Her Name and Origin
Medusa means "sovereign female wisdom," in Sanskrit it'sMedha, Greek Metis, Egyptian Met or Maat.
Medusa was actually imported into Greece from Libya where she was worshipped by the Libyan Amazons as their Serpent-Goddess. Medusa (Metis) was the destroyer aspect of the Great Triple Goddess also called Neith, Anath, Athene or Ath-enna in North Africa and Athana in 1400 c. BC Minoan Crete.
Medusa was originally an aspect of the goddess Athene from Libya where she was the Serpent-Goddess of the Libyan Amazons. In her images, her hair sometimes resembles dread locks, showing her origins in Africa. There she had a hidden, dangerous face. It was inscribed that no one could possibly lift her veil, and that to look upon her face was to glimpse ones own death as she saw your future.
Medusa as an Archetype
Medusa has historically been seen as the archetype of the nasty mother, however she is far more complex. She symbolizes the following:
Sovereign female wisdom. The female mysteries. All the forces of the primordial Great Goddess: The Cycles of Time as past, present and future. The Cycles of Nature as life, death and rebirth. She is universal Creativity and Destruction in eternal Transformation. She is the Guardian of the Thresholds and the Mediatrix between the Realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. She is Mistress of the Beasts. Latent and Active energy.
Connection to the earth. The union of heaven and earth. She destroys in order to recreate balance. She purifies.
She is the ultimate truth of reality, the wholeness beyond duality. She rips away our mortal illusions. Forbidden yet liberating wisdom. The untamable forces of nature. As a young and beautiful woman she is fertility and life. As crone she consumes by devouring all on the earth plane. Through death we must return to the source, the abyss of transformation, the timeless realm. We must yield to her and her terms of mortality. She reflects a culture in harmony with nature.
Images of Medusa
In her image alone we can find this constellation of archetypal meaning. Throughout archeological history, there have been patterns of correspondence of her image around the world as the ancients translated the powers of the natural world into an organic image that was accessible, practical, ceremonial, mystical and potent. In the beginning, her images represent a powerful natural force that is worshipped and revered by cultures as sacred and holy as she was a symbol of the full potency of the Great Triple Goddess.
In the Beginning:
Medusas' images in Old Europe begin several thousand years prior to her reinvention in classical Greek Myth. In the Upper Paleolithic, her power is represented in labyrinth, vaginal, uterine, and other female designs. Throughout the Neolithic, her forces are symbolized by the female figure positioned in holy postures and gestures of empowerment, with the presence of animals, primarily birds and snakes whom she is intimately connected with. These images appear in the Mediterranean area and continue to extend into the late Bronze Age of Minoan Crete,(1600 BC) where she is represented as the refined serpent-goddess-priestess. (modern copied image of the serpent goddess-priestessAriadne and the original serpent-goddess-priestesses found at the Palace of Knosses inivory and gold,and infaience)
Birds are appear on her head or shoulder, signifying her generative as well as death wielding powers of her dark, crone aspect. They also represent the heavens of the sky.
Snakes coil around her arms, legs or are entwined in her hair and are shown whispering into her ear. The serpent is a totem of the cycles of life, death and rebirth and the seasons. It is the connection to the fertile earth and to the underworld. It also symbolizes immortality as it was thought to shed its skin indefinitely.
Because of this the serpent was placed in relationship to women throughout antiquity as they correspond to the immortal properties of the blood of menstruation. Back then menstruating women were feared by men with holy dread as they inexplicably bled without wound or pain synchronized with the moon-tide cycles.
The serpent is also an emblem of the ocean as the sea was known as an earth girdling serpent. Centuries later, the myths of classical Greece cast the serpent as an evil, deceitful, revolting character associated with "witchy," (wise), women.
In 750 BC, the full-bodied image of Medusa in Greece is a central piece on their oldest surviving temple, that of Artemis, one of their oldest gods. She is the Lady of the Beasts who carries with her memories of Crete and Angolia. Like Medusa, she kills in a sacred manner so that life may continue. In this image of Medusa, snakes are tied around her waist in the sacred healing knot as they were used for medicinal purposes. She retains spiraling hair, large bird wings on her back and even on her feet that sometimes have claws. The wings symbolize her freedom and dynamic movement between the worlds. There are even surviving images of Artemis wearing the mask of Medusa, also called the mask of the Gorgon or Hecate.
Medusas' ancient, widely recognized symbol of female wisdom was her threatening, ceremonial mask . It has wide unblinking eyes that reflect her immense wisdom. They are all knowing, all seeing eyes that see through us, penetrating our illusions and looking into the abyss of truth. Her mouth is deathly; it looks like a skull. It is devouring of all life, returning us to the source. Sometimes she has the frightening tusks of a boar which is meant to scare men, yet these hearken back to the pig, an ancient symbol of the uterus of rebirth. Her tongue protrudes like a snakes' and her face is surrounded by a halo of spiraling, serpentine hair which symbolize the great cycles and her serpent wisdom.
The mask was used to guard and protect women and the secret knowledge of the Divine Feminine. It literally warned men to "Keep Away! Female Mysteries." It was erected in stone,(corresponding to her look of stone), on caves and gateways at sacred sites dedicated to the Goddess. It also appeared on stone pillars erected in honor of her deceased lovers. Even after the degradation of Medusa Athenian culture after 7th c. BC, her mask image continued to be used until the reign of Christianity.
Her defilement began in Greece in the 7th-6th c BC, yet at this time there still exist images that revere Medusa in her full power. There was found a Cretan-like image of the Gorgon Medusa in a war chariot flanked by lions. It looks much like the Great-Mother Goddess Cybele, goddess of wild beasts and fertility of nature. At the same time there was found a relief of a woman wearing the Gorgon mask while in the menstrual/birth/erotic position, a posture of women's power in Neolithic imagery. But her face and mask continued to be used in temples and sanctuaries, and to be commonly placed on columns, doorways and gateways, signifying her role as the guardian of the thresholds and mediatrix between realms. (Medusa's face at Didyma, Temple to Apollo and a description of her image as it appears at the temple at Kalaaktepe)
Medusa in Patriarchal Greece
Patriarchy began in the bronze and iron age of first millennia Greece. In this mind the world is no longer born of a sacred mother deity but from a supreme father. Earth and heaven are split eternally. In myth heroes and gods are created to dominate and subjugate the female and natural forces over and over again in various forms, the most common of them being gigantic snakes and serpent monsters. A prime example of this is the serpent dragon called Eurinaes who is overpowered by Apollo.
The god Apollo represents the rising patriarchy and the contemporary male interests. The Eurinaes is a dynamic female force representing the old, matrifocal civilizations, and the female values that pre-date the Olympian gods. The Eurinaes is subordinated, mastered and tamed by Apollo as she is forced to leave the sanctuary so he can establish his shrine at the temple of Delphi. Through domination the hero constantly conquers the cyclical pattern of nature and tries to make it linear. He tames the wild feminine forces and makes women conform to male-servicing gender roles.
Soon the holy image of the Gorgon Medusa as an ancient symbol of female power and wisdom became totally unacceptable. By the 6th c. BC her rites were disrupted, her sanctuaries invaded, the sacred groves were cut down, her priestesses were violated and her image defiled. Her images, (as well as women), are mastered and domesticated. Her mask was used on elaborate Etruscan lantern fixtures and stoves, probably for her relation to alchemical fire. Although the mask was widely used by country-folk, her female wisdom, natural forces, powers of creativity, destruction and regeneration were demonized and made evil. She was made into a horrid, ugly monster, (most monsters were female or born of the Earth). Her most popular image became that of her defeat in the Athenian myth of Perseus.
In Archaic art the moment in the story most often depicted is the chase after the beheading, when Perseus flees with the severed head pursued by the Medusas' Gorgon sisters. In 550-450 BC, painted mainly in early and proto-attic black figure vases was the image of the hero sneaking up on his victim while she sleeps or cutting her throat while the gods look on. On these she is represented as a hideous snaky monster. (vase image of Perseus beheading Medusa while Hermes looks on and its description, also,a description of the slaying on another vase) At his time the remaining rituals of Medusa were allowed only for military function and her image was reserved for armor, on the breat plate or on their shield. (description of her image on a sacred sheild)
In the course of the fifth century, she will emerge again as a beautiful woman in her maiden aspect. But when the Persians introduce the plumed serpent, her powers are transformed yet again into a dragon which is phallicaly speared into its mouth, an image that is highly popular throughout the Middle Ages.
Medusa-Metis-Athene in Classical Myth
Athenian Myth fragmented and reduced the Libyan Triple Goddess Athene to Athena, Metis, Medusa and her Gorgon sisters. Gorgo, Gorgon, or Gorgopis was the `Grim Face'- and besides Medusa (Metis), was the title of Athene as Death Goddess. The eldest sister was Medusa, who represented Female Wisdom, her younger sisters were Stheino as Strength, and Euryale as Universality. All were born of Ceto and Phorcys, but Medusa was the only mortal. They were originally beautiful. Like Medusa, they had wings on their back and ankles, and wore the mask of Hecate, the mask of the Gorgon. (an image of a Gorogn sister wearing the mask while chasing Perseus after the murder)
In the 7th c. BC, Athenians recreated Athene as their patron Goddess. Through myth the Greeks severed her ancient roots in women's culture by dividing her from her dark aspect as Medusa and Metis. In the seperation of Athene from Metis and Medusa, the two were overlaid; Metis became her mother and Medusa her enemy.
Her mother Metis the shape shifter was said to be the original mother as well as the wisest and greatest of all the gods. To Athenians, she was raped and swallowed by Zeus. Thus Zeus gained his power over the other gods by consuming her ancient lineage along with her immense wisdom. [He used her shape shifting ability primarily to seduce/rape females]. Metis's wisdom was so great that it impregnated Zeus's head and from it sprang the new Athena.
Betraying her ancient lineage, traitor Athena became the dutiful daughter who retained only her virginal, fertile aspect. She was the municipal goddess of Zeus's intelligence, in service of the male-solar ego, making men into heroes who dominate women and nature, and representing the patriarchal values, roles and ideals of Athens. She offers women a new blessed role; absent from the public sphere, and in the service of the male. Women are prescribed the role of virgin, wife and mother. As virgin, proof of his fatherhood is confirmed. As mother, she is the nurse of his children. And as wife she is in devoted service of her man.
In 458 BC, she blatently rejects her mother Metis in Aeschylus's Oresteia , as she also justifies the priority of men over women; "It is my task to render final judgment here...There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth... I am always for the male with all my heart, and strongly on my father's side. So, in a case where the wife has killed her husband, lord of the house, her death shall not mean most to me."(p.161)
Yet Athenas' character contains many contradictions that show the struggle of the male order to manage her potent past. One example is that her favorite animal is the owl, an ancient symbol of bird of death and regeneration, as well as female wisdom, darkness, night, the moon and mystery. However, Athena never uses the darkness to realize her self.
Athenas' new enemy Medusa rivaled her in beauty and power. Even Perseus was said to have admired Medusa's beauty while she was dead, which is why he took her head with him to show the Greeks. When Medusa became a mythological monster, it was Athena herself who made Medusa ugly. According to Ovids' Metamorphosis, when Medusa was a virgin, she was raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple. Athena blamed Medusa for the sacrilegious act and punished her by changing her loveliest feature, her hair, into snakes, (at this time snakes were considered revolting). But even the monster Medusa responds to the abuse with rage- a burning charge of a fiery vitality to protect life. From then on she forever uses her powerful gaze to turn her male enemies to stone, among others, Atlas is turned into a stone mountain.
[See list of the polarized seperation of Athena and Medusa]
The Myth of Medusa the Monster
In the Athenian myth of the Greek hero Perseus, Medusa's female wisdom along with the potential of women in general is silenced and the forces of nature are conquered in an ultimate act of domination and vengeance.
Perseus is sent on a quest, by King Polydictes of Seriphos and Athena herself, to retrieve the head of the Gorgon, a deed said to require the maximum of heroic-male courage and skill. He is given magic winged sandals, a cap and a pouch,(a kibisis), from Hermes. Guided by Athena the entire time, he flies over the ocean to Lake Tritonis in Libya where makes his way through rough, thick woods. On the way to Medusa's palace he sees several statues of men and beasts. There are also stone pillars erected in honor of her deceased lovers. Perseus comes upon the sleeping Gorgons. While Athena holds out a shield as a mirror, Perseus decapitates Medusa with his crescent sword,(a harpe). Enraged, the Gorgon sisters chase after him but to no avail as his cap makes him invisible.
Perseus could not have completed this task without the help of the traitor warrior goddess Athena. It is she who guides and instructs him throughout his journey and slaying. Since the myth symbolized the usurping of her powerful roots in a culture where she and Medusa were one, it is appropriate that only she would know the secrets to find and defeat Medusa. (Apollodorous's Perseus myth andPausanias's rational version of the myth)
The Blood of Medusa:
Even in death Medusa's blood retains its powers. It gives life to Pegasus, the winged, militant steed of Zeus that creates serpents in the earth with the touch of his hoof, and who also introduced Dionysiac worship to Athens. Also Chrysaor, the golden bladed giant, is born from her bleeding neck. Medusas' blood is drained from her body and later used to raise the dead, (making Asclepius a great healer). Used from her right vein it heals and nourishes life, from her left serpent it kills.
The snakes, her dreaded face, her look of stone, and her magical blood all correlate with the ancient menstrual taboo. Primitive folk believed that the look of a menstruating woman could turn a man to stone. Menstrual blood was also thought to be the source of all mortal life and also of death, as the two are inseparable.
The Head of Medusa:
Perseus puts Medusa's head into his pouch. He uses her head as a weapon during other exploits and when he reaches home he returns it to Athena. The head of Medusa is then wrought onto the center of Athena's aegis and Zeus's shield which is given to Athena. (description of Athena's aegis at the Parthenon) Even after her defeat, the face of Medusa forever maintains its Gorgon power to protect the Goddess from enemies by turning them to stone. It is the striking, central image on renderings of Athena. Medusas' face continues to symbolize her fierce strength in military ritual and in battle on the warriors' armor.
[See encyclopedia entry of Gorgon Medusa in classical Greek literature]
The Symbolism of the Myth
The mythological beheading of Medusa symbolizes the ultimate silencing of female wisdom and expression. It is the act which stops her growth, limits her potential, movement and cultural contributions. She is obliterated and her severed head is flaunted on the Acropolis and other works of art in pride of her and all women's subjugation by violent men. She is broken and her body enslaved. Her spirit, her mind, her spiritual powers are killed. Her once honored forces of female creativity and destruction are halted. Her role as dynamic mediatrix degraded. Her life-giving, death-wielding powers and wild forces of nature are controlled, tamed, and mastered by the male order. The cycles of life and nature are made to conform to his linear perspective.
The Motive Behind the Myth
The Perseus myth was invented to explain the appearance of Gorgon Medusa's face, or mask, on Athena's shield and aegis, the image of Athena that was inherited from the pre-Hellenic period. It is not surprising to learn that the earliest images of Athena had a striking resemblance to the revered Cretan serpent-goddess-priestess. Although Athena changes, in art she is consistently associated with snakes as they appear on her shoulders and on her armor, along with Medusa's face as the central image.
The Perseus myth was also an attempt to conceal Athena's roots in the Libyan Amazon Serpent-Goddess-Trinity-Athene, (a deity that was also present in Minoan Crete). In pre-Hellenic myths Athena was said to have come from the uterus of Lake Tritonis, (meaning Three Queens), the same place that Medusa is said to have ruled, hunted and led troops in Athenian myth. The older myths are more specific, they say that Athene was born of the Three Queens of Libya themselves, the Triple Goddess, with Metis-Medusa as her destroyer aspect.
Barbara Walker: TheWoman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, and TheWoman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects
Marija Gimbutas: The Civilization of the Goddess
A special thanks to Joan Marlers' Celebrating the Gorgon slide lecture and workshop at Interface, in Cambridge MA, March of 1996.
To Women In Antiquity course information
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