Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Multiple works by ancient sources, including varying origin stories, provide a wide-ranging and diverse picture of Medusa. From early Archaic representations of her as a terrifying figure with a protruding tongue, full beard, bulging eyes, tusks and wings, she slowly morphed into something more dangerous – a beauty.
L-R: Archaic Greek terracotta stand ca. 570 BCE (MET Museum); Gold pendant in the form of a gorgoneion (Gorgon's face) c. 450 BCE (MET Museum).
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was the only mortal of three sisters known as the Gorgons (literally ‘dreadful’). The sea god Poseidon became infatuated with this beautiful young woman admired for her luxuriant hair so he pursued Medusa and raped her in Athena’s sacred temple. Enraged by this desecration, the goddess punished Medusa by turning her into a monster with snakes for hair and the ability to petrify with a single look.
Medusa’s end came at the hands of Perseus, who decapitated her in his own bid to forestall the sexual subjugation of his mother by an immoral king. His triumph over Medusa transformed her again, this time into the archetypal femme-fatale, the perfect balance between desire and dread. Medusa, as with many women throughout history who have the perceived power to ‘emasculate’, suffered the fate of being dominated and controlled.
Over time Medusa’s image has been conjured by those who want to dilute or diminish female power; a pervasive theme particularly in Western culture, where women with any social, political or economic power have historically been perceived as threats to the natural order. Following his victory in Florence, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Benvenuto Cellini’s famous sculpture of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head while standing on her corpse. The work epitomises the trope of the male ruler overcoming an adversary personified as female and promotes the narrative of ‘rightful’ masculine authority.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, 1554. Image by Morio
In the 1700s, Marie Antoinette was depicted as a beastly hybrid with snakes for hair in the print Les deux ne font qu’un. At the turn of the 20th century, anti-suffrage postcards in the United States linked suffragettes to Medusa. More recently, women in roles of political power, Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton, to name but a few, have each received the ‘Medusa treatment’. The dehumanisation of women coupled with the normalisation of gendered violence paints a grim picture of the way Western society responds to women who infringe upon the traditional domain of men.
The implicit violence of the Medusa comparison feeds directly into the social conditioning surrounding rape culture. In the mid-20th century, feminist writers and artists began to reassess Medusa and her characterisation as a monster. The injustice of Medusa’s systematic disempowerment - her violation, Athena’s betrayal, her monstrous transformation, her murder and finally the ignominious resting place of her decapitated head on Athena’s aegis (shield) – has become a symbol for the rage felt by women at the systematic repression of both their sexuality and their power.
Medusa’s story is ultimately an allegory for the theft of agency – first through sexual violence, and second by being stripped of her power. The 'culture of power' that obstructs women from gaining influence and vilifies them once they are in a position of authority prompts the question - if the structures of power are formed in a way designed to keep women out, then surely as a society we have to assess the flaws in these structures rather than ask why women want the right to be heard?
‘The feminine of Jekyll and Hyde', published by Keppler and Schwarzmann, Puck Building June 4, 1913