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Queen, Goddess, Monster - Medusa's story then and now


"Queen, Goddess, Monster" by R.A.Holland, 2020

As a kid I loved all things imaginary, especially when it meant being more than human, superhuman. I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics and to imagine someone with super strength and any sort of superhuman power defeating all sort of evils was everything my tiny mind wanted. I thought I could be immortal and gifted with a superpower. I then discovered mythology - especially the Egyptian, Roman, Greek, and Norse ones. The Roman and Greek ones were one in my mind and I used the names interchangeably because... well, they were basically the same, but with different names. Nowadays I generally tend to use the Greek names.


Researching the Goddesses for my "Misunderstood Goddesses" also made me come across not only name variations, but also origin variations. Not only are some stories not of Greek, or Roman origin, but they originated even before the Pantheon was a figment in somebody's imagination. I was reading about Medusa and came across an interesting line in Nikita Gill's book Great Goddesses: Life lessons from myths and monsters.

Medusa: Originally a beautiful high priestess of the Temple of Athena. A victim of Poseidon's lust, she prayed to Athena for help and the Goddess turned her into a monster with snakes for hair and the capacity to turn anyone into stone.

So the story goes that she was raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple and she prayed to Athena to help her. Athena, out of kindness, turns her into a Gorgon so that no man will ever rape her again and defile her temple. Another story goes that Athena was extremely angry that her temple was defiled and she practically victim shames Medusa and turns her into a Gorgon out of spite. Well, I was confused because was it kindness or punishment? Also, it must have been punishment because otherwise, why would she have provided Perseus with the gift of a polished shield to help him slay Medusa as well as told him what other weapons he needed to accomplish such feat?


Before Medusa was part of the Greek Pantheon, she was a Libyan version of the Crone, or Dark Moon, or Mother Death. She represented divine wisdom, but to gaze upon her face, was also to invite death. Athena was the Maiden, and Metis, the Mother. When the Greeks invaded Libya, they ended the matrilineal Moon Goddess and separated her three aspects. Zeus devoured Metis whole and Her Daughter Athena and Her Wisdom Medusa were to be forever enemies.*


Tondo of an Attic black-figured cup, end of 6th century BC.
Tondo of an Attic black-figured cup, end of 6th century BC.

In 8AD, the Roman poet Ovid wrote Metamorphoses and it's the first time instance of Athena turning Medusa into a hideous monster, or a Gorgon. Prior to that, during the early Iron Age (c. 1200 - c. 800 BC), Medusa was already a Gorgon, a symbol used by the ancient Greeks to ward off evil spirits and she didn't have an origin story; Gogoneions were simply hideous faces, an Apotropaic symbol found throughout the Mediterranean. When Perseus story was invented by the Greeks, he used the Gorgoneion as a magic talisman to tun his enemies into stone. The earliest reference to Medusa is in Book Eleven of the Homer's Odyssey , but in it, she is just a monster's head with terrible powers that Perseus carries as a talisman. At some point, the


Fragment of a relief with Achilles carrying a Gorgon shield, ca. 600 B.C. Greek (Attic) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Achilles carrying a Gorgon shield, ca. 600 B.C.

Greeks decided this head had to come from somewhere, so they came up with a story of how Perseus killed Medusa to obtain her head. In the poem Theogony, written by Hesiod around the 6th century, Medusa, and her three sisters Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, were already Gorgons; unfortunately, Medusa was the only mortal one. She willingly laid on a soft meadow amid spring flowers with Poseidon and it seemed rather romantic and consensual until Perseus came along and sliced her head off from which sprang forth great Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus. The reason Athena would have assisted Perseus in slaying Medusa would have been because it was what was expected of her as she was believed to be the patron goddess of heroes.


It was the Roman poet Ovid who changed the story when he wrote that Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, turned Medusa from a human to a monster, after she was raped by Neptune (the Greek Poseidon) in her temple. By changing Medusa's origin story, but retaining the rest of the traditional Greek story, it becomes confusing as to why Minerva/Athena would help Perseus murder her own creation. Why would Minerva punish Medusa for desecrating her temple and not Neptune, who raped her? Because Neptune is an immortal God. Also, had he raped her anywhere else other than her temple, Athena wouldn't have done anything about it.**


In present times, there's the feminist point of view that Athena gave Medusa the power to defend herself, but it was not accepted by men who decided they had to conquer her. Many classicists and students of the mythology itself doesn't support these ideas, especially when you take the time during which they were written.


On the other hand, my painting "Queen, Goddess, Monster" doesn't really subvert the mythology, or attempt to change it. Maybe a little? The demonisation of women by others seems to happen more frequently than acceptable. We live in a patriarchal society guided by patriarchal religions and culture. If a woman speaks out, she is a Monster and when she behaves as society dictates, she is a Queen, a Goddess on a narrow pedestal she can barely move.White man is God and supreme ruler of everything he lays his eyes on and that includes women. Or at least, that's how it feels like whenever we walk on the streets and get: cat called, whistled at, guy thinks he can make an inappropriate comment because fragile woman will not dare reply for fear he might feel offended and then want to beat her up or rape her (yup, all of those things cross my mind before I react, then I quickly step up my pace and hope that I can vanish in the crowd), get felt up in high school while sitting in a lab reading and not invited attention, get caressed inappropriately in the office (again, no invitation, just sitting there trying to type a report and most people have left the office but you have a deadline), gets grabbed by boy in school who decided he wants to kiss you, older man thinks he can get away by doing whatever he wants to you because you are younger, or worse, underage, inexperienced and he knows you won't tell... You definitely don't feel like a Queen or a Goddess and you are decidedly a Monster, but you still behave like a Queen because it's the best facade you can put on. Continue to act normal, like nothing is happening because if they were to see the true Monster that is inside you, they would run. Worse, they would react defensively and call you Monster, bitch, and want to ruin your life because they are, after all, men in a Patriarchal society that will demonise any woman who veers her ugly Monster head.


#MeToo and its aftermath encouraged women to come out and reveal the abuses they suffered, especially in Hollywood where the several names are household names. Fast forward to 2020 and Weinstein is in prison for 23 years for several counts of sexual assault and rape. Other big names have been exposed and one in particular stands out Because although Roman Polanski was twelve rape and assault accusations against him, and many against minors, he fled the USA in 1978 before being convicted and has been living in exile in France ever since. During the Cesar Awards, aka, the French Oscars, he won the Best Director award. Bearing in mind that he was expelled from the Oscars as soon as his conviction came to light, the Cesars have not done that because they believe the man is not the art. This was a slap to any victim of his and victims in general to the extend that the actress Adèle Haenel walked out shouting "La Honte!" and then chanting and clapping "Bravo, Pedophilia!". She was herself a victim of sexual harassment for several years starting when she was 12 years old by director Christophe Ruggia.



As soon as Adèle Haenel stood up against the Awards for celebrating Roman Polanski, she was applauded by many, but also condemned by some. Olivier Carbone threatened her and said her career was dead, she was also subjected to further attacks on her Facebook page.


It seems that women are viewed very much in black and white, Queen/Goddess, or Monster, especially when she is in the limelight and every step she takes is meticulously monitored by everyone. She is practically walking across a minefield where if she says the wrong word, chooses the side which is considered risky or even "wrong" by some, then slurs and threats just seem to flow her way. It is extremely stressful, especially since it feels like you have to be constantly vigilant. On the other hand, perhaps always being Yourself and giving zero fucks to everyone's opinions, because people generally have opinions galore about how everyone else should think or behave, is the best option because there will always be those who view you as Queen, Goddess, or Monster. You can't please everyone, but you can certainly please yourself.



References:

Yes, this is terrible scholarly (nope, it is not scholarly in the least) research using secondary and even tertiary sources, but they seem to have done their research and it made me go hmmm interesting and it suits my purpose. Don't use this for your thesis, BUT you can back trace it until you find the original sources, as the good student that you are.

*https://goddessinspired.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/medusa-the-libyan-dark-moon-serpent-goddess/

**Spencer Alexander McDaniel