Rev. Pamela's Blog
The Truth Behind the Serpents:
Repression and Power in the Medusa Myth
“You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
-Cixous, H., The Laugh of Medusa (1976)
The importance of looking at myth from a psychological perspective is explained by archetypal psychologist James Hillman (2016) when he says that “psychology shows myths in modern dress and myths show our depth psychology in ancient dress….” going so far as to add that, “each god is a way in which we are shadowed” (p. 9-10). It is because of this that we utilize myths to dig deeper into our own psyche and reveal things about ourselves and our history that can help us transform. They provide us with images that can help us understand who we are on an unconscious level. One particular legend that has captured my attention since I was a child was that of Medusa, the monster/goddess with poisonous snakes for hair who turns those who look upon her to stone. As a result of this fascination, I felt that she was rising up from the mythic realms to teach me something—something that I want to explore in this paper. Medusa’s story has been portrayed in a negative light in much of the depth psychological literature because it examines the story from the Roman perspective, when the patriarchy tirelessly toiled to rework the stories of Crete and neighboring regions in an attempt to assert dominance. But beneath the work of poets such as Ovid, we can see a more complex story, one that speaks to the power of women and the repression of that power, especially if we examine the pre-Olympian symbols presented in the myth. While there are many references from the depth psychology greats such as Jung and Hillman of Medusa being the Devouring Mother—this paper will examine the other side of this mythos, looking at her mystic serpentine origins, the suppression of the divine feminine, and the powerful healer and shamanic initiator of alchemical transformation behind the monster bearing her fangs.
The Historical and Mythological Context: Ovid’s Source Material
When examining myths it is of the utmost importance to go to the original source of the story—this allows for an understanding based in the cultural context and psyche of the time. One of the sources of the Medusa myth is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 4. Verses 780-800 (Ovid/Raeburn, 2004, p. 170) explain about this Maiden turned Monster:
“‘Medusa was once an exceedingly beautiful maiden, whose hand in marriage was jealously sought by an army of suitors. According to someone who told me he’d seen it, her marvelous hair was her crowning glory. The story goes that Neptune the sea god raped this glorious creature inside the shrine of Minerva. Jove’s daughter screened her virginal eyes with her aegis in horror, and punished the sin, by transforming the Gorgon’s beautiful hair into horrible snakes.’ (That explains why, to startle her foes into terror, the goddess always displays those snakes on the front of her bosom.)”
Here we learn of Medusa’s original innocence and how she was punished after being the victim of a violent sexual assault. Surprisingly, it was a goddess who then chastised Medusa for her “sin”—that of being desirable to a host of men, including the god who violates her. Blaming the victim is a grievous problem that still occurs in modern times when women are physically attacked. This mythic representation of the violent repression of women and their power shows just how ancient this issue is. Ovid (Raeburn, 2004) also explains in this passage that Perseus then kills the Gorgon while she is sleeping, by peering at her in the reflection of his shield. Campbell (1964) makes reference to Robert Graves, who wrote two volumes on Greek myth, suggesting that the legend of Perseus beheading Medusa actually alluded to “‘the Hellenes overran the goddess’s chief shrines’ and ‘stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon mask’,” and that in her pre-Olympian form she was, “lovelier, fresher . . . and one of the granddaughters of Gaea” (pp. 152-153). Looking at it from this cultural perspective, the myth shifts from being a story about a monster who must be defeated to being about the dominance of a masculine society over one that is feminine. The rape of Medusa becomes an attempt by the imperial Roman political institution to suppress the power of the Goddess and her priestesses. The fear of feminine, that we still see to this day, had its origin during this time period. Men have been, as Cixous (1976) said, “consumed by a fear of being a woman! For, if psychoanalysis was constituted from woman, to repress femininity its account of masculine sexuality is now hardly refutable” (p. 884). But why is this fear so intense that it warrants the telling of the symbolic death of this power? As Baring and Cashford (1991) explain, “Medusa’s name actually means ‘mistress’ or ‘queen’” (p. 340); therefore this was not just about the repression of the feminine, but the destruction of women in royal positions. Before the Roman Empire swept across the ancient world women held influential roles, more than likely due to the fact that they menstruated and gave birth—exemplifying seemingly magical properties of transformation. Nestled in the Medusa myth we find the kernels of both the suppression and the divine authority of the feminine.
Farther Back in Time: Repression of the Serpent
Women’s divine supremacy is reflected in Medusa’s most defining characteristic: her serpentine hair. When the snake grows it sheds a layer of skin—this is reminiscent of women’s ability to shed the lining of the uterus from the body during menstruation. As far back as humans could communicate through art, the divine feminine was depicted as this powerful creature. Campbell (1964) explains “The wonderful ability of the serpent to slough its skin and so renew its youth has earned for it throughout the world the character of the mater of the mystery of rebirth” (p. 9). It was not just the Roman Empire that attempted to suppress the feminine, squelching the snake as the symbol of women—other male-dominated cultures attacked with a feverish intensity. In the Jewish tradition the serpent is vilified in the Old Testament when it is cursed by God in Genesis 3:14 “Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat.” Baring and Cashford (1991) explain that the abusive traducement continues in Iron Age literature when “the solar hero conquers the serpent, who embodies chaos, evil and death . . . . This suggests that there was a fundamental change of consciousness from the earlier era, when death and life were perceived as phases of a lunar totality” (p. 290). This was a move away from humankind being in harmony with the rhythms of the Earth and the goddess, looking at darkness rather as the antithesis of this new solar-focused god. We even see this happening in Delphi, where the serpent-goddess who ruled there was killed, and then whose power was usurped by Apollo:
“Whoever went to meet the she-dragon
The day of death would carry him off,
Until the lord Apollo,
Who works from afar,
Let fly at her his strong arrows . . .
Life left her,
Breathing out blood” (Homer, ‘Hymn to Apollo’, 1991, trs. Jules Cashford)
The fear of women’s strength slithers through these examples. The psychological shift in power from a society where the feminine was highly regarded to one where women could be nonchalantly raped indicates that there was an undercurrent of brutality and being out of alignment with nature. That is why the fact that Medusa had hair of snakes is so important to the myth. Those serpents reveal the importance of an open minded way of life that prevailed before the shift in consciousness. In the pre-male-dominated religious landscape humanity lived harmoniously, without the need to impose their beliefs on others. Baring and Cashford (1991) explain that in the Adam and Eve myth: “Here, the serpent is the image of that divine curiosity which disturbs the established order so that we are drawn deeper into understanding. . . . The serpent transforms and heals the limitations of an exclusively conscious viewpoint, dogmatically held” (p. 536). By demoting the serpent the masculine could thereby hold fast to their dogma and control. The myths chronicled by the patriarchy of many different cultures in the ancient world conveyed the repression of the most potent feminine symbol by vilifying it—resulting in the ultimate shift in power.
PART 2 WILL APPEAR NEXT WEEK
Barring A. & Cashford J. (1991). The myth of the goddess: Evolution of an image. London, England: ARKANA Penguin Books.
Bright, B. (2010). Facing Medusa: Alchemical transformation through the power of surrender.
Depth Insights. Retrieved from http://www.depthinsights.com/pdfs/
Cavalli, T. F. (2002). Alchemical psychology: Old recipes for living in a new world. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Cixous, H. (1976, Summer). The laugh of the Medusa. (K. & P. Cohen, Trans.). Signs, Vol.1,
No. 4, 875-893.
Hillman, J. (2016). Mythic figures. Thompson, CT: Spring Publications, Inc.
Jung, C. G. (1959). Collected works of C. G. Jung, volume 9 (part 2): Aion: Researches into the phenomenology of self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Neumann, E. (1955). The great mother: An analysis of the archetype. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ovid (2004). Metamorphoses. (Raeburn, D. Trans.). London, UK: Penguin Books.
von Franz, M.L. (1964). The process of individuation. In C. G. Jung (Ed.), Man and his symbols (pp. 158-229). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
von Franz, M.L. (1988). The way of the dream. Toronto, Canada: Windrose.
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