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 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…