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The Medusa Myth and Its Meaning: the Real Story of Medusa

Posted in anthropology, Culture, feminism, folklore, folkloric motifs, medusa, mythology, symbolism, and Truth

Understanding the Real Story of Medusa

Medusa, Monstrosity, and the Patriarchy

The real story of Medusa may not be what you think it is. I remember reading the story of Medusa, or at least one version of it, in my father’s edition of Bullfinch’s Mythology when I was a child. I glanced over the story again when studying Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Classics at school. But as will be the case with many of my generation, the most powerful and lasting image in my mind of the dread Gorgon is that impressed upon it in the cinema back in 1981, when I went to see Clash of the Titans and saw the Medusa portrayed by one of Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-frame animations.

So my first meeting with the Medusa was as a monster mediated through the lens of the patriarchal hero myth.

The Origins of the Medusa Myth

The Serpent Goddess

In his seminal work The Masks of God, mythologist and psychoanalytic theorist Joseph Campbell postulates that Medusa partakes of the long and ancient tradition of serpent goddesses. But he fails to discuss one of the most fundamental aspects of her story. That is the story of her transformation. Because the Medusa wasn’t always a monster. It’s my proposition that the only monstrous aspect of her myth is how she’s formulated according to an oppressive system of patriarchal values.

The central motif in the real story of Medusa, the heart of the Medusa myth, is rape.

Before we unpack that statement, let’s just look at the history of the myth itself.

The Head of Medusa

The Gorgon Sisters

It’s in the Theogony of Hesiod that we first meet any mention of the Medusa. She’s one of the Gorgon sisters, along with Sthenno and Euryale. Hesiod relates that these three Gorgons lived…

…beyond famed Oceanus at the world’s edge hard by Night.

In this earliest tale, Medusa is very beautiful, the most alluring of the three. But there’s not much more to find in Hesiod, and he makes only passing mention of her later fate.

The main source of the myth as we have it today comes to us in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s in this account from Ovid that we find the first indications of what the real story of Medusa might be.

Medusa once had charms; to gain her love  
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.  
They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace  
More moving features in a sweeter face.  
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,  
In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.  
Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d,  
Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d.  
In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d,  
And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid.  
The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away,  
Nor durst such bold impurity survey;  
But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes,  
Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.  
These in her Aegis Pallas joys to bear,  
The hissing snakes her foes more sure ensnare,  
Than they did lovers once, when shining hair. 

~ Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Dryden Translation.

In summary, Medusa, a beautiful young maiden, is worshiping in the temple of Minerva (or Athena) when the god Neptune (or Poseidon) rapes her. She is punished for desecrating the temple. She is turned into a monster; her head a mess of phallic snakes, whose gaze turns men to stone.

Medusa's head of serpents

Medusa’s Head and the Exploits of Perseus

The following stories in which the Medusa appears center on the exploits of the hero, Perseus. He was sent to destroy Medusa and decapitated her. From her neck sprang the winged horse, Pegasus. From every drop of blood that fell from her open wound, a venomous snake sprang into life. Perseus kept her severed head and used its petrifying gaze to his advantage in many later adventures. The goddess Minerva then used the head as the central motif on the aegis of her shield to thwart her enemies in battle. One curious and somewhat telling modern manifestation of the Medusa’s head is in the logo of the fashion company, Versace, where she’s portrayed as a beautiful woman in the pre-curse period, with a head of ringlets rather than snakes.

So much for the history of the myth. There remains at the heart of the real story of Medusa, the pivotal act without which there would be no story of the Medusa at all: her rape by Neptune.

Medusa was raped by Neptune

Medusa and Sexual Stigma

The stigmatization of female sexuality and the blaming of women for the consequences of male lust is still widespread in our society today. Few rape cases come to trial and of those that do fewer still result in prosecution. The woman often takes the blame for “provoking” the man either by her dress, her words, or her attitude. Once “provoked”, the man is relieved of all ethical responsibility. It’s even harder to prove a case of rape within marriage  as the woman is still considered culturally – if no longer in law –  to be the husband’s property, and he has “his rights.”

Medusa as an image of sexual oppression

Institutionalized Misogyny in World Religions

Whatever their so-called “sophisticated theologians” and “liberal” followers may protest, in the dominant world religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the subjugation and rape of women is embedded in myth and law. Both the Bible and the Koran are a repulsive mess of patriarchal misogyny.

The “Good Book” is riddled with examples of God not only condoning rape, but ordering it. The following quotations are from the King James version.

Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.

~ Isaiah 13:16

For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.

~ Zechariah 14:2

These are not isolated and rare examples. The God of the Old Testament also condones taking young girls as sex slaves (Numbers 31: 7-18), the buying and selling of women and children (Exodus 21:7) and the forced marriage of the victim of rape to her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

Women fare little better under Allah.

Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will.

~ Koran. 2:223

The New Testament doesn’t serve woman well, either:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

~ 1 Timothy 2:11-14

No surprises there. We know the ancient cultures were founded on slavery and warfare under patriarchal leadership. This applies not only to the ancient Semitic and Arabic cultures, but every bit as much to the Roman and the Greek. The Roman Empire was ruled over globally by a necessarily male Caesar, and locally by an exclusively male system of governance down to the paterfamilias – the patriarchal head of the household. In the laws of ancient Greece and Rome, women could be bought and sold, as could children, and had no rights in law over their own sexuality or reproduction.

Historically these expansionist and imperialist patriarchal cultures have influenced the social structures and laws of the modern West.

So it’s in this context we must read the myth of the Medusa.

The tragic fate of the Gorgon sisters

A Feminist Perspective

Whilst the second wave feminist campaigns of the 60s and 70s resulted in changes in the law across Europe and America, in real terms cultural conditions have changed little. Public attitudes toward rape still center on the notion of female provocation, victimization of the perpetrator, and the tendency to disregard the woman’s evidence as hysterical manipulation.

The patriarchal tendency to punish the victim of rape rather than the perpetrator has, as we can see in the myth of Medusa, ancient origins. It’s interesting that the goddess Minerva curses the Medusa with her punishment. How can a goddess be enacting the will of the male dominated society? To understand that,  it’s worth bearing in mind that Minerva was a virgin Queen – very much in the style of the Blessed Virgin Mary in that her de-sexualized nature was the source of her power and virtue. She is one of the three ideal states of womanhood as seen through the lens of male domination, wherein she must be a nurturing mother, a spotless virgin, or an insatiable whore. Minerva’s response to the rape of Medusa might have been very different had the myth been invented by a woman.

Patriarchy is cunning in the way it encourages and educates women to denigrate one another in competition for the benefits of male approval.

perseus_turning_phineus_and_his_followers_to_stone

The Voice of Medusa

Women’s voices are unheard in the classical mythological traditions which have so influenced the literature, social structure, law and politics of the Western world. Our society has been formed by the convergence of several cultures which venerate mythology as a revelation of the divine will, and as the final recourse in the quest for authority. Combining the credence given to mythological messages by religious belief with the inherent psycho-emotive power of mythological imagery is a dangerous game.

One of the messages in the myth, the real story of Medusa, is her powerlessness as a woman. In neither her rape or its consequences does she have any agency. She has no choice but to submit to the hand of fate.

Medusa is silent in the myth.

Perseus beheaded Medusa

She’s blamed for the sexual violence dispensed to her. There is no mention of her suffering, no discourse on her trauma. This reflects the true experience of many women forced to submit to sexual violence. Many women report feelings of self-hatred and self-blame after the experience of rape, and that they cannot, dare not, speak out against their aggressors. Even in the more modern and supposedly feminist contexts within fiction, the notion that rape is the woman’s problem, something she must resolve alone, is still prevalent. In fact, that’s one reason, after starting out as a fan I came to dislike the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show.

The show is often touted as a feminist reworking of the old horror tropes, and Buffy as a role model for young women. But when the vampire Spike attempts to rape her in her bathroom, he gets away with it, she mentions it to no-one, and later becomes his lover (“Seeing Red” Episode 19, Series 6). While that may be an exact representation of the horrid facts of many young women’s experience, it receives no explanation in the show, and is a set-up I would not want my daughter to emulate.

It is time to reinterpret the myth of Medusa

The Real Story of Medusa

In our global culture, despite some forward progress, from the most ancient to the most recent expressions, women are still portrayed as mothers, maidens or monsters; and in each case they are idolized, damaged, or destroyed by the ruling patriarchal power.

It’s time to retell the myth of the Medusa, to tell her real story, to remove the conspiracy of silence – and to let Medusa speak.

What do you think? The comments section is for you.

800px-Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or hated it, or agree or disagree, or for whatever reason, I would love to hear your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments.

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6 Comments

  1. This is so interesting. I too thought of Medusa as the monster in the Clash of the Titans and then, as a teenager, discovered her true story. Ever since I have felt sorry for Medusa. Loved this blog post. I agree with everything! It pays to look at the details with myth, there is always much, much more at stake in them. All Hail Austin!

    October 28, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Helen,

      Thank you for your generous comment.

      There are so many different layers of meaning in mythology. I agree with you, it’s worth spending the time unpacking at least some of those layers. Certainly on one level, there’s the natural tendency for any myth to reflect the beliefs and practices of the society in which it develops. And that’s very much the case here with the story of Medusa. But there’s also a two-way dynamic in the way that myths shape societies which subscribe to them.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment – always wonderful to know someone’s reading!

      October 28, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Jones
    Jones

    I once read that how Medusa is portrayed is how men saw her. Not how women saw her.

    She was in fact changed to protect herself against men and she was a protector of woman. I found it interesting because it reminded me that the history of men is not the same as women.

    But I can’t remember the source where I read it. So I don’t know if it’s really true.

    You always post the most interesting things! Thank you for that.

    October 28, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Jones,

      Thank you so much for your fascinating contribution.

      That is a really beautiful and powerful take on the story – and also very true to many women’s post-rape experience, wherein they attempt to disguise their natural sexuality as a form of protection against the male gaze, and worse. There may also be echoes of self-harming as a response to abuse.

      Interestingly, some of our most popular and “child-friendly” fairy tales have their origins in similar traditions of storytelling – for example Cinderella, which is a more sanitized version of the old forms we see in Ashputtle, or Donkeyskin; wherein the abused girl runs away and seeks to dirty and demean herself, partly in self-loathing but largely in order to disguise herself, make herself “ugly” in the eyes of men.

      At the end of this post I make a call for re-tellings of the Medusa myth. Perhaps in what you say, we might begin to see how that could be done.

      Thank you so much!

      October 28, 2016
      |Reply
  3. I love the Medusa myth, so I enjoyed reading your analysis of it.

    I do not see her as powerless, but as the vengeful aspect of Athena who of course is a virgin goddess. What looks like punishment is actually rage being unleashed. Symbolically, it is Athena who has been raped. By the time she is a severed head being used as a weapon she is completely sexless. Is her gaze ever harmful to women? Just males, those who represent her defilement. Her story cycle is completed when the head is given back to Athena. The Aegis as you’ve said.

    This symbol, Gorgonian– if I’m spelling correctly, was a symbol of protection with dark/vengeful connotations. It can be seen on shields, doorways, art, and beside depictions of Athena in art. Medussa is a part of Athena and always was. She is not a separate being. Athena likes to restore balance as in the Illiad/Odyssey, not punish victims. That is the biggest clue. I think this story is misunderstood because we forget how complex and intelligent the Ancient Greeks were and try to simplify their religion (as “myth”) even while we rely upon their understandings of philosophy, war, democracy, or the sciences. The symbol of medusa’s head was positive. It only seems negative when we try to view it through our own perspective instead of that of the people at the time. Biblical references are very out of place as the cultures were apples and oranges. The Hebrews were uncivilized simpletons when the bible was written in comparison, so using the bible quotes is a bit far off to me. The use of both Roman and Greek is understandable, though the story has changed by the time of the Romans.

    Medussa is harmful to those who have bad intentions, or hearts that are not pure if you will. That is the gift of Athena to mortals. The story you propose is symbolically sound, but it is not the story as it was told, which in my opinion is far more powerful and empowering to women. Athena is the most fascinating goddess in the pantheon. She is not a maiden, mother, monster, or crone. More of a divine older sister, cousin or other mentor. She was not sexualized but feared by men. She aids underdogs against overwhelming odds, she goes into battle opposing other gods, and she administers justice. I could talk about her for a long time because she is very complex and fascinating (I’ve been studying the story for years for an upcoming project). Medusa is a part of Athena. As is the owl.

    June 15, 2017
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Shanonsinn,

      Thank you so very much for your interesting and profound contribution. You offer many fascinating aspects and insights which bear deep consideration.

      The world’s mythologies, both individually and collectively, are many-chambered vessels capable of containing and serving multiple interpretations simultaneously. I’m cautious about defending any single interpretation as the “true meaning” of any myth, or expressing certainty about the original intent of its authors. Therein lie the dangers of dogmatism which lead to the limitations of merely religious interpretation.

      Ancient mythologies are multilayered, symbolic representations of vast, continually changing, cultural experience formulated over the course of millennia. There is no single “correct” interpretation.

      That’s the way I see it.

      Medusa is known as the Queen of the Gorgons and was originally one of the granddaughters of Gaia. With her tongue lolling, her fierce gaze, and the implicit venom of her serpentine hair, she reflects many aspects of a temple guardian, as you suggest, whose responsibility is to ward off the uninitiated. She is described in Greek legend as abiding in a cave beyond the borders of the day. She guards Hesperides, the tree of golden apples. In Occidental Mythology Joseph Campbell writes, “Medusa and the other Greek goddesses of the old Titan generation (before Zeus) were established in Greece and the Islands long before the Dorians came, and in fact exhibit every possible sign of an original relationship to an extremely early Neolithic – perhaps even Mesolithic – lunar-serpent-pig context that is represented in the myths of Melanesia and the Pacific and also Celtic Ireland.”

      Certainly, Athena doesn’t have sole claim to the Gorgon’s head.

      It is there on the Mistress of Wild Animals in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. It is also seen in shrines dedicated to Demeter, a goddess of greater antiquity than Athena. Athena may claim one stratum of the Medusa’s meaning, not all; although that stratum is multifaceted. Medusa is also mythologically associated with horses. After all, it is Poseidon (or Neptune) who enjoys sexual union with Medusa in the form of a stallion, in one version of the myth, leading to the genesis of the winged horse, Pegasus. In later representation, Medusa herself is shown with wings.

      She is, in conclusion, a complex composite, harking back at least to the Minoan snake goddesses, and open to many nuances of interpretation.

      Myth is fluid, rather than fixed, rooted as it is in the oral tradition, and forged and reforged in the experiential fires of successive generations. The interpretation I give here seems equally valid, and serves a real cultural purpose in our time and place.

      I hold by the inclusion of Biblical references in that part of the discussion as the Semitic tradition has led, together with traditional interpretations of Classical myth, to the patriarchal culture which oppresses us all today. The myth of the Medusa is involved here as a starting point, and poetic frame of reference, for a wider discussion of female experience of violence and voicelessness. That’s the context of this post.

      Thank you once again for reading and for taking the time to leave such an interesting comment.

      June 16, 2017
      |Reply

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