Monday, May 17, 2010

Goddess of the Week

For the first time we get Medusa. She is one of the Gorgones, three monstrous sisters with snaky hair, fangs, and great wings of bronze Who live out in the furthest West; and Medusa is commonly said to be the only mortal of the three sisters. In the classical myth, Medusa was once a beautiful maiden famed for Her glorious hair Who incurred the wrath of Athena by having sex with Poseidon in one of Athena's temples. Or She incurred the wrath of Athena by being raped by Poseidon in one of Athena's temples. Ancient patriarchies of course (and modern ones, alas) don't really distinguish between the two. And so in the story Athena punished Her, Medusa, not Him, Poseidon, quite savagely, by transforming Medusa into a monster so ugly Her merest glance turned men into stone.

Now, I like Athena. A lot. But I'll have no truck with this blaming the victim crap. None at all.

I suppose you could rationalize it by theorizing about why Athena wouldn't want to go after Poseidon--He is too powerful, it could start a very big war, it wasn't going to end well, whatever--and so, eminently practical Goddess that She is, Athena took out Her anger on the next nearest target, His victim.

Or we could just say it's the fucking patriarchy putting words in Athena's mouth and assume it's all been twisted out of recognition. I lean towards this interpretation myself, but then, I really like Athena. So I am not unbiased.

The thing is, though, Medusa as a transformed maiden doesn't really make much sense. Now, okay, it's mythology, and so it is no more linear and logical than a dream; and ordinary reason does not apply. But Medusa has those two sisters, Who are always spoken of as monstrous, snaky-locked, bronze-winged and fangéd. That is just how they are, and always have been. Why should Medusa be any different? I suspect part of it is the Perseus myth, where the hero cuts off Her head (while She is asleep!) on a dare, helped along by the typical heroish accoutrements of winged sandals, a helmet of invisibility, a mirrored shield. For him to be able to do this Medusa has to be different than Her sisters: She has to be mortal.

She also has to be 'guilty', I think. When Perseus cut off Her head, two beings leapt out from Her severed neck: Pegasos, the magical winged horse, and the hero Khrysaor, about Whom one hears very little except that He was the father of the three-bodied Geryon. Poseidon is said to be their father.

Think about all that a minute. It is usually glossed over, or made invisible, but that means Medusa was pregnant when Perseus killed Her. She was also, as far as I've ever heard, just minding Her own (albeit monstery) business. It's not like She was harassing the locals and threatening to eat a princess or something (i.e. Andromeda).

Something here has been re-cast, the story changed. I'm not sure how though and am truthfully just going on instinct, on the fact that something smells off to me; but Hesiod (one of the earliest sources), though he does call the Gorgones monsters, also makes no mention of rape, or of Athena's temple; instead, he says that 'Poseidon, he of the dark hair, lay with [Medusa] in a soft meadow and among spring flowers.' From what I can tell, the story of Medusa's rape in the temple comes from Ovid. While it's true he may have been repeating something said earlier, still he is not only late (the first centuries BCE and CE), he is in fact also Roman.

There is also the matter of Medusa's name. It means 'Mistress,' 'Guardian,' or 'Queen.' Those are not usually negative words. Her sisters, incidentally, are Sthenno ('Strength', Whom I have painted), and Euryale (either 'Wide-Stepping' or 'the Wide Salt Sea'). They are daughters of the Sea-Deities Keto (Who gives Her name to the order of whales, cetaceans) and Phorkys.

They are certainly elemental, primeval creatures, as are Their siblings, Skylla, the Graiai, and the dragon Ekhidna. And civilization does tend to demonise the primeval, to make monsters out of the natural world which can be so unthinking of the needs of us humans.

But there is something else about Medusa.

When Perseus cut off Her head, Athena caught up some of Her blood. That from the left side of Medusa's body killed instantly, but that from the right had such healing powers it could bring the dead back to life.

So. She is primeval, and powerful, and not entirely monstrous. Perhaps that is why in the later legends She is said to once have been beautiful. The story of Her blood is part of the reason I painted Her as beautiful, and why Her snakes are that deep red color.

So for this week then? I think last week's theme, anger and the primeval power of the natural world will continue to play out; also the Gorgones' connection with the Sea make me think of the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Although of this writing I hear it has been capped somewhat, the effects of the spill are going to be with us a long time. There are consequences to be dealt with, Work to be done on that.

On an individual level, keep paying attention to your anger. What does it ask of you? Keep an eye towards fairness and justice, never forgetting to turn it towards your own self. And blood, too, however you interpret that, though it need not be dire. Myself I tend to see menstrual issues in this card, if only a warning that you may be in for a crampalicious week.

Whatever it is it's pretty primal or basic. Be aware (or as aware as you can manage) of the forces, emotional and physical, that are moving about under the surface. Don't assume your conscious mind has the full picture right now.

What does She say?

I am blood. I am old, old as blood, old as seawater; I move within each of us, in tidal rhythm. I am slow, and powerful, and ancient. I inhabit the furthest west, that place where night meets the Sea; a liminal realm, threshold to another. I guard that border. You cross only in accordance with my will.

Sisters, remember me. I am also that which is made monstrous by fear. And I am truth. Seek out the truth of me. Unbury me from your stories. I am not what you might think. But you will have to find your own truth of me.

To read Her story, go here.

References: Theoi's Medusa and Gorgons page.


Anonymous said...

"I inhabit the furthest west, that place where night meets the Sea; a liminal realm, threshold to another."

That line brought to mind a very strange image of Medusa as a sort of gateway to dreams. And the blood... unfulfilled dreams can cause despair and "kill" you, but striving for them can bring hope and make one stronger...

Forgive the babbling, it was a bizarre, sudden thought and I felt the need to share. :)


Debra She Who Seeks said...

The Medusa myth has always bothered me too. I always felt like Athena and Medusa should have been allies against that little prick Perseus.

Natalie said...

The connection between Athena and Medusa is one that intrigues and baffles me. Athena chose to honor Medusa by displaying the Gorgonion on her aegis. My own UPG feels that Medusa is a facet of Athena's original mythology dating back to when she was honored more as a Lybian bird-and-serpent Goddess. Athena's other associations with snakes (like her son) bear this out also. I recall that in some myths Athena was said to be Poseidon's daughter, and that in others she was raped by her own father whose skin she flayed to create the aegis. Perhaps is was Athena herself that the myth of Medusa remembers and honors?

Thalia said...

Glaux and Debra, I wonder that too. In my mind Athena and Medusa are facets of each other, Medusa being Athena's shadow side (to get all Jungian about it) or something like that. My intuition tells me that they are sprung from the same root.

Some of the stories I was reading tonight put Medusa right in the area of Lake Tritonis in Libya. Here's a bit from Pausanias, which I found on Theoi:

After the death of her father, Phorkys, she reigned over those living around Lake Tritonis, going out hunting and leading the Libyans to battle. On one such occasion, when she was encamped with an army over against the forces of Perseus, who was followed by picked troops from the Peloponnesos, she was assassinated by night. Perseus, admiring her beauty even in death, cut off her head and carried it to show the Greeks.

(That last line: oh yeah Perseus was a little prick. What sane person thinks like that?!? She's so pretty I think I'll take her head home with me. WTF?)

Anyway Athena is very much associated with Lake Tritonis (or the various rivers also by that name); sometimes Her mother is said to be one Tritonis, or Her childhood friend Pallas is the daughter of Triton, &c. So that made me wonder too.

I also want to connect the two with the Egyptian Goddess of weaving and war Neith, Who has connections with Libya. She's very old, dating to pre-Dynastic times in fact. Much has been made of the similarity to Athena's name if you switch some letters around, but I don't know how grounded in reality that is. (It might be, just that I'm no linguist). I don't know really if the two are related, though the later Greeks did equate them.

My real suspicion, which I will never be able to prove, is that Athena/Medusa have their origins in a pre-Indo-European bird-and-snake Goddess, like you mentioned Glaux, only I'm thinking not just specific to Libya, more Mediterranean in general. But I can't prove that and it's just a hunch. But they are both very old, certainly.

Thalia said...

I recall that in some myths Athena was said to be Poseidon's daughter, and that in others she was raped by her own father whose skin she flayed to create the aegis.

That is striking me as an odd but appropriate metaphor for how She was adopted/adapted into the Olympian Indo-European layer of Greek mythology. Something about taking the harmful parts of it and making it Her shield, Her protection. Yet not rejecting it, either. I am not honestly sure what stories about Her to trust, and which are propaganda. Am I remembering correctly that in one tale She proudly says that She is a misogynist? That's fucked up.

Glaux have you read the Kerényi essay on Athena? (I'm guessing you have.) I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of it yet, but I'll bet there's some interesting ideas in there.

Thalia said...

Hmmm. On the Theoi page about Medusa and Her sisters, Aaron theorizes that the Gorgones have something to do with coral reefs, the sea and storms (which wreck ships on reefs). They are daughters of two Sea-Deities after all, and coral was associated with Medusa, as it was recognized as something living which had become petrified.

I wonder if the Gorgones' sea connection has anything to do with why Athena is so stubbornly and inexplicably associated with Tritonis, a large saltwater lake?

Anonymous said...

Everone here has left such intelligent comments that there's hardly anything left to say! ;)

I'm really interested in this duality thing being raised with Medusa and Athena...
What if Athena does transform (either herself or Medusa) into the monsterous gorgon, not as revenge but as a gift? If the beautiful Medusa is raped is she not likely to want men to stay away from her indefinitely and seek solace in female company? Wouldn't transforming her into a monster effectively keep her safe from the unwanted attentions of males?
Just a thought.

Natalie said...

You completely inspired me to flesh out the Athena-Medusa connection, Thalia. I've written an essay to that effect in my blog.

I completely agree with you on the Mediterranean bird-and-serpent goddess theory for Athena. Have you read Gimbutas's Language of the Goddess? There are some excellent owl/snake/weaver goddesses that just scream Athena in there.

I do have Kerényi's essay and he is oddly silent on the Libyan Athena. I'm trying to do some original research on Anat/Neith/Athena for my book. We'll see how that works out! lol

Loving this discussion.

Thalia said...

Nellie--I wonder if it's a metaphor for the trauma of the rape itself transforming Her into a monster--the anger and the horror being expressed that way. I'm tempted to wonder if that's too modern an interpretation, but then there's the story of Demeter Melaina, Who, after being raped by Poseidon (Him again) shut Herself in a cave and was given the name 'the Black One.' Said cave later had a statue of Demeter as a horse-headed monster in it. So it's not a far-fetched idea.

I do think in that case the rape is a twisting of the story and that Poseidon is actually getting a bad rap. He's very old Himself, and one definition of His name I've heard is 'Husband of Earth,' so I'm inclined to think Demeter (Earth) and Poseidon (Husband) were originally linked in a less antagonistic or violent way. Perhaps both of these stories are ways of explaining 'monstrous' forms of a Goddess?

Thalia said...

Glaux I have read Gimbutas. One of her photos of a Minoan statue (and I don't remember which book it is in off the top of my head now) is of a Minoan statue of a Goddess which has hair in the back of the headdress which looks a lot like snakes. It directly inspired this line in my Medusa tale:

I am the hidden face of the bright-eyed one; lift Her helmet, see the mass of writhing snakes.

I love Athena, and She is my patroness Goddess, I think, so don't get me wrong when I say this, but in a lot of ways She's just too shiny, too bright, too good to be true. I am wondering what happens if Athena and Medusa are combined--what that (postulated) original Goddess might have looked like. I'm thinking primeval, strong (after all, one of Athena's epithets is Sthenia, 'strong', which is also the name of one of the Gorgones, Sthenno), and above all whole.

Lilith said...

I agree with Medusa being Athena's 'shadow side'. Medusa, you could say, is everything Athena is not.

So if we were to apply the myth to our own lives, I'd suggest that it is about fighting and mastering your shadow side. Athena, with the help of the hero Perseus, 'outsmarted' Medusa (because although she died, her power was still just as strong) and then placed her head on her shield - meaning that Athena now had full control of her shadow and made it a part of herself.