Rev. Pamela's Blog
Rev. Pamela's Blog
Medusa’s Blood of Life
The reason for man’s fear of women’s power is exemplified in another symbol depicted in the myth: blood. While men are hardwired for aggression and sexual conquest simply from the fact that they are dominated by testosterone, women possess the powers of nurturing and of destruction that breeds creation because of their biology. The blood in this myth connects Medusa to these biological energies of menstruation and birth. It was these powers that led to the mystery cults of the ancient world and the recognition of the cycle of life and death that were honored in rites, like those performed in the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece. Baring and Cashford (1991) state “Blood from her veins, on the left side and on the right, was given to Asclepius, god of healing. With blood from the left he slays, and with blood from the right he heals,” they go on to explain, “The two bloodstreams of life and death. . . returns us to the two snakes of life and death in the Minoan goddess, who is thereby brought into the new order as the dark, paradoxical place from where healing comes” (p. 343). It is only when we have gone through some sort of disintegration that we have the ability to return to life anew. This dualistic nature of Medusa’s blood is indicative of that process. When the old way of being is slain, through an act that is violent to the psyche, we are then regenerated. The processes in rituals that were performed by ancient cults, in honor of goddesses such as the Minoan snake goddess, drew her followers through this process of death and resurrection on a yearly basis. “Thus in Medusa the same two powers consisted as in the black goddess Kali of India . . . Both the life and death of all beings, the womb and tomb of the world” (Campbell, 1964, p. 25). By cutting off Medusa’s head and collecting her blood, two contradictory tales are told. The first is regarding the fear of the goddess’ ancient power, and the second is the recognition of the psychological process that the goddess assists her followers in conducting. I believe that these two messages come through on purpose, that the Collective Unconscious worked through poets such as Ovid to convey both the repression and the authority of the feminine at this crux in history. And it is through these myths that we too can find our own strength.
The Shamanic Initiator of Alchemical Transformation
Apart from the understanding of the repression of women and their power—the Medusa myth offers the modern reader a blueprint for something different: transformation! It was transformation after all, that was sought when devotees went, “to meet the she-dragon” where,
“the day of death would carry him off” (Homer, ‘Hymn to Apollo’, 1991, trs. Jules Cashford). In psychological workings a figurative death has always been the first real step towards change. Exemplified in the spiritual practices of both Alchemy and Shamanism—it is only through this allegorical process that someone can truly become different.
Alchemy is the ancient practice of transforming the dross into gold; this is an emblematic process where the “dross” is considered the impurities in one’s consciousness, while the gold is the perfected Self at the end of a seven stage process of examining and reforming those impure properties. The Self, which is being perfected during these operations, is our organizing center that encompasses "the totality of the whole psyche" (von Franz, 1964, p. 161). In the context of Depth Psychology, one might consider this mechanism of perfecting the Self to be Individuation. Jung (1959) explained this progression as, “A psychological process of development in which the original propensity to wholeness becomes a conscious happening” (p. 169). In Alchemy this is done through performing seven specific movements. In stage 5, known as Fermentation, a figurative death occurs which requires the alchemist to surrender to their fears. In the Medusa myth, this happens when the person who peers at her is turned to stone. Bright (2010) points out that, “by staring fear in the face, the experience of being turned to stone accomplishes two feats: it encourages surrender to all that is and it allows stillness and silence to create space in which to regard oneself,” and she concludes that this capitulation leads to “opening the door to the alchemical phase if coagulatio, grounding us and integrating our experience so new birth can occur” (p. 8). The final stage of alchemy is “Coagulatio,” also known as Coagulation. In this stage there is a union of the rarified matter and the newly recognized spirit. Cavalli (2002) explains that Coagulatio “is about integration, a re-membering—a coming back together again after dissolution to join reworked memories or emotions so they deliver something new” (p.146). It is only after the fears are faced and the psychological energies are reworked that a new way of being can be established. As is typical in esoteric practices and myth, the renewed being takes on a new form. At the end of the set of operations the alchemist had a magical substance called the Philosopher’s Stone, which I believe was the individuate Self. Hillman (2005) notes that in the alchemical process there is an expression, petra genetrix, which means “out of the stone a child is born” (p. 65). Thus, we can look at Medusa turning those who approach her into stone, not as destruction, but a necessary step towards the liberation of Self. It is the stone that represents our new being.
Medusa’s own death is representative of this evolution of Self as well. Here, she becomes the Shaman—the one who shows us the way towards our own deliverance of Self.
Shamanism is considered to be one of the most ancient forms of spirituality. Although the word “Shaman” actually came from anthropology, describing a Siberian sect of hoy men, the word is more broadly used today to describe any indigenous practitioner of the sacred. What characterizes Shamanism is working with the spirit world to perform acts of healing. Bright (2010) points out Medusa’s shamanic traits: “Her affiliation with snakes, a chthonic symbol, emphasizes her connection to the Underworld, and signify her role as a psychopomp, an escort for the dead.” Bright goes on to say, “Her ultimate beheading lends itself to symbolic dismemberment, a common event for initiates before being reborn as a shaman in a new body” (p. 8). As someone who studied this religious form in great detail during my seminary education, this aspect of Medusa’s myth is the most intriguing to me. I studied with the American anthropologist, Hank Wesselman, Ph.D., who became a shamanic practitioner after working with various indigenous tribes. During my work with him I experience several dismemberments, first in journeywork where I visualized being torn apart in the spirit world during a mediation; then deconstruction occurred in the physical realm while receiving three separate life-saving kidney surgeries. I have since gone through this process again, when only two months ago I had complications in my pregnancy and had to have an emergency cesarean to birth my child. At each turn, the act of dismemberment created in me a new sense of Self. Bright (2010) believes that “in the end, Medusa yielded to Perseus’ sword of her own free will as a final intentional act of strength and surrender,” and adds, “in choosing death, she was granted a new life . . . .She was reborn into her true calling as a goddess and a shaman” (p. 9). This is the ultimate lesson which I believe Medusa asks of us. Much like those who become Shamans in any culture—there is a conscious decision to be figuratively killed by the gods. It is only through this initiation process that we can become who we were meant to be. von Franz (1988) speaks of the initiatory process, “He to whom such a content becomes conscious through experience is forever united with the impersonal center; it is a transforming event which remains unforgettably with the individual” (p. 182). I believe that it takes a severe and sometimes painful act in order to revolutionize your life. If we do not surrender to this event, change cannot occur. Medusa was not only transformed into a monster, but she was then beheaded; two unique deaths happen to her in this myth. Yet, it is through those transmutations that she finds her power and importance, and it is through these changes that she calls to us through time and space to be willing to surrender to our own deaths.
What Does that Mean for the Modern Woman: Bringing it all Together
Myths can be perplexing and their symbolism can be hard to dismantle and apply to our lives. One may find it difficult to understand what the Medusa legend is trying to communicate underneath the snakes, and blood, and beheading. I believe that there is a profound truth behind the serpents in the Medusa myth—a revelation that has a deeper meaning and call to action for the modern woman. Women must first understand that they are powerful! As I described at the beginning of this paper, many of the particulars in this story indicate it is about the stripping away of the natural divine power of women. After thousands of years of repression, it continues to be hard for women to stand in their own authority. The first thing that happens to Medusa is she is transmogrified into a gorgon with serpentine hair after being raped. Although this does reinforce the current patriarchal climate, breeding fear in women who honor their own beauty and live without shame, it also offers a solution. At first glance this transformation appears to be a punishment, but in actuality I believe it was a way for Medusa to gain a sense of safety. Instead of allowing the patriarchy to hinder the psyche, rise up with a serpentine fierceness. Medusa encourages women to protect themselves by claiming their supreme energies of healing and radical change. The serpentine goddess emboldens women to be fearless and not hide their power because it is different than what is patriarchal society proposes as authentic.
In the second part of the myth Medusa turns those who advance upon her into stone and is eventually killed by dismemberment. Neumann (1955) explained that “The Gorgon is the counterpart of the life womb; she is the womb of death or the night sun” (p. 166). It is this womb of death that is so important to Medusa’s wisdom, for she invites us to embrace change. As seen in the alchemical and shamanic powers of this goddess, there is a process we must enact in order to go through a metamorphosis. Perseus using the mirror to slay Medusa indicates that we must examine what hinders us. As Baring and Cashford (1991) point out, “Reflection — is thereby suggested as the way to face and master the object without; and the outer object of fear is then still further suggested as being ultimately a fear within” (p. 342). Medusa invites us to first face our fears, regardless of if it is something external or internal of which we are afraid. The final step is then utilizing the new wisdom to fully give in to the death that will happen as a result.
As Cixous (1976) reminds us, “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.” By looking at her directly, we are able to see the importance in this myth from a psychological perspective. Not only does Medusa reveal the dark side of men’s fear—but she also offers an opportunity for women to boldly embrace their authentic and unique sovereignty. I believe that I was attracted to this myth years ago because I needed to regain my power. Having experienced several dark nights of the soul, I had become trapped in a patriarchal view of my power. As woman do on a regular basis, I feared transformation. By examining this myth I see why I was able to go through so many intense transitions in my life. It is because of this that I invite other woman to take a closer look at their own lives and the tragedies that may have befallen them. Although Medusa’s story may often be perceived in a negative way, I believe that by digging down to its roots, something transformative is revealed. Her mystic serpentine origins divulge not only the repression of the divine feminine, but also its innate power; and behind Medusa’s blood and snakes is a powerful shaman, alchemist and healer who invites us to make the necessary changes in our own lives to be all we can become.
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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