Monday, August 7, 2017

Naming and Claiming our Victimhood

Painting by Arna Baartz

“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim
has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”
 -James Baldwin

We live in a world that doesn’t like the word victim.

The meaning of victim, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is:

  • a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, or killed by someone else.
  • a person who is cheated or fooled by someone else.
  • someone or something that is harmed by an unpleasant event (such as an illness or         accident).

There is no shame in any of that. Any shame lies with the perpetrator.

What comes up for you when you think of yourself as a victim?

How would it feel to name, claim and release your victimhood?

Articulate your victim-hood. You may want to create a separate Word document or journal.

Mary Daly wrote that “Women have had the power of naming stolen from us.” Take back your
power by naming and claiming it all.  Then, set it aside for now. You may want to share it
eventually. There is tremendous power in sharing our stories.

You may also want to burn it—or rip it to shreds.

Daily Thought: When I look at you I see myself.

Daily Suggestion: Clench your fists, open your hands; feel it.

An excerpt from New Love: a reprogramming toolbox for undoing the knots

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
-Muriel Rukeyser

Friday, June 16, 2017

Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times by C. Loran Hills

Painting by Arna Baartz

Pegasus is a symbol of spiritual elevation, transformation, and transcendence. I always knew that Pegasus was born out of Medusa’s blood but I didn’t know the entire story. I followed that trail of blood toward a richer, deeper understanding of female power. When I read Barbara Walker’s Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, I discovered a complex and more meaningful narrative. Long ago, Medusa was the serpent-goddess of the Libyan Amazon. She represented female wisdom as the destroyer aspect of the Triple Goddess, Virgin-Mother-Crone. She was similar to Kali Ma, the Hindu Triple Goddess of creation, preservation and destruction.

A Gorgon was a monstrous female creature within the complicated pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. Her face would turn anyone who laid eyes upon it to stone. Gorgons were hideous beings with impenetrable scales, hair of living snakes, hands made of brass and sharp fangs. They guarded the entrance to the underworld. A stone head or picture of a Gorgon was often placed or drawn on temples to avert the dark forces of evil. Medusa was one such Gorgon.

Medusa embodied the principle of medha, the Indo-European root word for female wisdom. Pegasus was named for the Pegae, water priestesses who tended the sacred spring of Pirene in Corinth, Greece. Pegasus represented divine inspiration. His crescent moon-shaped hoof stamped the ground and dug the Hippocrene (Horse-Well), a spring of poetic inspiration on Mount Helicon, the home of the Muses.

In a late version of the Medusa myth, related by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphoses 4.770), Medusa is a ravishingly beautiful maiden, “the jealous aspiration of many suitors.” Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple. The enraged Athena transforms Medusa’s beautiful hair into serpents and makes her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it turns onlookers to stone.

King Polydectes, the ruler of Seriphos, enters the story. He wants to marry Danaë, the only child of the king of Argos; however, her son, Perseus, doesn’t approve. In an effort to get rid of Perseus, the king sends him to fetch Medusa’s head, expecting him to die. Athena assists Perseus by giving him a mirrored shield. He views Medusa’s reflection in the shield and cuts off her head. Immediately, Pegasus springs from Medusa’s blood.

This latter version of the story is disturbing in that Medusa is blamed and punished by Athena even though she is Poseidon’s victim. In another twist, Athena co-opts Medusa’s power by placing Medusa’s face upon her shield. Yet, after many millennia, Medusa remains a compelling symbol of wild female power. Paradoxically, she is a dangerous, unruly woman who invokes fear and she is also a potent image of inner strength for women.

Wild women are condemned as corrupt, depraved, immoral, sinful, wanton, and wicked. Women who live in a state of nature, not tamed or domesticated, are unruly, ungovernable, visionary, savage, and ferocious. These derogatory labels teach us to fear each other, our power, and to deny our inner wisdom. Strong-willed women are demonized in the patriarchal system and socialized to behave.

An excerpt from Loran's essay in Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom
Order here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Medusa’s Vindication (it will be the mirror) by Kerryn Coombs-Valeontis

Art by Nuit Moore

from the imprisonment of her violation
vipers crowning the exile hiss
a fury that can never
be captured

devouring her dementing well beyond
the sanity of rage, banished
of innocence, her revenge poised
to strike; hunted becomes the hunter

clever one's journey
seeking renown, eager to vanquish
the scorned woman that becomes the gorgon
withering the bravest

it will be the mirror, holding truth
to their lie; the sword its servant
releasing its prey from the sins
of the fathers

ransomed to their shame, she hears
the wing-beats of the white
horse, sprung from her spilt
vindication draining away…

bearing her far beyond vengeance
leaving those who do not mourn
burning to possess the purity
of the Pegasus ascending

©Kerryn Coombs-Valeontis, an excerpt from the upcoming girl god anthology, Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pythic Portals by Nuit Moore

I painted this Medusa in 1997, with magickal intent behind Her. I had ended a 2-year relationship with someone after they physically assaulted me (by trying to strangle me, closing off my voice, at the neck, my hair streaming), and called me all of those words that weak men will call a strong woman. I wanted Medusa to have my back after he was taken to jail, after he was out of the house. So one night on the next Dark Moon I painted Medusa with all of the rage and fierceness I felt. I wanted whoever would cause me harm to stop in their tracks when they saw Her eyes (which contained my eyes), to freeze and not be able to take another step into my home. And so for many years, I kept this Medusa facing my front door. It is thought by some, including myself, that the serpent-tressed Gorgons found on the outside of some ancient temples indicated that this was a holy space of the mysteries of women and of the Goddess, and the Medusa served as Temple Guardian of these mysteries, and as a warning to those who would trespass. I actually did not even think of this when I painted Her to guard my own temple. It was instinctual, the call—and this is how She speaks, from the awakened kundalini... from the root of the yoni to the belly pit of survival and up through the opened third eye that sees. Medusa Herself is an ancient Libyan Goddess of the mysteries of Life and Death, regeneration, the menstrual mysteries, the shamanic powers of serpents and snakes. Fierce and deeply powerful, the Goddess MEDUSA.

An excerpt from Re-visiong Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.

Pre-order here.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Re-stor(y)ing Sanity by Trista Hendren

"See No Evil" by Caroline Alkonost

AS A CHILD I WAS TERRIFIED OF MEDUSA. Ironically, I was drawn to and all-but-obsessed with Pegasus, but I did not know the full story of either character or how they were connected. 
It makes sense to me now that I would be fascinated by the male offspring of the horrible monster I had been taught to believe myself to be (as female)—and the dream of flying away as a (male) creature who could finally satisfy the masculine god I seemed to be inherently incapable of pleasing.

Hélène Cixous reminds us that, “To fly/steal is woman’s gesture, to steal into language to make it fly.”1 Reading and writing have been my mode of flight since childhood. Sadly, we are living in a world that devalues both in favor of digital imagery, which I'd argue is a virile venue that will wipe us out eventually. One only has to look to the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to illustrate what I mean.2 While I am aware that many enjoy the show, my belief is the original book has been horribly distorted to instead glorify and normalize violence against women. Our only hope as females is to re-story the world and take back our lives.

For those who grew up in fundamentalist churches like I did, this means finding new sexts for ourselves—as well as embracing new she-roes—or uncovering the real power behind those who were demonized.

We hear a great deal about toxic masculinity but rarely about toxic femininity, except from men's rights activists.The results of toxic masculinity are painfully obvious in our world. However, I'd like to briefly explore the effects of toxic femininity, which silently kills a lot of us.

I'd say I'm still working on expunging this poison from myself almost daily. It lingers primarily in the expectation (of myself) that I am always “nice” to people—which is something I struggle with. There is nothing wrong with being kind—in fact, I think the world needs more of that. However females are taught to put themselves so far down the ladder that “nice” is a luxury we can no longer afford ourselves.

If I had my way, every young girl would read Toni Morrison's second but lesser known book, Sula. Namely because it was life-changing for me in the way I saw myself as female and the possibilities it opened up for me. As Morrison reminds us, “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”3

The biggest lie they tell females is that if you are agreeable and play by all the rules, you will somehow be rewarded and protected by the patriarchal confinement you trade your soul for. Sula was my first wake-up call that this was just not so.

Sula was in fact, my Pegasus. Her character allowed me to fly away from the virulent male-perspective I had been groomed to believe in.

Painting by Arna Baartz

When I entered counseling (again) in my mid-twenties, my crone counselor asked me to scream out my rage—and beat it out, if possible with the pillows and other items she had assembled in her cozy office.

I couldn't do it.

This was not a new request of me. When I completed a Dale Carnegie course in high school, I received a similar task. But I couldn't do it at 17 either.

It was only after a stalker broke down my front door and violently attacked me—and I spent the next six months in court trying to obtain a permanent stalking order—that I was finally able to begin to release some of that rage.

One night, I threw a glass down in anger—hard—shattering it into a million little pieces. It felt so satisfying, that I quickly broke all my glasses, one after another—failing to notice until afterwards that I was barefoot.

Like many woman, I bore the brunt of my own anger with small cuts on my feet, the cost of replacing the glasses—and, later, fixing the damage to my floor. For years I told no one about this incident, deeply embarrassed about my loss of control—and more than anything, how good it felt.

Like bell hooks, “I was taught as a girl in a patriarchal household that rage was not an appropriate feminine feeling, that it should be not only not be expressed but be eradicated.”4

Because rage is not a viable option for most girls, many of us have to learn how to utilize it effectively so that we don't hurt ourselves in the process of releasing it. Those with the least amount of power are afforded the smallest amount of anger.

This is exactly why we see so little change.

For it is precisely this rage that will turn the world upside down and right-side up again.

The anger I was not allowed to feel as a child still sometimes sneaks up on me. But I don't try to hide it or conceal it any more. I've learned the damage that causes in all facets of our lives.

Jane Caputi wrote that:
“Psychic numbing means never having to feel anything. Refusing such anesthetization and unearthing our passions means facing our emotions, especially those that have been the most anathematized, such as rage, female pride, and self-love. In short, it entails embracing monsters. Lesbian novelist Bertha Harris tells it truly: Monsters express what ordinary people cannot: feel. Monsters are emblems of feeling in patriarchy. Monsters represent the quintessence of all that is female, and female enraged. The monster most emblematic of feeling, most communicative of female rage, is the Gorgon. Many people, consumed by fear, simply cannot meet her gaze. Others, steeped in greed, ignorance, fear, and self-loathing, quite frankly want to lose their senses. Rather than look into the Gorgon's all-seeing eye, they turn themselves to stone—that is, they become psychically numb. Yet those of us who are sick of pretending, denying, suppressing, and repressing our knowledge, our emotions, and our powers journey to her island of rock and stone and there face a laughing, welcoming, and gorgeous Gorgon. As we do, we turn not to stone, but to sentient flesh, sensual mind, and boiling blood.”5
I am sick of pretending, suppressing and, most of all—of repressing.

This is something I have thought about incessantly since giving birth to my daughter. Hélène Cixous wrote:
I want to become a woman I can love. I want to meet women who love themselves, who are alive, who are not debased, overshadowed, wiped out.6
This has been my #1 priority in raising my little girl—who is now 11.

I have tried to provide the sort of childhood for both my children that I did not have. I came at parenthood with the idea that both my children had far more wisdom than I—not because I am inherently stupid, but because I am still learning to come back to my center, which was deeply suppressed. I have not only 'allowed' my children to say what they think and feel no-matter-what—but have facilitated those conversations regularly.

When my daughter was about five, she boldly stated that she was a witch. At first this scared me because of my fundamentalist Christian background, but I soon realized that, of course she was a witch! I was a witch too. We had always been witches—the fear of burning had dried the truth out of us.
“Dee L R Graham, in her book Loving To Survive examines what she calls ‘Societal Stockholm Syndrome.’ She hypothesizes that what we refer to as ‘feminine’ traits submission, compliance, nurturing, etcare the result of women living in fear for our lives and trying to ingratiate ourselves with our captors—men—in order to improve our chances of survival. And she suggests that two centuries of witch trials throughout the world created an environment where women learned not only to comply in order to avoid torture and death, but to police themselves and other women in their behaviour.

But seen in this context, our behaviour is not weakness, it is adaptation. It is survival. When they say ‘we are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn,’ they usually ignore the other edge of the sword. The edge that continues to cut into our collective psyche. But in order to resist we must understand what we are up against. We need to realise why it is so hard to demand the respect that we deserve as human beings. We are, after all, the grandaughters of the compliant women who survived.”7
Growing up in the church, I spent the first 20 years of my life in dreadful fear of hell fires for every minor infraction I committed. I wasted hours every week, on my knees, begging for forgiveness. As Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor remind us, “In no Goddess religion known were people ever depicted on their knees.”8

We must learn how to clear— and heal—ourselves on our own terms.

If only someone would have told me when I was a child, as Glenys did in her children's book about Medusa, that I would be constantly shedding skins that didn't fit anymore—for the rest of my life—I think I would have had an easier time of it.

Instead I feared every mistake, certain that my current circumstances defined who I was as a person. It took me four decades to realize that I could simply shed off what didn't work for me any longer and re-create myself. As Nayyirah Waheed wrote, "where you are. is not who you are. – circumstances"10

When we began this anthology, I felt I really didn't have anything to say about Medusa personally. That was not true: I was avoiding my own painful truth (again).

After my abusive ex-husband died unexpectedly at 45 last November, I released (even more) suppressed anger. My snakes went wild, biting many of the not-so-innocent in their path.

I was raised to suppress—and even hate—the Medusa within me. Letting Her out was painful. My oft-straightened wavy hair was now in a messy, silver-streaked mass around me. I had little energy to control even that anymore. I became ill and eventually doctors found a large (benign) tumor blocking my intestines.

Suppressing my truth—and hence, my rage—was literally killing me.

Illustration by Elisabeth Slettnes from The Girl God

I began to think a great deal about Glenys' question at the beginning of this anthology:
"What might be the consequences of changing our minds sufficiently, so that Medusa can be comprehended as metaphor for Divine Wisdom? Many scholars contend She once was understood this way. What might it mean for our minds to welcome Her back? Would that alter the way we relate to Earth, to Being?"12
Do we dare consider—and then declare—ourselves Holy? Do we understand that our rage is not only justified—but also sanctified? How do we use that anger effectively—so instead of killing ourselves, we utilize it to change the dysfunctional world we live in?

It's easy to let the injustices eat at you and fume instead of letting anger burn as a fire, productively. As Maya Angelou wrote, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”13

I remember writing at one point about wanting to use a toilet brush to scrub my insides clean of all that had been done to me. Had I allowed myself the fury I deserved to feel, the fire might have burned those injustices out of me sooner. Perhaps we are still scared to feel the fire after being burned for so many years.

How might we ordain ourselves as Worthy—let alone Goddesses, Priestesses and Leaders—rather than the submissive remnants of ourselves that are (somewhat) acceptable in our woman-hating world? Andrea Dworkin's experience of waking up speaks to me as I ponder this:
“I did not experience myself or my body as my own. I did not feel what was being done to me until, many years later, I read Kate Millet's Sexual Politics. Something in me moved then, shifted, changed forever. Suddenly I discovered something inside me, to feel what I had felt somewhere but had had no name for, no place for. I began to feel what was being done to me, to experience it, to recognize it, to find the right names for it. I began to know that there was nothing good or romantic or noble in the myths I was living out; that, in fact, the effect of these myths was to deprive me of my bodily integrity, to cripple me creatively, to take me from myself. I began to change in a way so fundamental that there was no longer any place for me in the world—I was no longer a woman as I had been a woman before. I experienced this change as an agony. There was no place for me anywhere in the world. I began to feel anger, rage, bitterness, despair, fury, absolute fury...”14
Our hatred of ourselves is not accidental. This is the insidious result of our specific upbringing as girls. We learn to despise and abuse ourselves in both blunt and indirect ways—primarily through the religious texts that seep through our societies and, in many cases, our family of origin. In today's capitalistic societies, media does a lot of the work as well.

It's easy to control females who deeply loathe and distrust themselves.

Our patriarchal brainwashing has thoroughly rinsed out the richness of our beings—even the biological realities of our bodies. Everything is supposed to be bleached. Our body hair removed. Our faces, masked. Our glorious, womanly smells, perfumed over. Our menses, hidden or erased completely. The fullness of our illustrious bellies, sucked in. Our fat, sucked out. The laugh lines on our faces, smoothed over. Our crowns of silver hair—signifying our crone wisdom—dyed back to more youthful (hence, unknowing) variations.

The crone is perhaps hated most of all; but I've noticed with a daughter who is wise beyond her years (or rather, whose wisdom has not been forced out of her) that there is no love lost for smart, sassy, bossy little girls. It is so much easier to raise our daughters under the patriarchal framework that instills quietness and submission—the same suppression and repression we are so sick of ourselves as grown women.

The world at large favors authoritarian control of females, instilling obedience from birth. I do not want this for my daughter. I don't want her to spend the first 40 years of her life un-taming herself.

As my daughter approaches the oft difficult time leading to menarche, it is often a painful process to allow her snakes to go wild—and, sometimes bite. Particularly when they bite me.

This takes an enormous amount of being present—in a world that favors numbing. I have realized my tendency to turn to stone when my daughter lashes out at me; which is the worst response possible for both of us. By not allowing myself to feel her anger (and mine), I stop the healing process for both of us.

I see in my daughter the quiet little girl I grew up as, who was too afraid to ask any questions—come back from the dead. I'll happily take those snake bites for that.

What might it mean to raise our daughters so they do not have to waste a lifetime undoing the toxic indoctrination that most of us endured? What if girls were taught from the get-go to trust their inner voice and feelings, rather than to worship at the feet of men's authority? I like Audre Lorde's answer:
“When we live from within outward, in touch with our inner power, we become responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. As we recognize our deepest feelings, we give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and the numbness which seems like the only alternative in our society.”15
So, how do we get there?

I think we must start with ourselves. After all, we can't teach our daughters what we don't know or remember. We must continue to uncover our own HERstory—or steal it back as the radical pirates Mary Daly suggested we become.16 We must be diligent about re-learning and deprogramming ourselves. As Janie Rezner wrote:
“Having suffered under patriarchy for the past 5,000 years, it is not easy, as a woman, to reclaim our rage, our 'maternal instinct,' or to even recognize that we have a universal imperative to be outraged, deep in our cells.”17
We must learn to not be afraid of this rage—in ourselves or our daughters—as it is She who will release us from our chains.

Starhawk reminds us that there is another way—if we can only remember it...
Memory sleeps coiled
like a snake...

Breathe deep
Let your breath take you down  
Find the way there
And you will find the way out18
May the coils become unraveled and our passions reign unruly. May we take back the lies we have been told about ourselves and re-story the world. May our collective rage restore our sanity, facilitate healing—and finally—bring peace. May we all learn not to fear our own power—or Medusa's—but to laugh from the bottom of our bellies with Her. May we teach our daughters to love themselves deeply—and may that love serve as a reminder that we are ALL so very worthy of Her divinity and embrace.

An excerpt from Trista's piece in Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.

Order here.


1 Cixous, Hélène The Book of Promethea Newly Born Woman (Theory and History of Literature). Betsy Wing (Translator). University Of Minnesota Press; 1986.

2 A full analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, however I recommend the following critique: Prose, Francine. “Selling Her Suffering,” New York Times Review of Books. May, 4 2017.

3 Morrison, Toni. Sula. Knopf, 1976.

4 hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Washington Square Press, 2004.

5 Caputi, Jane. Gossips, Gorgons and Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Bear & Company, 1993.

6 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," translated by Paula and Keith Cohen. 1976.

7 Meta. “Burn the WitchWhere the Wild Words Are. May 8, 2017. 

8 Sjöö , Monica and Mor, Barbara. The Great Cosmic Mother.: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. HarperOne; 2nd edition, 1987.

9 Livingstone, Glenys. My Name is Medusa. The Girl God, 2016.

10 Waheed, Nayyirah. Salt. Createspace, 2013.

11 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," translated by Paula and Keith Cohen. 1976.

12 Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology, p. 66.

13 Angelou, Maya. Interview with Dave Chappelle. Iconoclasts, the Sundance Channel, 2006.

14 Dworkin, Andrea. “First Love,” The Woman Who Lost Her Names: Selected Writings by American Jewish Women, compiled and edited by Julia Wolf Mazow. Harper & Row Publishers, 1980.

15 Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, reprint edition, 2007.

16 Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Beacon Press, 1990.

“Women who are pirates in a phallocratic society are involved in a complex operation. First it is necessary to plunder–that is, righteously rip off gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must smuggle back to other women our plundered treasures.”

17 Rezner, Janie. She Rises: Why Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality? Edited by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Kaalii Cargill. Mago Books, 2015.

18 Starhawk, “Unmasked.” Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. Harpercollins, 1988.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Modern Psychological Theories Regarding Medusa by Miriam Robbins Dexter Ph.D.

"Ave Medusa" by Jeanne K Raines

Many modern scholars seem to think that Medusa petrified only men. For example, Jean-Pierre Vernant1 writes that he knows of no occasion when Medusa engages with a female figure. However, in Pindar, Perseus, through the Medusa-head, turned all of the inhabitants of the island of Seriphus, men and women alike, into stone. Later, Lucan, in the Pharsalia, tells us that whole tribes of Ethiopians turned to statues upon beholding Medusa. Although we have not heard from ancient female authors on the subject of Medusa, it is likely that both ancient women and men feared Medusa, whereas many modern women seem to identify with her. Hélène Cixous echoes this belief that the Gorgon does not petrify women; she says “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful, and she’s laughing.”2

Many women have identified with the grimace and the rage of Medusa. May Sarton identifies the Medusa-face as the face of her own frozen rage.3 Emily Culpepper speaks out of her own experience: “The Gorgon has much vital, literally life-saving information to teach women about anger, rage, power, and the release of the determined aggressiveness sometimes needed for survival.”4 Patricia Klindienst Joplin tells us why the artist is drawn to Medusa: “Behind the victim’s head that turns men to stone may lie the victim stoned to death by men... if Medusa has become a central figure for the woman artist to struggle with, it is because, herself a silenced woman, she has been used to silence other women.”5 Many artists have identified with the rage of Medusa. The Italian scholar and artist, Cristina Biaggi, who now works in the United States, incorporated her studies of prehistory and ancient history and myth into a powerful fiberglass sculpture, “Raging Medusa” (2000). The sculpture is 5.5 feet in diameter and weighs 98 pounds.

"Raging Medusa" by Cristina Biaggi

Feminist theologian Catherine Keller insightfully analyzes the myth of Medusa and the unheroic “hero” Perseus.6 However, she believes that it is only in the Perseus-Athena constellation that Medusa becomes the “Terrible Mother.” Otherwise, Medusa represents the “Great Goddess,” and her power is “life-giving and generative.”7 The power of the Neolithic bird/snake Goddess, where Medusa has her roots, is indeed life-giving, but Medusa has already changed in her earliest Greek source, Homer, who portrays the Gorgon (not yet individuated into Medusa and two immortal sisters) as a fearsome, bodiless head in the Underworld, but one not yet linked with either Perseus or Athena.

Annis Pratt, who writes on mythology and archetypes in women’s fiction, also gives a feminist interpretation of the Medusa-myth; she tells us, “The Medusa archetype has certainly accreted many layers of gynophobic response since its adoption by the Greeks.”8 Pratt describes many Romantic and Victorian poets who describe and relate to Medusa, usually with some horror. This echoes the male Greco-Roman interpretation of the snake, an interpretation which is more pejorative than earlier depictions and interpretations.

An excerpt from the extensive paper, "Medusa: Ferocious and Beautiful, Petrifying and Healing: Through the Words of the Ancients" by Miriam Robbins Dexter, featured in the upcoming anthology,
Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.

Order here

1 Jean-Pierre Vernant, “In the Mirror of Medusa,” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 230, note 22.

2 Hélène Cixous, “The laughter of the Medusa” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 133 (original article 1975).

3 May Sarton, “The Muse as Medusa” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 107-108 (original article 1971).

4 Emily Culpepper, “Ancient Gorgons: a Face for Contemporary Women’s Rage” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 241 (original article 1986).

5 Patricia Klindienst Joplin, “Rape and Silence in the Medusa Story,” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa Reader, 201-202 (original article 1984).

6 Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 50-73. I thank Carol P. Christ for this reference.

7 Keller, From a Broken Web, 60.

8 Annis Pratt, Dancing with Goddesses (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 11.

Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma by Laura Shannon

5th C BCE Athena w Gorgoneion in her heart

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, and Medusa have both 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.

An excerpt from Laura's paper in Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.

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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 2.91.6; Musée Berbère 2015:37.

7 Dexter 2010:33, Gimbutas 1989:206-8.

8 Harrison 1908:187-8.

9 Monaghan; 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.