This blog was originally posted on June 24, 2017
Rather than being a bleeding image of female disempowerment, Medusa may be read as…one of the most ancient European symbols of women’s spiritual abilities… [and] an empowering image of feminine potential.’
–Patricia Monaghan, O Mother Sun! (1994:244)
The name Medusa means ‘sovereign female wisdom,’ ‘guardian / protrectress,’ ‘the one who knows’ or ‘the one who rules.’ It derives from the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit Medha and the Greek Metis, meaning ‘wisdom’ and ‘intelligence.’ (1) Metis, ‘the clever one’, is Athena’s mother. Corretti identifies Athena, Metis, and Medusa as aspects of an ancient triple Goddess corresponding respectively to the new, full, and dark phases of the moon. (2) All three are Goddesses of wisdom, protection, and healing.
Athena and Medusa are particularly linked: indeed, one may have been an aspect of the other, ‘two indissociable aspects of the same sacred power.’ (3) Their many common elements include snakes, wings, a formidable appearance, fierce eyes and powerful gaze. The serpent, like the Goddess, has been cast as an embodiment of evil in patriarchal retellings; yet as Merlin Stone points out, serpents were ‘generally linked to wisdom and prophetic counsel’, associated with ‘the female deity’ and ‘entwined about accounts of oracular revelation…throughout the Near and Middle East.’ (4) According to Ovid, the poisonous vipers of the Sahara ‘arose from spilt drops of Medusa’s blood.’ (5) Although this is presented as a further sign of Medusa’s horrifying character, the original Berber inhabitants of North Africa – where Herodotus reports that the Medusa myth began – viewed snakes as bringers of luck and portents of joy. (6)
Despite Medusa’s fearsome appearance, she herself does not personify evil or demonic forces. According to Miriam Robbins Dexter, Medusa is a manifestation of the Neolithic serpent/bird Goddess of life, death, and regeneration. (7) Jane Harrison explains that the ancient Goddess wore the Gorgon mask to warn the uninitiated away from her rites (8), most likely mysteries of the great cosmic cycles of heaven and earth. Patricia Monaghan sees the snakelike rays streaming out from Medusa’s countenance as a sign of a solar Goddess (9), while Joan Marler, citing her connection with Hecate, identifies Medusa more with the moon than the sun (10); either way, Medusa is a heavenly deity ruling over the powers of the cosmos and the rhythms of time.
The Medusa story is just one of many in which, in the words of Annis Pratt, ‘the beautiful and powerful women of the pre-Hellenic religions are made to seem horrific and then raped, decapitated or destroyed.’ (11) Just as the ancient goddess Medusa was converted into a monster, Athena’s actions in relation to Medusa have also been depicted as monstrous, but this, too, is a relatively recent patriarchal portrayal, and deserves reevaluation.
The portrayal of Athena as antagonist to Medusa first appears in Ovid, as late as the first century CE. (12) In Ovid’s version of the story, Athena curses Medusa with a horrifying countenance and snakes for hair, then assists Perseus on his quest to cut off Medusa’s head. (13) Athena is depicted as an enemy of women, a traitor to her gender, an impression strengthened by the oft-quoted words put into her mouth by the classical playwright Aeschylus: ‘I am exceedingly of the father…’ (14)
But these are later interpretations. Earlier Medusa myths, as related by Homer, Hesiod, Pindar and others make no mention of enmity from Athena; nor do authors contemporary with Ovid including Strabo. (15) Ovid and Aeschylus exemplify classic patriarchal strategies that blame the victim, set women against one another, and reframe ancient myths to the detriment of powerful females. Athena, Medusa, and Metis have all been diminished in this way, as has Athena’s mother Metis, who has been ‘disappeared’ from the scene of Athena’s birth. But do we really wish to let these great goddesses of wisdom be defined by the authors and artists of patriarchy? Older, pre-patriarchal versions of Athena reveal her deeper nature.
Athena was a pre-Greek divinity, honoured by the native Europeans whom the Greeks called Pelasgians, ‘neighbours’. (16) Like Medusa, she was originally a great cosmic Goddess of heaven and earth, the deity of life, death and regeneration who was venerated in Old Europe for thousands of years. She is connected by some with the North African Goddess Neith and with the Mesopotamian Inanna, known for her descent to and return from the underworld. (17) Patriarchal portrayals of Athena emphasize her warlike aspect (and there is evidence that her warrior traits were later acquisitions), (18) and some pacifist feminist scholars find Athena problematic for this reason. It is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt to resolve the question of the origin of Athena’s warrior nature – Medusa may also have been a woman warrior, perhaps a North African Amazon priestess and queen. (19)
I suggest we continue to look beyond the distortions of patriarchal interpretations and begin to reclaim ancient Goddesses in their original autonomy and power. Miriam Robbins Dexter’s conclusions about Medusa could equally apply to Athena:
‘[Medusa] reminds us that we must not take the female “monster” at face value; that we must not only weigh her beneficent against her maleficent attributes but also take into consideration the worldview and sociopolitical stance of the patriarchal cultures which create her, fashioning the demonic female as scapegoat for the benefit and comfort of the male members of their societies.’ (20)
A multidisciplinary approach can serve us best, drawing on new scholarship in the fields of classics, archaeology, and linguistics, in combination with an open-ended Jungian approach in which each seeker can find their own sense of meaning in ancient archetypes of the Goddess.
Athena is not only a Goddess of war. She is a complex and polyvalent Goddess with many other qualities – as Goddess of healing, of wisdom, of protection and self-defense, of craft and culture, of the olive tree – which can have great significance for all those healing from trauma.
This blog is an excerpt from my essay “Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma,” in Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom Edited by Glenys Livingstone, Trista Hendren and Pat Daley. Preface by Joan Marler.
A remarkable collection of essays, poems, and art by scholars who have researched Her, artists who have envisioned Her, women who have known Her in their personal story—and combinations of all those capacities. All have spoken with Her and share something of their communion in this anthology.
The anthology is available from Girl God Books.
Many thanks to my dear friend and mentor Carol P. Christ, now in the realm of the ancestors, for conversations which helped me clarify my arguments while writing this essay.
1 Garcia 2013; Monaghan 1994:234; Marler 2002:17, 25; Kerenyi 1951:118. Keller (1986:57) affirms that ‘Metis and Medusa are one.’
2 Corretti 2015:5
3 Monaghan 1994:239; Brunel 1996
4 Stone 1976:199,200,209; see also Gimbutas 1989, Dexter 2010 on the snake and the Neolithic Goddess of rebirth
5 Metamorphoses 4.622-25, 770
6 Herodotus; Musée Berbère 2015:37
7 Dexter 2010:33, Gimbutas 1989:206-8
8 Harrison 1908:187-8
9 Monaghan; Marler 2002:23, note 3.
10 Marler 2002:23, note 3
11 Pratt 1978:168, quoted in Monaghan 1994:237
12 Metamorphoses, IV. 779ff
13 Ovid presents this as Athena punishing Medusa for having been raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple (Metamorphoses IV. 850-8). Earlier versions relate that Medusa was born with serpent locks. See also Rigoglioso 2009:74.
14 Aeschylus, Eumenides 736-8, in Deacy 2008:17
15 Homer, Iliad 5.738 ff; Hesiod, Theogony 275-280; Pindar, Pythian 12.7-22; Strabo, Geography 8.6.21
16 Haarmann 2014:9
17 Deacy 2008:41; Rigoglioso 2010:24
18 Deacy 2008:38
19 Pausanias 2.21.5; Rigoglioso 2009:71
20 Dexter 2010:41
Aeschylus. Promethus Bound 790-800. Citation URI: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0085.tlg003.perseus-eng1:780-818
Brunel, P. ed. 1996. Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes. London: Routledge.
Connelly, J. 2007. Portrait of a Priestess. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Corretti, C. 2015. Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa and the Loggia dei Lanzi. Leiden: Brill.
Deacy, S. 2008. Athena. London: Routledge.
Dexter, M. R. 2010. ‘The Ferocious and the Erotic: “Beautiful” Medusa and the Neolithic Bird and Snake’. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 25-41.
Garcia, B. 2013. ‘Medusa,’ in Ancient History Encyclopedia (online). http://www.ancient.eu /Medusa/.
Gimbutas, M. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Haarmann, H. 2014. Roots of Ancient Greek Civilization. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Harrison, J. 1908. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Herodotus and Godley, A. D. 1920. The Histories. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Hesiod and Hine, D. 2007. Works of Hesiod and the Homeric hymns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Homer and Evelyn-White, H. G. 1914. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press.
Keller, Catherine. 1986. From a Broken Web. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kerényi, Karl. 1951. The Gods Of The Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson.
Marler, J. 2002. ‘An Archaeomythological Investigation of the Gorgon.’ In ReVision 25, no. 1. pp 15-23.
Monaghan, P. 1994. O Mother Sun!. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.
Musée Berbère. 2015. Exhibition catalogue. Marrakesh: Editions Jardin Majorelle.
Ovid, More, B. and Brewer, W. 1978. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Francestown (NH): M. Jones.
Pausanias and Jones, W. 2002. Description of Greece. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
Pindar. Pythian 12, For Midas of Acragas Flute-Playing Contest. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0033.tlg002.perseus-eng1:12)
Pratt, A. 1978. ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers: Notes Towards a Preliterary History of Women’s Archetypes.’ Feminist Studies 4, February 1978. p.168.
Rigoglioso, M. 2009. The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rigoglioso, M. 2010. Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stone, M. 1976, 1978. When God Was a Woman. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Strabo, Jones, H. and Sterrett, J. (2005). Geography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
BIO Laura Shannon is one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), holds an M.A. in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred from Canterbury Christ Church University (2020), and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucester (U.K.). Her research in Balkan dance highlights out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura is a longtime faculty member of the Sacred Dance department of the Findhorn eco-spiritual community in Scotland, an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild, Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, and Carol P. Christ’s choice to succeed her as Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications. Laura lives in Greece and the UK.