Medusa: The Questions

July 31, 2010 at 8:36 am Leave a comment

Who is Medusa? Ancient and modern writers, all prominent men and women, tell us that she was a monster, but was she really?

Luisa Banti once pointed out that the ancient Greeks had such a high opinion of human dignity that they imagined their gods exactly as themselves. They still influence us. We cannot imagine that an artist wants to represent a divinity as a mixture of an animal and a human being, forgetting that what we think of as evil (the snakes, for example) others may  experience in a different manner.  We regard Medusa through cultural lenses. Let me give you some examples.

Giuliana Riccioni discussing the scene on the vase from Tenos shown above writes that  “Medusa’s human face wears an extremely rigid expression . . . eyes wide open with dilated pupils . . .  The long thin arms hang lifeless long the body, the hands being nearly fleshless, the fingers extremely long show the thin bony claws . . .”

Another archaeologist, Thalia P. Howe cites Pindar’s twelfth Pythian Ode where he says that the sound of the flute “imitates the cry exceedingly shrill that bursts from the hungry jaws of Euryale.” She proposes that in order to convey the idea of a terrifying noise Medusa appears with a great distended mouth.

The French historian and anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant follows Howe saying that the Gorgon is more animal than human; her face is more a grimace than a face.

For the psychologist Erich Neumann she incarnates the negative elementary character: “the Gorgon is the counterpart of the life womb . . . she is the womb of death or the night sun”.

Edward Edinger, another well-known psychologist, writes that “the classical example of the benumbing, paralyzing aspect of the negative feminine principle is the myth of the Gorgon Medusa”.

Another psychologist, Edward Whitmont although recognizing that destruction gives birth to change and re-creation sees Medusa as the angry or insulted Feminine. Discussing new models of orientation he writes: “They all aim at transforming the chaotic power of the abysmal Yin, the Medusa, into the play of life. They mediate the terrifying face of the Gorgon into the helpful one of Athena”. Even Marija Gimbutas uses the same lenses. Although she acknowledges that Medusa once was a potent goddess, she sees “a grinning mask with glaring eyes … lolling tongue, projecting teeth, and writhing snakes for hair” and understands her as the dangerous, dark side of Artemis.

Judging from the paintings of Medusa’s severed head painted by Caravaggio and Rubens five hundred years ago, I wonder if it wasn’t then that Medusa became the image of all evil incarnated by and projected on the archetypal Woman.  These  images and the modern ones easily found  in Google agree with Edinger and Whitmont.   They are so filled with emotions that only with great difficulty can we liberate ourselves from regarding Medusa as  the personification of evil – but it is possible.

The first step is to consider that her names – Medousa, Queen, Lady, Mistress; Sthenno, the Strong, Mighty One; Euryale, the Wanderer; and Gorgo, the lively Horse, the divine Centaur –  point to her being a goddess.

The second step is to remember that prehistoric artists were not interested in portraits; they were frantically trying to make the invisible Holy visible. When we content ourselves with glancing at them we loose sight of how the artists tried to solve the impossible task they have set themselves.

The questions I intend to ask and perhaps find an answer to are why the Lady — the Mighty Wanderer, the Spirited Horse — consented to be killed by Perseus, an adolescent, not yet a grown man?  Isn’t it the sin of hubris,  insolent pride against the gods to imagine that a mere mortal can kill an immortal being?

What happens to a people, a state, a culture that permits such a killing? This is my second question.

In order to find answers  we first must understand who Medusa is. Her names indicate that she is a goddess. As no goddess by this name exists in the Greek pantheon, which of the  goddesses is she? Athena? Hera? Artemis? Demeter? Hekate? Persephone?

The answer is hidden in the archaic images in which Medusa is represented alone, without Perseus. There are very many of them, many more that those showing her dead body. I have chosen four of them:

A pottery plate from the Greek island of Rhodes,

two bronze plaques found in Olympia in the Western Peloponnese,

the West pediment of Artemis’ temple on the island of Corfu,

and the bronze statue that once crowned the oldest Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens.

The detailed descriptions will be tedious, but as it is the only way for us to really see the details – and they are as important as the whole picture – I do ask for your understanding and patience.



Perseus killing the Gorgo Medusa. Detail of an amphora from Tenos found in Thebes in Boeotia, c. 700 – 660 BC. In the Louvre CA 795. Drawing K.B.

Medusa by Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Medusa by Rubens (1577 – 1640).  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.


Entry filed under: Medusa, Perseus.

Medusa: The Earliest Image The Rhodian Medusa I

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