The Suffering of Perseus and Medusa

“I wasn’t hurt enough when I should have been, Kino admitted to himself. When I should have felt real pain, I stifled it. I didn’t want to take it on, so I avoided facing up to it. Which is why my heart is so empty now. The snakes have grabbed that spot and are trying to hide their coldly beating hearts there.”

Haruki Murakami, “Kino”, a short story included in the collection “Men Without Women”

This is so typical of Murakami’s writing. Although the passage seems ascetic, it opens a vast psychological space. The snakes offer a startling image, which immediately brings to mind the myth of Medusa. I have already approached her here but Murakami made me think of her again. Coincidentally, I have recently seen a BBC documentary “Civilizations”, where in episode 5, “The Triumph of Art”, Simon Schama devoted some time to Benvenuto Cellini’s masterpiece “Perseus with the Head of Medusa.” Several years ago I was lucky to see the sculpture at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Schama marveled at the beauty of Medusa and at the emotional power of the whole piece. He said:

“All the ancients Perseuses and Medusas were contrasts between beauty as hero and grotesque Gorgon. Not here. Cellini has the genius crazy idea of making them interchangeably androgynously beautiful. Boy girl, girl boy both looking down, even the hairdos aren’t actually that different – tousled curls of writhing snakes. Cellini is a sorcerer, an alchemist. He has made hard metal sweat with the exertion of killing. He has turned that hot alloy back into liquid, the blood coursing through the hero’s body, the blood pouring from Medusa’s sliced away neck. And remember, even dead, her looks can kill you.”

Benvenuto Cellini, “Perseus with the Head of Medusa”

The myth of Medusa can be interpreted on so many different levels. For Valerie Estelle Frankel, author of From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend, the myth pertains to the haling of the wounded shadow. When Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, the goddess is so outraged that she turns Medusa into a monster. This frozen monster form serves as defense against a deep trauma:

“Medusa is safe forever in her monster form, safer even than Athena in her armor. This form has defenses: the venom of the snakes, the banishment to the impenetrable underworld, and the famous petrifying gaze. Medusa’s stare is the ultimate power—one that says “No, don’t come any closer!

Medusa dwells in the underworld, crouched in the safety of this still half-life, where nothing changes, where no one dies or is born or is harmed.”

On the one hand, the head of Medusa represents “a source of feminine power raped by male authority.” However, she may also stand for the wounded heart, the bottled up fury of all of us, regardless of gender. Comes Perseus as the wounded masculine hero:

“Medusa senses someone is there and turns her gaze on him. But he is a victim as she is, cast into the seas by his grandfather, ignored by his father, with mother and self endangered by the patriarchy in the form of King Polydectes. Perseus holds the mirror that to inner self, but more, he is Medusa’s inner self, the frightened child behind the rage-filled gaze that Medusa cannot outstare.

Confronted with this wounded hero so like herself, Medusa succumbs and allows her barriers to be broken, allows her return to the world above. This, like all growth, requires great pain; Perseus’ sword slices Medusa’s head from her body. But there is also glorious birth as children, once sired by Poseidon, spring forth: Pegasus, beloved of the Muses, and the golden hero Chrysaor. Walling herself off has resulted in stagnation, isolation, as Medusa rages and nurses her wounds. But until now, she has failed to grow beyond them. With a sword-strike, with a mirror, Perseus opens her to her painful past, forcing her to confront it, accept it, and move forward. Medusa is no longer frozen, unable to give birth to her desires and needs. She can finally return to life.”

Master Cellini managed to show just that in his sculpture – Perseus and Medusa united in their human suffering.

This entry was posted in Medusa, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Suffering of Perseus and Medusa

  1. It’s how I interpret the myth. Presently using it in a free way in the sequel to a mythopoetic novel I self-published.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have written about this myth before but only now do I feel closer to understanding it. I also resonated with Italo Calvino’s take on the myth.

      I appreciate your comment and your blog as well.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s