S is for Sita

Published April 22, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

S

King Janaka wanted children.  Before he offered up sacrifices to the gods to ask them for children, he marked out a small furrow in the earth.  It was from this furrow that Sita was born, fully formed and the most beautiful woman on earth.

The archery contest. Wikimedia Commons.

The archery contest. Wikimedia Commons.

As such a beauty, Sita had many suitors, so many that it was impossible for her father to simply choose one.  But he had a bow that had been given to him by Shiva himself, so he decided to use that bow to pick his daughter’s husband-to-be.  A contest was set up so that each suitor should try to string the bow.  The one who succeeded would get to marry Sita.  Many tried, but only Rama, the son of King Dasaratha, was able to string the bow.  (This, no doubt, was the bow’s intention, for — though no mortal realized it — Rama was an avatar of Vishnu, and Sita was an avatar of Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi, and it would have been most wrong for her to marry anyone other than Rama.)

Rama’s father wanted to step down and make Rama the next king, but his second wife tricked him into exiling Rama and making her own son king instead.  Rama and Sita left the kingdom obediently, but when Dasaratha died, Rama’s half-brother declared that he was only regent, for Rama was the true king.

But Rama didn’t hear this news right away, and continued in his exile.  During his exile, he met a demon named Surpanakha, who fell madly in love with him, and begged to become his wife.  Rama explained to her that he was satisfied with Sita, and needed no additional wives.  When Rama’s friend Lakshmana also rejected her, Surpanakha became enraged and attacked them, though her primary target was poor Sita.  Rama and Lakshmana drove off Surpanakha’s attacks, leaving her mutilated but alive.

That was their greatest mistake, for Surpanakha went to her brother Ravana, a monstrous demon with ten heads, desperate to avenge herself.  But her anger was still more at Sita than at Rama, so she filled her brother with desire for Sita’s beauty.  Soon enough, Ravana felt he had to have Sita for his own, and he used trickery to separate Sita from her husband and his friend, then he carried her off to his palace, despite that Jatayu the vulture king tried to stop him.

Despite being mortally wounded by Ravana, Jatayu managed to live just long enough to tell Rama what had happened.  Then began an epic quest to regain Sita from the monstrous Ravana.  Rama had no human army, but gained an army of monkeys, led by the powerful Hanuman, and after much difficulty, he and his army made their way to the island where Ravana’s palace lay.

Rama and Ravana meet in battle. Wikimedia Commons.

Rama and Ravana meet in battle. Wikimedia Commons.

The gods wanted to see Ravana laid low, but he could only be killed by a mortal, and so they simply watched from above as the battle raged.  Rama tried cutting off Ravana’s ten heads, but every time the heads grew back, and Ravana became stronger than before.  Eventually, Rama succeeded in killing Ravana with an arrow that contained the power of all of creation.

Only then was Rama able to regain his beautiful bride, and return to the kingdom that was waiting for him.  But he was gnawed by doubt, afraid that Sita had betrayed him with Ravana, and her protestations of her innocence were not enough to convince him.  She went through a test of fire to prove herself still pure, and the god of fire himself, Agni, lifted her back out of the flames unharmed to prove she had never allowed Ravana to have his way with her.  Then Rama finally believed Sita again, and they resumed their marriage happily.

But this was not a story to have a happy ending.  Because Rama’s subjects doubted Sita’s virtue.  She had been part of another man’s harem, they said.  She was unclean, they were sure.  She had surely graced the demon’s bed, they were convinced.

Rama tried to persuade his subjects, but to no avail, and the pregnant Sita was forced into exile to pacify the people.

Fifteen years later, Sita returned at the instigation of her grown sons, who demanded that their father should take their mother back.  To convince the people, Rama gathered them together, and Sita begged her mother the earth to prove she had remained faithful to her husband Rama.  A chasm opened, and Mother Earth rose out of it, seated on a golden throne.  She took her daughter into her arms, and the two of them sank back into the ground.

The people were thus convinced that Sita had remained true, and they accepted her sons as Rama’s, but Rama was devastated to be eternally deprived of his beloved wife.  He left the kingdom to his sons, and began to wander the earth in misery, until he eventually walked into the Sarayu River in order to join his beloved wife in death.


Nothing like a happy ending, right?  (And that was certainly nothing like a happy ending!)

Sorry that Sita’s entry focuses so much on Rama, but…well, it’s the story of the epic Ramayana, and like most ancient epics, it’s rather centered on the male hero.  (Um, I kind of skipped most of the epic, though.  For time.  And because it didn’t actually, you know, feature Sita.  If you’re interested in the story and all the adventures I had to leave out, you should definitely read the epic.)

Anyway, there are a lot of comparisons here, but we’ll start at the beginning, with Sita’s birth.  There are two aspects of her birth to look at:  she’s born fully formed, and she’s born right out of the earth.  Neither one is actually all that uncommon, so we’ll skip over the folks who only meet one of those qualifications (like Athene or Erectheus/Ericthonios) and look at a couple who share both.

We’ll start with the Spartoi.  No, they’re nothing to do with Sparta:  they’re the Theban “sown men.”  After killing the serpent guardian at the spring, Cadmos was instructed to sow some of the serpent’s teeth in the ground.  To his astonishment, fully grown men crawled up out of the dirt before him.  These were the Spartoi — the sown men.  Most of them were pretty belligerent and ended up killing each other, but the few who survived became the ancestors of the most important families in Thebes.  (Yes, that means some of the Theban nobles were descended from serpent teeth.  I’m not sure they thought about that aspect of it…)

And on a very different note (and yet also not entirely different, since the serpent was sacred to Ares), the Mexica (AKA Aztec) god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was born fully grown from his mother’s womb…which may sound like he doesn’t actually meet both requirements, except that his mother was Coatlicue, their earth goddess.  So he was, in fact, born straight from the earth.  And, being the Mexica god of war, needless to say he started lopping heads off right away.  (Some 400 of them, in fact.)  But that’s moving away from the point.  (I actually thought about doing him for “H” and comparing him to Athene, but…I couldn’t pass up that story about Asgard’s walls…)

Odysseus with his bow. Name vase of the Penelope Painter. Wikimedia Commons.

Odysseus with his bow. Name vase of the Penelope Painter. Wikimedia Commons.

Moving on to Sita’s suitors…it’s hardly surprising that the most beautiful woman alive had tons of suitors, so a comparison to Helen seems somewhat superfluous.  But as to the method by which Rama won her!  There’s another epic that just so happens to feature a contest between suitors that’s settled by the stringing of a very strong bow…though of course in that case the bow belongs to her original husband, who’s also the one to win the contest.  It looks like the current speculation is that the Ramayana may have been written somewhere around the fourth century BC, so it’s theoretically possible that there could have been some slight influence from the Odyssey in a minor detail like that, but not necessarily.  (Of course, it was this contest with the bow that made me decide to pick Sita for “S,” needless to say.)

Editing in a new comparison here (on 4/28), because I just happened across another tale of a man who wins  back his wife by stringing a bow that only he’s capable of stringing.  Yuriwaka, a Japanese hero whose remarkable adventures included being marooned for years on an island on his way home, and then entering his home in disguise once he got there.  Couldn’t use it for “Y,” though…y’know why?  ‘Cause it actually is the Odyssey, adapted into a Japanese version in the 16th century, following one of the brief periods of European contact in that century.  I still thought it was worth mentioning, though.  (And, btw, I really want to find a translated version of some full account of the story, ’cause I’d love to see how it’s similar to the original source, and how it’s different.)

It’s a little off topic to look at Surpanakha here, but…well, any comparison between Sita and Penelope is obviously going to involve comparing Rama and Odysseus, considering that they both get a lot more attention in their respective epics than their wives do.  Rama’s reaction to Surpanakha’s attempted seduction is very different from Odysseus’ reaction to the seductions he meets on a regular basis in the Odyssey:  Odysseus would have slept with the demoness and then run off and left her, rather than spurning her.  (Although, in all fairness, by the time he meets up with Circe and Calypso, it’s been ten years (or more) since he saw Penelope.  Unlike Rama, who’s literally traveling with Sita at the time.)  Anyway, what I wanted to do was to look at Surpanakha’s reaction to the rejection.  Not because it’s similar, but because it’s different.  Circe and Calypso are both sad to lose Odysseus — and Calypso was (or so we’re told) basically keeping him prisoner on her island as a sex slave — but neither make any move to follow (or precede) him home and attack Penelope so that they can keep him for themselves.  (Though Circe eventually, in some versions, sends her son (or one of her sons, depending on the version) to Ithaca to fetch him back…only the boy kind of kills him without knowing who he is, so all he can do is bring back the corpse.  And the widow.  And his half-brother.  It, uh, gets weird from there.)  Whether this difference arises from a difference in culture or from a difference in the kind of woman involved — Surpanakha is, after all, a demon, whereas Circe and Calypso are both fairly powerful immortals, the one a daughter of Helios, and the other a type of sea-nymph — is unclear, but in either case, an interesting study could probably be made.  (Actually, there have probably been several such studies.)

So then we have Sita being kidnapped by a lustful demon.  This could be so easily compared to Penelope’s cousin Helen that it hardly bears repeating.  (In fact, Helen was kidnapped twice, once by the lust-crazed, aging Theseus and once by Alexander/Paris…who I, personally, would call the far more demonic of the two.  If he hadn’t been trapped in the house of Hades at the time, I’m sure Theseus would have handed Helen over to her brothers rather than see Athens destroyed over her…)

The battle to regain Sita has a few comparisons to be made.  The gods watching from on high is like the gods watching the Trojan War from Mt. Ida.  But actually there are probably similar stories in almost every culture.  Hanuman is reminiscent of Sun Wukong, but that’s a clear case of influence:  the earlier Hanuman definitely (if only partially) inspired Sun Wukong.  And, of course, Ravana’s heads growing back is very like the Hydra’s heads growing back, only Ravana doesn’t get the same two-for-one bargain that the Hydra does.  But he does gain in power for each re-grown head, so it may come to the same thing to a certain extent.  And, of course, Ravana is laid low by an arrow, just like all of Penelope’s horrid suitors in the bloody finale (or near finale, anyway) of the Odyssey.

So then we get the joyous reunion…which is not quite so joyous as it should be.  This, too, was the case in the Odyssey, but Odysseus didn’t need one of the gods to come down and assure him that Penelope had remained faithful; he just had to grill her a while until he became convinced.  Of course, the situation was extremely different.  (An interesting counter-comparison would be the reunion of Menelaos and Helen.  Menelaos knows Helen’s been unfaithful to him repeatedly — with two different men — over the ten years they’ve been apart, and he’s reluctant to forgive her at first.  But after they spend seven years shipwrecked in Egypt (yes, I know that makes no sense), they’re completely reconciled, and by the time Telemachos arrives in Sparta, they’re a totally loving couple again, even when Helen bluntly talks about her time in Troy right in front of him.  Actually, Menelaos is kind of a doormat…)

In the “standard” ending to Penelope’s story, there’s no equivalent to the tragic ending of Sita’s story.  But there are versions of Penelope’s story that end badly…though those involve her not remaining faithful to Odysseus, so they’re not really comparable.  But the thing is that the Odyssey is a comedic epic — despite the bursts of brutal violence here and there — whereas the Ramayana is a serious one.  (When I say it’s comedic, I primarily mean that it has a happy ending:  the traditional difference between comedy and tragedy was that one ended happily, the other not.  However, the Odyssey does contain a fair bit of humor, though much of it gets lost in translation and has to be explained to us non-ancient-Greek-speakers.  (Gotta re-learn that!))  Though it should be noted that the tragic ending of the Ramayana is believed to be a later addition, so that the original story would have ended with the happily reunited couple following the test of fire, which would be roughly analogous to where the Odyssey would have ended if the suitors’ families hadn’t decided they wanted payback for the slaughter.  (Though I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speculate that that was a later addition to the text.)

Hmm.  This ended up being a bit more comparing the Ramayana and the Odyssey than comparing Sita and Penelope.  That wasn’t quite how it was supposed to go…

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