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Medusan and Athenian Interactions
Megan Bates

In much of Western literature, Athena represents a collection of traits which have been consistently valued and whose perceived importance can be owed to the ancient Greeks. These include wisdom, (objectivity, rationality, logic), warfare, (nationalism, power), and virginity[1]. She provides a locus for the intersection of these gendered and racialized topics. The poet Homer describes her strength and domination in warfare as partially owed to her aegis, a shield which displays The Gorgoneion: The head of Medusa.[2]

Medusa can be figured in opposition to Athena, along similar lines to what sociology professor Vicki Kirby establishes as the division of what she calls the mind/body (nature/culture). The linking of each of these to specific genders, racial identities, and nonhuman entities is established as a long tradition of dichotomising complex structures: [3]

“Nature/the body is routinely conflated with woman, the feminine, the primordial, with unruly passion and “the dark continent”- all signs of a primitive deficiency that requires a more rational and evolved presence (the masculine/whiteness/heterosexuality/culture and civilization) to control and direct its unruly potential” [Kirby, p.269]

In this essay, I will present the relationship between Athena and Medusa as a manifestation of the violence of this dualism. I will further propose that tracing how Athena has been utilised as a figuration for patriarchal ideologies, and Medusa as an icon for the subjugated throughout history, can help parse out the invisible meanings behind contemporary utilisations of their images. This will be particularly in relation to their connections to different categorisations of nonhuman entities- the technological and biological.

Both Athena and Medusa diverge from humanity in ways that are entangled with their sexuality and earthliness. Athena is a sky god, her temples built high on the acropolis. She is said to have sprung from the head of Zeus, a miracle birth without a mother. Athena Parthenos, which translates to “Athena the Virgin”, is a name she is known by, and she never had children. Her detachment from the biology of human life, particularly relating to female sexuality and childbirth, are worth considering at it relates to the way that multiple 16th century Jewish and Christian theological readings of the myth of her and Medusa describe Athena as representing rejecting Earthly pleasure and sin, the ascent to heaven, and rationality.[4],[5],[6] Mary Beard describes her access to power and esteem as relating to her masculinity:[7] “In the Greek sense [Athena] is not a woman at all.” [Beard, p.70] She explains how warfare was an exclusively male job, wisdom was a trait admired only in men, and women’s role was to have children, which Athena did not do. She would have been a hyper masculine figure. Medusa, meanwhile, departs from humanity (and femininity) at a climax of sexual violence. Ovid establishes the story of Medusa and Athena[8], writing in 43-17 B.C.E. - C.E. as:

“One day Neptune

Found her [Medusa] and raped her, in [Athena’s] temple,

And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes

Behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage

As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,

And even now, to frighten evil doers,

She carries on her breastplate metal vipers

To serve as awful warning of her vengeance” [Ovid, p.36]

If we continue with Kirby’s linking of femininity, sexuality, the primitive, and nature, this myth of the rightful punishment of Medusa by Athena reflects a thread in the ideology of Western value systems which can be traced through a long history and which still influence current frameworks of power structures. “Classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard.” [Beard p.70]

Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson after a design by Lord George Murray, Published on behalf of the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, 1792.

Medusa is repeatedly used throughout history as a political tool to represent the antithesis of civilized society. She has been used more recently in multiple examples depicting female politicians.

An image created with photo manipulation software by a Trump supporter in 2016, depicting Hillary Clinton as Medusa.

Other ancient sources which involve Medusa talk at length about her appearance, particularly relating to her intermingled beauty and horror. The source of her power to turn men to stone is linked alternately to man-enticing pleasures and the terror of her monstrous form. This combined feeling of lust-repulsion seems, for many discussing the Medusa myth, to be the specific source of her power. Although intended as a warning, this perverted characteristic manifests as strength for Medusa, something which has been used in a large number of feminist analyses. The nature of this perversion can be linked to revulsion at women, blackness and queerness. When Medusa is situated she is in Western Africa [9] or in Libya [10]. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus describes her as a member of a group called the Gorgons, a people righteously conquered by the hero Perseus. The incompatibility of this myth, of her being born to a community of snake-haired people, with that of Athena’s transforming spell speaks to the flexibility of her origins and the importance of her appearance and nature, rather than her role in Perseus’ story, even amongst ancient sources. Diodorus speaks about the Amazons, who apparently lived nearby to the Gorgons, while discussing Medusa. He describes Hercules’ motivation for his apparent conquering of west Africa as:

 “it was a thing intolerable to him, who made it his business to be renowned all the world over, to suffer any nation to be governed any longer by women” [Diodorus, p.29]

There are several connections of Medusa to tales of invasion and conquest of Africa in ancient times[11]. Her character of a perverse simultaneous attraction/repulsion aligns with more recent portrayals of both the African continent and black women as the “dark continent” and “hottentot”, as Gender & Sexuality Studies theorist Jennifer Nash describes.[12] We can follow this connection between monstrosity and black bodies to a more contemporary debate surrounding Hollywood monsters reinvigorated by Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), a reimagining of Creature from the Black lagoon (1954).

1954 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' poster

English professor Patrick Gonder describes how the emergence of the monster in cinema developed from a coded racism (and sometimes sexism) which inspired various visualisations of the ‘horror’ of ‘The Other’.[13] The ‘expedition-to-an-exotic-land’ trope is a common sub-plot of many Hollywood horror films such as King Kong and is remarkably similar to Diodorus Siculus’ story of Medusa. Gonder describes how the space of the monster is a stand in for white male anxieties relating to ‘The Other’. He argues that this creates a space to fantasise about racialized violence. Cinematographic depictions of Medusa inherit this heritage of monsters in Hollywood, almost always adopting the same framework of ‘terror-which-must-be-slain’. These depictions of Medusa are often violent, featuring (white, male) Perseus figures or analogues usually decapitating her. This heritage of monster depictions continues into the new media of video games, which provide an additional layer of interaction, creating a further engagement with this fantasy space. The God of War series, in particular, has been criticised for creating experiences which involve extreme violence involving hypersexualised characters[14].