|Medusa on BigTree, MoonCourt, Blue Mountains - Photo by Glenys Livingstone|
Medusa is familiar to many as a symbol of women’s rage. Many feminists see their own rage reflected in the image of Medusa, ‘female fury personified.’1 With her fearsome countenance framed with snakes, able to paralyse with a glance, it is true that Medusa is terrible, terrifying—but she is also terrified. Her face, frozen in an openmouthed scream, eyes wide, teeth bared, is the primal, primate mask of fear.2 This gut-wrenching image is an eloquent expression of women’s rage, but also, I suggest, of women’s trauma. In this short essay, I suggest that Medusa, Athena and Metis—goddesses of wisdom, healing, and protection—can offer valuable support to those on the journey of healing from trauma, but first we must look beyond patriarchal stereotypes which denigrate these powerful goddesses. Ultimately we are invited to hold our fear, rage and trauma in a place of love and compassion, for ourselves and others, so that we can be protected, instead of paralyzed.
Hillman states that ‘myths live vividly in our symptoms,’ and Keller responds, ‘symptoms live vividly in our myths.’3 Paralysis, rage and disembodiment, three main elements of the Medusa story, are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to trauma healing expert Bessel van der Kolk, numbing, freezing, and immobilization are common responses to trauma, particularly sexual trauma. As well as causing a sense of being emotionally shut down, long-term trauma held in the body can result in ‘stiff,’ ‘rigid,’ or ‘stilted’ movement, posture, and expression, resembling paralysis. Trauma can also erode key social skills of self-control and self-regulation, causing the uncontrollable rage characteristic of PTSD. The brutal separation of head from body, a third element of Medusa’s story, may reflect the dissociation, fragmentation, and disconnection from the body also typical of the post-traumatic state.4
For people with PTSD, trauma can seem to ‘go on forever,’5 as flashbacks may occur at any time in which the trauma is re-experienced as if it were actually happening. In this way the original trauma becomes eternal, an inner silent scream held in the body, an agony which perhaps to the sufferer feels not unlike Medusa’s countenance of rage and pain. (Perhaps Medusa’s head illustrates this state, the hissing, writhing snakes like neural pathways out of control.)
Freud famously saw the ‘horror’ of Medusa’s head as a symbol of male castration, but the original trauma in the Medusa story is not castration but rape. Most scholars and historians dismiss Poseidon’s rape of Medusa as an insignificant detail, merely one among so many rapes of mortal, immortal and semi-divine women committed by male gods. However, myths which glorify rape as a strategy ‘to enact the principle of domination by means of sex’ are comparatively recent, becoming widespread in Attica around the 5th century BCE.6
It is likely that myths celebrating rape reflect a devastating historical shift in cultural values, the change from a society based on equality and partnership to a hierarchical structure based on unequal distribution of resources and the need to control women’s sexuality.7 Joseph Campbell describes the myth of Perseus and Medusa as reflecting ‘an actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma’ which occurred in the early thirteenth century B.C.E.8 The myth may refer to the overrunning of the peaceful, sedentary, matrifocal and most likely matrilineal early civilizations of Old Europe by patriarchal warlike Indo-European invaders.9
Miriam Robbins Dexter points out that ‘[t]he slaying of the demon, or demonized figure, may be a motif particular to patriarchal societies.’10 In the epic of Gilgamesh, the hero kills the demon Humbaba, whose severed head may serve as a prototype for that of Medusa. This image may also reflect the trauma of women raped during war.
Carol P. Christ sees Classical Greek images of Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa as a ‘celebration of the conquest of the civilization of the Goddess’—the shift to a patriarchal culture of war.11 This patriarchal system is described by Christ as arising at ‘the intersection of the control of women, private property, and war—which sanctions and celebrates violence, conquest, rape, looting, exploitation of resources, and the taking of slaves.’ It is ‘a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence’ ... ‘in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality with the intent of passing property to male heirs.’12
As Christ points out, rape has been recorded as a tool of war since the time of Homer’s Iliad as well as in the Hebrew Bible.13 War itself, in the words of Anne Baring, is a rape of the soul, ‘a terrible wound... that can never heal because of the legacy of the trauma and memories it leaves behind, not only with the living but with the dead.’14 The Medusa myth embodies this tragedy: Medusa is both enraged and outraged. Rape is an outrage. Her eternal open-mouthed silent scream reveals the anguish not only of one individual survivor of rape, but of all those subjected to the horror of rape as a war crime and a technique to enforce norms of patriarchy—a method still in use today.
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.
1 Culpepper 1986:239.
2 Van der Kolk 2014:85.
3 Hillman 1979:23, Keller 1986:51.
4 Van der Kolk 2014:14, 20, 26, 12, 10, 19, 66.
5 Van der Kolk 2014:70.
6 Keuls 1985:47-49.
7 Gimbutas 1991, Eisler 1987, Haarmann 2014.
8 Campbell 2011:152.
9 This has been discussed and described by Marija Gimbutas (1991), Riane Eisler (1987), Joan Marler (2002:15-16), Harald Haarmann (2014), Carol P. Christ (2016) and others.
10 Dexter 2010:34, note 43.
11 Christ 2015.
12 Christ 2016:216. When I refer to patriarchy in this paper, I am using Christ’s definition.
13 Christ 2016:216, 219, 220.
14 Baring 2013, p 295-6.