All through my childhood a self – portrait, painted by my mother hung above my parents’ bed. I was fascinated by this image of the stern face of my very beautiful mother with her long wavy chestnut hair. In the painting my mother’s body was buried in the sand up to her neck. Behind her, churning waves cascaded onto the shore. A blue sky was visible. A few seashells were scattered around and a large shiny green beetle was crawling over the sand. On the surface this image of my mother with her long curly hair seemed quite serene but as a child the painting disturbed me. It was as if this painting held a key – but to what? My father loved the painting and often commented on it…
I can remember playing at the seashore. My father would dig holes and bury both his children up to their necks in the warm sand that also held us fast…
I had one reoccurring childhood nightmare of waking up and not being able to breathe.
I first heard the word Medusa when my mother mentioned her in relationship to herself in jest? Did I ask about her? My memory is silent on these two points, but I knew Medusa’s hair was writhing with snakes and that she was screaming. I also knew my mother was terrified of snakes. Because my mother was an artist, it is possible that I saw an image of Medusa in one of her art books (when I looked for images for this essay one seemed too familiar).
I had another re-occurring childhood dream. My mother and I were locked in a bathroom. There were snakes crawling all over the floor. My mother jumped on the toilet seat and I was left alone on the floor with the snakes. I awakened screaming…
Once, walking in the woods a garter snake slithered across the path separating my mother and me. When I screeched in terror my mother turned on me viciously. Stunned and humiliated I endured her tirade, hopelessly confused…
When my little brother encouraged me to touch a snake in his terrarium one day, I agreed. I was amazed at how silky the snake’s skin felt. This animal was quite beautiful with his red tongue and golden eyes and the snake seemed unafraid and friendly. After this encounter my fear of snakes vanished…
As an adolescent I started to call myself Medusa.
Any time I acted out, losing my temper I berated myself. In time self – loathing became the mask I wore.
I hated my body.
I told anyone who would listen that I was “a lousy carbon copy of my mother” because that was how I saw myself. No one challenged me on this statement except my grandmother who told me once that she didn’t understand why my mother treated me the way she did… My grandmother intercepted my mother, but never confronted her openly.
In my early 20’s my brother’s suicide and my grandmother’s death severed me from any roots I might have had to the earth and any relationships including those with my children; I entered the dead years.
I couldn’t leave the house.
For my 39th birthday I bought myself a gold serpent ring. When I placed the ring on my left hand (on my ring finger) I intuited with amazement that on some level I was “marrying” myself. I also thought of my mother who was still afraid of snakes and experienced a peculiar sense of power and freedom. The hair on my arms prickled and I shivered involuntarily. I didn’t know what this insight meant but I believed I was prepared to journey into the unknown.
Steeped in mythology and the world of the Great Goddess, shaped by the scholarship of Marija Gimbutas and fascinated by her powerful images of snakes and women, the serpent came to life as an aspect of self and I had married him.
I went camping and re – discovered the forest, and moved to the mountains where I began to write…
I kept shallow clay bowls full of water for the snakes around my house. I kept their skins after they shed them in the woodpile.
When I dreamed about two iridescent blue snakes my dog died. I came to understand that snakes had both a powerful positive and negative charge, and that both involved the body. I recognized that it was important to be aware of this holy aspect of snakes because they embodied life and death of the body in the Great Round. My respect for all snakes deepened.
Last August I came to northern New Mexico and became acquainted with Avanyu, the Indigenous Tewa name for the Horned Serpent that is pecked into many rocks as a petroglyph. Avanyu, the Spirit of Water and Life lives in Si –pa –pu (the underworld) and is a powerful supernatural being for the Tewa. He is unpredictable, presiding over endings and beginnings. He represents change, transition, and transformations. According to the Tewa, in the beginning Avanyu fought the spirit of drought (a fiery comet) and rain fell creating rivers that were shaped by his sinewy body. Every spring at the pueblos the bow and arrow dance is done in his honor.
Recently, I was given a wonderful gift, a small shiny black pot with Avanyu’s image carved into its micacious clay surface. I have become enamored by the images and the mythology around this powerful serpent. Every day I look at my pot and wonder what specific message Avanyu might be trying to convey to me.
As I began this essay I also wondered how Avanyu’s serpentine aspect might relate to my writing about Medusa? Was he guiding me? I certainly believe he is highlighting the importance of needing to live through the truth of my body.
When I first began researching Medusa I was appalled by my own ignorance regarding the actual myth. I had never studied this tragic story because I thought I knew it.
In the earliest record, Hesiod’s Theogony, Medusa was one of three sisters, the daughter of Earth and Sea who “lived at the world’s edge,” the only sister that was mortal. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Medusa became a virgin priestess (devoted to celibacy) dedicating her life to the goddess Athena. In some versions Medusa was also vain, and Athena couldn’t tolerate her beauty or the conflict that this engendered. Either way, Poseidon desired Medusa and she broke her vows. In some versions Poseidon raped her in Athena’s shrine.
Athena’s fury was limitless, and she punished Medusa by turning her into a frightening figure. Her beautiful long hair became a tangle of hissing serpents, her face was contorted into a mask of hatred. To gaze directly upon this distorted countenance was to be turned to stone. As a final punishment Athena saw to it that Medusa was shunned and cast out; she wandered alone in despair and torment, and in some accounts she was banished to a desolate island in the sea.
Eventually Medusa escaped her mortal misery, meeting her death at the hands of Perseus who slew her because he used a mirror and did not look directly upon the dreaded face. He saw Medusa as a reflection in his shield. (To look directly into the face of human evil is to be possessed by it, to reflect is to see evil without being swallowed by it). Perseus took her severed head to Athena who attached and wore it on her shield. In addition to her other powers Athena could now deflect the powers of female rage/hatred in her mind, if not in her body.
Robert Graves believes that the myth of Medusa preserves the memory of conflicts that occurred between men and women during the transition from a matrilineal to a patriarchal society. According to Graves, the function of Medusa’s head with its writhing snakes was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies performed by women that celebrated the Triple Goddess as the moon. He suggests that Orphic poems reveal that the full moon is also the head of Medusa.
Scholar Camille Dumoulie postulates that Medusa is the Great Mother because so many texts illustrate Medusa’s affinity with the sea and the powers of nature. I see Medusa as one aspect of the Great Mother, the wild untamed aspect of Nature, and the great sea of the unconscious, a source of positive or negative power.
Dumoulie also perceives Medusa’s head to be a mask and a mirror. According to this scholar the mask of Medusa represents collective violence and death energy. I think that Medusa is an image of woman’s rage/outrage/hatred/grief that needs to be expressed in a healthy way by taking concrete positive actions to deal with negative feelings while inhabiting and listening to one’s body (as well as one’s intellect). Although she doesn’t mention it, I think it’s important to note that this “mask” aspect of woman can also be removed at will as long as one has developed some conscious awareness and an ability to contain feelings and emotions.
As a mirror, Dumoulie fails to explain what’s behind the rivalry between Athena and Medusa beyond stating that Athena needs to separate or split away from her double in order to hold on to her identity. I think the core of the issue between the two is Athena’s envy. Envy can result in hatred of women by women; Athena turns her priestess into a monster and then, after her death, puts Medusa’s face on her shield revealing the intimate relationship between the two. Athena “wins” acquiring power over her victim. Athena does not develop the powers of self – reflection; instead she persecutes her servant. Medusa’s head then becomes an aspect of Athena who is associated with the power to annihilate, to turn others to stone, but this power lacks a body.
Medusa and Athena are two aspects of the same goddess. Athena betrays this truth by taking Medusa’s head and placing it on her shield so she can kill without having to own this vicious feeling aspect of herself. Feelings and emotions have their roots in the body.
Dumoulie believes that “whoever seeks Athena finds Medusa’s head.” I believe that this statement of hers contains a warning for every woman. Athena is a goddess of war; she is associated with patriarchal “power over” and is also associated with the masculine ideal of wisdom. She was born from Zeus’s neck, not through a woman’s body. She is a daughter of intellect who risks reversal – snapping into her opposite (Medusa/feeling) without grounding in a body that will help her mediate unbridled power and hubris.
Medusa is also sometimes characterized as a symbol of male castration. Yet Medusa’s ability to annihilate is a result of the violence imposed on her by Athena who is characterized as a female hero figure. Medusa didn’t choose this mask – it was thrust upon her by Athena, a female goddess who victimized her. I think the story of Medusa is more about woman hatred. The result of her abuse was that she was abandoned as an outcast and died in a state of terrible despair. Her terrifying loneliness is evident in the images of Medusa that reveal female misery, not the face of female evil.
I would also argue that the snakes in Medusa’s hair are symbolic representations of woman’s power. Women and Serpents have a long history together, one that stretches back to Neolithic times when serpents were seen as wisdom figures, embodying the life force within women and in Nature. Like the Minoan Snake goddess or the snakes in my life that contain both life and death aspects in one serpentine figure, Medusa’s head is covered in serpents suggesting that the potential for women’s wisdom is also present. Medusa needs a body in order to express this potential.
For most of my life I had identified my anger/rage with Medusa condemning myself without ever knowing anything about this story or the context in which Medusa lived out her (mortal) mythic life. Today I see Medusa in a very different light and feel great compassion for her, and for myself. This female figure was brutalized first by seduction or possible rape, and then betrayed by the goddess she had dedicated her life to – Athena, who blamed the victim and not the perpetrator. Twice. This heinous act would be shocking if one didn’t recall that Athena sprang from Zeus’s neck, (an unholy birth if there ever was one) and was as a result, a male identified woman, one who may also become a woman hater.
I believe that Medusa can help us as women to stay in touch with the archetype, as in a force of energy/and information, so that we have a choice. Women can allow themselves to feel rage, contain it, and express it in healthy ways. We don’t have to act out destructively towards others or ourselves after we have been brutalized or betrayed.
I am finishing this essay on the day after the Women’s March on Washington (and everywhere else around the world). The massive world wide protest highlights how effective women’s anger/rage can be when it is mobilized into a peaceful collective movement that has at its core the belief that women, and the sensible/sensitive men that support them, will not put up with more abuse – verbal or physical. We say NO to giving up our hard won rights. We say NO to the destruction of the planet and its non –human species, to misogyny, to rape, to privileging one group over another, to restricting reproductive rights, to building stupid walls, to isolating one group of individuals from another. We embody Medusa’s outrage, and begin to fight back. This misogynist who became president partly because 53 percent of white women voted him in must be stopped. First we need to own the proliferation of women hatred and other hatred that abounds in our country, and then we need to take to the streets to protest in huge numbers. Our greatest challenge is to keep up the momentum. Women must gaze with the eyes of Medusa on the monster lurking behind the doors of the Oval Office. Women and men everywhere must turn him to stone.
I conclude this essay with a personal note on serpents. I believe that the serpent saved my life because by “marrying” him I opened the door to the unconscious waters, the wisdom of my dreams, and to living my life authentically. My greatest challenge then as now is to live my life through my body as well as through my intellect. I don’t choose as my mother once did, to bury my body in the sand. Perhaps Avanyu will continue to guide me…