their native dress and interspersed with trophies showing Roman military garb and weapons of war. A visitor to Hadrian’s Temple, for example, would be surrounded by such images: the visitor would be able to look around and see each nation represented among all the peoples of the world, and right in the center would have been Roma in her military garb, sitting on top of a weeping woman (nation). The defeated woman would be curled up within herself in a dejected, conquered pose. Likewise on the well-known Judea Capta coin (71 CE), there’s a Judean woman like the weeping woman on the pedestal. The Roman soldier stands above this depiction of defeated Jerusalem. Such images of weeping woman spanned the known world at this time.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Daphne’s transformation into a tree to escape Apollo has been linked by Karen King of Harvard University and others to the transformation of Eve into the tree. Ovid’s work tells of the founding of the world by the gods rather than founding of reigns by empires. Book I of the Metamorphoses begins by saying that all that existed was discord, and a good being brought the world into order. Human beings disrupted things, perhaps because they are of divine seed and were able to look both to the earth below and the heavens above. A peaceful state of affairs disintegrated in stages into the new chaos of the iron age. Jupiter and his pantheon decided the humans must be brought to heel, to flood the earth, killing all save a pious couple. Creation began anew, and the couple repopulated humanity by throwing stones over their shoulders that transformed into people.

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Among the new monsters created, according to this myth, was the mighty serpent Python. Apollo entered and slayed the serpent associated with the muddy waters of the Nile and also with Cleopatra and Antony, then he instituted the Pythian Games in his own honor. Ovid tells that Apollo in this arrogant state encountered Cupid and taunted him, but Cupid taunted back by pricking Apollo with a love arrow. Daphne, who had emulated the unmarried Diana by shunning many assaults, free from men and unwilling to endure them, is loved by Apollo on sight, but despite all his pursuits, she fled. Ultimately she begs to be transformed (“destroy this body”) into a tree. Apollo loves her still, so Apollo places his hand on the trunk and embraces her, and even the wood recoils from his kisses. “Though you are not able to be my bride, Laurel, you will certainly be my tree.”

Returning to the story of Eve, Lillie asked, how does it compare with the Roman founding myths and Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Think about the women in these stories, how they are treated, and what they do in the aftermath of the violence or in order to escape the violence thrust upon them. As Lillie retold the Eve story from the beginning of her talk, the audience considered the similarities and why differences exist between them, such as:

  • A world beginning in concord versus discord
  • Human beings as divine seed
  • Human beings coming from two parental figures, after a period of chaos/discord
  • Marital intercourse—how it began and what its purpose was
  • The women who escape and the ones who don’t
  • The presence of serpents—wise versus enemies, special parallels to women
  • The tree as a source of wisdom/unity versus an object to be owned and used
  • Woman as a source of life and wisdom versus an object to be owned and used
  • Worldly rulers versus divinely ordained rulers

This “before and after” exercise was not only moving but also empowering. In an empire that regularly depicts conquered nations as suffering, ravaged women, this story of Eve’s survival of rape by worldly powers does not allow violence to have the last word. Eve not only survives: she gives life to Adam and heals her own suffering self. As has often been said, rape is about power, not sex. So when Eve takes her power back, that is a significant act! “What has compelled me about this story since I first read it,” Lillie said, “is that it seems to be the only story in the ancient world where the woman is not shamed or responsible for the violence perpetrated against her. In each other instance, it’s really the woman at fault or kills herself because of the shame in the aftermath of the rape perpetrated against her. To me, I have to admit, this is a wonderful thing about this story.”

Contemporary trauma theory notes that people’s personalities split to protect parts of themselves in traumatic circumstances. Some kind of healing work occurs in the rape of Eve story through eating of the fruit. She is reintegrated and comes to clarity for who is responsible for the rape so that she can move forward with her life. This is not anti-sex—Adam and Eve go on to birth children, after all!—but it’s about the hierarchical marital relationship and what it entails.

The closest story on a thematic level is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which shows the penetration and humiliation of a body hanging on the cross, as well as the imperial power associated with it. In the Secret Revelation of John, the risen Jesus shows his disciples that his wounds have not been erased but continue to be part of his story, his knowledge, and his resurrection. This has resonance with Eve, whose wounds enable her to see the worldly rulers for what they are so that she can partner with Adam for the future of humanity. They don’t define her, and in her own journey of resurrection, the violence against her does not get the last word.

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

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