The story of a strong woman, raped, demonized and then killed by patriarchy does not seem just an ancient myth.
In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence stands a painting by Caravaggio depicting a female creature with snake hair. The subject is so majestic and terrifying that in the sixteenth century the poet Gaspare Murtola also wrote about it, “Flee, because if you amaze your eyes, he will change you even in stone.” The mouth wide open with terror, a crown from which snakes flicker and the head still bleeding, in Caravaggio’s work the creature is immortalized when he realizes he has been beheaded. It’s about Medusa.
From the appearance in a tight red jumpsuit in The Powerpuff Girls to the fierce association with Margaret Thatcher in the UB40 hit “Madam Medusa,” the Greek myth of the Gorgon with snake hair has always been present in contemporary pop culture. In the past twenty years, the character has returned to the cinema in a decidedly more intriguing role: from the charming supermodel Natalia Vodianova in Clash of the Titans of 2010, to the seductive figure played by Uma Thurman in Percy Jackson and the Olympians – The lightning thief. The Versace fashion house also found inspiration in the figure of Medusa, choosing it for its iconic logo.
Almost everyone knows Medusa, and even if they don’t know the details of his story, they certainly remember snakes, his cruel gaze and his reputation as a destroyer. In the book Literature and Fascination, Sibylle Baumbach argues that the imperishable success of the myth is mainly due to our insatiable thirst for stories that speak of female charm and seduction, even better if enriched with a good dose of danger. Medusa is today “a rich and multifaceted figure, made of exaltation, petrification and fatal attraction.” A quick Google search returns many images that portray her as a sensual woman with thick hair of snakes (don’t miss the cover of GQ with Rihanna) up to the frightening beheaded heads from which streams of blood flow.
In the ancient world, Medusa was an equally multifaceted character. The first intellectual to truly deepen his history is the Roman poet Ovid, who explained his transformation into Metamorphosis in detail in AD 8. about. In the story, Medusa was originally a splendid maiden, the only mortal of three sisters, the Gorgons. Her beauty had attracted the attention of the god of the sea, Poseidon, who would have raped her in a sacred temple of Athena. Furious at the desecration of her temple, Athena would have turned Medusa into a monster with the terrible ability to petrify anyone who met her gaze.
The most popular versions of the myth, however, focus on what happened after this story, with Perseus in the lead role. Polydette, king of Serifus, sent the demigod to kill Medusa. Protecting himself from the fatal gaze of the young woman with a bronze shield, Perseus beheaded Medusa and the winged horse Pegasus escaped from the wound. Perseus brought with him the head of Medusa, who had not lost his power to petrify with his eyes, and used it as a weapon against numerous other opponents and enemies. Finally, he returned to Athena triumphantly and handed her the head, which will then be depicted on the shield of the Goddess. And so, Medusa became synonymous with monstrosity.
In ancient Greece, Medusa was depicted as a force capable of killing but also of redeeming. Sculptors and painters used to use Medusa’s head to ward off evil influences. But it was her disarming beauty that became the main source of inspiration for the artists. In the Roman mosaic exhibited in the Getty Museum, for example, snake hair is depicted as curls in the wind, and its petrifying eyes as an elegant look. The head protrudes from the center of the mosaic, like a protective talisman between concentric circles. The examples in which Medusa is represented as a fascinating figure, rather than as a monster, are really many.
Since the Renaissance, the mystical element has left room for more frightening interpretations. The bronze statue of Cellini, from 1554, portrays Perseus triumphant, standing on the body of Medusa while proudly showing its severed head. There seem to be political reasons behind this work: Cellini was commissioned a statue inspired by the story of Perseus, son of Poseidon sent to kill Medusa, who represented the Medici family’s power over the Florentine people. Several artists followed this path: in 1598 Caravaggio painted the terrifying shield in which he portrays Medusa at the moment of his defeat, hoping for the friendship of the Medici family.
Moving quickly to the French Revolution, in this period Medusa became a symbol of change. The Jacobin rebels, in fact, chose it as the face of the freedom of the homeland, transforming its demon status into the weapon to defeat the establishment. In the meantime, the romantic poet Percy B. Shelley was so impressed with the Uffizi that he wrote a tribute to Medusa attacking the patriarchate which had transformed the young woman into a symbol of terror. Free from the judgmental and demeaning eyes of male chauvinism, Medusa could finally go back to being the girl, charming and human before Athena’s intervention.
Shelley isn’t the only one to give a new interpretation of the Medusa character. In her 1975 manifesto, the scholar and feminist Hélène Cixous claims that it was men who created the monster of Medusa, for fear of the power of female seduction. “If these men, said Hélène, had the courage to look Medusa straight in the eye, they would have noticed that she has nothing lethal, but rather she is beautiful and laughs.” It is only by documenting their experiences, Cixous continues, that women will be able to demolish the sexist prejudice that sees the woman’s body as a threat. After centuries of silence, the debate on sexual violence has revived the myth of Medusa and its courageous voice.
It is not difficult to imagine why Cixous’s manifesto had so much resonance and success. The story of a strong woman, raped, demonized and then killed seems a tremendously current affair, rather than an ancient myth. The way in which Medusa has returned to be talked about in recent times, moreover, speaks volumes about the strong misogyny that still pervades our society: Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have all been represented as Medusa during the campaigns election. Among the most cruel caricatures, there is an image representing a Perseus-Trump as he raises the head of his opponent’s defeat in the elections to heaven.
As Mary Beard writes in Women and Power: A Manifesto, Western culture has years and years of experience in silencing women. According to Beard’s theory, the exclusion of women from the major positions of power in contemporary society would have its roots in the classical world. As soon as a male authority is at risk – he writes – Medusa, archetype of the rebellious woman, is proposed again to illustrate the dangers of female disobedience.
What clearly emerges from the different interpretations that have been given to the myth of Medusa over the centuries is that there is not a single universal truth about this figure. Victim, monster, divinity – Medusa is all of this, and much more. Maybe it’s its fickle nature that makes it so fascinating. In a certain sense, it is the projection of our fears and desires: at the same time a symbol of anger and female struggle and a figure transformed into a sexual symbol by the patriarchal forces against which to seek revenge.