Mythology, Motherhood, and the Presidential Election: Remembering why we Study the Ancient Past

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Like many of my friends, family, and peers, I woke up on Wednesday, November 9th, in kind of a daze. I was awakened by the muffled sounds of my roommate getting ready to leave for her 8:30 a.m. class. I shifted in my bed, the ceiling slowly coming into focus. I turned on my side to face her as she stuffed a notebook into her backpack on the floor. In a single determined movement, she swept her bag up, slung it over her shoulder, and started for the door.

“Welcome to Trump’s America,” she said and left. The door slammed behind her.

I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. I had no words. I was at a loss.

We, as a nation, as a world, all had a moment like this at some point. No matter who you voted for, no matter whether you voted or not, the shock was immense. It was like being punched in the stomach; all the air was knocked out of me, my ears were ringing, and it all happened so fast that for a brief moment I wasn’t quite sure how I got there in the first place.

This semester I’ve been taking Classical Mythology, taught by Professor Jeremy Lefkowitz. On the first day of class, we talked about what “myths” really are and why they are important. Why do we study these ancient stories? When does mythology become relevant?

The answer is now.

Mythology does not become relevant in times of peace and stability; we turn to ancient myths during bouts of shock and confusion. When we experience that aforementioned feeling of being at a loss of expression, mythology fills that space – that’s what it is supposed to do and what it has always done.

It’s doubtful that after this historic election many people immediately turned to mythology to begin to make sense of all this. However, looking to myths has been surprisingly cathartic for me, and I was immediately compelled to delve further and draw as many mythic parallels as I could with this election.

Myths are culturally significant falsehoods. Simply put, they are lies, but they are meaningful lies that do cultural work. They both reflect and construct societal values. Through analyzing myth, we may better understand some of the patterns that we see in our lives and cultures today.

As far as the election goes, the ties to mythology are abundant. One prominent connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and classical myths is misogyny and the denial of motherhood. These values are clearly displayed by Trump through his strong stance against female reproductive rights, his abuse of a position of power to commit sexual violence, and his demeaning manner towards women in general.

Of course, these themes exist in myths as well. There is the myth of Pandora’s box. Pandora was the first woman sent down to Earth. She brings with her a box filled with chaos, which she opens thus creating all evil in the world. So, yes, the mythic origin of women on Earth is also the origin of all evil on Earth, which came from a box that definitely doesn’t symbolize a womb.

This ties in well to the characterization of women as “snakes,” “sneaky,” “conniving,” or “untrustworthy.” You know, just a few of the things that Donald Trump has said about women. Well, mythology called them all those things way before Trump did. Gaia (the goddess of the earth) and Rhea (Gaia’s daughter, considered the “mother of the gods”) were both portrayed as untrustworthy divine women who conspired against their partners (Ouranos and Kronos, respectively).

In mythology, Danae, the daughter of Greek royalty, was literally locked in a box because of a prophecy that claimed a son that she would bear to her husband would kill him.

These depictions of women are all too familiar to anyone who’s turned on the news in the past couple of months. The idea that women, like Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, are scheming (i.e. the email scandal) and deserve to be locked up isn’t too hard to find.

Zeus (the king of the gods), like Trump, uses his power to commit acts of sexual violence. Zeus infamously raped an innumerable quantity of both mortal and immortal women, who then were silenced or punished by being turned into an animal, exiled, transformed into a constellation (which there’s actually a word for – catasterism), or all of the above. Because of Zeus’ divine authority, he could commit these egregious acts and get away with it. Or, in other words, “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

In mythology, women’s role as givers of life is a powerful one which threatens the patriarchy and must be contained. This idea was also a critical element of Trump’s platform. Without his anti-abortion stance, it’s doubtful that he would have gained 80% of the Evangelical Christian vote.

Through looking at myths we also find that the denial of motherhood is linked to Trump’s position on immigration and racial issues. Let’s start with the “birther” movement.

President Barack Obama was born to a white, midwestern American mother, and a black Kenyan father. Although he has recently backed down from his previous stance on this issue, Donald Trump has in fact claimed that he does not believe that Obama is a true citizen of this country. Trump said that Obama was not born in the United States, but rather he was born in Kenya, his father’s country. This is, in part, a denial of motherhood. Trump is essentially denying that Barack Obama’s white, American mother, who gave birth to him within the United States of America, exists or matters in the equation. Obama’s paternal line is Kenyan and therefore he is Kenyan. Not only is the outrageous “birther” theory blatantly racist in implying that Barack Obama is black and therefore must not be a citizen of this country, it is also deeply misogynistic for denying the role of his mother.

In Trump’s world, like the world of classical mythology, origins are key. Any outsiders, or anyone who seems different, are dangerous, barbaric, and unwelcome. Our world  and the world of mythology were created by women – literally and undeniably through their reproductive abilities – and ruled by men.

Both worlds are also composed of lies. Again, they are not meaningless lies. Myths both reflect and construct values. To give an example of a cultural falsehood in Trump’s world, white supremacy is a lie that has not been and never will be justified by accurate empirical facts. At the same time, it continues to shape our society, and reminds us of that deeply rooted human fear of “the other” that struck white European colonialists upon their invasion of other continents.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the 2016 Presidential Election, and I’m still trying to make sense of what has happened and what’s happening. As weird as it may seem, mythology has been the best way that I’ve been able to do that. It has allowed me to see that these seemingly strange and new patterns have persisted for longer than I can even comprehend.

Mythology reminds us that we must never forget the power, and the truth, of lies. Nor must we never forget our past, no matter how ancient and irrelevant it may seem now. We are still the same, flawed human species that we were many centuries ago.

Featured Image Courtesy of Funny Stock Photo Library.

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