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The Head of Medusa

The Head of Medusa

In Greek mythology, the Gorgons were female, monstrous and perverse beings. Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters, and according to most versions, Medusa was the only mortal among them. Medusa was not always perverse and bestial, it tells the mythology that used to be beautiful until one day, Poseidón raped her in the temple of Athena Nike.

Athena Nike decided to punish the Gorgon for desecrating the sanctity of her temple, transforming Medusa into a monster with sharp teeth, hair made up of snakes and a furious look that turned to stone who watched. The story of Medusa ends up in the hands of Perseus, who, sent by King Polidectes, arrives at the cave of the Gorgona where she slept, and decapitates Medusa. Mythology relates that Medusa was pregnant with Poseidon at the time she was beheaded, and that the blood emanating from her headless neck gave birth to her sons Pegasus and Crisaor.

Edward Burne-Jones, Birth of Pegasus c. 1876-1885

Edward Burne-Jones, Birth of Pegasus c. 1876-1885

The beheading of Medusa is a sacrifice in so much of its death two mythological personages are born, children of Poseidón. When he beheaded the Gorgon, his murderer possesses it, and by giving him nothing more than Athena’s head for the latter to use as a shield, it is proof that it is only the head of Medusa that constitutes his power And his decapitation the only way to acquire it.

Medusa brings together, in a single character, various symbols and meanings, whether cultural or mythical of multiple civilizations. The snakes, the  decapitation, the fact that she is a woman, among others, are repeated characteristics in the Eastern and Western mythological deities and beliefs. Through the image of Medusa and its universal mythological meanings, it will be possible to present it as an object of study, starting from the relationship between these symbolisms and their multiple representations in both theory and the visual arts.

Medusa, by Caravaggio (c 1598)

Medusa, by Caravaggio (c 1598)

Snakes

The presence of the serpents in the figure of Medusa is essential to conceive of its character, and even more important to be able to relate them to the act of decapitation, when being in the head of the Gorgona. But before analyzing the importance and symbolism of the serpents in Medusa, we will see, in a general way, what has been the meaning of this reptile on a mythological and symbolic level in a global plane.

Medusa painting by Rubens c.1618

Medusa painting by Rubens c.1618

The serpent is one of the most represented and significant animals in the universal mythology, venerated by some cultures and rejected by others. It has played a fundamental role in the different communities and its representation has been associated to both good and evil . In Mesoamerican cultures, for example, the iconographies of gods who were offered human heads were repeated. Many of these venerated beings were represented with snakes emerging from the headless trunk.

Medusa Painting by Arnold Bocklin

Medusa Painting by Arnold Bocklin

In the Codex Aubin (Aztec text, presumably from 1576, where the history and customs of the Mexicas before the colonization are told through drawings), the goddess Itzpapalotl is represented as a beheaded being from whose thorax arise two serpents. The veneration of the serpent in the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mesoamerica, coincide in the importance of the character of the Feathered Serpent or Quetzalcoatl .

Codex AubinCódice Aubin 1576Códice de 1576Historia de la nación mexicanaHistoire mexicaine Am2006,Drg.31219, AN561657001

Codex AubinCódice Aubin 1576Códice de 1576 Historia de la nación mexicana Histoire mexicaine
Am2006,Drg.31219, AN561657001

Image released to me under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Original website British Museum

In the East, the Book of the Dead also refers to the presence of serpents in powerful beings, mainly related to an evil.

The Chapter of not [letting] NU, The Chancellor -In Chief, triumphant, be devoured by serpents in the underworld. He saith:

“Hail, thou god Shu! Behold Tattu! Behold Shu! Hail Tattu! [Shu] hath the head-dress of the goddess Hathor. They nurse Osiris. Behold the twofold being who is about to eat me! Alighting from the boat I depart(?), and the serpent-fiend Seksek passeth me by. Behold _sam_ and _aaqet_ flowers are kept under guard(?). This being is Osiris, and he maketh entreaty for his tomb. The eyes of the divine prince are dropped, and he performeth the reparation which is to be done for thee; [he] giveth [unto thee thy] portion of right and truth according to the decision concerning the states and conditions [of men].” [1]

Book of the Dead and other Egyptian Papyri and Tablets published 20 Apr 2012 by Lulu.com

Book of the Dead and other Egyptian Papyri and Tablets published 20 Apr 2012 by Lulu.com

In both Christianity and Islam, the serpent has represented the devil or any threat of evil. In Genesis, in fact, the serpent represents the temptation of the first men. In Hinduism, on the other hand, the snake has both a negative and a positive connotation. On the one hand, related to the god Shiva , has a negative charge, because it is the destroyer god. The snake that has attached in the neck represents the power that has on the death, therefore also the serpent would have a destructive connotation.

Shiva defends his devotee Markandeya from Yama, the god of death, First printed by Ravi Varma Press in 1910

Shiva defends his devotee Markandeya from Yama, the god of death, First printed by Ravi Varma Press in 1910

On the other hand, in Hindu meditation practices, the serpent, represented by Kundalini, is considered as a sacred and protective animal against the negative energies, since it is conceived as a flow of energy that sleeps in our body.

The pineal gland in Kundalini, central Indian Ocean, is represented by the snake.

The pineal gland in Kundalini, central Indian Ocean, is represented by the snake.

These different cultural connotations around the symbolism of the serpent are an example of the importance given to this animal and the power that has symbolized during history in different civilizations. Whether as a negative or positive representation, the snake has maintained a leading role fundamentaly in the mythical imaginary throughout history.

Snake Woman

There is a characteristic in the perception of the symbology of the serpent that unites it  with the myth of Medusa: both are related to the feminine gender. The same peculiarities that have related the symbolic concept (and image) of the serpent to the woman, are not only present in the personage of Medusa, but constitute a fundamental aspect of its mythical meaning.

Franz von Stuck GERMAN DIE SÜNDE (THE SIN)

Franz von Stuck DIE SÜNDE (THE SIN) 1893

Already in the stories that tell the creation of humanity for both Judaism and Christianity and Islam, the serpent appears as the object of temptation of Eve, or the devil. From this religious scene, most of Eve’s iconography will be associated with the serpent as symbolism of a dangerous or transgressive attitude, temptation and submission to evil .

For her part, Lilith, Adam’s controversial first woman, has usually been represented as an ally of the serpent, or as a female demon with tail or scales of the animal. Unlike Eve, Lilith is not represented as an accomplice, but as an incarnation, she is the very wickedness represented by the serpent.

lilith as the serpent

lilith as the serpent

Lilith’s link to the garden of Eden is symbolized in Christian iconography that may have been inspired by the Zohar. Also, Lilith as Serpent is not limited by her functions in Eden, but also as other important figures such as Blind Dragon and Leviathan.

There are many passages that define Lilith as Serpent. The most obvious passage, says Lilith as the Serpent had an affair with Eve before she had intercourse with Adam. This is the most expressive passage relating to Lilith that contains a description of being both a Serpent and using temptation.

Read more here

The connotation of the serpent associated with femininity and evil has been transversally present in history, highlighting the power resulting from this combination (woman + perversity). For the Egyptians, for example, the goddess Isis was the creator of the serpent. According to mythology, Isis converted his cane into a serpent, through which he was able to acquire the powers of Ra , god of the sun.

Isis (seated right) welcoming the Greek heroine Io

Isis (seated with snake) welcoming the Greek heroine Io

The French writer Édouard Brasey in his book “Petit Traité de démonologie” (2000), he states that the Egyptian goddess is the “Keeper of the secret of life” [2] and is conceived as “a mother goddess whose power is superior to that of the male gods.” [3] In the history of Isis, the serpent is a fundamental symbol constituting its power over all other beings that surround it.

The new perception of the woman as a femme fatale , from the nineteenth century, will add to the symbolism of the woman-snake relationship a sexual connotation. The concepts of perversity, prohibition and temptation, characteristic of the woman-serpent relationship, will be associated with the association of the anatomy of the animal as a phallic form, converting it then, also in the representation of the object of female desire. Already in Salammbô , published in 1862, Flaubert described an erotic relationship between the woman and a python snake:

“Salammbó curled her around his waist, under his arms, between his knees; Then, taking her by the jaws, the little triangular head drew near the edge of her teeth, and with half-closed eyes she bent beneath the moonbeams. […] The snake tightened round its rings lined with black patches. Salammbó was panting under this weight, too much for her, her back bent, she felt herself dying; The snake tapped his thigh with the tip of his tail. Then, when the music ceased, he let himself fall.” [4]

ean-Antoine-Marie Idrac (1849-1884) Salammbô 1881

Jean Antoine Marie Idrac (1849-1884) Salammbô 1881

This symbolic characterization of the sexuated woman, coupled with her most bestial instinct, as well as being a question of the time, will be approached in literature and visual arts, also relating it to the character of Medusa.

Lilith, by Kenyon Cox

Lilith, by Kenyon Cox

In this way, in pictorial terms, the representation of the mythical character is going to acquire a different perspective than that applied by Caravaggio or Rubens when they created that horrible beheaded monster with furious snakes on his head and blood dripping from his neck. In many of the new performances, Medusa is portrayed as an attractive and feminine woman.

From woman to monster

In some cases, Medusa is represented as a vulnerable and vulnerable victim, as is the case of the Gorgonas de Klimt (in Beethoven Frieze , 1907), where she portrays the three sisters as beautiful women in fear.

Gorgonas de Klimt

Gorgonas de Klimt

Other cases, such as that of the Medusa by the symbolist painter Carlos Schwabe (1895), created a Gorgon alert to its next decapitation. In this image, Medusa shows feline traits associated with a certain bestiality, but alluding more to a relation with the eroticism of the animal instinct than with the monstrous.

Carlos Schwabe Medusa (1895)

Carlos Schwabe Medusa (1895)

The image of the Gorgona, in the age of centuries, relates to the woman as a sexual predator. Such is the case of the lithograph by the Belgian Fernand Khnopff titled Istar, (1888) where it portrays a beautiful woman from whose genitals a monstrous head of Medusa sprouts in contrast to the sensuality of this feminine body that seems to be in ecstasy. In this case, Medusa’s head, with its mouth open showing its tusks and its phallic snakes penetrating violently the woman’s body, responds, among others, to the symbolism of the vagina dentata, directly relating the myth of the Gorgon woman with the sexuality of women.

Fernand Khnopff, Istar, 1888

Fernand Khnopff, Istar, 1888

The representations of Medusa will always be determined by certain factors that constitute the mythological being: the fact of being a female character will condition it both as seductive / predatory or as monstrous / sorceress.   On the other hand, with the presence of snakes in his character, the relationship with the forbidden, with the temptation and with the evil (and from the first two concepts tangentially joins an erotic connotation) will continue to be accentuated.

Roman fresco at Villa San Marco, Stabiae, Italy

Roman fresco at Villa San Marco, Stabiae, Italy

It is as much through the idea of monstrosity as of being predator, both constituted basically by the presence of the serpents, that the Medusa will acquire its power and transcendence in the Greek mythology, as it did Isis in the Egyptian one.

It is not necessary to seek only the artistic representations of the Gorgon to emphasize the importance of its relation with the femininity and the snakes; If we only dwell on the symbolic meaning of female hair, as an attribute of the woman’s own sensuality and coquetry, we can decipher the relevance of snakes as substitutes for female hair, that is, one of the Sources of sensuality more emblematic.

Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus Fighting Cetus 1888.

Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus Fighting Cetus 1888.

The fact that the Medusa has been created with snakes coming out of its head, replacing the hair, is still important, particularly when we talk about female symbols and decapitation. If, for example, snakes had come out of their arms or back, it would still be a being related to evil forces (by the mere presence of the reptile), but this case goes further: snakes replace what used to be the hair of the Woman turned into a monster, pointing directly at the importance of the head and not the rest of his body. In this way, what was once a symbol of the femininity of the character, will become a symbol of evil, destruction and power. Athena punishes her for her sexual acts from the very attributes of seduction.

Fresco by Baldassarre Peruzzi, Medusa c. 1510-1511

Fresco by Baldassarre Peruzzi, Medusa c. 1510-1511

Even so, the image of Medusa will continue to be portrayed from a perverse sensuality. Georges Bataille’s ideas about the “implicit relationship between eroticism and death”[5] argue for this persistence in the representation of the Medusa, even if it were stripped of its feminine attributes by becoming a monster.

Bataille argues in Eroticism that “the animal is maintained even so much in eroticism that it is constantly related to terms such as animality or bestiality” [6] this same duality will remain latent in the Gorgon’s perception.

Luca Giordano - Perseus turning Phineas to Stone

Luca Giordano – Perseus turning Phineas to Stone

It is a dynamism similar to that which, for Freud, belongs to the human being, that is, the coexistence and permanent dialogue between polarities that make up the human psyche, which “always contradict and co-belong”. [7] These internal forces that articulate man, are the so-called “death drives”, [8] within which “life and death will be the primordial.” [9] “There is no silence without sound, or death without life; the same thing happens,” [10] says Freud, with the concepts of pleasure and displeasure as they function as necessary opposites.

Salvador Dali Medusa 1963

Salvador Dali, “Medusa” 1963

Freud and The Head of Medusa (or on the psychoanalysis of the beheading of the Gorgona)

In 1922 Freud wrote a short text on the head of Medusa, titled with that same name (Das Medusenhaupt). In the text, which did not come to light until a year after his death, in 1940, he analyzes the symbolism of Medusa’s head, relating it in particular to the castration complex.

From the analysis of free dreams and associations, I have often been interpret the head of Medusa as a symbol of the female genital. At countless snakes, which are intertwined around the head, should on the contrary – alluding to the lack of the penis and the horror itself should repeat the impression
frightening, that genitalia without penis (castrated) exerted on the child. The eyes from the head of Medusa, from which fear and restlessness spring, they also have the parallel meaning of erection.” [11]

The related text from Das Medusenhaupt

“The interpretation of specific mythological figures has not been attempted frequently for us. This is evident from the severed head of Medusa, which awakens horror. Disappear head = castrate. The fear of Medusa is, then, fear of the castration, that is connected with a frightening vision. From numerous analyzes, we know the reason for this fear: it shows when the boy, who until then did not want to believe in the threat, sees a female genitalia.
Probably a female genitalia adult woman surrounded by hair, in the background, that of the mother.
If the hairs of Medusa’s head are so often depicted in art like serpents, then these arise, again, from the castration complex and, curiously, however frightening their effects may be, they offer really a slowing of the horror, because they replace the penis, whose lack is its cause last.
A technical rule: the multiplication of penile symbols signifying castration is hereby confirmed. The vision of Medusa’s head paralyzes with fear, transforms the observer into stone. The same ancestry, from the castration complex, and the same change affective because being paralyzed means the erection, that is, in the original situation, the consolation of the observer. He still has a penis, he assures himself of this through his stiffening.
Athena, the virgin goddess, bears this symbol of horror in her robe. No wonder she becomes, through him, an untouchable woman, protected from any sexual pleasure. She displays the mother’s terrifying genitalia. To the Greeks, generally intensely homosexuals, it could not be absent, through its castration, the representation of the woman terrifying if the Medusa’s head replaces the representation of the female genitalia, separating ven more its terrifying effect of its pleasurable excitement, then we can remember that showing the genitals is also known as an action with power to bad. What causes horror to someone also causes the same effect on the enemy of whom we defend ourselves. Still in Rabelais, the demon flees after the woman has him shown the vulva.
The stiffened male member also serves as an action with the power to but due to another mechanism. Show the penis – and all its substitutes -I mean, I’m not afraid of you, I’m facing you, I have a penis. So this is another way to intimidate evil spirits. Therefore, in order to present this interpretation seriously, it should be the genesis of this specific symbol of horror in Greek mythology and its parallels in other mythologies.” [12]

Freud begins with the hypothesis that the concept of decapitating is equivalent to that of  castration. In this way, according to the psychoanalyst, the terror produced by the Gorgona is not because of its intrinsic evil, nor because of its monstrous appearance, but because of the exaggerated presence of snakes (phallic symbol), an absence of Penis, that is, of castration: “The terror to the Medusa is, therefore, a terror to the castration related to the sight of something.” For Freud, contrary to the cultural perception about the mythical figure, the serpents reduce the sensation of monstrosity of Medusa, since they replace, with its presence, the masculine genital. That is to say, it is based on the fact that the true sense of horror is castration, lack of penis, and not the evil attributed to the Gorgon.

Freud associates it with the rigidity of the erection, on the power of turning anyone into a stone. With this idea he reiterates the phallic symbolism in the meaning of the Medusa, and again proposes a sensation of relief in the spectator (male) for a symbolic erection, ie, the ratification of the presence of the penis.

In fact, in the text, he refers to Rabelais and how he describes the devil escaping from the woman when she shows him his vulva. If, on the other hand, the representation of the Gorgon was seen as a phallic symbol by the excessive presence of serpents, and if this were added to the interpretation of the rigid victims, turned into stone (in which case they would cease to be victims according to Freud). We would also be talking about a symbolic act to ward off evil: “Showing the penis – or any of its substitutes – means saying:” I do not fear you, I challenge you; I have a penis. “Here is another way of intimidating the evil spirit.”

Other characteristics of the character, such as the fact that from the blood emanating from his decapitation, his children did not appear in the analysis performed by the psychoanalyst. The latter is not a minor feature of the Gorgon, since this blood may be a symbol of fertility (such as the analysis of the decapitations-castration carried out by Judith and Salome), as opposed to the castration-infertility proposed by Freud. For, unlike Holofernes, from the blood sprouted from Medusa’s neck are born his two sons.

Hélène Cixous the philosopher has argued that women are “socially beheaded” [13] (silenced, deprived of authority etc) as men are “socially casterated into civilisation.” [14]

References

[1] [From the Papyrus of Nu (British Museum No. 10,477, sheet 6).]

[2] Brasey Édouard 2010 “Petit Traité de démonologie” pp.69

[3] Lillie-Dryade de l’Arbre-Faëy 2014 “Petit traité Magique de Wicca Féérique Wicca Sauvage, initiation et pratique” Terre Païenne pp.32

[4] Gustave, Flaubert 1952 “The temptation of Saint Anthony. Madame Bovary. SalamboGallimard pp.728
[5] Freud, Bataille, Georges 1986 “Eroticism and Death” City Lights Books pp.170
[5] Freud, Bataille, Georges 1986 “Eroticism and Death” City Lights Books pp.117
[7] Freud, Sigmund, 2003 “Beyond the Pleasure Principle: And Other Writings” Penguin Modern Classics) pp. Kindle edition (no page number)
[8] Richard Boothby discusses the derisive reception of the ‘death drives’ concept by such notable psychoanalysts as Otto Rank, David Rapaport, and Ernest Jones (Boothby 1991, 6 – 10)
[9] The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company
[10] Freud, Sigmund (1953) “The Uncanny” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XVII (1917 – 19), trans. James Strachey, ed. London: The Hogarth Press. pp.
[11] “Das Medusenhaup”. In: Zeitschrift International f Psychoanalyse und Imago . XXV Band. 1940 pp.168
 [12] “Das Medusenhaup”. In: Zeitschrift International f Psychoanalyse und Imago . XXV Band. 1940 pp.92
[13] Cixous Hélène 1981 “Castration or Decapitation” trans. Annette Kuhn, in signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 PP.41-45
[14] Colvin Sarah, Davis Peter 2008 “Edinburgh German Yearbook 2: Masculinity and German Culture: No. 2 Camden House pp.28
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