What female character gets the worst deal in all of Greek mythology? Is it Helen, called a “bitch” in one translation of the Odyssey, who leaves her husband Menelaus for Paris of Troy, her face thus supposedly launching a thousand ships and a 10-year-long, bloody war?
Nope. Not quite. Is it Pandora, the Eve character of Greek myth, who opens her “box” and lets out all the evils of the world? Not even. It’s Medusa, to my reckoning. You’ll know her as the snaky-haired, dreadful-faced monster whose decapitated head the hero Perseus is gripping by the serpentine locks in the great Benvenuto Cellini sculpture; as the terrifying creature whose glance turns people to stone.
Medusa’s story comes from very deep in Greek mythography: in the Theogony, by the 8th-century BC poet Hesiod, she is described as being the child of Phorcys and Ceto, chthonic sea deities. In various versions of her story she has sisters, among whom are the Graiae, a trio of women who share a single eye between them. It is in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses that her story is most deeply elaborated. She was lovely, according to the poem—until she was raped in Athena’s temple by Poseidon. Athena then punished her for this violation, by turning her into the monstrous, stony-glanced creature that we know. Yes:
punished for being raped.
In classical sources, in fact, she’s not always monstrous. “Beautiful cheeked,” is how the poet Pindar describes her in the 5th century. But what’s certainly true is that she becomes progressively more monstrous in post-classical retellings of her story. She and her sisters have white tusks “like pigs” according to Roger Lancelyn Green. For Edith Hamilton, Medusa and her Gorgon sisters are, it is true, rather less awful—“creatures with great wings and bodies covered in golden scales.”
It is Nathaniel Hawthorne who really goes to town. “Their brazen claws, horrible to look at, were thrust out, and clutched the wave-beaten fragments of rock, while the sleeping Gorgons dreamed of tearing some poor mortal all to pieces.” (There’s no mention, let it be said, of Gorgons tearing humans to shreds in any ancient sources.)
As Mary Beard has pointed out, it is hard not to see in Medusa’s snaky, phallic locks an implied claim on male power, which has to be symbolically cut off at the root (Freud’s castration fantasy). That’s surely why, during the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s supporters produced an image, made into merchandise, that depicted him as Cellini’s heroic Perseus, with the defeated, screaming head of Hillary Clinton clasped in his hand.
But Medusa has also been reclaimed by feminist writers and artists. French theorist Hélène Cixous, for example, called her 1971 demand for an écriture feminine (a non-patriarchal form of rhetoric) “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The 20th-century American poet May Sarton elided the idea of the Gorgon and the idea of the jellyfish (the creature is called, in Italian and Spanish, medusa) in her tellingly titled poem “The Muse as Medusa.” “I looked you straight in the cold eye, cold,” runs the poem. “I was not punished, was not turned to stone—/How to believe the legends I am told?” How, indeed? As Cixous wrote, “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”