false accusations of rape in world literature

In world literature throughout history, a prevalent motif is a man being falsely accused of rape.  Sex and violence are common features of animal life.  False accusations of rape are matter of higher culture. False accusations of rape provide insight into human sociality and communication across millennia.

metal grate imprisons falsely accused

A false accusation of rape prompted male sexual renunciation in the ancient Egyptian story of two brothers.  In this story, which was written about 1225 BGC, the older brother’s wife sexually propositioned the younger brother.  He rebuffed her sexual advance.  She then made herself look beaten and sick.  She told her husband that his brother sought to have sex with her and beat her.  She demanded that he kill his brother, or she would kill herself.  Moreover, she urged her husband not to let his brother speak; she claimed that otherwise the younger brother would escape and attack her again.  The older brother prepared to ambush and kill his younger brother returning home in the evening.  But the cows that the younger brother was herding home warned him of his older brother’s ambush.  The younger brother fled, with the older brother in murderous pursuit. The Sun God intervened in the chase to separate the brothers by a river containing crocodiles.  The younger brother explained what happened. After he finished explaining with words, he cut off his own penis and threw it in the river.[1]  Recognition of men’s inferiority in guile prompted a man’s sexual renunciation before his brother.

In Homer’s Iliad, a false accusation of rape forced Bellerophon to demonstrate extraordinary heroism.  Bellerophon was residing as a guest of King Proteus.  Proteus’s wife Antea lusted for Bellerophon.  Bellerophon refused her sexual advances.  Antea then told Proteus that Bellerophon was attempting to seduce her forcefully.  She urged Proteus to kill Bellerophon.  However, in ancient Greek ethics, killing a guest is immoral.  Without giving Belleropon a hearing, Proteus sent Bellerophon to Antea’s father Lycia with a private message requesting Bellerophon’s death.  Lycia sent Bellerphon on tasks intended to bring about his death.  Bellerophon killed the fire-breathing monster Chimaera with the heat of her own breath, he defeated the fiercely violent Solymanas tribe, and he overcame the Amazons.  Bellerophon also wiped out an ambush that Lycia himself set with his strongest men.  Lycia then embraced Bellerophon as a son.[2]  Few men would have the strength to overcome such mortally dangerous obstacles to earn basic human acceptance.

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife shows a false accusation of rape ultimately failing to overcome blessedness.  Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, became a slave in the house of the Egyptian Potiphar.  Potiphar was the Pharaoh’s captain of the guards.  Potiphar’s wife became infatuated with Joseph.  “Lie with me. Lie with me!” she ordered him.  He refused.  He could not report this workplace harassment to the HR Department’s EEOC Officer, because that didn’t exist in ancient Egypt.  So he fled, leaving behind Potiphar’s wife clutching his garment.  She took the garment to Potiphar and falsely accused Joseph of attempting to rape her.  Without giving Joseph a hearing, Potiphar imprisoned Joseph.  But God made this imprisonment work for the good of Joseph.  Joseph gained through his imprisonment key opportunities for dream interpretation.  He subsequently rose to be the Pharaoh’s chief executive.[3]  Few men have faith that they are so blessed.

The younger Egyptian brother, Bellerophon, and Joseph faced false accusations of rape in cosmopoetic literature.  False accusation of rape was also a motif in less symbolically prominent, popular literature.[4]  One such example is the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages of Rome corpus.  This corpus became widely distributed in western Eurasia from 500 to 1500 GC.[5]  In the frame narrative of that corpus, the king’s wife propositions her step-son.  He rejects her sexual advance.  She then tells the king that his son attempted to rape her.  Without a hearing from his son, the king orders his son killed.  The king’s counselors intervene and urge restraint with cautionary fables.  The king’s wife pushes for death with competing fables.  The king vacillates:

  • {counselor} “Sir, I have not related this fable to you for any reason except that you may understand the deceits of women, whose wiles are potent and numberless.” And the king ordered that his son should not be killed.
  • {wife} “Sir, if you do not see to the punishment of your son before he commits further atrocities, he will destroy you.” And the king ordered his son put to death.
  • {counselor} “Sir, I told you this story only so that you would not execute your son on the word of a woman, for in women are contained deceits without number.” And the king ordered the execution stayed.
  • {wife} “Sir, I have related this tale to you so that you will not depend upon your wicked counselors.  If you do not wreak justice for me on the one who has wronged me, I shall destroy myself with my own hands.”  And the king ordered his son put to death.
  • {counselor} “Sir, I have related this tale to you so that you will not execute your son until you know the truth, and will not be sorry.”
  • {wife}”If you do not give me satisfaction against this prince, you will see what these wicked counselors will do for you.  After I am dead we shall see what you will get from their advice.  And when you stand before God, what will you say, having committed such a great wrong in letting your son live and having refused to see justice done?  And how can you, failing to do what is just in this world, permit him to live, on the recommendation of your wicked advisors and privy-counselors?  I know that you will be called to account by God!” … the king feared that she would take the poison she was carrying in her hand, and he ordered his son slain. [6]

Not this story competition, but the son finding his voice resolves the matter.  The son tells the truth of what happened to him.  The king believes the truth that his son tells him.  In various versions, the wife is then alternatively hanged, burned in a dry caldron, thrown into the sea with stone tied to her foot, or paraded through the city shamefully on an ass.[7]  But that’s not all.  In the Hebrew version, the son pardons his step-mother and “the King and the officers that were with him, and the whole nation, were happy to forgive her sin.”  The king gratefully offers to fulfill any request his leading sage, who had educated his son, makes.  The sage declares: “my petition and my request is that what is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor, and love your neighbor as yourself.” [8]

False accusations of rape are a serious public problem today.  Consider the painful and damaging situation that Michael Arrington had to confront.  Or the experience of the man accused of making a sexually threatening post on Facebook (further developments in the case).  The Committee of the Wrongly Accused provides impressive case records and analysis of the injustice of false accusations of rape.  The number of men whose lives are destroyed through false accusations of rape surely is much smaller than the number of men who die from accidents.  But terrible injustices in addressing false accusations of rape aren’t individual misfortunes.  They are a systemic problem that undermines the legitimacy of the justice system.

Few persons today take seriously the problem of false accusations of rape.  Just as most men wouldn’t rape a woman, most women wouldn’t falsely accuse a man of rape.  Men tend to be afraid to discuss false accusations of rape, because those seeking to silence them might call them “antifeminists” or “misogynists.”  Women generally aren’t interested in discussing false accusations of rape, because they don’t understand how addressing this problem is in their interests.  Similar communicative circumstances have probably existed for millennia.  Stories of false accusations of rape probably circulated widely because false accusations of rape was a serious public problem difficult to discuss directly.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] John A. Wilson’s translation of the relevant part of the story is available in Pritchard (2010) pp. 11-14 (online here).  The two brother’s names were Anubis and Bata.  The text is from the Papyrus D’Orbiney in the British Museum.  The British Museum’s summary of the story fails to mention that Bata cut off his own penis.

[2] Homer, Iliad, Bk 6, ll. 155-203.  A translation of Bk. 6 is available online.

[3] Genesis, Ch. 39-41.  A version of the story exists in the Qur’an, Surah 12.  Over time writers developed excuses for Potiphar’s wife’s false accusation (Joseph was handsome and good-looking, he incited her, etc.)  The sex-specific aspects of the problem have also been obscured.  Goldman (1995) well illustrates these trends.

[4] Thompson (2008) provides relevant citations under the motif K2111: “Potiphar’s wife.  A woman makes vain overtures to a man and then accuses him of attempting to force her.”  This gynocentric description reflect the typical social distribution of concern.

[5] Versions in the area of the eastern Roman Empire and Mesopotamia tend to be called the Book of Sindibad.  Version in the area of the western Roman Empire tend to be called the Seven Sages of Rome.  From the fifteenth century or earlier versions of the Book of Sindibad survive in Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, and Old Spanish.  An early western version is a Latin work called Dolopathos, dating to about 1200.  Versions subsequently appeared in all the European vernaculars.  In Europe, 40 different versions have survived in over 200 manuscripts.  Epstein (1967) p. 3.  A version exists in the 1001 Nights, across nights 578-606 (Macnaghten / Calcutta II edition).  Within the 1001 Nights, the Book of Sindibad is known as the story of the seven viziers.  Clouston (1884) provides English translations of the Persian and Arabic versions.  Scholars have argued that the original source was either Indian, Persian, or Hebrew.  See, e.g. Perry (1960) and Epstein (1967).

[6] El libro de los engaños e asayamientos de las mugeres (The Book of the Wiles of Women), trans. from Old Spanish in Keller (1956), pp. 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 32.  This text, a version of the Book of Sindibad, was written in 1253.

[7] Epstein (1967) p. 295, n. 2.

[8] Mishle Sendebar (Tales of Sendebar), trans. from Hebrew in id. pp. 295, 297.


Clouston, William Alexander. 1884. The book of Sindibad, or the Story of the king, his son, the damsel and the seven vazirs: from the Perzian and Arabic. Privately printed.

Epstein, Morris. 1967. Tales of Sendebar. An edition and translation of the Hebrew version of the Seven sages, based on unpublished manuscripts. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Goldman, Shalom. 1995. The wiles of women / the wiles of men: Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Islamic folklore.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Keller, John Esten. 1956. The book of the wiles of women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Perry, Ben Edwin. 1960. “The Origin of the Book of Sindbad.” Fabula. 3 (1): 1-94.

Pritchard, James Bennett. 2010. The ancient Near East: an anthology of texts and pictures. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Stith. 2008. Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *