Many modern scholars seem to think that Medusa petrified only men. For example, Jean-Pierre Vernant1 writes that he knows of no occasion when Medusa engages with a female figure. However, in Pindar, Perseus, through the Medusa-head, turned all of the inhabitants of the island of Seriphus, men and women alike, into stone. Later, Lucan, in the Pharsalia, tells us that whole tribes of Ethiopians turned to statues upon beholding Medusa. Although we have not heard from ancient female authors on the subject of Medusa, it is likely that both ancient women and men feared Medusa, whereas many modern women seem to identify with her. Hélène Cixous echoes this belief that the Gorgon does not petrify women; she says “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful, and she’s laughing.”2
Many women have identified with the grimace and the rage of Medusa. May Sarton identifies the Medusa-face as the face of her own frozen rage.3 Emily Culpepper speaks out of her own experience: “The Gorgon has much vital, literally life-saving information to teach women about anger, rage, power, and the release of the determined aggressiveness sometimes needed for survival.”4 Patricia Klindienst Joplin tells us why the artist is drawn to Medusa: “Behind the victim’s head that turns men to stone may lie the victim stoned to death by men… if Medusa has become a central figure for the woman artist to struggle with, it is because, herself a silenced woman, she has been used to silence other women.”5 Many artists have identified with the rage of Medusa. The Italian scholar and artist, Cristina Biaggi, who now works in the United States, incorporated her studies of prehistory and ancient history and myth into a powerful fiberglass sculpture, “Raging Medusa” (2000). The sculpture is 5.5 feet in diameter and weighs 98 pounds.
|“Raging Medusa” by Cristina Biaggi|
Feminist theologian Catherine Keller insightfully analyzes the myth of Medusa and the unheroic “hero” Perseus.6 However, she believes that it is only in the Perseus-Athena constellation that Medusa becomes the “Terrible Mother.” Otherwise, Medusa represents the “Great Goddess,” and her power is “life-giving and generative.”7 The power of the Neolithic bird/snake Goddess, where Medusa has her roots, is indeed life-giving, but Medusa has already changed in her earliest Greek source, Homer, who portrays the Gorgon (not yet individuated into Medusa and two immortal sisters) as a fearsome, bodiless head in the Underworld, but one not yet linked with either Perseus or Athena.
Annis Pratt, who writes on mythology and archetypes in women’s fiction, also gives a feminist interpretation of the Medusa-myth; she tells us, “The Medusa archetype has certainly accreted many layers of gynophobic response since its adoption by the Greeks.”8 Pratt describes many Romantic and Victorian poets who describe and relate to Medusa, usually with some horror. This echoes the male Greco-Roman interpretation of the snake, an interpretation which is more pejorative than earlier depictions and interpretations.
An excerpt from the extensive paper, “Medusa: Ferocious and Beautiful, Petrifying and Healing: Through the Words of the Ancients” by Miriam Robbins Dexter, featured in the upcoming anthology,
Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.
1 Jean-Pierre Vernant, “In the Mirror of Medusa,” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 230, note 22.
2 Hélène Cixous, “The laughter of the Medusa” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 133 (original article 1975).
3 May Sarton, “The Muse as Medusa” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 107-108 (original article 1971).
4 Emily Culpepper, “Ancient Gorgons: a Face for Contemporary Women’s Rage” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 241 (original article 1986).
5 Patricia Klindienst Joplin, “Rape and Silence in the Medusa Story,” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 201-202 (original article 1984).
6 Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 50-73. I thank Carol P. Christ for this reference.
7 Keller, From a Broken Web, 60.
8 Annis Pratt, Dancing with Goddesses (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 11.