Woman with sword holding the author's (Daniel Miller) own severed head. (Credit: Thomas Celan)

Medusa and toxic femininity

In reply to A Classicist’s response to ‘The Mirror of #MeToo’

Artillery Row

Ultimately, the most interesting issue here, aside from the question of whether I am an idiot, which on some level is surely at least partly the case (but arguably a matter of interest only really to me), is not whether a myth is malleable, but whether nature is. A myth is really an attempt to describe and narrate natural forces, in the complexity of their relations with the variety of possible attitudes that one can take towards them. Hence, it is possible for Medusa to kill Perseus, indeed, this is what appears to have occurred, but what does this mean? The official story of #MeToo is that it is itself a triumph over monsters, in the specific form of “toxic” masculinity, but insofar as it is taken seriously, the Medusa myth supplies a much darker reading.

Medusa is the avatar of what might, to be fair, be called toxic femininity, created through the trauma of an encounter with the boundless oceanic power of Poseidon, who again, is not a person, but a god. Theoretically a person can be guilty of assault, but gods are avatars of superhuman cosmic forces; one cannot be “assaulted” by the sea, or by this superhuman force somehow resembling the sea, what is happening is something else.

Myths aren’t simply stories; in an important sense they are real

Poseidon, amongst other things, represents tempestuous and unbounded desire. Medusa was overwhelmed by this desire; as a result, she had to leave the temple of Athene; that is, the house of abstract reason, being unable to sufficiently detach herself from it. In the myth, Athene is apparently “enraged” by what has happened. This rage, also, is “Medusan” and what is being questioned here is the role which passion, or what the Greeks called thumos, plays in knowledge. When Athene, following the victory of Perseus, incorporates the Gorgon’s severed head into her armour, the gesture symbolises, in effect, that passion has been mastered, and is now serving knowledge, not obstructing it.

At the same time, from the perspective of Medusa, who again, is not a person, but a monster, or what Jung would call an archetype, her decapitation is the decapitation of her trauma, and represents the moment that she overcomes her trauma. In this respect Medusa is also, even primarily, a dimension of Andromeda, who is likewise being menaced by Poseidon in the myth.

The destruction of the Medusa is thus the liberation of Andromeda; insofar as Medusa remains alive, Andromeda remains in chains. This is, unfortunately, the outcome from the contemporary effort to create a cult of victimhood around personal, or historical experiences of trauma; trauma itself becomes an object of worship, while the victim in effect is frozen as a victim and prevented from ever really moving on.

Today men and women are effectively frozen in place in an atmosphere of mutual fear and suspicion

Like the myth of Daedalus, which tells of the daring winged escape of the genius scientist from the labyrinth of Minos, the myth of Medusa has a strong connection to Crete, where the figure of a “woman holding snakes” remains an icon of the island, and a connection to the snaky Babylonian goddess Ishtar, who becomes Esther in the Hebrew Bible. Notably, a labyrinth is itself a kind of serpentine reality, and Perseus, with his winged sandals, is also airborne. From this perspective one may perceive the passive-aggressive power of Medusa in the proliferation of uncertain, unstable, and arbitrary regulations imposed to govern bureaucratically the relationships between the sexes, and within them, in the absence of an accepted skyline of a common standard. The result is that today men and women are effectively frozen in place in an atmosphere of mutual fear and suspicion: the atmosphere of a totalitarian society.

What is important is that this isn’t a power that is being imposed from above, but rather has been come to establish itself between people in the form of a tangle of jargon and images which terrify, disorientate, and derange. Where myths are important as more than a matter of purely antiquarian or ideological interest is that they supply a way of re-enchanting the relations between people and also indicate solutions. Myths aren’t simply stories; in an important sense they are real. Greek poetry – the medium of myths – was originally sung, and naturally a song can be interpreted in different ways, but obviously nothing is gained by singing flat and out of tune.

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