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"Off With Her Head!": Medusa and Feminism

The stories from Ancient Greece and Rome have managed not only to survive the passing of time, but also remain a powerful source of Western European knowledge. Greek and Roman myths have been interpreted and analysed repeatedly, with every new reading providing a new point of view relevant to many current affairs. The myth of Medusa is arguably one of the most well-known stories, becoming a common sight in popular culture as well as a key symbol for Western feminist movements.

Head of Medusa by Rubens.

As it often happens with mythology, there are many possible versions of one single myth and Medusa’s is no different. Some of the earliest sources described Medusa as a monster born of monsters, while some Roman poets described her as a beautiful maiden. Nevertheless, the most popular version of her myth situates her as one of the Gorgon sisters, with Stheno and Euryale, a triad of monsters with terrifying faces meant to scare anyone who lays eyes on them. She was the daughter of the sea monster Ceto and the sea god Phorcys, and the only mortal among the Gorgons (Albert, 2021, p.145).

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was a beautiful priestess of Athena/Minerva, famous for her luxurious hair. She was not particularly humble about it and Athena did not enjoy Medusa’s behaviour. Her beauty caught the eye of many, including the god Poseidon/Neptune. One day while she was praying at Athena’s temple, “Medusa was violated in Minerva’s [Athena’s] shrine by the Lord of the Sea [Poseidon]” (Ovid, 2009, VI, 770 ff). Athena, as a virgin goddess, found this deeply insulting especially since it took place at her temple. However, Athena could not punish Poseidon, an older and more powerful god, so she punished Medusa (Albert, 2021, p.145). Athena transformed Medusa’s hair, the main source of her pride, into horrible snakes and condemned her to turn everyone that looked her in the eye to stone. Continuing with this version of the story, a king sent the hero Perseus on a quest to kill Medusa, and the gods provided him with the tools to win. Perseus faced Medusa with a reflective shield, a curved sword, some winged boots, and the helm of invisibility. Perseus came out victorious, beheading Medusa and using her head to turn future enemies into stone. From her severed body, Medusa gave birth to the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor.

Terracota roof tile with Medusa's head.

After many centuries, the myth of Medusa has been interpreted and reinterpreted over and over again. One of the most famous interpretations of the story came from Sigmund Freud’s posthumously published essay "Medusa’s Head" (Das Medusenhaupt). In his essay, Freud argues that the act of decapitation and castration hold many similarities, matching the head with the genitalia (Medusa gave birth through her severed head). He claims that the snakes in her hair are phallic symbols and her power to turn men into stone simulates men’s erection at the sight of female genitalia. Following this interpretation Freud situates the male characters at the center of Medusa’s story, relegating her to a secondary role. Medusa was there purely to help men in their affirmation of their manhood.

Nevertheless, during the 20th century and the first waves of feminism, women turned Medusa’s story into the tale of a woman who suffered under the weight of a patriarchal society. Medusa was always sought out by men, first for her beauty and then for glory. She was a trophy for men to hold and show off. Even though some original texts claim that turning her into a monster was a punishment, it can be argued that Athena’s actions could also be interpreted as a way of preventing her from any future trauma; turning her into a monster will make men stop lusting for her. However, her newfound powers are taken away when Perseus decapitates her. Even after death, she is used by men as an object; Perseus uses her to turn his enemies into stone.

Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa by Sebastiano Ricci.

The earliest depictions of Medusa show her as a monster with a beard, possessing a big mouth full of teeth and bulging eyes. Later on, she was depicted as feminine and beautiful, a perfect representation of the femme fatale. This archetype often appears in storytelling as a seductive and alluring woman that is meant to destroy and threaten men. The femme fatale is proof that to fit in society, women must be feminine, docile, and submissive; anger and sexual desire have no place in a female body. A woman that is beautiful and angry is no woman at all but a monster, something to be avoided at all costs and destroyed as soon as possible. Medusa was a powerful woman demonized by the male narrative.

Many feminist essays and books have been written around Medusa’s myth, the most famous being The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous, where she rejects and deconstructs Freud’s interpretation of the story. She argues that Medusa’s decapitation at the hands of Perseus is a representation of men attempting to mute women and destroy their ability to use language: “A woman without a body, dumb, blind, can't possibly be a good fighter. She is reduced to being the servant of the militant male, his shadow” (1976, p. 880). She uses the story to encourage women to write and speak using their female body to destroy the oppressive power of patriarchal society. Cixous was not the only one to do so. In their book Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power, authors Mary Valentis and Anne Devane give female rage the face of Medusa, for the face of a woman enraged must be the most terrifying face of them all. The feminist movement has claimed Medusa’s story as its own, converting her into a symbol of the fight for women’s rights.

Medusa with the head of Perseus by Luciano Garbati.

The relevance and impact of Greek and Roman mythologies have not disappeared. Their stories still hold a very powerful symbolic stand in Western European culture. It is not surprising that scholars nowadays find new ways of interpreting the myths and offering a new lesson in modern-day life. Medusa's story is perhaps one of the most well-known, her face crowned by snakes a common sight even today. She was a victim of male power over women, demonised and destructed in order to fit into the male narrative. Feminism has deconstructed the male perception of Medusa and transformed her into a powerful icon representing the fight against the oppressive patriarchal society that still tries to silence the female language.

Bibliographical References

Albert, L. (2021) Greek Mythology: The Gods. Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook. Simon & Schuster. New York, United States of America.

Bowers, S. R. (1990) Medusa and the Female Gaze. NWSA Journal, 2(2), pp. 217-235. The Johns Hopkins Univerisity Press. Baltimore, United States of America.

Cixous, H. (1976) The Laugh of the Medusa. Signs, 1(4), pp. 875-893. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, United States of America.

Fereczi, S. [Writer] Edmonds, O. [Translator]. (1927) On the Symbolism of the Head of Medusa. Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis. Boni & Liveright. New York, United States of America.

Freud, S. (1997) Medusa's Head. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, pp. 202-209. Simon & Schuster. New York, United States of America.

Ovid [Author], Melville, A. D. [Translator]. (2009) Metamorphoses. Oxford World Classics. Oxford University Press. London, United Kingdom.

Valentis, M. & Devane, A. (1994) Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power. Carol Southern Books. New York, United States of America.

Visual Sources

Rubens, P. P. (1618). Head of Medusa. [Painting]. Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna, Austria.

Terracotta painted gorgoneion antefix. (ca. 540 BC). [Roof tile]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, United States of America.

Ricci, S. (1659 - 1734). Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa. [Painting] Museum South Pavilion. Getty Museum, Los Angeles, United States of America.

Garbati, L. (2008). Medusa with the head of Perseus. [Cast]. Collect Pond Park, Lower Manhattan, New York, United States of America.


Author Photo

Isabel Panadero

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