Bearding Mary: Perseus and Medusa Herstory not History
HIP CLASSICS BY SIMONE WITNEY
Medusa is a gorgon, a monster with snakes for hair, whose glance alone will turn you to stone. Perseus is a young Greek who cuts off her head.
Perseus & Medusa by Cellini
In Trump’s campaign against Clinton, Cellini’s statue of Perseus with Medusa was adapted with Trump as Perseus and Clinton as the gorgon: a violent attack on Hilary. We know because we understand its contemporary context: Trump’s brutally simplistic thinking, his violence towards women, the political struggle. Without this, the image would be ambiguous. Ambiguity is one of the great virtues of myth. It cradles opposites and layers of meaning as does the unconscious, and, like repetitive dreams, its imagery shifts with the tides of our reality.
‘If you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded ……….. – well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case.’ (Women in Power by Mary Beard).
This looks like a shining, inviolable arc of connection spanning the centuries, but is it?
Bring on the ambiguities: tentacles, snakes and victimhood
A medusa is a kind of jelly fish; some have poisonous tentacles, and the name also means ‘rule over’. So, Medusa is both strong and vulnerable. She’s a beautiful Titan made ugly by Athena either because she claimed equal beauty with the goddess, or because she is violated by Poseidon. In the latter case, Medusa’s transformation seems like the response of many a victim to violence – they develop a spiky persona and take refuge in an un-alluring look. Keeping both versions in mind, Athena’s action is then both vengeful and protective. Athena gives her snaky hair, (to replace the tentacles!) and for Mary, this phallic symbolism represents the acquisition of masculine power by women which men find intolerable. If this were so, a simple no.1 haircut would suffice, but what happens is much more interesting: Perseus cuts off her head.
Does she lose her head or her body?
He wants Medusa’s head for its petrifying powers to avenge his mother against an abusive husband. We think of the gorgon losing her head, but equally she loses her body. She loses the violated part of the self, yet continues to live as an identity, a powerful one. She keeps her snaky hair (and the ancient world honoured snakes for their ability to renew their skins: they have the power to create as well as destroy); her blood can harm and heal; she gives birth to two magical creatures: the golden giant Chrysaor and winged horse, Pegasus. Don’t victims sometimes become immensely powerful?
Perseus is an enabler, a rescuer. (On his way home he rescues Andromeda.) He has his own conflicts too, symbolically killing a mother figure, who nonetheless survives and prospers. Isn’t our anger towards our nearest and dearest tangled with a desire to protect them? This seems much more a myth exploring the complex collaboration between male and female parts of the psyche, than a simplistic binary opposition. It’s all fantasy too, wish-fulfilment, not intention or social practice.
When I wrote to Mary she replied: ‘There are all kinds of ways these things can be read. But mine are pretty mainstream up to date classical’. It is of course quite right for myths to become freeware, evolved for different times and cultures. This is not the same, however, as social history, nor are the later meanings contained in the earlier.
She recommended two rather dull books. DULL, Mary, DULL! DULL!
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