Ugliest woman ever? Medusa would probably be the answer of most people at all familiar with Greek and Roman mythology. With snakes for her hair and a stare that could turn even a warrior to stone, Medusa definitely terrifies. Though she may be associated with all things monstrous, history’s interpretation of Medusa has been varied and interesting.
It all started with Joao Ruas’ “Gorgon II.” After I stumbled across this fragile creature, semi-transparent, juxtaposed against a skyline marred with telecommunication towers, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Something about her impossibly long and thin neck, her delicate body in a too big, crumpled tank-top, and her mouth that still somehow looks like a baby’s resonated with me. And then her hair. Like clay it flows around her in varying sizes until the strands end in lovely snake heads. It is Medusa, but a Medusa like I’d never seen before, and for the first time she felt familiar.
I have never really enjoyed the Medusa myth. Though very early writers say she was born a monster, most stories report Medusa as a girl, beautiful and young, with many suitors, who gets raped by the god Poseidon (god of the sea), in the temple of Athena. Somehow offended by this, or perhaps jealous of her beauty, or perhaps again in retribution for boasting, Athena turns Medusa’s beautiful flowing hair to snakes and her stare into one that will kill in punishment for her crime. What crime? Isn’t she the victim? Being young, tempting, and female is a sin in more than one religion it seems. So what happens next? She gets her head cut off of course! And in triumph Athena puts Medusa’s head on her shield to use in battle. Oh, and did I mention Medusa was pregnant when she was killed by Perseus? That’s where Pegasus, the cool flying horse, and Chrysaor came from.
So is this just a story about female jealousy? Or male violence? Well, it is entirely up to interpretation. According to Robert Graves, ancient priestesses used to wear hideous masks and emit hissing noises to ward off any unwanted advances into their shrines, and I might add, perhaps to keep themselves from getting raped on temple floors (229-231). Eventually the priestesses masks were stripped away, and their power gone, just as Medusa was beheaded. In this way the story of Medusa is the story of the loss of feminine, mystical power, to the patriarchal world view we hold today. However, ultimately Athena uses Medusa’s head for her own purposes, once again firmly rooting the power back to the feminine, so I don’t really agree wholeheartedly with Graves’ interpretation. Also, I don’t subscribe to the belief that thousands of years ago women ruled, and the world was a better place. It just doesn’t seem to be the case.
Some other interpretations look at the interesting overlap between Athena and Medusa. Depictions and stories of Athena also intertwine her with snakes, and the owl, with its unblinking, deep stare, is her bird (#spiritanimal?). Also, Athena has aspects of both overwhelming beauty and intense violence. For me, Medusa is almost a part of Athena that she can’t accept, like a double. Tarnished by sex (Athena is a virgin goddess), Athena can no longer look at her double, Medusa. Her rage, or betrayal, or jealousy manifests itself in banishing Medusa with all her most violent attributes: snakes and a deadly stare. Is this really a banishing? Maybe she was shrouding or protecting this vulnerable aspect of herself, unable to understand her grief over the rape and unwilling to let it happen again. She retreats into isolation, alone and seemingly safe. Of course, we know that solitude never really works, and once again, violence finds Medusa. Finally, to complete the circle, once Medusa is dead, Athena re-assimilates Medusa’s head, claiming dominion over all things snake, female, and powerful.
This brings me back to “Gorgon II.” When I look at her, I see a fractured, vulnerable girl; beautiful yet unable to interact with her environment. In this way, I think Ruas has identified a key element, not only in the interpretation of Medusa, but of much of the present female psyche. His positioning of the story, in the moment of Medusa’s isolated vulnerability, before the re-assimilation of power by Athena, echos the state of the feminine body today. Under the cover of female equality or power (snakes and stares), the female body is still utilized, without agency, for sex and violence. In name equal, but in practice still somehow so left behind.
For those of you who would like to read more about Medusa and her various interpretations, I’ve listed where I got my information below. Also, check out Joao Ruas‘ work. It’s awesome. Finally, for those of you worried about the serious note in this blog, don’t – there will be plenty of sex and violence later :) I just like to make sure I have agency!
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1948.
“Medousa & Gorgones.” Theoi Greek Mythology. <http://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Gorgones.html>
“The Medusa.” Greek Mythology. <http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Medusa/medusa.html>
“Medusa.” Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medusa>
“Medusa in Myth and Literary History.” Modern American Poetry. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bogan/medusamyth.htm>