The Tempestuous Loveliness of Terror: A Few Thoughts on Medusa

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I borrowed the florid title of this post from the Romantic poet Shelley, who wrote a poem on Leonardo da Vinci’s Medusa painting. In one of my previous posts (https://symbolreader.net/2013/08/11/light-and-matter-the-perseid-meteor-shower/) I talked about the mythical story of Perseus and I feel compelled today to add a little more on this hero’s journey with a sole focus on the monster that he slew by cutting her head off. There is a modern mystery school for women (http://www.sevensistersmysteryschool.com/home/), which organize rituals consisting in re-membering and restoring Medusa’s head. The ritual is described here for those interested. Its purpose is to undo all the wrongdoings that the sacred feminine suffered at the hands of the patriarchal establishment.

The history of Medusa starts with a beautiful princess with long auburn hair that she would comb and brush for hours every day. Medea had no shortage of suitors, one of whom was Poseidon. He arranged a tryst with her in Athena’s temple, which insulted the virgin goddess. She transformed Medusa’s hair in to nest of coiling, tangled snakes.

A modern interpretation of the myth may go like this: the Medusa prior to her transformation symbolized the sensual femininity, beauty, attractiveness and the openness to a relationship with a man. The monstrous Medusa, who turned anyone who looked at her into stone (symbolic of the rigidity of death), is another face of the Dark Goddess – the devouring, flesh-eating mother associated with the last, dark phase of the moon. Athena is the embodied intellect, the woman’s mind, and as a virgin goddess she also stands for independence and self-reliance, being able to stand without a man at her side, being whole unto herself. Medusa is Athena’s dark instinctual sister. This relationship was strengthened when Athena put the image of the monstrous feminine on her shield and used it in battle to scare off her enemies.

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In her book “Mysteries of the Dark Moon,” Demetra George, who breathed the divine feminine back into astrology, reflects on the meaning of Medusa. She writes:

Medusa and Athena are aspects of the same goddess who emerged from Lake Tritonis in Libya.  They are both associated with female wisdom, which is depicted in the serpent symbolism that surrounds them – Medusa with her serpent locks and Athena with her serpent-fringed aegis.  Medusa, as wise crone, holds the secrets of sex, divination, magic, death and renewal.  Athena, the eternal maiden, is linked with the new moon and presides over the female qualities of courage, strength and valor.

As Athena was absorbed into the classical Greek pantheon, she was the only one of the old goddesses who was elevated and respected, and she became part of the new ruling trinity along with Zeus and Apollo.  She had to pay a steep price for her supremacy in the new order.  First she was forced to deny her femininity and to sacrifice her sexuality, becoming a perpetually chaste virgin.  She was cut off from her cyclical nature, which included renewal through sexual rites.  She then promised to become champion of the patriarchy by using her warrior potency to denounce, slaughter, and conquer her matriarchal ancestors from Africa.

It is fascinating indeed, how Medusa is beheaded and how Athena is born out of Zeus’ head. Historically, the myth of Medusa slaying seems to be telling the story of replacing a matriarchal order and religion with the patriarchal one. The victors chose to portray the losers as evil demons.

The patriarchy, in their fear of the wise woman, of death, and of the magical sexual power of the menstruating feminine, demonized Medusa (as they did the other dark goddesses) into a monstrous figure of the devouring, castrating mother.

Slaying a monster is part of almost every archetypal hero’s journey. The symbolism of this is twofold. First, the hero must separate from his mother, who represents the regressive pull-back toward the safety of her womb. But once his separation is complete he must “reestablish a loving relationship to his inner dark feminine, “ says Demetra George.

It is quite striking that both Medusa and Andromeda (Perseus’ future wife) have names based on the same root, notices Richard P. Martins in his book Myths of the Ancient Greeks. The prefix “med-“ means “to devise” or “to use powerful means” and also to consider, reflect, advise, judge, estimate. We see this prefix in the word ‘meditate’ (meditation as the tool to sharpen and focus the mind) and also ‘medicine,’ which indicates that the doctor needs to shrewdly ‘measure, limit and consider’ in order to find the appropriate cure. Medusa’s blood had healing and restoring properties.

                Athena later gave two phials of Medusa’s blood to Asklepius, the God of Healing.  It was said that blood from her right vein could cure and restore life, and that the blood from her left vein could slay and kill instantly.  Others say that Athena and Asklepius divided the blood between them; he used it to save lives, but she to destroy and instigate wars.

Pegasus, the patron of poets, was son of Medea and Poseidon, born after Medea’s death. It is fitting then to conclude by invoking literature again. A serendipitous thing happened yesterday. Someone handed me a book of short stories, which I opened at a random page only to find a brilliant short story by A.S. Byatt called “Medusa’s Ankles.” I cannot even begin to tell you how much I loved that story. It is so beautiful and so forgiving of human frailty. The female protagonist is a middle-aged woman whose beauty is fading and who regularly visits a hair salon, where her hair is done by the owner himself. He understands her hair, accepting her for what she is:

He soothed her middle-aged hair into a cunningly blown and natural windswept sweep, with escaping strands and tendrils, softening brow and chin.

The salon is done in rosy hues with the pink colour scheme. On display is a painting by Matisse called Pink Nude, which the woman finds very beautiful and soothing.

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But one day the décor gets changed:

The Rosy Nude was taken down. In her place were photographs of girls with grey faces, coal-black eyes and spiky lashes, under bonfires of incandescent puce hair which matched their lips, rounded to suck, at microphones perhaps, or other things.

On that day the woman’s hair is done by a female assistant, who does terrible job of it. The description of female rage that comes afterwards is uncanny, both extremely funny and poignant.

She could only see dimly, for the red flood was like a curtain at the back of her eyes, but she knew what she saw. The Japanese say demons of another world approach us through mirrors as fish rise through water, and, bubble-eyed and trailing fins, a fat demon swam towards her, turret-crowned, snake-crowned, her mother fresh from the dryer in all her embarrassing irreality.

What follows is mayhem: Susannah smashes the whole hair salon to pieces.

She whirled a container of hairpins about her head and scattered it like a nailbomb. She tore dryers from their sockets and sprayed the puce punk with sweet-smelling foam.

But it is the ending of the story that melted my heart. The owner reassures her and tells her that such a fit could happen to anybody. He says insurance will take care of everything and he pours her a cup of coffee. Now that is emotional security that every woman dreams of. Before Perseus could rescue Andromeda, his bride-to-be, from another sea monster, he placed the precious Medusa head on seaweed at the water’s edge. Only later did he discover that the seaweed had turned to beautiful coral.

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39 Responses to The Tempestuous Loveliness of Terror: A Few Thoughts on Medusa

  1. An interesting read, thank you !

  2. Don says:

    Fascinating. I’m struck again by so much in the myth. What I particularly find interesting, and please I say this only too aware of the profound impact of Patriarchy on the feminine, is that it is the dark feminine side that transforms Medusa. I wonder if it isn’t true that sometimes it’s the feminine who becomes an added and extremely difficult obstacle to its own growth and unfolding. I’ve noticed at times that women can easily turn on one another and cause enormous harm to their own cause. It’s a very saddening thing to see when it happens. I wince as I say this because I know it’s easy to speak from a male perspective, but there are times when women can be their own worse enemies. The devouring flesh-eating Mother is a frightening thing.

    • I know what you are saying and I also know that you are very far from rigid patriarchy in all that you write and what impression you make on me. The danger of the dark feminine is real and I think Athena is a necessary counterbalance to it.

  3. yet another masterpiece of analysis and presentation.

  4. Lovely and so well put together. The red thread being what concludes, the whole article takes on a vested meaning. The archetypes of the female, Medusa (I also am reminded of Medea for some unknown reason), Athena, Artemis are such needed counterparts to their male equivalent: Apollo, Zeus, Hermes, Hector.
    In those female archetype I see almost a greater power, as though the female side of a person would be able to influence events to a greater extent, whilst the male counterpart guide them.
    Fascinating article, and I love that you pour yourself into it sideways, via your sensitivity and own qualms and queries. Love that Matisse too.
    Thanks for a lovely read.

    • Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful comment and for reblogging this post on psychologypathology (I had to smile when I saw the name of your blog). It is true that what I write is always very personal and a reflection of what is going on in my life. I also think that Medea and Medusa are close to each other, not only because of the name.
      All my best,
      Monika

  5. Reblogged this on psychologypathology and commented:
    A wonderful and personal exposition of female archetypes.

  6. saraannon says:

    He isn’t talked about much, but Pegasus’ twin brother Chrysoar the Golden Boar also sprang forth from Medusa …I’d love to know more about him.

    • Yes, thank you. He definitely deserves to be mentioned as his character is also rich symbolically. As far as I know, pigs were sacrificial animals to Demeter. The fact that he had wings of course suggests sublimation and the divine nature of instincts. I have been reading recently a great book by Hillman on animal symbolism and I loved what he had to say about pigs: “The pig initiates consciousness into the subtleties of grossness: its exaggerated compulsive physicality is the very drive downward into the mystery of life’s materiality, the Pluto-Hecate world of darkness under the earth of Demeter, requiring a dark eye that can see the psychic in the concrete, the subtle body in the gross obsession, that the suksma aspect is in the midst of the shtula, that there is spirit, light, and fire in the fat.”

  7. Henry Jekyll says:

    It seems as though the suppression of the feminine, especially within the Abrahamic traditions, has led to the current state of crisis confronting much of humanity. Re-awakening and embracing the Divine feminine is necessary to restore balance in this insane dominator culture that is intent upon self-destruction. Another wonderful read Monika.

  8. This is just amazing! All the symbolism immersed in mythology is just fascinating, I hope we continue unlocking the mysteries behind history.

  9. Stuff Jeff Reads says:

    As always, a very thoughtful and interesting post. I was particularly intrigued by the interpretation of Medusa as the dark half of Athena, kind of the negative aspect of knowledge. It is like, staring solely into the face of knowledge without arts and humanity to temper it will turn one’s heart, and soul, to stone. Thanks! 🙂

    • Nice interpretation – Athena is not complete without her dark sister. I once had a very vivid and convoluted Jungian dream – I will not bore you with details – but in the end of it drops of blood were transported in the air somehow and landed on all my books. I had a sense of revelation then.

      • Stuff Jeff Reads says:

        LOL – I suspect that I would not be bored with the details. I am curious, though, where the drops of blood originated from. For me, that would be a key component in interpreting the symbolism of the dream.

        Cheers, and thanks for sharing that!

      • OK, you asked for it. A man and a woman were on a bed (it was my bedroom in my parents’ house, but I was not the woman in the dream), they were a couple and they were arguing – he was criticizing her, I think, which made her angry (I had this dream about 10 years ago, so it is a bit blurry). Suddenly she took out a golden manicure tool and deliberately cut into the man’s liver, which started bleeding profusely and attracted those black flies that carried the blood drops towards the bookcase.

      • Stuff Jeff Reads says:

        Thanks for sharing all that. I gave it some thought as I was out on my morning run and here is my interpretation (probably different from yours).

        I see the bed at your parents’ house as the place where you probably spent much of your time reading and contemplating. The man and the woman symbolize patriarchal / feminist interpretations of art and literature. The patriarchal archetype is threatened by feminist reinterpretation of the literary canon. The female archetype realizes that new interpretations will only become a reality when she symbolically kills the dominant patriarchal paradigm (enter golden manicure tool). Finally, the flies carrying the drops of blood to the bookshelf completes the cycle of bringing new life (or new interpretation) to the books which you had been reading. When something dies, it is the flies and the maggots that dispose of the remnants of flesh and allow new life to generate. As the established patriarchal views die, new interpretations can blossom in its place.

        Sorry for the long reply, but I got inspired. 🙂 Now, back to work.

      • That is beautiful, Jeff! I totally agree. And along the way I also had to ‘kill’ my inner patriarchal male – I used to be much more ‘dry’ and intellectual back during my university years. You are a great interpreter.

      • Stuff Jeff Reads says:

        🙂

  10. Ha, better lose your hair than your head, I understand 🙂

  11. shreejacob says:

    I really liked the information about Athena and Medusa!! Thank you for that 🙂
    The more I read your posts, the more in awe I am of the knowledge that you hold! 😀

  12. Wonderful post. Did your research take you down the path of kundalini (serpents)?

  13. inspirational and serendipitous…

  14. GIAN says:

    I will immediately take hold of your rss as I can’t find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Kindly allow me recognize in order that I could subscribe. Thanks.

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