When it comes to Greek/Roman mythology, nothing makes me more angry than the story of Medusa. Although the myth changes throughout history, Medusa was punished for being raped in Athena/Minerva’s temple, and that punishment was to have her hair transformed into serpents along with the power to turn people who looked at her to stone, although it’s not clear if she could control this power. She becomes ugly and alone.
Medusa’s tale has changed over time from a seductress to a rape victim to, more recently, an icon who has stepped into her own power and embraced her anger as in Ann Stanford’s 1977 ”Medusa.” In another poem, she’s celebrated as a women who seeks retribution for enslaved and marginalized people as in Jamaican poet Shara McCallum’s “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa.” (read here.)
Throughout the ages, Medusa and her hair have been discussed and parsed. Hair, of course, is associated with female beauty. How a person wears her hair represents how controlled she is, her sexuality. Medusa’s Hair possibly even represents female genitalia and the power to frighten and psychologically castrate men according to Freud. Although what Freud had to say about Medusa’s head makes little sense to me, it involves something along the lines of the snakes being phallic and so a cut off snake head reminds a guy that his beloved penis can possibly be chopped off. Or it represents a scary vagina.
In any case, Medusa has rightly gained recognition as a sort of everywoman. As Uma Thurman states, Medusa is a woman who was punished for her own rape. And it has been pointed out that Athena herself was first in line asking Medusa the equivalent of what were you wearing?
So what about Athena? She’s the one who laid the curse and put a bounty on Medusa’s head. She saw Medusa getting raped as a sign of disrespect to her temple. Yes, it was all about her. Eventually Athena even wore Medusa’s head on her breastplate as a weapon. What’s up with the bitch Athena? As goddess who sprung from Zeus’s head (since he had eaten her mother), Athena represents a woman fully invested in the patriarchy. She had to go along to get along. But, as many women who rise to power and then stab other’s in the back, she needed Medusa and robbed her power to get by. Damn, to be nice to a fallen women would make her look bad.
Athena’s a bitch but a predictable one. Studies have shown that women are likely to be snarky to other women, especially if that women has something appealing about them. The theory is that women have to keep men, not other women, happy in order to survive in this patriarchal world and take their frustrations out on each other. Athena was outranked by the rapist (Poseidon) and couldn’t punish him so she was mean to Medusa. Women aged 20-25 are the most likely to be “mean girls.” This is also around the time when estrogen levels peak. Estrogen makes animals, both male and female, more aggressive. One could say that Athena was simply flaunting her estrogen and being a prude at the same time.
In any case, Medusa has become an apotropaic symbol, a guardian meant to keep away evil and symbolize survivorship. She is popular in film, plays, and on tattoos. There’s even a guppy, a galaxy, and a nebula named after her. Yes, she survived.
It’s always a good idea to take a look at the symbolism behind a story. When the myth was first told, snakes were the symbol of rebirth and favored by the god Bacchus/Dionysus. We all know him, that god of wine. Snake hair with a stone-cold twist could thus possibly be a symbol of someone uptight punishing another for being too free and not protecting her innocence.
The hard partying festival of Bacchanalia, a Bacchus party, occurs right now, this week in April. It began a couple thousand years ago as a female only festival in Rome and morphed into a mad orgy, drawing the ire and later suppression tactics of respectable citizens. (You can almost draw parallels between Medusa and Eve here. This is a story about a female who should not have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, perhaps.) One could say it’s Medusa Party Week for outcasts everywhere. Either she was birthed from terror or is a terror herself, but raise a glass, read a provocative book, and celebrate the gorgon, cuz Medusa has been reborn and she’s got a following.