I’ve always been intrigued by Medusa. No, it was never those pretty white goddesses for me – not Demeter, not Aphrodite, not Persephone, not even the relatively assertive ones like Hera or the warrior Athena. It was always Medusa that held me captivated for hours as I wondered about her. I have always wondered about how, it is expressly Medusa’s head and not her mind that symbologists, mythologists and scholars of archetypes have preoccupied themselves with. I don’t blame them, for the writhing, attention-seeking snakes that fester in her head can be perversely fascinating and outrightly repulsive at once.
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But what if the snakes on Medusa’s head were just an attempt at a subterfuge, conveniently encoded, interpreted and passed on? What if they were not snakes on her head but thoughts in her mind that were so transgressive, so radical, so frightening to conformists and worshippers of the status-quo that they were given the attribute of snakes? Interestingly, snakes acquired a negative connotation only after the goddess cultures were razed by the Northern invaders. The Lithuanian-American archaeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas observes how the snake was one of the central symbols of the Goddess civilisations of “Old Europe” closely associated with fertility which gradually came to symbolise evil even as patriarchal races took over. This is reiterated by Merlin Stone too in her book When God Was a Woman.
So coming back to Medusa’s frightening appearance, Medusa’s femininity consolidates all that is seen as non-conformist, transgressive and in turn, threatening in a patriarchal society. She is also one of the three Gorgons which is interesting in itself since Gorgons are mythical creatures at the evil extreme of the good and evil binary in Greek mythology (the dictionary defines the gorgon as “a fierce, frightening and repulsive woman” beyond its mythological meaning). Interestingly Medusa’s revolting appearance can be attributed to Athena, the goddess of war and Zeus’ daughter (without a mother) who turned Medusa’s beautiful locks into serpents to punish her for her sexual transgression with Poseidon. It is noteworthy how free expression of sexuality by one woman becomes an unforgiveable offence for another.
Other retellings of the myth talk about Medusa’s rape by Poseidon and her subsequent punishment at the hands of Athena. How different was it then from now? A woman subjected to anything ranging from censure to damnation and having to pay in addition to being raped, chastised and shamed by other women. I can’t help but remember the several retellings of the Gautam-Ahilya-Indra myth which sometimes foreground Ahilya’s sexual consent and sometimes her ravishment by Indra in disguise but are unanimous and equivocal in describing her punishment through petrification. As much as Medusa symbolises a feminine sexuality and feminine energy, Athena stands for masculine energy emanating from a feminine body. Remember, Athena is Zeus’s daughter who springs from his head, not from the womb of a woman. So Athena has only a father, not a mother so to speak; also she does not have a childhood.
Medusa is beheaded by Perseus and this is symbolic of a second assault on her head. “Hack off the head that is different” seems to be the sub-text here. And what’s more, Perseus used her head as a weapon to petrify adversaries, in other words turn them to stone. Even when dead, Medusa had the power to turn people to stone. Perseus was also aided in his destruction of the pregnant Medusa by who else but predictably, Athena. Eventually he gifts Medusa’s head to Athena who also weaponises it. Thus Medusa at a symbolic level is that woman who exists, acts and thinks autonomously outside the pale of normative society and therefore is dreaded. The projection of fear and dread is on her head and her head alone that symbolically harbours the mind.
Poets, writers, artists and philosophers have had a long standing, often adversarial, relation with Medusa. They are at once drawn to and repulsed by her: attracted and terrified at the same time. Ugly or otherwise, the serpents writhing and crawling on her head bespeak activity and movement suggesting a mind that is alive, awake with a life force and a momentum of its own and if one were to extend the serpent metaphor, also a mind that can attack, resist and spew venom if need be.
So Athenas conditioned by patriarchy need to demonise the minds of the Medusas; and Perseuses are summoned to then behead the Medusas of the world, to rid the world of such contumelious and malevolent women. Does the act of Perseus beheading Medusa but retaining her head as a fancy weapon to terrify adversaries say anything about the politics of owning and appropriating? I read it as laying claim over a woman’s mind or appropriating what was truly and originally her strength and prowess or subduing a woman different from her creed?
Besides other things, Medusa is also a terribly wronged mother, a mutilated maternal figure whose death led to the birth of her offspring. So as a mother and a woman both, she is symbolic of an arrested trauma who was deprived of the experience of mothering, perhaps because she was different and would not have fit into the normative construct of patriarchal motherhood.
So coming back to Medusa’s Mind, there could be thoughts that manifest themselves in this column that are not exactly savoury or palatable, that might antagonise some and unsettle others because they contest and challenge the given and the acceptable. But they will surely fascinate, impelling one to go beyond the agonising exterior of the Gorgon penetrating the emblem/weapon she has been reduced to and lead to a reconciliation with reflections, opinions and musings that are off the beaten track. Seemingly normal institutions like religion, family and marriage will be problematised and presented through a feminist lens broadly within the context of motherhood and parenting in this column. Travesties can be dissected, reconfigured and celebrated, narratives and constructs of motherhood, childhood, romance and love read against the grain, hegemonic systems challenged and established ways of knowing interrogated, absolutes dismembered and alternative truths introduced: because the serpents in Medusa’s Mind do not know how to rest. They writhe and work incessantly because there is still a lot that remains to be said.
Featured image source: TribecaCitizen
A wonderful read. Here too, in Indian narratives, we might have similar reasons to represent woman as Manasa rebelling against Shiva… a very patriarchal proposition to represent the sbaltern feminine voice against the established hegemony of the elite… refer Manasamangal if possible
What we always thought of Medusa was a woman wronged cursed but then proved to be a boon to save the world. But thank you for bringing out more of her and getting to know her better as a woman.