During the summer of 2001 poet and collaborator, Maj Ragain, introduced to me the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. I was captivated by the myth for a number of reasons, but not least of all for the fact that my family’s narrative explained my mother’s depression as a response to her sexual molestation by the landlord’s son, when she was a girl. My personal awareness led me to a broader interest in different versions of the myth and the its representation of the myth in Western art.
The later patriarchal Greek myth derives from an even more ancient love chase myth. Prior to patriarchal religions, the goddess, known as Lepta or Lento, pursues a god until she devours him and a swan takes him north to a final resting place. Ironically, the ancient Greeks changed the swan from the symbol of the goddess’ triumph to her downfall and rape. (1) The Hellenistic version has Zeus disguised as a swan, so that he can rape the beautiful Leda without upsetting his goddess wife, Hera.
Visual representations of Leda’s rape from the early Renaissance through the nineteenth century show a compliant, soft and willing Leda. To this day complicity is a frequent rationalization for rape. This series is painted from a Leda’s point of view engaging the viewer into imagined emotional responses. Below is Maj Ragain's response poem to my painting, "Leda and the Angry Swan."
Leda's Voice, Under Sky, Over Water (2)
I lie in the wreckage of my longing
which called him down to me.
I remember myself before Zeus settled
over me, in the guise of a swan,
downy chest against my nipples.
That world is gone.
I have been opened, my thighs spread
by wings beating all around me,
churning my blood into fever.
I am slathered with his god seed,
planted on this tortoise shell bed,
pinned down by clawed feet on bare skin.
His wings, spread across the sky,
eclipse the sun beneath which
all things are his domain.
I was mine. Now, I am his.
I will scissor my hair to the scalp
so he will not desire me if he returns.
Hera, his wife, has found us.
He rises in anger at her meddling.
I am sore.
The milky way swims in my belly.
Wherever you go, my empty eye follows.
- Maj Ragain
Jan. 5, 2004
(1) Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths:Volume I, London, England: Peguin Books, 1960
(2) Maj Ragain, Poet & Jessica Damen, Painter, "Vision to Verse - Verse to Vision : A Visual and Poetic Dialogue, Verde Gallery: Champaign, IL, 2004