blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Medusa in Myth and Literary History


In Greek Myth

medusa1.jpg (59124 bytes)Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. She was the only one of the Gorgons who was subject to mortality. She is celebrated for her personal charms and the beauty of her locks. Neptune became enamoured of her, and obtained her favours in the temple of Minerva. This violation of the sanctity of the temple provoked Minerva, and she changed the beautiful locks of Medusa, which had inspired Neptune’s love to serpents. According to Apollodorus, Medusa and her sisters came into the world with snakes on their heads, instead of hair, with yellow wings and brazen hands. Their bodies were also covered with impenetrable scales, and their very looks had the power of killing or turning to stones. Perseus rendered his name immortal by his conquest of Medusa. He cut off her head, and the blood that dropped from the wound produced the innumerable serpents that infest Africa. The conqueror placed Medusa's head on the shield of Minerva, which he had used in his expedition. The head still retained the same petrifying power as before, as it was fatally known in the court of Cepheus. . . . Some suppose that the Gorgons were a nation of women, whom Perseus conquered.

From Lempriére’s Classical Dictionary of Proper names mentioned in Ancient Authors Writ Large. Ed. J. Lempriére and F.A. Wright. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Camille Dumoulié

Medusa's head, an apparently simple motif linked to the myth of Perseus, was freed through being severed and cut loose from its 'moorings' by the hero in the remote depths of the world. There is something paradoxical about the story since the monster was all the more indestructible because it had been killed. Indeed, the figure of Medusa is characterized by paradox, both in terms of the actual mythical stare, which turned men to stone, and in the interpretations that have been given to it. The fascination that she exerts arises from a combination of beauty and horror. Her head was used, in Ancient times, as an apotropaic mask -- a sort of talisman which both killed and redeemed.

As well as being the very symbol of ambiguity, Medusa's head is also one of the most archaic mythical figures, perhaps an echo of the demon Humbaba who was decapitated by Gilgamesh. Everything implies that it is a 'representation' of the most meaningful aspect of the sacred. Insofar as it is the role of literature to assume responsibility for the sacred, each era, when confronted with the mystery of the 'origins', has re-examined Medusa's head with its mesmerizing stare as something which conceals the secret of the sacred.

THE OTHER AND THE MONSTER

If ambiguity is the hallmark of the sacred, the role of myths, as René Gerard purports in his La Violence et le Sacré (1972) is to generate differences and contrasts, to distinguish between the two faces of the sacred. Therefore, from the viewpoint of the oldest texts which are true to the spirit of the myth, Medusa is a representation of the Other by virtue of her absolute and terrifying difference. At first sight, her monstrous ugliness and her petrifying stare certainly bear this out.

In La Mort dans les Yeux (1985), Vernant demonstrates that, for the Greeks, Medusa represented the face of the warrior possessed by battle frenzy. In The Shield of Heracles (232-3), Hesiod describes the wide-open mouth, the fearsome hair and the Gorgons' shrill cries which conjure up her terrifying aspect. Thus Medusa's mask frequently appears within the context of amedusa2.jpg (56438 bytes) battle. It is present in the Iliad on the shields of Athena (V, 738) and Agamemnon (XI, 36), and also during the Renaissance, e.g. on Bellona's helmet described by Ronsard in the 'Ode á Michel de l'Hospital' (Premier Livre des Odes, 1560). The Gorgon also represents what cannot be represented, i.e. death, which it is impossible to see or to look at, like Hades itself. In Hesiod's Theogony (275 et seq.) and in the Odyssey (XI, 633-5), Medusa is the guardian of terrifying places, either the nocturnal borders of the world or the Underworld. She reappears in this role in Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, IX, 55-7) and Milton's Paradise Lost (II, 611). Guarding the doorway to the world of the dead, she prevents the living from entering.

In Christian symbolism, Medusa represents the dreaded enemy and death, and thus becomes an embodiment of the Devil. She appears in this guise in a passage in the Book of Arthur which belongs to the cycle of the Holy Grail (Vulgate version of Arthurian romances, Vol. VII, Washington, 1913). In fact, this is a female monster, the 'Ugly Semblance', who lives at the bottom of a river. She does not exercise her powers by turning people to stone, but by causing the waters to swallow them up. Similarly, a play by Calderón, which tells of the adventures of Andromeda and Perseus (Fortunas de Andromeda y Perseo), has the hero, a new incarnation of the Saviour, defeating Medusa who is the personification of Death and Sin.

At first glance, therefore, Medusa's head is very much a representation of the terrifying Other, of absolute negativity. She continues to fulfil this function in the twentieth-century trilogy by the Greek writer Pandelis Prevelakis, The Ways of Creation, which comprises The Sun of Death (Athens, 1959; Paris, 1965), The Head of the Medusa (Athens, 1963) and The Bread of the Angels (Athens, 1966). In the trilogy, the Gorgon represents both 'Nietzschian nihilism' and the foreign ideologies which threaten Hellenism. The hero sets out to free Greece once again from the monster, but he fails and realizes that there is no longer a single piece of untaited land in his country. Everything points to the fact that the malady specific to modern Greece, and the country's inability to accommodate, change, have provoked this monstrous 'representation' of the Other. Medusa's head does indeed seem to be a mask which serves to justify her absolute and evil strangeness.

The fact that Medusa is a mask and that this mask hides a more human face, is borne out by the way in which her portrayal is developed from the pre-Classical era to the Hellenistic period. There is a dual transformation i.e. the disappearance of both facial quality and ugliness (see Images de la Gorgone, Bibliothéque Nationale, 1985). Beneath the mask lies what could be called Medusa's 'tragic beauty'.

THE MIRROR AND THE MASK

Many elements of the myth suggest, through its basic ambiguity, the tragic nature of Medusa. One of the most revealing of these is the gift from Athena to Asclepius of two drops of the Gorgon's blood, one of which has the power to cure and even resurrect, while the other is a deadly poison. Medusa's blood is therefore the epitome of the 'pharmakon', while she herself -- as is shown by the apotropaic function of her mask -- is a 'pharmakos'. As has been demonstrated by René Girard, the 'pharmakos' is the scapegoat whose sacrifice establishes the dual nature of the sacred and reinforces the separation of the monster and the god. However, it is for literature and the arts to reveal the close relationship between opposites and the 'innocence' of the victim. In this respect, the myth of Medusa is revealing. In his study The Mirror of Medusa (1983), Tobin Siebers has identified the importance of two elements, i.e. the rivalry between Athena and the Gorgon, and the mirror motif.

According to Ovid (Metamorphoses, IV. 779ff), the reason for the dispute lay in Poseidon's rape of Medusa inside the temple of the virgin goddess. The goddess is supposed to have punished Medusa by transforming her face, which therefore made Medusa an innocent victim for the second time. However, another tradition, used by Mallarmé in Les Dieux antiques (1880), stressed a more personal rivalry: Medusa had boasted that she was more beautiful than Athena. Everything points to the face that the goddess found it necessary to set herself apart from her negative double in order to assert her 'own' identity. Common features are numerous. For example, snakes are the attribute of Athena, as illustrated by the famous statue of Phidias and indicated by certain Orphic poems which refer to her as 'la Serpentine'. Moreover, the hypnotic stare is one of the features of the goddess 'with blue-green eyes', whose bird is the owl, depicted with an unblinking gaze. Finally, because she has affixed Medusa's head to her shield, in battle or in anger she assumes the terrifying appearance of the monster. Thus, in the Aeneid (11, 171), she expresses her wrath by making flames shoot forth from her eyes. These observations are intended to show that Athena and Medusa are the two indissociable aspects of the same sacred power.

A similar claim could be made in respect of Perseus, who retains traces of his association with his monstrous double, Medusa. Using her decapitated head to turn his enemies to stone, he spreads death around him. And when he flies over Africa with his trophy in a bag, through some sort of negligence, drops of blood fall to earth and are changed into poisonous snakes which reduce Medusa's lethal power (Ovid, op. cit., IV. 618). Two famous paintings illustrate this close connection between the hero and the monster. Cellini's Perseus resembles the head he is holding in his hand (as demonstrated by Siebers) and Paul Klee's L’esprit a combattu le mal (1904) portrays a complete reversal of roles -- Perseus is painted full face with a terrible countenance, while Medusa turns aside.

In this interplay of doubles, the theme of reflection is fundamental. It explains the process of victimization to which Medusa was subjected, and which falls within the province of the superstition of the 'evil eye'. The way to respond to the 'evil eye' is either to use a third eye -- the one that Perseus threw at the Graiae - or to deflect the evil spell by using a mirror. Ovid, in particular, stressed the significance of the shield in which Perseus was able to see the Gorgon without being turned to stone, and which was given to him by Athena. Everything indicates that the mirror was the real weapon. It was interpreted thus by Calderón and Prevelakis, and also by Roger Caillois in Méduse et Cie (1960).

Ovid was responsible for establishing the link with Narcissus, a myth that he made famous. It seems that the same process of victimization is at work here. The individual is considered to have been the victim of his own reflection, which absolves the victimizer (Perseus, the group) from all blame. This association of the two myths (and also the intention of apportioning blame) appears in a passage in Desportes' Amours d’Hyppolite (1573) where the poet tells his lady that she is in danger of seeing herself changed 'into some hard rock' by her 'Medusa's eye'. Even more revealing is Gautier's story Jettatura (1857) in which the hero, accused of having the 'evil eye', eventually believes it to be true and watches the monstrous transformation of his face in the mirror: 'Imagine Medusa looking at her horrible, hypnotic face in the lurid reflection of the bronze shield.'

Medusa's head is both a mirror and a mask. It is the mirror of collective violence which leaves the Devil's mark on the individual, as well as being the image of death for those who look at it. Both these themes -- violence rendered sacred and death by petrifaction -- are found in Das Corgonenhaupt (Berlin, 1972), a work by Walter Krüger about the nuclear threat.

However, when considered in terms of archetypal structures, Medusa's mask still retains its secret. What is the reason for the viperine hair, the wide-open mouth with the lolling tongue, and, in particular, why is Medusa female? What relationship is there between violence, holy terror and woman?

THE DISCONCERTING STRANGENESS OF THE FEMININE

Robert Graves (Greek Myths, 1958) believes that the myth of Perseus preserves the memory of the conflicts which occurred between men and women in the transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. In fact the function of the Gorgon's mask was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies and mysteries reserved for women, i.e. those which celebrated the Triple Goddess, the Moon. Graves reminds us that the Orphic poems referred to the full moon as the 'Gorgon's head'. The mask was also worn by young maidens to ward off male lust. The episode of Perseus' victory over Medusa represents the end of female ascendancy and the taking over of the temples by men, who had become the masters of the divine which Medusa's head had concealed from them.

Although it may have become less intense, the battle of the sexes was not resolved. The feminine continued to remain a source of fear for men, and the association of women with Medusa, evoked an aspect of the sex which was both fascinating and dangerous. Medusa often appeared in Renaissance poetry, e.g. Ronsard's Second Livre des Amours (S. 79, 1555), but the stare which turned men to stone was often only a conventional metaphor for the lover's 'coup de foudre'. The comparison took on a deeper meaning during the nineteenth century. Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) and 'decadent' literature such as Lorrain's M. de Phocas (1901), provide illustrations of the dangerous fascination exerted by woman, with her deadly stare and mysterious hair. But it was Goethe's Faust Part I (1808) which supplied the real significance of this connection. During the 'Walpurgis night,’ Faust thinks he sees Margarita but Mephistopheles warns him that it is Medusa and explains that 'magic deludes every man into believing that he has found his beloved in her'.

This terrible woman, the paragon of all women, whom every man simultaneously fears and seeks and for whom Medusa is the mask, is in fact the mother, i.e. the great Goddess Mother whose rites were concealed by the Gorgon's face. Countless texts illustrate Medusa's affinity with the depths of the sea and the terrible power of nature, e.g. Hugo's Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1864), Lautrémont's Chants de Maldoror (1869) and Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite (1896), but the most explicit example is probably the text written by Freud in 1922: Das Medusenhaupt -- 'Medusa's Head'. He presents her as the supreme talisman who provides the image of castration -- associated in the child's mind with the discovery of maternal sexuality -- and its denial. The snakes are multiple phalluses and petrifaction represents the comforting erection.

From this point onwards, the myth of Perseus takes on a new psychological meaning. It tells of the exploit of the hero who, because he has conquered ‘castrating' woman and armed himself with the talisman of Medusa's head (seen here in its comforting, phallic role), is able to conquer Andromeda, the terrifying virgin, and kill the sea monster which represents the evil aspect of woman. This motif is also found in the Christian legend of St George (Jacques de Voragine, La Légende dorée, (1264) as well as in the anthropological legends concerning the fear of the 'dentate vagina'. A 'sacred' man must perform the first sexual act with a woman.

Two texts illustrate this aspect of the myth. One is, the Book of Arthur (op. cit). in the passage devoted to the 'Ugly Semblance'. The monster occupies the lands of a maiden who not only asks the king for the assistance of a knight but also for a husband whom she describes as though he had always been intended for her. The task that he performs seems to have been the necessary requirement for his union with the Virgin. The story stresses the association of the monster with the element of water and, in particular, with the sea into which it has to be driven back. The second text is a short story by Döblin, Der Ritter Blaubart -- the 'Knight with the Blue Beard' (1911). Because the hero has had mysterious and intimate relations with a primitive monster -- a giant medusa -- he is forced to either kill all the women he loves or allow them to be killed. However, one of them, because of her purity, confronts the monster in the secret chamber where it lurks. In this last example, the character seems to have been unable to free himself from the maternal influence and fear of the feminine.

Finally, this association of Medusa with castrating woman is very evident in a passage in Chêne et Chien (1952) by Queneau: 'Severed head, evil woman/ Medusa with her lolling tongue/So it was you who would have castrated me?' However, the myth reveals -- and this seems to be obscured by the Freudian interpretation -- that woman's 'castration' is a result of the violence imposed on her by the original hero. Woman only appears in the story divided by separative decapitation, casting off the feminine in the remote depths of the world. Cast down, the feminine remains unrecognized within its innermost recess and it is this 'abject' void which maintains the theatre of the world and the logic of the talisman. In this theatre, woman occupies the two opposite extremes of evil (castration, sorcery) and their cure (the phallus, the Virgin), i.e. of the abyss and the Ideal. That is why, despite her terrifying power, she is fascinating. 'Fascinum' means 'charm' and 'evil spell', but also 'virile member'. Between the 'emptiness' and the Idol represented by the division of woman, yawns the gulf of male Desire. This persistent ambiguity can be found in the classification of the creature called the medusa. It owes its name to its resemblance to Medusa's head (Apollinaire, Bestiaire, 1920), but is included in the Acephelan category. Medusa keeps her secret behind the ambiguous mask. Although she is 'representable', she is never 'presentable' and even Perseus only sees her reflected in his shield. She is the hidden presence, absent from the world, which enables the scene to be played out. In his 'heroic comedy' Le Naufrage de Méduse (1986), Ristat shows Perseus searching for the Gorgons and meeting Hermes, the 'Guardian of Resemblances', who proves to the terrified hero that 'Medusa herself is only a shadow'.

However, the hero remains trapped in the interplay of images and the logic of the talisman, just as he remains fascinated by the Gorgon mask. Thus Medusa's head becomes, for the man who takes possession of it after severing it from the terrifying woman, and in accordance with the principle of the 'pharmakon', the complete opposite, i.e. the 'skeptron' -- the sun.

‘O MEDUSA, O SUN'

In the same way that there is a hidden similarity between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Medusa, a similarity also exists between the sun, symbol of the Ideal and the Gorgon's mask. Although they are both objects of desire, Athena and the sun are unapproachable and terrifying for those who come too close. This danger is illustrated by the Platonic myth of Phaedrus (247-8e) in which the downfall of souls is brought about by an overpowering desire to see the sun. Certain structural elements from the myth of Medusa also reappear in the myth of the Cave (The Republic, 514-7a), i.e. fascination, averted eyes, violence inflicted on the philosopher, etc.

In his poem (op. cit.), Queneau maintains that the sun, like the Gorgon, is fearsome and castrating: 'The sun: O monster, O Gorgon, O Medusa/O sun'. In this way, Medusa herself can become an incarnation of the Ideal, i.e. of Virtue (Du Bellay, Epithalame, 1559), of Beauty (Baudelaire, op. cit., 'La Beauté') and of Truth (Kosmas Politis, Eroica, Athens, 1938). Surely the sun itself is the severed head that, like the head of St John the Baptist, only soars in the zenith: 'In triumphant flights/from that scythe' (Mallarmé, Hérodiade, 'Cantique de saint Jean', 1913). Whoever seeks Athena, finds Medusa's head. Whoever approaches too close to the sun discovers its castrating and castrated monstrousness (Bataille, L’Anus Solaire, 1931).

Although Nietzsche had embarked upon the destruction of all idols, he too, in this way, recognized the desire for death inherent in the desire for truth at any cost. The philosopher who wants to examine all things 'in depth', discovers the petrifying abyss. The destiny of the man whom Nietzsche refers to as 'the Don Juan of knowledge' will be paralyzed as if by Medusa, and will himself be 'changed into a guest of stone' (Morgenröte i.e. the Dawn of Day, 327, 1881). This is also the destiny of the 'lover of truth' who, in the Dionysos Dithyramben (1888) appears to be 'changed into a statue/into a sacred column'. Nietzsche, who was aware of the necessity 'for the philosopher' to live within the 'closed circuit of representation' (Derrida), to seek the truth even if he no longer believes in it, without ever being able to attain it, devised his own version of the 'truth', his Medusa's head, the Eternal Return: 'Great thought is like Medusa's head: all the world's features harden, a deadly, ice-cold battle' (Posthumous Fragments, Winter 1884-5).

All thinkers who reflect upon the nature of representation, as well as on thought which pursues the 'eidos' are in danger of confronting Medusa's head. Thus, Aristotle, in The Politics (VIII) differentiates between instructive and cathartic music which is associated with Bacchic trances, whose instrument is the flute and which should be avoided. To prove his point, he refers to the myth of Athena. When she played the flute, her face became so distorted that she abandoned the instrument. It was in fact she who had invented the flute to imitate an unknown sound, virtually unrepresentable, i.e. the hissing of the snakes on Medusa's head as she was decapitated (Pindar, The Pythian Odes, XII, 2-3). As she played, she noticed in a spring that her features were becoming distorted and assuming the appearance of the Gorgon's mask. This once more introduces the Narcissistic theme and the blurring of the difference between Athena and her rival, which here arises from tragic art. Therefore, in terms of philosophy, art should remain in the service of the 'eidos' by continuing to represent the image that arouses desire for the Object.

But it is also condemned if it presents the object in such an obvious manner that the remoteness of desire degenerates into dangerous enjoyment. This partly explains Tournier’s condemnation of image and photography in La Goutte d'Or (1985). He explicitly links their power to Medusa's petrifying fascination and contrasts them with the art of writing which is the art of education and the route to wisdom 'par excellence'.

It would seem that the fear experienced at the sight of Medusa's head is the terror of discovering the secret behind the representation of the image.

From Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes. Ed. Pierre Brunel. Routledge, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Routledge.


Visual Representations of Medusa

 

medusa1.jpg (179423 bytes)
Medusa head frieze of 2nd century A.D. from the architrave of Didyma, Hellenistic Temple of Apollo.
Photograph by Don Keller
Online Source: http://perseus.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/

 

 

medusa2.jpg (20854 bytes)
Head of Medusa. Flemish Artist, 16th Century.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Online Source: http://www.arca.net/uffizi/img/1479.jpg

 

 

medusa3.jpg (86851 bytes)
Medusa by Caravaggio (1573-1610).
The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Online Source: http://sunsite.dk/cgfa/caravagg/p-caravag2.htm

 

 

medusa4.jpg (66608 bytes)
Perseus and Medusa. Benenuto Cellini. Bronze, 18 feet high. 1545-54. Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy.
Online Source: http://www.bluffton.edu/sullivanm/lanzi/whole.jpg

Detail

medusa5.jpg (194124 bytes)

 

 

medusa6.jpg (117889 bytes)
Perseus beheading Medusa.
Online Source:
http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/Perseus1.html

 

Return to Louise Bogan