|Raging Medusa by Cristina Biaggi|
Perseus’ part in the Medusa myth ends with him carrying the Gorgon’s head to the court of King Polydectes, who had been scheming all along to get Perseus out of the way so he could marry Perseus’ mother Danae. When Perseus uses the power of the Gorgon to destroy Polydectes, we see that Athena, in helping him, ultimately has acted to protect Danae from forced marriage and rape.
I suggest that Athena in her armour can be understood as a sign that women can and must be protected. The Goddess herself needs protection, if she is to survive the perils of a patriarchal era. Athena’s skills of strategic protection and clever defense are vital to women who—like Athena herself—are prisoners of patriarchy. She is the Goddess of protected spaces: the walled city, the castle, the acropolis, and the women’s wisdom and culture contained therein. As guardian and protectress, Athena in antiquity was ‘envisaged as a caring and feminine, not to say maternal, figure.’1
Athena’s helmet may represent the protection of our neural pathways, as mentioned earlier. The experience of trauma affects our ability to think clearly. Therefore the work of healing requires the clear thinking and clear seeing which are also Athena’s gifts. The quality of mindfulness, defined by Bessel van der Kolk as the ability ‘to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings and emotions,’2 is a key part of recovery and also of Athena’s mental power.
The theme of protection manifests when Athena places Medusa’s head on her breastplate or aegis, right in the centre of her heart. Medusa’s head now becomes the universally powerful apotropaic emblem, the Gorgoneion, placed on shields, walls, houses, temples, roofs, gates and entryways throughout Classical antiquity and even in the present day. I believe this action has profound significance for our theme of healing from trauma.
Great rage needs a great heart to hold it; great trauma needs a great heart to heal it. Athena’s many epithets include ‘the Great-Hearted’ and ‘She Who Saves.’3 By placing Medusa’s severed head in the centre of her heart, I suggest that Athena is acting to ‘save’ Medusa, by containing her rage with love and compassion, so it can be witnessed, honoured and remembered. In the words of Bessel van der Kolk, ‘trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, not being recognized, and not being taken into account... sensing, naming, and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery.’4
The Gorgoneion in the centre of Athena’s heart reminds me of the Buddhist practice of tonglen, breathing in and out of the heart centre while holding an awareness of all the hurts and evils of this world. Tonglen is seen as a way to bring the balm of compassion to the worst and deepest wounds inflicted by humanity, and is considered an extremely difficult practice. To consciously witness the terrible pain, the collective and individual rage of the betrayed and wounded feminine, simply to hold it in the presence of divine love and compassion, requires tremendous strength and courage.
Healing from trauma also requires courage, along with protection, mindfulness, compassion and love. The Sanksrit name Medha, related to Medusa, also has the meaning of ‘intellect illuminated by love.’5 This is exactly the power of mind or mindfulness which can help us heal.
Athena’s wisdom is strategic. She is cunning and clever. Her clear sight reveals the simple truth that however justified our anger may be, it serves nothing if we let it destroy us. Anger brings gifts, lessons, protection, power. So we must not seek to destroy the anger either, but rather welcome it with compassion and place it safely in our hearts where it can protect us.
By placing Medusa’s head in her heart, Athena gives Medusa a post-trauma sanctuary in a safe and strong body, and Medusa gives Athena a part of her protective powers. In this way, Athena helps heal the rage, fear and trauma of the Medusa story and transform it into an energy for protection, in the form of the Gorgoneion. The Gorgoneion is a reminder that rage can protect us, by helping us stay alert in the face of potential danger. Medusa has been made into a monster; yet as Catherine Keller points out, the original meaning of the Latin monstrum is ‘a portent,’ connected to monstrare, ‘to show’ and monere, ‘to warn’, from the same root as remember, remind, and mind.6 The Gorgoneion shows, warns, helps us remember, and reminds us to be mindful. As Emily Culpepper writes, ‘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.’7 Medusa and Athena can thus be seen as teachers of life-saving protection and defense.
As well as protection, Athena brings further gifts to the work of healing from trauma. Past trauma can be transformed through ‘physical experiences that directly contradict the helplessness, rage and collapse that are part of trauma’ and which foster a renewed sense of self-mastery. Because trauma tends to be experienced in ‘isolated fragments,’ treatment particularly needs to engage the entire organism, ‘body, mind, and brain.’8 Athena’s domain includes reading and writing, weaving and handicraft: creative skills which help the survivor engage fully in activities which strengthen new neural pathways for pleasure and joy.
An excerpt from a longer paper entitled, ''Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma,'' featured in Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.
Laura Shannon has researched and taught traditional circle dances for more than thirty years, and is considered to be one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. Through extensive research in Balkan villages and wide teaching experience, Laura has pioneered a new understanding of traditional women's dances as active tools for spiritual development. Originally trained in Intercultural Studies and Dance Movement Therapy, Laura is currently pursuing an M.A. in Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred at Canterbury Christ Church University in England. She gives workshops, trainings and performances in more than twenty countries, and her numerous articles on dance have been published in many languages. She is founding director of the Athena Institute for Womens' Dance and Culture and a regular contributor to Feminism and Religion. In between her travels, Laura resides in Canterbury, Findhorn and Greece. www.laurashannon.net
1 Deacy 2008:108.
2 Van der Kolk 2014:62.
3 Solon 4.3 in Deacy 2008:78; Homeric Hymn to Athena 28:3.
4 Van der Kolk 2014: 59, 68.
6 Keller 1986:50, 90.
7 Culpepper 1986:241.
8 Van der Kolk 2014:4, 40, 53.