“Why Medusa?” you ask. Why the hell not? And what do you care? Oh, yeah, sorry I forget my body is public space and getting it tattooed is like urban art to street walls – wheat paste inviting further scrutiny. But, on this occasion, I want to give an explanation beyond “it’s a woman’s right to ink”. It’s just that the answer is so goddamn long! So I tell you, “I am writing a blog post about it. I’ll send you the link.” This is the link.
We all know the myth, a monster in Greek mythology. A hideous woman with living snakes for hair, whose gaze would render men immobile, no better than a garden ornament, stone. Beyond this, details of the myth get a little fuzzy for most. In essence, Medusa was originally a gorgeous maiden who was raped by Poseidon – enraging Athena who turned her into the stuff of nightmares – and eventually killed and beheaded by Perseus, who subsequently used the Gorgon’s head as it retained its supernatural qualities, continuing to turn onlookers to stone.
As it is often the case, the symbolism of Medusa is varied: Among other things, Medusa is a muse to poets, causes castration anxiety from the viewpoint of psychoanalysts, and represents female power in feminist discourse. It is in these interpretations of the myth that I find my reasons for getting my arm inked with a “portrait” of the Gorgon.
Regardless of the tragedy in the classical account of the myth, the final and most violent act, the beheading of the Gorgon by another boy hero, did not make Medusa sink into oblivion: When her head was cut off, Pegasus sprang out of her body, symbolizing the birth of creative inspiration and poetry. May Sarton’s poem, “The Muse as Medusa” is perhaps the best and most clear example of a poet finding artistic stimulus and strength in this significant figure of Ancient Greece. The subject in the poem identifies with Medusa, declaring her rage as her own and describing it as the source of creativity and motivation:
I saw you once, Medusa; we were alone.
I looked you straight in the cold eye, cold.
I was not punished, was not turned to stone—
How to believe the legends I am told?
I turn your face around! It is my face.
That frozen rage is what I must explore—
Oh secret, self-enclosed, and ravaged place!
That is the gift I thank Medusa for. (38)
Additionally, as Mark K. Fulk points out in Understanding May Sarton, the poem is full of images of ‘birth and embryonic fluid’ and, instead of turning the onlooker to stone, it is thanks to ‘facing the Medusa’s stony gaze [that] the artist is made whole by seeing the deepest parts of herself.’ (49)
From the beginning, it is those in positions of power who hold the right to tell the world: Recounting Greek mythology is no exception. Feminist revisionist mythology has been an early strategy in feminist criticism and it aims to retell myths, fairy-tales, etc. from a different perspective, to contest the prevailing male point of view from which these stories are generally told. To counteract misogynistic understandings of Medusa, acts of revisionist mythmaking – in all sorts of formats, such as Sarton’s verse – have reclaimed the Gorgon. Once a denigrated mythic figure, Medusa is embraced as a symbol of female power, rage, creativity, and sexuality.
Patriarchy punishes sexual violence survivors or, at the very least, sexual aggression is normalized. This position is unequivocal in mythology. As in dozens of other mythological narratives, Medusa’s sexual assault is distorted and even forgotten; and can be interpreted as a silencing act. Subverting the classical myth empowers the female voice and destabilizes prevalent perceptions of rape/sexual assault.
Perhaps the most famous example of a revisionist writer’s attempts to free Medusa from the clutches of phallogocentrism is Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa”. In this essay, which has become a staple of French feminist criticism, Cixous undermines the male-dominated view of Medusa by presenting her as neither a threatening monster nor silent, but beautiful and laughing. Refiguring the Gorgon, Cixous hypothesizes the conception of écriture féminine (‘feminine writing’), which highlights the pivotal role language plays in the psychic understanding of one’s self and society at large. Much in the tradition of other poststructuralist texts, Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” recognizes how discourse plays a significant role in shaping reality. If phallogocentrism stops women from attaining textual ownership of their own stories and therefore their own realities, it is through écriture féminine that women can affect societal change. Cixous argues that écriture féminine can be achieved through a rediscovery of the lived female body. Male logocentric writing has a fixation with demarcated binaries and hierarchical organization. Dominant discourses consequently establish a body/mind dichotomy that favors the mind as the superior access point of intellectualism and inspiration. From this Cixous infers that écriture féminine is accessed through the body. In the patriarchal Symbolic Order (the Lacanian world of linguistic communication where language is centered by the Phallus which sets rigid limits giving stability to the structure), women are outsiders, in the fringes. It is by engaging with their “otherness” that women can gain their own understanding of reality. It is through a reconnection with their bodies and by reclaiming their bodies through writing that women can unleash the potential for social change.
As a queer intersectional feminist, Cixous’s essay raises an immediate and obvious concern: Identifying the female body as the driving force of écriture féminine is problematic because it can be interpreted and critiqued as essentialist. The proposed bodily experience shared by women threatens to overlook diversity (resulting from aspects such as sexuality, ability, race, ethnicity, class, etc.) and the forces of oppression that intersect to cause injustice and inequality – and that should be addressed by any strategic feminist approach that aims to dismantle these and move toward social realities that allow for equality for people of all genders. However, Cixous states in her essay that “there is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman. What they have in common I will say. But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes—any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible” (876). Therefore, as argued by Barbara A. Biesecker, Cixous’s “body” is merely a rhetorical tactic: “[Cixous’s essay] can be read as more than an elaborate philosopheme, indeed as rhetoric, as a treatise that seeks to provide women with the means by which they may, through language, actively and strategically intervene in the public sphere” (89). Moreover, despite the emphasis on writing, “The Laugh of the Medusa” is also about women’s need to speak in public, highlighting both the importance of oral traditions and, as my dear friend Rhiain Lefton said (in conversation), ‘the need to dislodge the phallus so that women can take center stage in such traditions and mythology as these inform our contemporary collective subconscious which in turn characterizes society.’ As such, we can conclude that Cixous’s understanding of women is not universally identical and biologically determined but focused on that which is shared by all: A lack of visibility and at best partial influence, both rooted in centuries of omission. Or, in other words, while diverse in nature, what unites women is oppression.
Cixous’s retelling of the Medusa myth is also linked to Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s interpretation of Coatlalopeuh as theorized in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera. Fortuitously, I somehow came across Borderlands aged 18. I remember rabidly devouring its pages over the course of a week during my summer vacation and feeling its transformative power running through my veins at vertiginous speed, knowing my life would never be the same again. My head spun, my ears popped with each turn of a page. I owe the core of my identity to this collection of poems and essays. Borderlands was my first truly powerful consciousness-raising read and remains in my all-time top 10. Borderlands challenges understandings of identity by detailing the invisible borders that exist between opposing sets of people, and how a growing number of individuals dwell in the borderlands, inhabit the actual divide itself. More importantly, Borderlands details how dominant groups of individuals create, portray, and perpetuate “otherness” and perceive people who fall under this category as inferior beings. Anzaldúa’s book is a critique of colonialism and its practices – such as the use of myths to preserve stereotypes about “the other”, to construct the colonial subject.
Anzaldúa proposes Coatlalopeuh as the indigenous origin of Guadalupe, and connects her to Coatlicue, an Aztec goddess who is represented as wearing a skirt of wriggling snakes. As explained by Jay Dolmage, both Medusa and Coatlalopeuh are connected to the goddess Metis of Ancient Greek religion. Known as Zeus’ first wife, Metis symbolizes “the cunning intelligence (mêtis) that Zeus would claim for his own when he swallowed her whole.” (9) Both Medusa and Metis have the same linguistic root and therefore both denote female wisdom. The iconic snakes that are associated with Medusa and Coatlalopeuh alike are clearly symbolic of their cunning, “calling up the curving and polymorphism of mêtis” (14), and their sexuality – a clear threat to the patriarchal order. Medusa, made monstrous because of her wisdom, has to be silenced – murdered – and her legacy appropriated by dominant discourse. Medusa is “a symbol of the stigma and confusion around, and the powerful, sometimes violent challenges to, women’s embodied rhetoricity.” (14) Anzaldúa’s mestizaje, much like mêtis, denotes mixed-race. As explained by Dolmage, for Anzaldúa “Coatlalopeuh incorporates and enfleshes a threat to the colonial legacy and to the ways that this history oppressed particular bodies, expressions, and ways of knowing. She is a subversive rhetorical figure.” (20) As such, Anzaldúa concludes in Borderlands, Coatlalopeuh had to be silenced too: Patriarchal culture would give her monstrous features, relegating her to the borders of society, and replacing her with male gods. (49)
If, as deduced from Cixous’s and Anzaldúa’s theories, the body has rhetorical potential and dominant rhetorical traditions are characterized by excluding certain rhetorical bodies, mythological and rhetorical revisions need to put special emphasis on these bodies. But, to avoid absolutisms, we would follow Dolmage’s advice: We would “advocate for a range of body images, an awareness of body values and a critique of the powerful discourses of silencing and delimitation that surround embodied rhetoric. We would look for what is beautiful in what we have been told is threatening (about ourselves and about others).” (21) I would add that we do not simply “critique” dominant discourses but demand these be replaced by those produced by the hitherto silenced rhetorical bodies.
In her book, On Matricide, Amber Jacobs does exactly this: She outlines a post-patriarchal Symbolic Order by drawing attention to the Law of the Mother through her own analysis of Metis. Jacobs does so in order to contest the Oedipus myth and the resulting Law of the Father notion which hegemonizes Western culture. Jacobs argues that Metis being swallowed by Zeus when she was pregnant symbolizes male fantasies about claiming for themselves women’s ability to create life. Medusa’s beheading, used by Freud to theorize castration anxiety, is also an example of masculinist wishes of reproductive self-reliance. So is the Lacanian Symbolic Order, where the only generative force is the Phallus. We can therefore conclude that the prevailing Freudian Oedipus Complex and castration theory are patriarchy’s efforts to posit male superiority by means of obscuring the significance of maternal bodies – which can only be achieved through silencing the rhetoricity of female bodies (e.g. making monstrous and obliterating Medusa, Metis, and Coatlalopeuh).
Barbara Creed also engages with the Freudian understanding of Medusa as presenting a picture of castration and monstrosity. For Creed, Freud’s Medusa is yet another example of phallogocentric ideology: The “myth is mediated by a narrative about the difference of female sexuality as a difference which is grounded in monstrousness and which invokes castration anxiety in the male spectator.” (2) Medusa’s head representing female genitals illustrates Freud’s understanding of women as castrated. For Freud, Medusa’s head is also a fetishized object for it simultaneously denies and confirms the mother’s phallus: Her snakes replace the penis, alleviating male fears. Creed calls Freud’s study of the Medusa “an act of wish fulfillment” (111) because in his analysis he chooses to ignore how the snakes (with their open mouths and fangs) represent the vagina dentata. From this we can deduce the Medusa symbol does not so much represent castrated but castrating genitals: “Freud’s interpretation masks the active, terrifying aspects of the female genitals – the fact that they might castrate. The Medusa’s entire visage is alive with images of toothed vaginas, poised and wanting to strike.” (111)
Anyone who actually knows me, knows I am a vampire freak – going as far as dedicating my graduate thesis to the study of lesbian vampires as popularized by European sexploitation films made in the 70s and 80s. This brings me to the final reason as to why Medusa is my homegirl: There is a link between the myth of Medusa and folklore around female vampirism. Creed explicitly makes this connection in The Monstrous-Feminine:
“The glance of a menstruating woman, like the glance of the Medusa or Gorgon, was once thought to turn men to stone. The origin of the word Gorgon is from the phrase ‘the moon as it is terrible to behold’ (…) The moon was associated with snakes and vampires” (66).
After Perseus beheaded Medusa, he gave her head to Athena who placed it on her shield to ward off evil, or in Creed’s words, “to strike terror into the hearts of men as well as reminding them of their symbolic debt to the imaginary castrating mother.” (166) Athena must have been well-aware of its powers, given that she was Metis’s daughter.
In classical antiquity, one of the most pervasive symbols used to avert evil or bad luck was the gorgoneion, apotropaic pendants and ornaments depicting the Gorgon’s head. My newest “tat” is my very own and permanent gorgoneion. And, no, I could not simply have chosen an amulet to wear around my neck. I’d rather become even more revolting and deviant than I already am, on account of having a multiply-marked body/intersecting embodied identities. The public at large still think those women who choose to “collect” large tattoos are indeed making themselves ugly and even go as far as suggesting we are self-harming. While it gets tiring to defend our choices over and over again, ignoring gender norms and the beauty standards of our culture, acquiring larger and more numerous tattoos, becoming monstrous to the beholder, is a political act of reclamation in itself: our bodies, our choices. And what better way to accept my body as it is and as illustrative of whichever alternative reconfiguration of beauty I fancy than by embracing one of the most notorious examples of female ugliness: The Gorgon.
Original artwork and tattoo by my buddy, the crazy talented Kate Mackay-Gill (a.k.a. kate selkie), tattooing out of Tattoo Workshop, Brighton. ©Kate Mackay-Gill.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. La Frontera/Borderlands: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1999. Print.
Biesecker, Barbara A. “Towards A Transactional View Of Rhetorical And Feminist Theory: Rereading Helene Cixous’s The Laugh Of The Medusa”. Southern Communication Journal 57.2 (1992): 86-96. Web.
Cixous, Hélène, Keith Cohen, and Paula Cohen (translators). “The Laugh Of The Medusa”. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.4 (1976): 875-893. Web.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Dolmage, Jay. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies Across Rhetorical Traditions”. Rhetoric Review 28.1 (2009): 1-28. Web.
Fulk, Mark K. Understanding May Sarton. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Print.
Jacobs, Amber. On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis, and the Law of the Mother. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print.
Sarton, May. A Grain of Mustard Seed: New Poems. New York: Norton, 1971. Print.