Medusa’s Legacy

Having just finished my Mythology course at Montclair, I’ve picked up a few books to delve once again into a sublimated childhood interest. I was first introduced to Greek mythology back in Mrs. MacAlevy’s fifth-grade class in Rouseville Elementary. The story of Perseus, in particular, has stayed with me ever since. Of course, being taught in serious religion classes that this was all silly nonsense, what with the multiplicity of overly amorous deities whimsically whipping thunderbolts at humanity (everyone knew there was really only a single celibate deity whimsically spreading pestilence among humanity), I drifted away. Mythology continued to be an interest, but the Greek variety went the way of the dodo. The occasional Pauline reference to Artemis fanned the old flames, but just a little. I had more serious religion to comprehend.

So now, decades later, I find myself needing to catch up on the classics. To rejuvenate my interests, I once again turned to Perseus. My brother and I forked out the extra cash for 3-D to see the remade Clash of the Titans this spring, and I found myself even watching the 1981 version in a Harryhausen-induced haze to refresh my memory. The original movie realized the deficiencies of the classic story on the big screen and embellished shamelessly to wow the critics. One of the most memorable scenes was Perseus in the lair of Medusa. So I found myself reading Stephen Wilk’s Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon.

Wilk is a physicist and a member of a prominent optical society. He brings the fresh insights of a non-classics specialist to the story of Medusa (I should know, since I too am a non-classics specialist). This study raised my limited level of awareness in several respects, particularly in the repeated emphasis on eyes in the book. What really struck me the most, however, was how it became clear that Medusa was yet again an embodiment of female power ruthlessly struck down by a virile young man with nothing better to do than slay her. Medusa is the victim in the story, cut down for simply being what she is – a strong female figure. I could not agree with all of Wilk’s assessments, but this provocative book brought many interesting concepts to light.

Medusa, like Lilith, is the symbol of fear for a threatened manhood; women who are true femmes fatale – preying on male pretensions for sport. Until society willingly accords true equality, such figures will remain necessary to remind us that gender should never be the factor by which an individual’s contribution is to be judged. I suspect Mrs. MacAlevy knew something that the Greeks had also realized: repression only increases the ferocity of the repressed.

Perseus asserting the male prerogative

6 thoughts on “Medusa’s Legacy

  1. Medusa has chthonic aspects that give her a terrifying aspect. But you don’t have to go all the way to the Gorgons for examples of strong female figures who are perceived as a threat.

    Look to Medea, the exotic princess that Jason brings home from his quest for the Golden Fleece. The stories are clear: he wouldn’t have succeeded in his quest without her help, and yet, when he comes back to civilization, he’s ready to cast her off for a more advantageous (read: docile) match.

    The biggest trouble with Medea is that she’s so clever, and cunning, and has access to secret arts that the normal people in Corinth don’t have. So she’s feared and distrusted. In my undergraduate days, I thought ‘quite rightly.’ After all, she does poison her rival and kill her own children just to get revenge. Now I question whether she would have been so dangerous if Jason hadn’t been such a thicko.

    Either way you read it, she’s got the story of a smart, sophisticated woman who can stand her own in a man’s world, without losing her head. Her little apotheosis moment at the end of Euripides’ play sends shivers down my spine every time!

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  2. Yes, Jonathan! Medea is a most intriguing character as well! My current reading has been on Medusa, but I intended to do a more extended session on Medea if I’m asked back in the fall. Thanks for the pointers — this could be a lot of fun!

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  3. Steve, interesting perspective I could not agree more with your assessment especially your last sentence. And by reading this it brought back a memory that I had totally forgotten about. If memory serves me correctly did you, Pete & I not go to see the original “Clash of the Titans” at the Drake Theater in Oil City? I do believe that was the last time I was in that theater.

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    • Hi Jim,
      Yes, we did see Clash of the Titans there! I was somewhat scandalized by it at that tender age, but I remember it vividly. It was probably the last time I was in the Drake as well. (I saw Pete this weekend, so it is like high school all over again!)

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  4. Dear Steve Wiggins:

    I found your website while doing a search on my book, and am gratified that it is still being read and cited. I’ve been working on two other books (also on mythology from the viewpoint of a physicist), but have had a hard time getting the time to write them.
    I, too, have seen the recent “Clash of the Titans”. The 3D was disappointing, the acting was generally pretty good, but the story was a disappointment. I’m not convinced that the writers knew anything about myth except what they learned from the 1981 film, which is a shame. Beverly Cross knew his myths and sources, and shrewdly invoked them.

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    • Dear Stephen,

      Thanks for your comment! I enjoyed your book immensely. I read it in preparation for a course on Greek Mythology and found the premise fascinating. Whenever my Montclair students write papers on Medusa your book is always cited. I’ll look forward to your next projects as well!

      I believe that Clash of the Titans (1981) has formed its own mythology that has now been solidified by the newer movie. For many students this is their frame of reference when it comes to mythology, in my experience.

      I’ll be posting more on Medusa in the future (hopefully), so please stop in again.

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