Myths and Monsters

Medusa Redux

Remember how I said we’re going back to regularly scheduled programming? Here we go…and since this isn’t a funny post feel free to skip it. I won’t be offended. Since I reacted strongly on both Twitter and Facebook to this issue recently, it seems worth a full comment.

I wrote about Medusa a while ago, as she’s one of my all time favorite figures in Greek Mythology. She’s popped up again in social media lately, and I have some THINGS to say about the backlash and gatekeeping in the Me Too movement. Strap in, kids: I’m annoyed as hell about this.

Some background to the current kerfuffle. A sculptor I admire, Luciano Garbati, saw Benvenuto Cellini’s “Perseus With the Head of Medusa” and asked “what if“. As a writer I appreciate an artist’s “what-if-isms”, but I particularly appreciate the result of his: Medusa With the Head (of Perseus). The controversy is because MWTH has been installed in NY for an exhibition related to the #metoo movement (she will stand in Manhattan across from the same courthouse where Harvey Weinstein was prosecuted), and some folk in the movement take exception to a nude Medusa holding not the head of Poseidon, but the head of Perseus.

So…let’s examine this, shall we? Please indulge a short sidebar:

If you take the Ovid version of the myth (I’ve commented before on how much I loathe Ovid for his rampant misogyny) which is the one kids are taught in school: Medusa was a beautiful teenager (again, Ovid reflecting Greco-Roman value of women: beauty, youth, and virginity) serving in Athena’s temple. Athena, Goddess of war and wisdom. Please keep this in mind a moment. Medusa captures the attention of Poseidon, God of the Sea, who rapes her, a priestess dedicated to his niece, a goddess of virginity and power.

Ovid tells us Athena is furious and changes Medusa into a monster: serpents for hair, a gaze that turns people to stone, and in some versions she’s also transformed into a snake from the waist down. Medusa is banished to a cave, where she gives birth to two monstrous offspring of Poseidon, one of which is Pegasus (the winged horse). Poseidon is god of horses, if you didn’t know.

We will not explore the physical mechanics of a woman, 1/2 snake or otherwise, birthing a horse.

But Ovid’s retelling isn’t the oldest version of the Medusa myth. Hesiod (significantly older, by roughly 700 years, than Ovid’s version) tells us Medusa is one of three Gorgon sisters, the other two (and her parents) being demi-gods who have always had the power to turn people to stone. I go into the details more in my original Medusa post linked above, if you’re interested.

Here’s what I’d like to focus on: ALL of the versions are told from a male gaze. Medusa’s worth is ONLY based upon her beauty, safety, and fuckability. Yep, I said it. The moment she’s no longer a virgin, she’s no longer worth anything. (Whether she was raped or consented appears to be more of a societal styling of female sexuality than a salient point in the story itself, which is NOT the case when we read it from 20th century feminist eyes. What I’m saying here is: the rape part wasn’t as important to ancient folk as it is to us now: the loss of her virginity in/on/near the temple of a virgin goddess was the important part. Obviously I consider the rape and punishment, or punishment for sex in general, to be a salient feminist point.)

So…did the Goddess she loyally served, a virgin goddess of wisdom and weapons, really punish Medusa? Or did she give Medusa a powerful weapon with which she can defend herself, and remove the male gaze by making her “ugly”? By the way: snakes appear in older cultures in the Mediterranean and Middle East as symbols of goddesses: female, dangerous, and immortal.

Worth considering, isn’t it?

Medusa lives alone (or with her sisters) in a cave, and by the time Perseus shows up with his divine assistance to murder her for her power she has successfully defended herself many times. Every version of the story I’ve found indicates the statues of her “victims”, or perhaps more accurately the statues of her attackers, are strewn all around her lair. And so Perseus arrives: a male hero in a male dominated society who only wants to take something rightfully belonging to Medusa for his own purposes. It’s ok she has to die for it because he’s defeating an ugly, worthless monster, right?

So that’s maybe enough on the actual mythology surrounding Medusa, and how the #metoo social media backlash is basing all their opinions on the most recent, most misogynistic version. One of the issues I’m seeing is the statue should be Medusa holding the head of Poseidon, her rapist. I utterly disagree from a mythological and practical standpoint. Here’s why.

Remember how I said Poseidon is God of the Sea? He’s also one of the three main gods in the Greek pantheon: he rules the sea, Zeus rules the skies, Hades rules the underworld. Poseidon is more powerful than Athena, his niece. Why didn’t Athena punish Poseidon for violating (or sleeping with) her acolyte? Because in Greek mythology she literally wouldn’t have been able to: Greek deities reflected human values and societal power structures. The most powerful warrior kings were Gods, and Goddesses often worked around them, not directly confronting them.

So no, there is no version of the Medusa myth that allows for Athena to directly confront Poseidon for his actions.

There is also no version of the Medusa myth that allows for MEDUSA to directly confront Poseidon for his actions (again, if we’re taking the Ovid option here). But there sure as hell is room for interpretation of Medusa killing her attempted-murderer, since that was a fight that Perseus wasn’t guaranteed to win.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa Photo credit: Wikipedia

Again, Perseus with the Head of Medusa is an internationally famous sculpture imagining the moment of the myth where Perseus defeats the monster and cuts off her head so he can use it as a weapon in war. Please note the body language of PWTHM.

  1. Perseus is nude, Medusa is nude. This is pretty standard for Greco-Roman sculpture, particularly for the hero conquering a vanquished foe.
  2. He’s standing on her dead body. STANDING ON her body. He’s literally raising himself up by using her.
  3. Blood gushes from her neck and her severed head, which he holds up in triumph. The great hero, slaying a monster.
  4. His eyes are closed because she’s STILL dangerous as hell, even in death.
  5. His sandals are winged, because he needed serious divine intervention in order to kill Medusa. Please consider that for a moment: Perseus borrowed Hermes’s winged sandals, had direction from Athena Herself, and had help from Pegasus (the psychological commentary of Medusa’s son helping her killer is probably a thing for another day as well), because there’s no way he could’ve beaten such a serious foe on his own. He is PRIVILEGED, is he not?

Now compare that to Garbati’s “what if instead of the victim, Medusa was the victor” reinterpretation. I should note here that this statue was actually sculpted long before the social reckoning: it was NOT a work created in response to #metoo but long in advance.

Image credit: Luciano Garbati

Here’s what I see:

  1. Medusa is undernourished and spare. Greek nudes aren’t Rubenesque, but they are plush, curvy, they have a little bit of belly and never have ribs or collarbones showing. Medusa is far too thin to be considered healthy or beautiful in the classic sense.
  2. She isn’t standing victorious over a dead body. She isn’t holding her sword up in defiance. She isn’t holding Perseus’ head up to show off her actions. She is NOT PROUD of what she’s done here. But her posture is defiant, and resolute. She hasn’t dropped her sword OR her gaze, and she’s ready for whatever comes next.
  3. Look at the expression on her face. That is exhausted rage right there. That is the expression of a woman who’s fucking TIRED of being attacked just for being alive. Men come to HER HOME and try to kill her for simply existing without their approval, without giving them any benefit.
  4. Medusa in MWTH did what she had to do to survive, and she clearly didn’t enjoy doing it. She’s lived a hard life of constant barrage of violent men persecuting her because she’s ugly. I think about that a LOT. Who is the monster here?

In the myth Medusa never did anything to these men, her “victims”, until they’d tried to kill her. She didn’t invite their violation. She didn’t ask them to show up at her doorstep with death in mind. She never started the fight: I adore this statue because in Garbati’s version she fucking finished it.

BOY does that touch me deeply in the same feels as the me too movement taking down selfish, violent, predatory men from their positions of power and privilege. It touched me enough I was one of the first to buy the 12″ replicas when they were offered a few years ago. I have two Medusa statues in my office: one is in a classic male-gaze pose, and MWTH. Guess which one is my favorite?

I accept that there is some legit criticism to be had because #metoo is often boxed in as a movement about a reckoning between survivors and their rapists. I see it as a much larger issue of predation and power dynamics that for so long allowed women no voice, no recourse, no way to fight back at all regardless of the manner in which they were violated. What pisses me off is the idea that MWTH can’t be a symbol of justice because it’s too violent, because “#metoo is about healing”.

Yes, that’s the message going around on Twitter amongst detractors: that Medusa killing her attacker isn’t peaceful or healing enough. But at the same time, Medusa killing Poseidon would have been fine, for some reason? It’s an inconsistent argument, and really it boils down to “I don’t like that imagery so I don’t think anyone else should either, and it shouldn’t be a symbol of MY feminism.”

Well, fuck all of that noise. This statue’s rage and exhaustion after struggling against her treatment by men and society all her life is EXACTLY what #metoo is about for me, and judging by her popularity all that feminine rage resonates with others as well. There is no place for gatekeeping in feminism.

Let me say that louder for the Karens in the back:


One thought on “Medusa Redux

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