by Ivonne Spinoza
When you hear the word Medusa your brain is likely to immediately conjure images of a fearsome and hideous monster no one should look at. This is quite interesting since the representation of the Medusa in art, in decorative objects, and even in stories varies immensely, and this permanence of the monstrous representation in our collective cultural imagery is not only unfair, but also problematic.
In her article Medusa and the Female Gaze (NWSA Journal, Vol.2), Susan R. Bowers says that “the patriarchal images of women from Greco-Roman mythology will continue to oppress as they remain encoded into our consciousness”, and this is precisely my gripe with the most common conception of Medusa in the general public’s eyes.
There are various versions of the Medusa story, but they all seem to involve shocking internalized misogynistic attitudes on the part of Athena, who, in a fit of jealousy, destroys who she sees as an opponent. Despite being an ancient myth, this turn of events feels uncannily contemporary and believable in a clear representation of the patriarchal society’s tradition of turning women against one another. Tearing each other down not only serves to keep us all down as a group, but it’s also a perfect distraction that allows the status quo to remain unchallenged by female power.
In the first century CE version of the story, Medusa was originally a gorgeous maiden who was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Athena’s illogical response following a rape is to turn Medusa’s hair into serpents and ruin her face in a way so completely awful that her mere sight is supposed to turn anyone who lays eyes on her to stone. This is a classical example of the pervasive victim-blaming we still see these days. There is no real rhyme or reason for a powerful goddess to re-victimize and permanently punish a maiden who fell prey to the antics of a male god looking to submit her, unless she was socially programmed to act that way.
Much later in a version from the second century CE Medusa is portrayed as being beautiful enough to challenge Athena—and win—in a beauty contest of sorts, which makes the goddess turn her into a monster as punishment. This is almost Snow White-esque in shallowness, and equally misogynistic in its representation of women. We can only wonder why a powerful goddess would be so threatened by the beauty of a mere maiden, the same way the Evil Queen—who, incidentally, was a powerful witch—would care so much about a very pretty but otherwise harmless girl.
As if powerful women had nothing better to do than occupy themselves with petty made-up conflicts. As if we could only be powerful by keeping our own sisters down.
It is equally jarring to see a victim be blamed and punished for the misdemeanors and internal issues of others, as it is to see a powerful goddess reduced to petty teenage-level foolishness, but this is a typical representation of what patriarchy considers the female flaw of character: Our seemly innate superficiality and lack of rationality.
This portrayal of female relationships is a ploy to keep us from reaching our true collective power, and it has been very effective through the centuries to keep us in the place men want us to be. There is a fear feeding these imaginaries and it is that deep down patriarchal society knows that when women come together, we are unstoppable. This is why the de facto male gaze has always treated us as less than: less than males, less than human.
The fear feeding these narratives is the male gaze that controls the world. Bowers proposes that “a feminist reading of Medusa will reveal that she is actually the icon of the female gaze, that powerful expression of female subjectivity and creativity” that has been inhibited.
This explains why the two most widely known versions of the Medusa story are the ones previously mentioned, but her pre-Olympian representations seem to be almost completely lost to time. As it turns out, Medusa was a powerful goddess in older cultures, and instead of being relegated to monster, she actually represented women’s wisdom, her serpents were connected to the divine, and she was basically the giver of all life and death.
The male fear of all female power and the existence of a female subjectivity and interpretation of the world is what ultimately led to the popularization of the rape version of Medusa’s story. Not feeling that it was enough to depose her of her deity status, or even take away her beauty, it was now necessary to remove her ever-threatening agency. By making her a victim she became powerless, and the double-victimization that came afterwards at the hands of another female cemented this fact. This is how she came to be remembered as a monster who should be feared and even deserved to be beheaded.
Medusa and Athena in turn became almost natural enemies like men wanted them to. One symbolizes the feared female power, while the other one is the woman that abides by the male rules (hence why she punishes the victim instead of the rapist), and the patriarchy rejoices for a job well done.
Because female sexuality and female wisdom were believed to be connected, Medusa’s rape is also symbolic of the limitations imposed to female desire and sexual expression through centuries in all types of cultures. We were robbed of our essence, our agency, our power, and we were even made to be suspicious of our own sisters. Since we doubted other women, we also naturally doubted our own nature and even though Medusa only turned men into stone, we became too afraid to look at her ourselves.
Medusa needs reclaiming, but not only in the small feminist academic circles—we need to reclaim her in the cultural collective.
Anything that has been used to oppress us, we can transform and use to make ourselves powerful once again. We just need to look directly into the mirror that was never able to curse us in the first place.