The Dread Gorgon
July 13, 2017 9:53 AM   Subscribe

"To isolate the origin of the Gorgon's petrifying terror, it is necessary to pare back centuries of accretions reflecting terrors peculiar to each passing age and stare down the original Gorgon—the grotesque, bulging-eyed, disembodied head." Caroline Alexander writes of Medusa's head as an evergreen "talisman of terror" in her essay, The Dread Gorgon.
posted by mixedmetaphors (17 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting but long; for those who already know who/what Medusa was and want to skip the background section, here's the conclusion:
In a wide-ranging study of the Gorgon head, scholar Stephen Wilk was riveted by a forensic textbook’s description of the physical transformation undergone by a dead human body over the course of several days. Gases cause tissues to swell, “the eyes bulge and the tongue protrudes.” Forensic photographs reveal that even hair undergoes a change, rising in strange coils and rings around the bloated face. From all the manifold images traditionally marshaled, none so dreadfully resembles the Gorgon head as the face of human death. [...]

In warrior cultures throughout history, the taking of an enemy head stands as the supreme act of triumph. The single act achieves the total humiliation of the vanquished. More darkly, it effects the obliteration of his personhood, the instant transformation of a human being into an object of horror. [...]

If the Gorgoneion originally and unambiguously represented a severed human head, not only are its peculiar physical features convincingly explained, but also its striking presence on Athena’s war gear. Above all, this conjecture conjures the dread object’s power to petrify—to turn to stone—all who gaze upon it. Mythology and ritual often preserve, and even honor, the potency of dark acts that a historical people themselves repudiate. The most terrifying conceivable object, the Greeks well knew, was not a snake-haired monster of imagination, but the concrete work of human hands.
posted by languagehat at 10:11 AM on July 13, 2017 [11 favorites]

The Eyes of Phorkos by L. E. Jones, from the November 1963 The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy came to mind
posted by y2karl at 10:22 AM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

For those curious, here's a recent Guardian article that refers to Alexander, among others, as part of a new wave of women classicists/translators.

(Comments are about what you would expect.)
posted by praemunire at 12:02 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've always been fascinated by the Athena and Medusa story. I tend to side with the feminists to see both as products of patriarchy. The following is my mythmaking attempt.

Athena is the intelligent, athletic, beautiful daughter, permanent teen girl in a literally dysfunctional and abusive family. She's not allowed to control or celebrate her own sexuality, which in the Ancient Greek patriarch means she deserves rape. Of course this can't work as the face of a benign religion, and she's conveniently put into the role of the virgin, masculinesque goddess, constantly sublimating her repressed sexuality into "higher things", basically the duty to maintain the whole civilization.

Her fate is nevertheless manifest in Medusa, the priestess in her temple raped by a patriarch god, with the entire train of victim blaming and honour killing thing. We may say Medusa is the darker, more primitive part of Athena. Even Athena can't help but to surrender her Medusa self to the aggressor, and to suffer humiliation and killing, ordered and carried out by herself via the patriarchy's henchman Perseus (who is rewarded by taking Andromeda, who's name, "manly-minded", labels her as the mortal mirror image of Athena). It also means that the patriarchy is fundamentally incapable of supporting Athena's role sustainably. For every Athena, it creates a Medusa.

But Athena and Medusa are one and they find reunification. Medusa's petrifying (or erection-inducing, according to Freud) head is returned to Athena. She bares her open wound and humiliation as the testimony of her trauma and struggle. She suffers, and becomes stronger and wiser. She says this is me who you tried to destroy, by my own hands, but I'm unbreakable. The wise goddess now is at least in control of the remainder of her humiliated rage-body, source of her awesome power in war. Athena once was the narcissistic girl who was jealous of competition and tried to bribe the patriarchy. Now, although not entirely free from the trappings forced upon her, she leads battles and strikes fear into the heart of enemies.
posted by runcifex at 12:25 PM on July 13, 2017 [12 favorites]

Excellent article. Thank you for sharing.
posted by Caduceus at 12:38 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

you rang?
posted by supermedusa at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Among all the interpretations of Medusa's head I've been exposed to, this was new to me, and convincingly presented. Thanks for this post.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 1:19 PM on July 13, 2017

I enjoyed this, particularly the conclusion. Thanks for posting.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:32 PM on July 13, 2017

Metafilter: the concrete work of human hands.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:28 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Half baked terra cotta, rather...
posted by y2karl at 4:49 PM on July 13, 2017

Half baked cracked pottery, at that.
posted by y2karl at 4:52 PM on July 13, 2017

Alexander's explanation must be the primary one, but I wonder if the symbol has a dual origin. A gaping mouth surrounded by hair sounds like a Freudian description of a vagina, and distorted images of women displaying their vaginas were known to the ancient Greeks (as well as other cultures, e.g.) and may be considerably older.

The deliberate display of female genitals in a non-sexual context has a name, anasyrma, and its effect can be terrifying or enraging or even lethal. Add to this Medusa's association with virginity (via Athena) and blood (via Asclepius) and I think the case is pretty solid.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:32 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

but I wonder if the symbol has a dual origin

I thought this book was pretty interesting.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:50 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

finally got to read this last night. very interesting! the myths themselves are so muddled and convoluted. such rich fodder for interpretation! (for me Medusa has always been a fount of artistic inspiration too)
posted by supermedusa at 9:02 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

and its effect can be terrifying or enraging or even lethal

As seen in non-hit early Ryan Reynolds vehicle Waiting.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:31 AM on July 14, 2017

I've wondered if the Uncanny Valley can be explained by a built-in fear of corpses. It's the sudden terror when we realize in a scary story that the lump under the blankets the protagonist has been talking to or leaning against isn't their friend, but their friend's corpse. It's the unsettling way that human forms move when they're not being moved at all by the human inside them.
posted by pykrete jungle at 4:34 PM on July 15, 2017

Yes, and the same effect was probably produced by the use of masks in drama and ritual: it's no coincidence that the word we use to describe something especially bad, "awful", once meant reverent fear: "awe-full".
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:37 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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