Posts filed under ‘Homer’

Rhodian Medusa II

In the last blog I presented the ideograms, abstract small images that the artist used in a symbolic way to enhance the figure and show that she meant it to represent the great goddess, lady of life in death. I also discussed the belt, the one object that I know that has a link to contemporary literature, in this case Homer.

The Head
The outline of the cheeks and chin look like a Bronze Age necklace open at the back and with two spirals as a clasp. The ears are large double spirals and placed near the hair-line. The hair is designed as very elongated triangles and continues round the head to the clasp that constitutes the chin. It makes the head look like a mask placed on top of the wings on the shoulders and the impression is strengthened by the hair, well combed and parted in the middle that is visible above the hair-band. This band is also decorated with a pattern inherited from the Bronze Age: running zetas.

The eyes are shaped like rhombs similar to the rhombs placed in a cross-like position to the left and right of the figure.

Two spirals at the end of a triangle make the nose and the mouth is oblong with rounded corners. The teeth are placed on the lips. Two small tusks are placed like two opposing crescents above the mouth with the tongue hanging from the lower lip.

This is not a primitive portrait, but a highly symbolic image (I use symbol/symbolic in the Jungian way: the best possible image of an abstract concept that is too large to be expressed in any other way but through analogues taken from our physical world).

To my knowledge, this is the earliest mask of the Lady Medusa and it seems probable that it has in some way served as a prototype. It is not the first image after the one found in Thebes, Boeotia, There exists another image in between. It comes from the sanctuary of Eleusis not far from Athens and shows Sthenno and Euryale leaving the head-less Medusa. They are not centaurs, neither do they carry masks. Marija Gimbutas thinks that they are bees, but they do look more like the bronze cauldrons in fashion at the time of the painting.

(I do agree: I would be terrified meeting a centaur or one of my pots transformed into the head of a non-human woman.)

The prominence of the spirals on the face and along the rim certainly was not lost on the ancient onlookers. The spiral is a road that leads in to the center and then out again. on this plate once placed in a tomb it leads the deceased person to the center that is death and from there back to the entrance/exit that is life .

In some way the spirals continue to belong to the Lady Medusa even much later as this image shows that was painted 150 years later.

The Eyes

Now we turn to the Lady’s eyes that according to the myth and tradition kill everybody she looks at.
We know that the Greeks believed in the evil eye and used amulets against it. Of course, we don’t believe in it. It is, however, interesting that in Star Wars the Emperor, George Lukas’ personification of evil, is an old man with red rimmed eyes. In the Iliad, the poet only mentions the Gorgon’s eyes once (8:349) when he describes Hector, the Trojan hero, whose eyes blaze like those of Medusa and the god of battle, Ares, “killer of men.”  However, we must not forget that Hector is a favorite of Homer, who describes him in a different and more positive way than any of the Greek warriors. His eyes blaze like those of the Immortals – like Athena’s when she makes her champion Achilles recognize her: “It is terrifying to see the light of your eyes.” (1:200)

Until modern science proved the contrary, people imagined that the eyes sent out beams of light thus both showing individual feelings and capturing the world. We still say that eyes shoot a look of anger, which is implied in Matt.6,22: “The eye is the lamp of the body.” During the Neolithic period all over the world, the most common way of representing eyes on female figures is the pictogram of the vulva.

One of the analogies is probably that as the child is born into the world through the vulva, so the goddess creates life through sending out the light from her eyes into the world. When the positive symbol was forgotten, Medusa’s killing eyes took its place.

The Tusks

Hebraism, Christianity, and Islam have transformed the pig that over the whole earth has lent its tusks to important deities, into such a dirty animal that it is difficult to understand how it once has been a suitable image of the goddess. However, this is not true in other cultures. In his autobiography the present Dalai Lama tells the legend about the goddess Vajravahari, “Adamantine Sow.” She manifests herself as a woman with the head of a wild sow. In the eighteenth century some Mongolian warriors entered by force into the Samding monastery where they found the monks in the assembly hall and a big wild pig sitting on the throne of the abbess. They fled.

Several seals with images of wild pigs were found in Minoan tombs.  Pottery pigs are common in tombs in Greece, South Italy and Etruria, and in Chinese tombs from the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). In Rome the sacrifice at the death of a family member consisted of a pig, as even now in New Guinea. In classical Greece sows were sacrificed to Demeter, Athena and Hera; wild pigs to Artemis. During the Thesmophoria piglets – pigs-to-be – were given to the not-yet-fertile Earth.

We define ourselves in the world not only by integrating ourselves in it, but also by opposing ourselves to it.

I like how Stanley Walens  (Encyclopedia of Religions, vol. 1, 1987) expresses it:

[Animals] represent the antinomies of living, the existence of the sacred in the profane, the wild in the civilized . . . They enable us to create analogies. At their most simplistic, such analogies might state that animals are to humans as humans are to gods.

The wild pig is stronger and faster than a human being; its beauty is different from ours and it is as far from us as we are from the divine persons. The wild pig is dangerous and, when necessary, ready to kill. However, because its tusks are shaped as the moon’s crescents, it reminds us of the fact that the moon is born again and gives birth again after three black nights.

According to Robert Graves, the Orphics called the full moon “Gorgon’s head.” The name of Medusa’s human son is Chrysaor, “Sword of gold.” He is the  golden sickle, that is, the new moon – and the dying moon that kills.  All the indications point towards the Lady Medusa being a symbol of the moon.

The Moon

Living as we do with electric lamps lightening the nights, we forget the importance of the moon. In southern latitudes and in places without electricity its impact is enormous. I remember my first excavation on the island of Chios where we had no electricity. On nights of the full moon we all remained seated far into the night, hypnotized by the moon. We did not talk, we just sat staring into its face.

Alexander Marshack has shown that calculations of the moon’s growing and waning phases exist in the Upper Paleolithic Period. The old age of these observations may be why the moon is so ambiguous: it is feminine and masculine, it gives birth and it impregnates women. It is forever present and forever changing.

Although the moon in many places is regarded as male, it is feminine in the Mediterranean area. The new moon is born; in the second quarter it grows, and when it is full it represents a circle: the symbol of unity and fullness. Then it declines, grows old, and dies.  For three nights the black moon is dead, then it is born again month after month after month.

In analogy to the moon the lunar Goddess gives birth, sustains, and kills. Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint, has given us an example of this. He saw in a vision Kālī, the Great Mother, (who is a Moon Goddess)  as a young woman coming up from the river Ganges. The woman gave birth to a child and laid it to her breast. She then killed the child, grew old and returned to the river. As Kālī, Athena and Artemis are lunar goddesses of birth and death and so, I think, is Medusa.


The Great Goddess from Rhodos. Inside of a plate from a tomb in Kamiros, Rhodos, now in the British Museum Acc. 60.4-4-2.  After Hirmer 561.0248 , Photo Archive, Getty Library, Malibu. Drawing K.B.

The head of Sthenno or Euryale. Detail of amphora from Eleusis, ca. 670 BC. After E.G. Mylonas, O protoattikos amphoreus tes Eleusinos. 1957. Drawing K.B.

Head of the Gorgo. Centerpiece of Athena’s shield on a Red-Figured amphora by the Berlin Painter. 490-470 BC. Antikenmuseum Basel. Drawing K.B.

Wooden mask of Rangda, Bali. Private collection. Photo K.B.

The Goddess Kali, 1940s Poster art.


August 12, 2010 at 3:59 pm 1 comment

Medusa: Homer and Hesiod

Surprisingly few ancient authors mention Medusa and Perseus although the story seems to have circulated from at least the beginning of seventh century BC. The most ancient poets, Homer and Hesiod, don’t tell the story in its wholeness but from their poems it is clear that they they knew something about it.

In the fourteenth song of the Iliad – orally composed by Homer, on the East coast of what nowadays is Turkey, sometime between the eleventh and ninth centuries BC  and perhaps written down in the late sixth century Athens – Perseus is presented to the listeners as if he was already well known by them. In 4:319, Homer lets Zeus present him, “the most famous of all men” as his son with Danae. Perhaps G. Mylonas is right and a tale about Perseus, king of Mycenae around 1350 BC, was sung already in the Mycenaean palaces.

Medusa, the dreadful monster, is mentioned three times. However, both Adolf Furtwängler and Ulrich von Milamowitz-Moellendorff considered them as later additions and as far as I know nobody has tried to falsify their proposal.

The line in the fifth song is the most evident one. Here we read that Athena puts the aegis (a buff-coat or protective corset) over her head and on this corset she wears the “horrible monster’s, Gorgo’s head”, but the vase-paintings show that this happened only in the last quarter of the sixth century BC, that is, several hundred years after Homer. Thus, the Iliad only tells us that a story about Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae, was known early on.

The second early Greek poet was Hesiod from Boeotia, who perhaps lived in the eighth century BC. He composed a poem, the Theogony, about the creation of the world and the Greek gods, only one generation before an artist from the island of Tenos made the earliest image of Perseus killing Medusa. Unfortunately for us, Hesiod is more interested in Pegasos than in that story, but he does tell us that the monsters were three and not one: the mortal Médousa, whose name comes from the old verb médô that means “I rule,” and her two immortal sisters, Sthenno that means “the strong one” and Euryálethe one that wanders widely.” He also tells us that Poseidon, the “Dark-haired One,”  whom Zeus had made the ruler over the Mediterranean Sea, made love to Medusa “in a soft, grassy  meadow among the flowers,” and that “when Perseus cut off her head, Chrysaor the Great and Pegasos the Horse leaped out” (verses 274-86).

However, we don’t find any description of the “monster” with lolling tongue and big teeth until in the fifth century in Pherekydes and Euripedes and the snakes are not mentioned at all until Ovid writes about them. Luckily we have the images and they tell us a more complicated story.

May 22, 2010 at 7:35 am Leave a comment


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