(Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Goodbye to the Gorgoneion

Can we invent myths or are they what make us what we are?

Artillery Row

In response to Daniel Miller’s The Mirror of #MeToo and Medusa and toxic femininity

According to Jane Ellen Harrison, Medusa is essentially only a head whose ‘potency’ is achieved through severance. The Gorgoneion originated as the ugly glaring face on cult masks in primitive ritual for a religion of fear, such as the worship of the goddess of vengeance Praxidike. The Greeks did not lose their early belief in the apotropaic power of decorative horror to stare back evil; monster faces appear on kilns and pottery, and are described in Aristophanes on Athenian chimney corners to avert malign spirits from the cooking. For those still interested in philology, μέδω means ‘to guard’; the Gorgoneion decorates the aegis or shield of Athena as a magical prophylactic image and was commonly used by vase painters, and on tombs, amulets and prows of ships.

Re-telling myths the wrong way to the point of inventing a tree goddess and revitalising Celtic neopaganism has no legitimacy in the zombified courts of contemporary academia

The Gorgon first appears in literature as a disembodied head warding off Odysseus in the underworld. The stories around the slaying of Medusa come later and the first versions have her cursed by Athena, the one in which she is a victim of rape by Poseidon does not occur until Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The language is ambiguous as ‘vitiasse’ can mean ‘to corrupt, damage or defile’ as well as ‘sexually violate’, and may refer to religious desecration for Medusa was sworn to chastity in Athena / Minerva’s temple. Compounding the absurdity of holding Olympian gods to contemporary codes of consent, the narrative of abuse is now a sacramental object in this psychotic age where the worshippers of Praxidike have been re-invigorated.

Like the tricoteuses encrypting the names of the condemned into the stiches they knit at the guillotine, the keyboard warriors draft up the cancel / denunciation lists. In spite of his giant bronze statue of Medusa inverting the myth of Perseus, Luciano Garbati is likely to be excluded from the feminist movement on account of being male; the fully male gaze of his Eurocentric depiction betrays his false credentials.

Robert Graves is also on the scaffold. Professional attention and academic livelihoods have been augmented by pouring venom on this poet. Graves made his living supporting a large family entirely by writing having encountered blood and mortal danger in considerable measure at the Somme, unlike his detractors who are comfortably secure in their institutions. Despite winning a classics exhibition to Oxford, despite a rather sparkling retelling of The Greek Myths, despite his I, Claudius saving students many grinding hours with Tacitus, Graves is not permitted any authority in the Classics; apparently, he makes every single academic shudder.

It gives weight to his opinion that researchers are incapable of imaginatively interpreting myth, missing The White Goddess as a visionary meditation on creative inspiration, while excoriating his ‘misinterpretations’ around matriarchal religion. Re-telling myths the wrong way to the point of inventing a tree goddess and revitalising Celtic neopaganism has no legitimacy in the zombified courts of contemporary academia infiltrated by vapid incoherent jargon affiliated to an atrophying authoritarianism.

The White Goddess was a major inspiration for Sylvia Plath, whose poetry is embedded in myth (Medea, Clytemnestra, Electra). Four days after the famous ‘exorcism’ of her father / husband / Nazi figure in her poem Daddy, she produced its companion piece Medusa, punning on the name of her mother Aurelia –  medusa-jellyfish, attempting through art to confront the Gorgon stare petrifying the psyche: Cobra light/ Squeezing the breath from the blood bells/ I could draw no breath/ Dead and moneyless/ Overexposed like an X-ray. The vanquish of trauma would be realised by the poet in the transcendence of rebirth, the up-flight of the winged horse Ariel / Pegasus through metaphoric decapitation.

Evil appears as good in the minds of those whom God leads to destruction, intone the chorus elders in Sophocles’ Antigone. The inversion of the Perseus myth cannot overcome trauma or lead to psychological healing but only perpetuate the chthonic rage of vengeance; poetry is short-circuited, the mythological image disintegrates to barren authoritarianism and hopeless echoes: the constellations of Andromeda and her parents Cepheus and Cassiopeia go dark, the stars go out.

Myths are like maps inside us. Ripped from his body by angry maenads the severed head of the minstrel / Orpheus / Robert Graves sings from the river: “the few independent thinkers are…the poets, who try to keep civilisation alive.” By mastering the chaotic monstrous image through the alchemy of myth the poet would gain the protection of the Gorgoneion. She battles to reveal the corrupted beast which is the vector for the outpouring blood jet of poetry: God-ball…paralysing the kicking loversI am sick to death of hot salt. / Green as eunuchs, your wishes / hiss at my sins. / Off, off, eely tentacle!

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