MEDUSA MYTHS: THE PREJUDICES PEOPLE TAKE FOR GRANITE
The name “Medusa” does not mean “monster” or “terrible” or anything else you might expect–it actually means “protector.”
That’s what etymologist Jess Zafarris writes, anyway: It derives from the Greek “medeiun,” meaning “to defend,” although it can also mean “rule over,” also in the sense of being a guardian or keeper of a place or thing.
I bring this up because a couple weeks ago, during a virtual lecture on Lilith by Satanism scholar Per Faxneld, someone in the audience noted that some ancient Lilith illustrations grant her serpentine hair, and asked if there was any relationship between the characters?
Faxneld said there’s no formal ties between the legends, but that people may be tempted to conflate them because they are both monstrous, marginalized women whom audiences may feel have been unjustly vilified.
Oh man, doc: Sit down and let me tell you a story…
Almost everyone in the world recognizes the image of Medusa and her writhing locks, despite the magically reinforced taboo against looking at her.
In his sprawling first century (first decade, in fact) epic Metamorphoses, Roman poet and law school dropout Ovid wrote:
“Medusa was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties, none was more admired than her hair. Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the gorgon’s hair to foul snakes.”
If you’re blinking mutely at those words and waiting for the planets to align in such a way that they’ll suddenly make sense, you can stop now: That Neptune’s “violation […] might not go unpunished,” Minvera lays a curse on…Medusa.
Imagine if someone robbed a bank and you responded by shooting the people who printed the money.
The story is much older than Ovid, of course, and like all legends it changes: Thomas Bullfinch’s book The Age of Fable relates that Medusa was cursed because she “dared to vie with in beauty with Minvera” (her half-sister, in some tellings).
Which is technically less infuriating, to the same degree that someone just throwing a bullet at you really hard is not so bad as actually being shot.
But particularly in the Internet age, the tale of Medusa the unjustly punished victim is the most oft-cited–made even more aggravating by the subsequent fable of her “heroic” murder at the hands of intruding Mycenaean fuckboy Perseus, which seemed a little suspect at the best of times.
Curator Kiki Karoglou notes that, “In a male-centered society, the feminization of monsters served to demonize women.”
Over the centuries, though, artists took to depicting Medusa as less monstrous and more human, perhaps motivated by her Women In Refrigerators-style story.
However, Karoglou also points out that these beautiful images “represent a conflicting view of femininity, one that is seemingly alluring but with a threatening or sinister underside,” and thus are probably as much or more about the (male) artists’ hang-ups as about Medusa as a subject.
In any case, we can certainly draw lines between and around Medusa and Lilith–as outcast women, as monstrous and the mothers of monsters, and as almost invariably sympathetic to Modern Satanist sensibilities. Heck, both hair and serpents are common Lilith tropes, albeit rarely combined.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that I’ve met many Satanists who find Medusa imagery compelling, and sometimes flirt with appropriating her as Satanic symbolism.
Granted, Medusa has basically nothing to do directly with our common devil myth. But as a subject in art and popular culture, she (and here I’m going to use a highly technical term) FEELS like she fits in–particularly during this time of year when our love of monstrous things waxes strongest.
But note also that the Medusa discourse has gotten REALLY weird in recent years. And that the phrase “Medusa discourse” should make us each stare into the void for at least two minutes before regathering our faculties and somehow slogging on.
Commenting (if we may stretch the word in unkind ways…) on Italian artist Luciano Garbati’s statue Medusa With the Head of Perseus, surrealist/imploding red star Daniel Miller whined that our cultural treatment of Medusa “expresses a more widespread decline in symbolic literacy,” a statement with very strong “Girls don’t want to date nice guys” energy.
In response, author Anwen Kya Hayward points out that what Miller prizes as the “original version” of the myth (Ovid’s) is itself an appropriation and alteration of an older story, and that “myth has been changed according to ideological prejudices since time immemorial.”
Provoking me into slapping the table, shouting “DAAAAAAAAMN,” and jogging around the living room while shotgunning half a carton of apple juice.
Miller’s response to this response is to argue that “Medusa’s decapitation is the decapitation of her trauma” and thus actually inspiring (?!), and that we have to metaphorically kill one victim so that all others can be free of “the cult of victimhood” (!?).
Which is the moment at the party where most people would leap from the nearest balcony in hopes of excusing themselves from this conversation.
Lots of other people lodged opinions about the statue: whether or not it was feminist art, whether or not Garbati was a good candidate to make such a statement, whether his figure of Medusa is appropriate, and also just whether it’s actually any good.
Ultimately though, Anwen Kya Hayward is (unsurprisingly) correct: Just as with Satan, it is not only within our power to reassess and repossess ancient myths, symbols, and ideas, that is in fact the very utility of those myths.
And just as with Satan, boring intellectual blackholes like Miller want to insist, “No, you can’t, you mustn’t, think of the children,” etc.
I’m often a classicalist myself: I frequently feel moved and compelled by the endurance of words, images, tropes, and ideas throughout centuries or millennia.
Old things are not, however, good because they happen to be old, or because they represent some boring fascistic make-believe cultural heritage handed down to us through the damp, Jung-infused aether of history by valkyries or whatever shit.
A classic is good if it continues to be useful, fulfilling, and identifiable in modern contexts–the only contexts that exist now or will exist ever again.