Guardian of the Abyss
A tragedy that inspired the most powerful feminist archetype of the 21st century
“...I grow snakes for hair to hold the venom secreted from this heart loaded too heavily with all they hate about themselves. If they hiss, it's only because like any monster, I have long since lost my own right to scream"
-Jennifer Yeates Camara
Welcome to the Folklore Studios of Berkana city! Here we decipher myths and folklore and question everything we know to be true about our cultural fears and shadows. I have spent the last few weeks traveling and dabbling in history while aligning my vacation spirit with my curiosity for folklore, myths, and history. As the winter is preluding its arrival and long dark hours lurking about, I often find myself immersed in thoughts about the casual horrors integrated into lores, myths, and fairytales. Since the dawn of human civilization, stories have been tools to externalize the inner doings of a mind. In the exhaustive work of narrative genius, we exude our imaginations, fascinations, compulsions, fixations, fears, madness, and abominations. We tread on hope with a shiver of recognition for our shadows which follow right behind us as faithful companions. These shadows are edifices of grimace, reflective of all the horror and angst we are capable of inducing through our incredulity and defiance against existential erasure. So there goes the prophetic predicaments, the penniless bard’s precarious verse of people and places tossed around in exchange for bread and wine. There goes the faith-inducing sacraments contested eternally for their originality. There goes centaurs, gorgons, and ghosts in their mortifying forms fleshed out of hauntings of a perplexing human mind. One story that stands out the most with its grotesque cruelty is the ancient Greek/Roman myth of Medusa, at least the version told by Ovid. The origin of the myth is a topic of debate amongst many scholars. I tend to ask myself with great unease if the unsettling myth was inspired by a tortured rape victim’s narrative. I tend to imagine Ovid being a spectator in the public execution of a rape victim. Maybe the poet wanted to speculate the victim's innocence through his reformation of the existing myth. Medusa turning into a hideous monster as a result of the cruelty unleashed on her by both Gods and humans is a metaphor for the dehumanization and outcasting of the victim in our society. It questions the normalization of rape and physical abuse in a patriarchal culture and the consequential loss of innocence the victim suffers.
Let us granularly decipher all the characters in Ovid’s tale of Medusa, and analyze their motivations and role in the creation and demise of our beloved gorgon. Perhaps then, we will be able to use our understanding of the cultural ostracization of victims to fight similar discrimination in our contemporary world.
Monster in the Hide
Let us recollect the story of Medusa as a refresher to the chronology of the double-faceted crime of which she became a fated victim. Scholars and historians believe that the earliest recorded origin story of Medusa was found in the work of Greek poet Hesiodos of Askre, dated back to the 17th century BCE, in his poem Theogonia. As per Hesiodos, Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa were the three gorgon daughters born to parents Keto and Phorkys, both Gods. All three were born with scaled skin and snaky hair, the only difference between them, he stated, was the fact that Sthenno and Euryale were immortals while Medusa was a mortal. In fact, throughout the poem, there were no traces of rape or Medusa being a victim at all. The following were the words Hesiodos used to describe the consensual relationship between her and Poseidon,
“τῇ δὲ μιῇ παρελέξατο Κυανοχαίτης
ἐν μαλακῷ λειμῶνι καὶ ἄνθεσιν εἰαρινοῖσιν.”
This translates to
“And the Dark-Haired One (i.e, Poseidon) lay with her
in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.”
Laying in soft meadows among spring flowers hardly conjures up the violent imagery that was later projected in the works of Ovid. Scholars also claim that in Hesiodos version there is no mention of either Athena or her temple, nor of her condemnation of Medusa. In other words, as per Hesiodos, Medusa was not a victim at all. This brings into perspective the reason for Medusa not being seen as a victim in Ancient Greece, which explains why many people would believe her to be a monster undeserving of any sympathy. However, this is not the most popular version of the myth of Medusa.
Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso’s (popularly known as Ovid) collective poetry anthology Metamorphoses encourages a different perspective. The genius of his experimentation with Medusa’s back story adds an interesting, shocking, and controversial arc to all the characters who participated in the creation and destruction of Medusa. In fact, the myth created by Ovid still breathes life into the 21st-century adaptations and influences the social and psychological significance of Medusa as an archetype for a victim of patriarchy in the modern world. Ovid’s Medusa is more popular because she has stayed relatable and relevant through time. Ovid's departure from the canon not only added a thought-provoking transformation trope but also did literary justice to the title of his work Metamorphoses. He intended to narrate Medusa’s transformation through a story in which she lacked real agency and remains a victim in the cycle of abuse carried on by the powerful until she finally loses her humanity and eventually her life. He designed this trope to spark awareness of the act of demonizing a victim of sexual abuse.
The Gaze of Terror
Approximately four to five years ago, artist Luciano Garbati’s sculpture of Medusa became a central symbol of the viral #MeToo movement. It would be an understatement to say that I was astounded by the profoundness and delicate delivery of venomous rage in Garbati’s Medusa. The bold artwork now stands in Lower Manhattan across the street from the criminal courthouse on Centre Street. It is called “Medusa With the Head of Perseus”, a symbol of retribution and a delayed war cry for all the victims of sexual assault. The poised and athletic beauty with a mane of snakes slithering about her angry yet resolute eyes carries a sword in one hand and the head of Perseus in the other. The hung-off and lowered hand in which she holds the head suggests that she didn’t want to kill him and that he is not her trophy to show off. I deduct it as an act of self-defense, rather than a moment of uncontrolled fury. She emanates the aura of an unsuspecting warrior of a battle that she did not choose to initiate. For me, Garbati’s Medusa is everything that a person aspires to be when the sovereignty of their body is threatened. But this version of Medusa, who did not allow the final straw of the battle to trap her into the status of perpetual victimhood, is a crafted fiction. Survivors of any form of physical or sexual abuse are well aware of the fact that the perpetrator never picks a victim without pre-meditating on their inevitable control over the victim. But Garbati’s Medusa is a transformative dream that awakens the victim's inner power and their ability to harness it carefully from chaos.
Garbati’s Medusa became the sole banner bearer of the entire #MeToo movement across the planet when women from every walk of life voiced their stories of abuse for the first time. And like back then when Ovid retold the myth, a large number of people seem shocked by the sheer courage of the victim to fight back for her place in the world. Safe to say that this was a significant day in the history of art long before NFTs took the world by storm. Garbati’s Medusa was a payback to the cruel myth derived and reused to warn women of their place in society. Although I truly believe that Ovid was sympathetic towards Medusa’s victimhood and intended to question the abuse of power both Poseidon and Athena exerted (Neptunus and Minerva for Romans). However, it is not enough to inspire modern movements without the re-imagination of modern artists and writers.
By diverting from the canon and adding the backstory of Medusa, Ovid intentionally tried to subvert the generic tropes of Gods and Heroes (Poseidon and Perseus), questioning the authority and morals of the patriarchs whose battens flew in wars and dictated the life of many men and women who severed them. Another literary tool Ovid introduced in Metamorphoses was deliberately associating both the helplessness and fury of a victim with the solidity of stone (whoever looked at Medusa got turned into stone). The unmalleable and permanent nature of the stone is symbolic of the damage to the victim's psyche after they experienced violence within their body.
Ovid chose his typical hero Perseus to narrate the backstory of Medusa. Legend has it that Perseus once during his travel encountered the beautiful princess Andromeda chained to rocks to be devoured by a sea monster, as a punishment by another cruel God named Ammon for her mother’s pride in Andromeda’s beauty. Perseus then promises the princess’s parents he would slay the sea monster in return for their daughter’s hand in marriage to which the desperate parents agreed. In the later part of the story, Perseus in his wedding ceremony recounts how he entered the lair of the snake-haired gorgon and killed her to petrify the sea monster Keto from whom he rescued Andromeda. When asked by a nobleman why Medusa had a head full of snakes, Perseus begins to narrate the backstory of the now slain gorgon.
“Quoniam scitaris digna relatu,
accipe quaesiti causam. Clarissima forma
multorumque fuit spes invidiosa procorum
illa: neque in tota conspectior ulla capillis
pars fuit. Inveni, qui se vidisse referret.
Hanc pelagi rector templo vitiasse Minervae
dicitur. Aversa est et castos aegide vultus
nata Iovis texit; neve hoc inpune fuisset,
Gorgoneum crinem turpes mutavit in hydros.
Nunc quoque, ut attonitos formidine terreat hostes,
pectore in adverso, quos fecit, sustinet angues.”
“Since you are asking for a worthy tale, accept the cause of your inquiry: That woman (Medusa) was most renowned in beauty and the envied hope of many suitors. And, in her whole, there was no part more admired than her tresses. (I met with a man who reported that he had seen her himself.) It is said that the Lord of the Sea Neptunus raped her in the temple of Minerva. The daughter of Jupiter, Minerva turned away in disgust and covered her chaste gaze with the Aegis and so that this act would not be unpunished, she transformed the hair of the Gorgon into hideous serpents. And now, in order to terrify her lightning-struck enemies with dread, she wears the serpents, which she made, on her hostile breast.”
This particular indication of Perseus's awareness of Medusa’s victimhood and yet killing her anyway because he believed her to be subhuman, smears the hero's reputation, adding an unredeemable aspect to his character. Ovid intends to question the intention of a man who is rooted in his hero image to kill someone innocent based on his self-interest. It also emphasizes the fact that back then a woman’s worth was based on how desirable she looked to the eyes of the patriarch, so much so that her life depended on it. We cannot deny the fact that if Medusa was the princess and Andromeda was the gorgon, Medusa's fate would have befallen Andromeda.
In Greek and Roman myths violence committed by Gods against mortals is often normalized. Even if Ovid writes to subtly question the abuse of skewed power dynamics of his time, he lacked the authority to completely subvert the myth. The narrative even with its many dark revelations remained painfully rigged in favor of the mighty Gods who raped and cursed an innocent mortal woman. It glorified the demigod Perseus who in his invincibility, remained an uncontested hero of the myth. Even with all his perceptiveness, Ovid was still a mere product of his time.
Curse of Athena
With her influence in pop culture, Medusa has captured the imagination of many feminists who in their attempt to subvert the myth, ask if Athena’s intention to turn Medusa into a gorgon is to protect her from future harm. Even if I desperately want to believe in such empowering retelling of the myth, it is all but a fictional re-imagination of the trope influenced by the zeitgeist. Rather than saying that Athena/Minerva turned Medusa into a gorgon who can turn perpetrating men into stone, we should rather say, let’s hope she did.
In reality, Athena is the archetype for the female defender of patriarchy who would have never stood up to the act of violence itself, because she enjoys the power and authority she commands in the league of the male Gods. A calculative and indifferent Goddess who partakes in the exploits of power abuse of her mortal victims as much as her male counterpart did, Athena is equally if not more despicable than Poseidon. Gods in ancient Greek and Roman pantheons were not expected to be merciful or good. Gods were indifferent, lewd, violent, and cruel at most times, unbounded by the social standards of human morality. Athena is a classic example of an accomplice to such immoral pursuits. Even if we give her a redeemable back story declaring the Goddess to be, after all, a protector of the weak, it doesn’t change the fact that Athena still violated the bodily autonomy of Medusa by turning her into a Gorgon without her consent. However, in the modern retelling, if Medusa seems to be praying to the Goddess for a transformation so powerful that it makes her enemies shiver, the entire trope might turn on its head. In that case, Medusa will be transformed, from a victim of atrocities to a figure of justice and defender of her bodily autonomy like in Garbati's work.
Modern Literary Influence
Ovid was a product of his time, and so are modern writers and poets. Therefore they are as much allowed to create their adaptation of the myth as Ovid himself. However, unlike Ovid, these modern vanguards of storytelling are not limited by the social conventions of patriarchy. With the turn of modernity, individualism bloomed with bold new ideas about actions and motivations that are absent in the time of Ovid. From the modern perspective, it makes sense that Medusa, if she existed in our evolved social world, would use her curse as empowerment to seek vengeance. Also from modern interpretation, Athena will be a collaborator rather than a punisher of Medusa because modern women have learned that competition amongst each other to gain male approval and appreciation has only brought us so far. It is through thoughtful alliance and supportive networking that we have been able to make progress.
Here are some phenomenal retellings of the ancient myth and the author’s intention to give more agency and humanize our tragic gorgon.
The Hiss of Medusa
Even after all the redemption stories that are created to give Medusa a worthy story and to justify her presence in our world, sadly the trope still popularly remains a tragedy. A symbol of feminine wrath, Medusa is still a victim in eyes of all the bards and narrators of her story because the violence done to her body cannot be undone even if the interpretation changes. Although we identify the problematic dynamics of competition between women who should collaborate rather than compete, and consciously subvert the trope, we still cannot revert to what has happened to Medusa, she remains a victim of rape, violation, isolation, and ultimately murder. However, at her best, Medusa even in her victimhood, is a formidable figure of resilience. Slithering through her dark lair created in the depth of the abandoned abyss of fear, the hiss of Medusa is well-known amongst both Gods and men. Above all, she is the angry voice demanding justice for the many silenced victim of sexual abuse - an agent of feminine fury and its power to reduce every offender into stone and dust.
Love this exploration and how you frame Athena's complicity and comfort with proximity to power as a different possible reading--so many layers to sort through and I loved reading this.
Mmmmm thank you for this powerful capturing the myths and legends. Loved it. I was particularly called to your exploration of Medusa and her being 'a formidable figure of resilience'. We all need to be formidable at times and I celebrate this in myself as I remember theses times. Much appreciation to you as always for your diligence. 🥰