The remarkable anthology you are holding in your hands contains the personal stories, scholarly research, revelations, and original artwork by women from Australia, North America, Europe, Israel and Turkey. These offerings reflect the indelible presence of the Gorgon Medusa who has stimulated each author’s unique journey of discovery. Who is this Medusa whose visage has haunted the western imagination for 2700 years? Why has she remained so potent, and why is it necessary to “re-vision” her now in the 21st century?
In the Odyssey (11.633-35) by the Greek poet Homer (c. 750 BCE), the hero Odysseus expresses his fear of encountering the Gorgon—a ghastly apparition, the threshold guardian of Hades. In Homer’s Iliad (11.33-37), the ferocious face of the Gorgon is centrally placed on the kingly shield of Agamemnon to frighten his enemies. The Greek term gorgos—meaning “terrible,” “frightful”—was used to designate the ultimate female monster.
According to Greek mythology, Medusa is a Triple Goddess, one of three gorgon sisters—Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa—representing past, present, and future. Only Medusa exists as mortal in present time. Her complex lineage composed of multiple myths and stories, combined with cross-cultural influences, is masterfully presented in this volume by the linguist and archaeomythologist Miriam Robbins Dexter. She rightly points out that the typical emphasis on Medusa’s fearsome features are the result of extreme Greek bias against female powers, which masks her life-giving and regenerative capacities.
Long before the Gorgon Medusa constellated within the archaic Greek world and was demonized as ugly and ultimately monstrous—with her tongue lolling between sharp fangs, with writhing serpents for hair and glaring eyes—the roots of her multi-layered iconography extended deep into pre-Greek cultures. The earliest agrarian societies of Southeastern Europe, from the 7th-4th millennia BCE, were intimately bonded with the seasonal realities of the living Earth. These egalitarian farmers who developed long-lived, sustainable societies understood that life feeds on life. Death and decomposition are inevitable consequences of being alive, and the nutrients released from previously living matter are essential for life’s renewal. Within this context, concepts of the sacred are analogous to the cyclic continuity of all existence. In mythic terms, the Great Goddess, as the Sacred Source of all life, is a metaphor for life giving birth to itself and absorbing itself in death. Therefore, the Goddess of Life is also the Goddess of Death who is responsible for regeneration.1 Goddesses in various guises who represent this eternal cycle are found in ancient traditions throughout the world. The nature of every society is shaped by prevailing attitudes—honoring and respectful, or fearful and antagonistic—concerning the humbling and unavoidable fact of our individual mortality.
Linguistic and archaeological evidence indicates that the Greeks developed from tribes of Indo-European speakers who began entering the Balkan peninsula most likely during the late 3rd millennium BCE. A gradual amalgamation took place between two contrasting social and ideological systems: the matrifocal Old European horticulturalists who venerated the deities of the Earth and the newcomers who brought an androcratic social structure, warfare, and the worship of sky gods.2
The establishment of the Greek patriarchal world shifted the previous cultural valence from the egalitarian continuity of the Old Religion to the extreme imposition of male dominance and the cult of the hero. Under this new world order, all challenges to male hegemonic systems were to be crushed. As the classicist Eva Keuls emphasizes, “the suppression of women, the military expansionism and the harshness in the conduct of civic affairs all sprang from a common aggressive impulse.” That impulse was the expression of “male supremacy and the cult of power and violence.”3
It is no surprise, then, that the earth deities of the Old Religion were demonized or co-opted. A typical task for Greek heroes was to rid the civilized world of those “earth-born bogeys.”4 The Gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone, became an obvious target. Nevertheless, on the periphery of the Greek world, there is evidence that She was venerated in her ancient powers. During the 6th century BCE on the island of Corfu, an eight-foot-high full-bodied sculpture of Medusa was placed at the highest point on the pediment of the temple of Artemis. This Medusa is not raging, but is radiant in her full potency. Snakes with open jaws extend from each side of her head and two copulating serpents encircle her waist, carrying the potential for both death and new life. She wears winged sandals, her great wings are fully extended, sheltering her two children, and her bent-knee posture suggests that she is flying. All shamanic dimensions are Hers—the Great Above, the Great Below, the Primordial Waters, and the entire expanse of the Earth. She is flanked by great felines, just as the Phrygian Mountain Goddess Cybele and the seated Ancestral Mother from Çatalhöyük before her.
The decapitation of Medusa by the Greek hero Perseus, assisted by the patriarchalized Goddess Athena, was painted on pottery, carved as bas reliefs on temples, described in Greek verse, and propagated in myths and legends. Her murder functioned as a cautionary tale defining the ultimate consequence of manifesting female sovereignty.
When Medusa was killed, her powers were plundered. She was pregnant with her son Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus who were born from her severed neck. Pegasus was immediately captured and made to bring Zeus Medusa’s roar and the flash of her eyes, which he used as his thunder and lightning. In book three of the Bibliotheca (3.10.3) Apollodorus describes how Athena drains the blood from Medusa’s veins and gives it to Asclepius, Greek god of medicine and healing. The blood from her left side is deadly poisonous, while the blood from her right side brings life. Asclepius’s powers to cure and raise the dead were thereby stolen from Medusa.
Athena placed the apotropaic image of Medusa’s severed head on her aegis or breastplate and on Zeus’s shield. Other gorgoneia (images of Medusa’s head) were installed on temples and other places to benefit from her protection, even after death. Ironically, gorgoneia were placed on heroes’ shields, armor, and chariots to protect the Greek warriors engaged in destroying all threats to the new social order, including her own.
The fascination with Medusa did not diminish at the end of the Greek Classical Era. She continued to function as a lightning rod for prevailing cultural attitudes. During the Greco-Roman period, images of Medusa were reproduced for wealthy patrons on mosaics and sculptural reliefs as mostly young and beautiful rather than disturbingly ferocious. Nevertheless, Christian zealots, who were rising in prominence, considered all pagan images abominations to be destroyed, especially of the Gorgon Medusa. During the Medieval period in Europe, Christian scholars considered the beheading of Medusa by Perseus to be an allegory of the virtuous son of god destroying the manifestation of evil, intrinsic to all women, that threatens men’s souls.
Renaissance artists, inspired by Greek mythological themes, created frighteningly realistic portrayals of decapitated women with snakes for hair. The elegantly crafted sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini of a youthful Perseus holding Medusa’s head aloft while he stands on her decapitated body was erected in the center of Florence in the mid-16th century. This popular theme was emblematic of the Inquisitional murders of women taking place in many areas of Europe during that time, considered necessary to protect civil society from the dangers of uncontrolled female powers.5 Later, during the 18th-19th centuries, Romantic artists, poets, and Decadents recast Medusa as a beautiful victim, not a monster. In their view, She represented the ecstatic discord between pain and pleasure, beauty and horror, and divinely forbidden sexuality.
But as the 20th century dawned, Freudian psychology promoted the regressive notion that women suffer an intrinsic deficiency resulting in “penis envy.” Freud wrote that the “depreciation of women, horror of women, and a disposition to homosexuality are derived from the final conviction that women have no penis.”6 In his view, Medusa’s face represents a “vagina dentata”—a hideous toothed vagina—surrounded by the writhing phalluses of castrated men.7
Significant strides have been made by women throughout the world to challenge the deeply embedded misogyny that has plagued the lives of women and girls for millennia. Advancements (which are far from universal) such as the right to vote, to own property, to obtain a divorce, to control our own reproduction, and many other human rights have been achieved by women with great sacrifice and struggle. Nevertheless, the threat of censure, internalized as a template of fear and self-loathing, continues to enforce the physical and psychological silencing of women and girls, even in privileged cultural contexts.
The Gorgon Medusa presents herself to us here and now, requiring us to be fully present, to listen deeply—past the noise of accumulated judgments—to the Ancient Wisdom that is our true inheritance. As the Great Awakener, She reminds us of our mortality and encourages us to reclaim whatever has been silenced or diminished within us while we are privileged to be alive. We are admonished to have the courage to act and speak what is true, to trust ourselves to hold her gaze and know we will not be turned to stone.
1 Marija Gimbutas emphasized the significance of regeneration, without which all life would cease. For a presentation of Old European iconography related to the life-giving, death-wielding, and regenerative cycles, see Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.
2 Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. See also:
Marler, Joan. “An Archaeological Investigation of the Gorgon.” Re-Vision (summer 2002): 15-23.
3 Keuls, Eva C. The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985:13.
4 Harrison, Jane E. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. New York: Meridian Books, 1955: 162.
5 Most of the tortures, beheadings, and burning of women in Italy took place in the North. The centers of Renaissance humanism in the city-states to the south had a controlling effect on the most extreme expressions of Inquisitional mania.
6 Freud, Sigmund. “The Infantile Genital Organization,” in The Medusa Reader, M. Garber and Nancy J. Vickers, eds. New York: Routledge, 2003, 85-86.
7 Freud, Sigmund. “Medusa’s Head” (1922), in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 15 (1921-22). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
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