Artillery Row

Looking back at Medusa

Myths are more malleable than statues

I chalked my initial reaction to Daniel Miller’s “The Mirror of #MeToo” down to reading it without my glasses on, which is a frankly terrible habit and will only cause me problems further down the line, but when I reread it with my new and improved 20/20 vision, I didn’t find the peace I’d longed for. Instead, the piece shifted from blurry to bemusing, adding to my weariness about the ways in which the discipline I love can be misunderstood and misused.

Miller’s article fails in myriad ways, ranging from its misunderstanding of what the Medusa statue is supposed to represent to its apparent lack of awareness of Classical Reception as a field of study. “Statue bad because statue not like myth” might be an easy instinctive reaction to Luciano Garbati’s statue, which directly subverts the familiar myth as depicted in Benvenuto Cellini’s original statue of Perseus, but this reaction does not lead well into critical engagement.

To be clear: although I disagree with Miller’s conclusions, I don’t take umbrage with his having impersonal opinion about a public work of art. I myself have numerous issues with it, although mine are principally concerns about the casting of a female nude statue made by a man as representative of a feminist movement. I do, however, take issue with the fact that much of his argument is lost, threadless, in the labyrinth of myth reception.

Let’s consider the missteps:

  • “In the original myth, Medusa wasn’t a sexual assault victim of Perseus, but the god Poseidon”

This is factually inaccurate. Firstly, there is no “original myth”. Myth as a narrative form cannot be accurately said to have an “original” version at all, owing to the primarily oral nature of its early incarnations. Certainly, we have “earliest extant versions”, or perhaps “earliest surviving versions”, which in the case of Medusa would be Hesiod, dating from around 800-700BC, but this is not the “original” myth by any means; Hesiod himself was drawing on earlier oral traditions.

Secondly, Miller is quite clearly referencing the myth as recounted by Ovid in this sentence, as this is the first extant version of the myth in which Medusa is raped by Poseidon. Even if we are to take Miller’s incorrect assumption that myth has an “original” or even primary version, Ovid’s version of the myth dates to around 8AD, more than half a millennium after Hesiod’s, and so would be a rather poor a contender for the title.

If you’re going to complain about the besmirchment of a perceived pure, original myth, you’re already in dangerous territory.

  • “… if one can even really be the assault victim of a god.”

The idea that humans cannot be raped by gods is a very modern idea

Well, one can, certainly within the context of myth. Ovid himself, in the recounting of the myth that Miller uses, tells us that Medusa was “violated” by Poseidon, and there is an immense corpus of academic work by Classicists on the subject of rape by deities in Classical myth. The idea that humans cannot be raped by gods is, somewhat ironically, a very modern idea, and not one that would have had any credence with the ancient Greeks and Romans that Miller accuses modern receivers of the myth of speaking over. Greek and, to a slightly more nuanced but not lesser extent, Roman deities were beholden to an entirely different moral code than humans, it’s true, but this does not negate the fact that rape and assault are, ultimately, crimes which occur when the victim does not consent.

Themes of maidens attempting in vain to escape the whims of the gods are abundant in myth (see the myths of Daphne, Europa and Thetis as three excellent examples) and indeed often form the entire basis of the narrative (see the myth of Caenis/Caeneus, who is raped as a woman by Poseidon and asks to be turned into a man so that she can’t be raped again; surely one of the most damning ancient examples of the trauma of rape). Gods raping mortals, and humans suffering from the consequences, is simply not a modern ideology, and it is anachronistic to suggest otherwise.

  • “In the first place, Medusa is not a moral person, or merely a negative feminine stereotype, but an archetypal figure of equal cosmic power to the hero. They need each other, and every human person contains in some proportion both, but when one assumes the power of the other, the myth breaks down, and ceases to make sense.”

Myth as a narrative form cannot be accurately said to have an “original” version at all

This is untrue. Perhaps Miller would be interested in engaging with the field of Monster Studies, which posits that a monster, far from existing only to counter the Hero, in fact has a discrete and distinctive narrative role. Monsters are liminal creatures, existing on the periphery of society, often embodying cultural or social fears. Medusa herself is an excellent example of this and is often taken as symbolic for the fear of the sexually transgressive woman. To say that she exists merely as a foil for Perseus the Hero is a reductive reading of the myth, Medusa’s role therein, and the uses to which both can powerfully be put. Medusa has always stood for more than just a monster for a Hero to vanquish.

  • Is it crazy to imagine that these phenomena are linked? According to Robert Graves, the myth of the Medusa corresponds to a real historical event

Alas, using Robert Graves as a source here makes every single academic Classicist this side of the equator shudder uncontrollably. This sentence was the point at which I broke out in metaphorical hives. Graves, despite his enthusiastic and often effective reworking of myth, just is not a Classicist; his euhemeristic (i.e. attempts to historicise) reading of mythology is without basis. Graves’ most famous work, The White Goddess, has been credibly accused of severely damaging the field of Celtic Studies through his assertion, among others, that Celts worshipped a tree goddess named Druantia entirely of his own invention. In short, Graves weakens rather than strengthens a case.

Furthermore, any euhemeristic reading of a myth must be taken with not only a pinch but a generous armful of salt. There is absolutely no archaeological basis to support Graves’ assertion here, nor Miller’s citation of it, and his theory is based on little more than an unproven etymology of Medusa’s name. It’s intellectually equivalent to claiming that Atlantis was situated in Georgia and stating that we know this is definitely true because it sounds quite a bit like Atlanta.

  • “Indeed, the idea that one can simply change a myth according to the ideological prejudices of modern political narratives holds up its own mirror to the narcissism of the contemporary world in its contempt for the past.”

Here is where I think Miller does the greatest damage to any potential argument, for it simply constitutes a fundamental failure to understand the form and function of myth.

Myth has been changed “according to … ideological prejudices” since time immemorial. We need only look back to Aeschylus’ retelling of the myth of the House of Atreus in his Oresteia trilogy, most notably the third part, the Eumenides. Here, Aeschylus takes a myth which would have been familiar to his audience and decides to set the third and final act in the Areopagus Court at Athens, which would likely not even have existed during the mythical setting of the narrative. Why did he do this, you may ask? Because the play was performed in the context of sweeping justice reforms at the Areopagus Court at Athens. Aeschylus reworked the existing myth in order to comment on the contemporary justice reforms that he was living through. When did he do this? Around 500BC. Hardly an indictment of the “narcissism of the contemporary world.”

Myth is inherently fluid, not static

This is not an isolated incident, either. Plato retold the myth of Prometheus in his philosophical dialogue Protagoras, introducing a brother of Prometheus (foresight) named Epimetheus (hindsight) in order to draw attention to its themes of rationality and reasoned debate. Ovid reworked almost every ancient myth under the sun to comment on authority. Beyond the ancient examples, Emperor Charles V’s armour depicted him as a modern Hercules, slaying the Nemean Lion; and the 13th-century French roman Le Roman de Silence is, effectively, a reworking of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe with medieval gender norms thrown in for effect. This therefore cannot be, as Miller posits, merely a narcissistic millennial trope.

Myth is inherently fluid, not static. This is not a bug, but a feature of both its form and function. The whole purpose of myth is that it can be reshaped, retold and reworked. These are not concrete narratives with accreted layers that can be chipped away at until you reveal a perfect original; the accretions are the narrative. The field of Classical Reception, which explores the space between antiquity and its uses and incarnations thereafter, is a fascinating one, adding layers of nuance to how we perceive these ancient texts today.

Medusa may be best known for her power to turn men to stone, but we should not view myth in the same lifeless, unyielding way.

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