“When Medusa looks in the mirror, she sees the Lady of Sorrows” Mason Cooley.
“In mythology the Medusa can petrify people with a look – which is a good thing, I think. But the Medusa is a unique symbol – something strong. It’s about going all the way.” Donatella Versace.
In ancient Greek, the word Medusa (Μέδουσα) signifies a guardian, or a protectress, the first of many ironies surrounding her existence, In an ode written in 490 BC, the ancient poet Pindar speaks of “fair-cheeked Medusa.” Originally an archetypal monster, daughter of the primordial sea god Phorcys, grand-daughter of Pontus, (yes, Medusa is Pontian by descent), by classical times, it was considered that Medusa was once inordinately attractive. Indeed, Medusa’s crime was that she was fair-cheeked enough (“the jealous aspiration of many suitors,” as Ovid writes) to attract the interest of the new sea god on the block, Poseidon. Possibly to cement his own power as the new lord of the sea, over that of the superseded Phorcys, Poseidon rapes Medusa, the dethroned sea god’s daughter, in the temple of Athena.
As a result of her rape, Athena, instead of punishing the perpetrator, an entity of the same class as her, and with whom she already had an antagonistic relationship, arguing over patronage rights in Athens for instance, chose to punish the victim, a powerless and vulnerable girl, already dispossessed of her primordial birthrights by the upstart Olympians, ostensibly because the act of rape desecrated her temple. She thus inflicted retribution upon Medusa for having the temerity to be violated within Athena’s domain, by transforming Medusa’s beautiful hair into serpents and making her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. As Medusa’s sisters, Stheno and Euryale were standing with their sister when the rape took place and thus bore witness to it, they too were punished by Athena in the same way, save that unlike Medusa, who was mortal and could thus expect eventual relief from suffering, the two other Gorgon sisters were immortal, meaning that their suffering would endure beyond the end of time.
In Ovid’s version of the story, Perseus describes Medusa’s punishment by Athena as just and well earned, because, as Thucydides observed, the weak endure what they must.
Caused to dwell in the hell of the margins in the land of Cisthene, (which scholars identify as Kydonies, modern day Ayvalik), as a reviled monster, Medusa endures further punishment for her hideousness, by being beheaded by the demi-god Perseus. Indeed, Athena provides Perseus, whose name derives from the verb πέρθειν (“to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”) with step by step instructions and the logistical support necessary for him to kill the hapless creature, firstly because she is hideous and secondly, because this will enable Perseus to retain control over his mother, Danae, the repository of his own claims to temporal power, and her sexual activity. This is the second irony in the fate of the hapless Medusa: that she is killed by the son of a woman who has also been imposed upon sexually – by Zeus, who had his way with her by transforming himself into a shower of gold – and that she is so killed because Perseus wants to prevent his mother being imposed upon sexually a second time, by the king Polydectes.
Having caused the death of she who defiled her temple by her violation and the world by her hideousness, Athena then takes the head she transformed by way of punishing the victim and weaponises it, placing it on her shield, the Aegis. As Jane Ellen Harrison argues: “her potency only begins when her head is severed, and that potency resides in the head; she is in a word a mask with a body later appended…”
It is a potency that, has seen Medusa, over the ages, seek to subvert interpretations of the myth that seeks to place the male, Perseus, at its centre, blameless and heroic. Author Sibylle Baumbach in viewing Medusa as a “multimodal image of intoxication, petrifaction, and luring attractiveness,” suggests that this potency is ultimately subversive, and unnerving for those who would uphold the patriarchy.
According to Elizabeth Johnston, in “The Original Nasty Woman,” Medusa is possessed of a puissance that: “has since haunted Western imagination, materialising whenever male authority feels threatened by female agency… In Western culture, strong women have historically been imagined as threats requiring male conquest and control, and Medusa herself has long been the go-to figure for those seeking to demonise female authority.”
Used as a symbol of female rage, feminists such as Elana Dykewomon in her 1976 collection of lesbian stories and poems, ‘They Will Know Me by My Teeth,’ employed the image of Medusa on her front cover. The ostensible purpose was to act as a guardian for female power, keeping the book solely in the hands of women. In doing so, she harks back to the archaic apotropaic function of the head as a cultus object.
In a 1986 article for the magazine ‘Woman of Power’ entitled “Gorgons: A Face for Contemporary Women’s Rage,” Emily Erwin Culpepper, wrote that: “The Amazon Gorgon face is female fury personified. The Gorgon/Medusa image has been rapidly adopted by large numbers of feminists who recognise her as one face of our own rage.”
Surely the head of Medusa is replete with the cultural currency afforded her by all of the aforementioned and so many more thinkers, her body having been violated and through the hideousness of the head, nullified, and thus not worthy of existence. It is for this reason that the violated Medusa will never produce offspring through normal procreation. She is rendered a non-woman. Instead, the blood of her severed head will engender Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor, mirroring the irony in the birth of her tormentor, Athena, springing also from her father’s head. It thus needs to be appreciated that the punishment of hideousness reflects, not so much Medusa’s rage, for we are never, in the myth, provided with an opportunity to gain insight into her own thought process, given that she is denuded of her humanity, but instead the calculated rage manifested by an entitled upper class woman, so jealously guarding her privileges, in the form of property rights, power and influence, that she is unable to feel any sympathy for a vulnerable and ravaged ‘sister’.
Medusa is not ‘strong.’ She is never in any ‘authority.’ She does not seek to kill people out of rage or revenge. Instead, even in the form of a hideous, fearsome and lethal monstrosity, she is an object of complete subjugation. Rather than through her own agency, men must turn to stone when they witness her second violation for the same reason that her sisters had to be transformed into monsters when they witnessed her first. Viewed from this perspective, Medusa is completely degraded and rendered entirely impotent by privileged female members of the ruling class, enabling and legitimising the patriarchy and its depredations, in their own pursuit of the maintenance of power and privilege. Beth Seelig provides an interesting, Freudian analysis of Medusa’s punishment, arguing that punishment of the crime of having been raped rather than having consented in Athena’s temple is an outcome of the goddess’ own unresolved sexual conflicts with her own Olympian progenitor. This too constitutes Medusa a victim worth fighting for.
Whereas in Modern Greek, a μέδουσα has come to denote a jelly fish, a sea creature that drifts aimlessly but carries a powerful sting, in traditional Greek lore, Medusa the Gorgon, has given her name to the γοργόνα, the Greek mermaid. Romaic legend is kinder to the poor girl than the ancients were, restoring to her, her beauty, and a fish tail, in memory of her ancestry as a daughter of the original lords of the Sea. Yet as beautiful as she is to behold, the Romaic incarnation of Medusa is demented and in denial, unable to accept the death of her ‘brother’ Alexander the Great. Nonetheless, unlike her ancient counterpart, she wields power of her own volition and can choose to drown sailors in a fit of pique at having her delusion destroyed, or smile wanly at being told a lie. Given that in the Romaic world, sisters, albeit gorgons are doing it for themselves, there is power and restitution in myth after all.