Who is Medusa?
Many parts of the myth suggest, through its basic obscurity, the tragic nature of Medusa. Even though the gifts that Medusa was given was the gift from Athena to Asclepius of two drops of Gorgon’s blood. One of the drops has the power to cure and even resurrect, while the other is poison. However, it is for literature and the arts to reveal the close relationship between opposites and the ‘innocence’ of the victim. In this respect, the myth of Medusa is revealing. In his study The Mirror of Medusa (1983), Tobin Siebers has identified the importance of two elements, i.e. the rivalry between Athena and the Gorgon, and the mirror motif.According to Ovid (Metamorphoses, IV. 779ff), the reason for the dispute lay in Poseidon’s rape of Medusa inside the temple of the virgin goddess.
The goddess is supposed to have punished Medusa by transforming her face, which therefore made Medusa an innocent victim for the second time. However, another tradition, used by Mallarme in Les Dieux antiques (1880), stressed a more personal rivalry: Medusa had boasted that she was more beautiful than Athena. Everything points to the face that the goddess found it necessary to set herself apart from her negative double in order to assert her ‘own’ identity. Common features are numerous. For example, snakes are the attribute of Athena, as illustrated by the famous statue of Phidias and indicated by certain Orphic poems which refer to her as ‘la Serpentine’.
Moreover, the hypnotic stare is one of the features of the goddess ‘with blue-green eyes’, whose bird is the owl, depicted with an unblinking gaze. Finally, because she has affixed Medusa’s head to her shield, in battle or in anger she assumes the terrifying appearance of the monster. Thus, in the Aeneid (11, 171), she expresses her wrath by making flames shoot forth from her eyes. These observations are intended to show that Athena and Medusa are the two indissociable aspects of the same sacred power.A similar claim could be made in respect of Perseus, who retains traces of his association with his monstrous double, Medusa. Using her decapitated head to turn his enemies to stone, he spreads death around him. And when he flies over Africa with his trophy in a bag, through some sort of negligence, drops of blood fall to earth and are changed into poisonous snakes which reduce Medusa’s lethal power (Ovid, op. cit., IV. 618).
Two famous paintings illustrate this close connection between the hero and the monster. Cellini’s Perseus resembles the head he is holding in his hand (as demonstrated by Siebers) and Paul Klee’s L’esprit a combattu le mal (1904) portrays a complete reversal of roles — Perseus is painted full face with a terrible countenance, while Medusa turns aside.In this interplay of doubles, the theme of reflection is fundamental. It explains the process of victimization to which Medusa was subjected, and which falls within the province of the superstition of the ‘evil eye’. The way to respond to the ‘evil eye’ is either to use a third eye — the one that Perseus threw at the Graiae – or to deflect the evil spell by using a mirror. Ovid, in particular, stressed the significance of the shield in which Perseus was able to see the Gorgon without being turned to stone, and which was given to him by Athena. Everything indicates that the mirror was the real weapon. It was interpreted thus by Calderon and Prevelakis, and also by Roger Caillois in Meduse et Cie (1960).
Ovid was responsible for establishing the link with Narcissus, a myth that he made famous. It seems that the same process of victimization is at work here. The individual is considered to have been the victim of his own reflection, which absolves the victimizer (Perseus, the group) from all blame. This association of the two myths (and also the intention of apportioning blame) appears in a passage in Desportes’ Amours d’Hyppolite (1573) where the poet tells his lady that she is in danger of seeing herself changed ‘into some hard rock’ by her ‘Medusa’s eye’. Even more revealing is Gautier’s story Jettatura (1857) in which the hero, accused of having the ‘evil eye’, eventually believes it to be true and watches the monstrous transformation of his face in the mirror: ‘Imagine Medusa looking at her horrible, hypnotic face in the lurid reflection of the bronze shield.
‘Medusa’s head is both a mirror and a mask. It is the mirror of collective violence which leaves the Devil’s mark on the individual, as well as being the image of death for those who look at it. Both these themes — violence rendered sacred and death by petrifaction — are found in Das Corgonenhaupt (Berlin, 1972), a work by Walter Kruger about the nuclear threat.However, when considered in terms of archetypal structures, Medusa’s mask still retains its secret. What is the reason for the viperine hair, the wide-open mouth with the lolling tongue, and, in particular, why is Medusa female? What relationship is there between violence, holy terror and woman?