Learning From Medusa

Ancient Greeks portrayed Medusa as the bewitched Gorgon whose gaze turned men to stone. But Medusa was not always the despised crone of Greek Mythology. Originally, she was one of three goddesses of the Libyian Amazons.[1] Medusa was the first goddess, an icon of feminine wisdom, who gave birth to all life. She was also the Destroyer aspect of Amazonian spirituality. According to myth, to see Medusa’s face, hidden behind a veil, was to peer into the mystery of death. Hence the metaphor ‘turning to stone’ when seeing Medusa’s face, which implied the only way for a human to know death was to actually die.

The Greek goddess Athena was derived from the Amazonian Medusa. However, the Greeks preferred that wisdom have a masculine origin. The tale of Athena begins with her birth from the head of her father, Zeus, erasing all ties to Medusa as well as embodied, feminine wisdom. The myth of Medusa also eventually changed. In later stories, she became part of a tale of rape, rage, and destruction. Rather than representing the mystery of the life-death cycle, if not Nature herself, the Greek’s myth of Medusa is more a cautionary reminder of the tragic fate met by victims of sexual violence. Like Medusa, women who experience sexual violence are exposed to betrayal, psychological and physical destruction, and scapegoating for crimes committed against them. But also like Medusa, they carry within themselves two potentialities: a life centered on destruction or on creative renewal.

The Greek myth of Medusa begins with her devotion to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, civilization and justice. Athena is a virginal goddess, and Medusa, like other priestesses serving Athena’s temple, has committed to a life of chastity. Medusa is beautiful, desired by both men and gods, including the god Poseidon. In an act of possessive lust, Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple. For Medusa, this profound violation precipitates even more tragedy. Like other women throughout the ages, Medusa is blamed for her rape and revictimized again and again, condemned because of her sexual violation.

As a priestess who has lost her virginity, Medusa can no longer dwell within the temple of the virginal goddess. Yet as a woman who has had sex — no matter that it was forced — the social mores of her time dictated that she could not marry. She is alienated in a patriarchal society and an outcast, without home or benefactor. But this state of alienation is at most a momentary worry for Medusa. Athena is outraged. Her temple has been desecrated by Poseidon’s lust and she blames Medusa.

Although Athena is the goddess of justice, her reaction to Medusa reveals she is also capable of vindictive rage, perhaps evoked by her jealousy of Medusa’s beauty. Rather than avenging Medusa and cursing Poseidon, Athena instead places a spell on Medusa, ensuring no one would ever be captivated by her beauty again. She destroys Medusa’s lovely face and transforms her beautiful tresses into writhing, poisonous asps, transfiguring the captivating Medusa into a hideous creature. To ensure Medusa’s complete alienation, Athena further curses Medusa: a mere glance from Medusa turns an onlooker to stone. Medusa now terrorizes the people of Athens and is sent to a desolate island to live utterly alone.

Athena’s vengeful betrayal is a familiar response to victims of sexual violence who are blamed or scorned following sexual assault. Like Medusa, sexual abuse survivors have been transposed into toxic monsters in the minds of their families and communities that must be cast out or destroyed. Much as Athena turned against Medusa, fathers, brothers, and mothers throughout history have turned against their wives, sisters, and daughters who, following sexual violence, are perceived as a threat to family’s status, religion, or financial livelihood. Communities have stigmatized, bullied, abandoned, stoned, burned, murdered, and further sexually violated women in response to their sexual abuse histories.

Survivors also ostracize parts of themselves they imagine as damaged by the abuse. Fear of reprisal and shame keep many women isolated in self-blame and self-loathing. The body is treated as an object of scorn, manipulation, or fear-based obsession. It is scarred, rejected, starved, stuffed, purged, altered — efforts to either hide the imagined stigmata or protect from further harm.

Medusa’s shrieking face, surrounded by snakes snapping indiscriminately at prey, is an archetypal image of the madwoman.[2] However, erased from this portrayal of madness are the reasons women become consumed by rage, shame, even psychosis — the precipitating victimization, if not also the scapegoating that follows. Medusa’s rage knows no limits. Like some survivors, Medusa seems to have been infected by the aggression of her perpetrators, if not identified with it. The once chaste priestess seems irrevocably altered. The values she served in Athena’s temple — justice, wisdom, courage — have been eclipsed by hatred and revenge. No one can challenge Medusa until Perseus, who with the help of the gods beheads her.

Two drops of Medusa’s blood fall into the sea — Poseidon’s realm — and two sons spring from her beheaded neck: Pegasus, the winged stallion that symbolizes creative inspiration, and Chrysaor, a giant winged boar known for his brave heart and golden sword. Medusa’s blood is also collected by Asclepius, the god of medicine, who separates it into its “good” and “bad” aspects. The good blood is capable of saving lives, even returning the dead back to living, while the bad blood is a poison causing death.[3]

Medusa’s beheading no doubt is an unjust end to a woman treated violently. Her demise is similar to how many have preferred to see the end of survivors of sexual abuse. Journalist Parul Sehgal wrote, “for much of history, the ‘good’ rape victim, the ‘credible’ rape victim has always been a dead one.”[4] Yet for those who survive, an extraordinary life remains possible. Pegasus is a symbol of the creative path out of destruction; his brother Chrysoar a symbol of a just warrior and the proper use of anger. Like Pegasus and Chrysoar, new parts of the self, and unimagined possibilities, can emerge despite sexual violence.

The good blood is the healing wisdom that can arise from even the worst crimes against humanity. Through efforts to recover from trauma, we have the opportunity to become like the wounded healers found in egalitarian societies who were keepers of the wisdom of life and death and manipulators of the regenerative energy found in all of us. From their own healing journeys, wounded healers learn lessons of recovery they can use to help others in their healing journeys.

Bad blood, like feelings of “bad blood” between people, is a reminder of the perils of rage that is a common reaction to sexual violence, whether this rage is directed towards others or internalized towards oneself. A tremendous power is unleashed in those who are sexually violated. Sexual abuse is a form of what Ursula Wirtz described as soul murder, which is an attempt to take control of another person in the deepest, most vulnerable parts of herself.[5] We become aware of the power of destructive forces through another’s effort to annihilate us. Some anger and rage are often necessary for regaining one’s soul and validating one’s right to live and thrive. This sense of power can become a force of good, contributing to a woman’s own healing from injustice, as well as helping others who have suffered similar violations. Yet rage can also become indiscriminate, and like Medusa, threaten everyone who comes in contact with her.

Medusa’s wounding was ignored. Instead, her ugliness and wrath were the focus of her community, along with the revulsion and terror she caused in others. Such scapegoating certainly justifies feelings of rage. Yet there is also the risk of rage becoming a defense against one’s own heart. Pema Chödrön wrote, “Let your heart break and drop the story.” This is a tall order for many sexual abuse survivors for whom no one has been willing to hear or validate their stories, let alone protect them from harm. Yet for recovery, if not our souls, we have to be willing to eventually let the veil once again drop, as it were, and not risk letting our own hearts turn to stone.

Possible reflections: Does the myth of Medusa relate to your experiences? Is there a myth, story, movie, painting, or song that resonates with your experience of sexual abuse or recovery? If so, why?

See you next week,
Laura

References

[1] Walker, B. G. (1983). The woman’s encyclopedia of myths and secrets. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, p. 629.

[2] Wirtz, Ursula. (2014). Trauma and beyond: The mystery of transformation. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal, Inc., p. 127.
[3] Ibid, p. 128.

[4] “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’. Parul Sehgal, May 8, 2016. New York Times Magazine, page MM13.

[5] Wurtz, Ursula. (2015, October 31). Civilization in Transition Conference V: Historical and Cultural Trauma. Santa Fe, NM.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).