Most remember Medusa as a monster with living venomous snakes in place of her hair who turned men into stone.
As the story goes, Medusa was a handmaiden in Athena’s temple. Poseidon, the brother of Zeus and one of the twelve Olympians in ancient Greek religions and myth, saw Medusa. Overcome by her beauty, he raped her. Athena, daughter of Zeus, became jealous and turned Medusa from a beautiful woman into an ugly monster. When Medusa refused to admit her wrong doings, Athena punished her with snakes for hair and the inability to look upon any man so that any man who looked upon her would be turned into stone. Medusa retreated to a cave to live alone.
The story continues. Perseus, son of Zeus and great hero in Greek mythology, found himself at a gift-giving feast for king Polydectes without a gift. He promised to bring the head of Medusa to the king as a wedding gift. Polydectes, who found Perseus a hindrance to his wedding plans, was pleased knowing that Perseus would die in the attempt, for one look from that hideous snake-headed monster turned men into stone. And even if Perseus should succeed, Polydectes would have a coveted trophy. Athena, in her desire to help Perseus, gave him a mirror-like shield that would enable him to see Medusa without being instantly turned into stone. Gazing into his mirrored shield, Perseus approached Medusa and with one blow cut off her head. Perseus returned to give king Polydectes the gift of Medusa’s head. When he pulled it out the king was turned into stone. To reward Athena for her help, he gave Athena Medusa’s head to wear on her breastplate.
Medusa is often seen as a symbol of women’s rage who, with her face framed by snakes, is able to paralyze men at a glance. Freud saw the horror of Medusa’s head as a symbol of male castration.
In a recent equinox shamanic gathering, the topic of the Coronavirus and the condition of the world were foremost in our minds. Most acknowledged we were in uncharted territory, not knowing what was going to happen and feeling uncertain about the future. In response, we were invited to journey to the place of “unknowing and uncertainty, to the “place of the unknowable” to see what we might find there that might be helpful for this time.
In my journey I met a female figure with snakes on her head and face. I think “Medusa? This can’t be Medusa.” I suddenly felt fear and uncertainty. I felt confused. Why would Medusa show up? I’ve always had a rather negative interpretation of Medusa. It was as if she was reading my mind. She says “that is exactly what I want you to feel—fear and uncertainty, I want you to feel the fear, the uncertainly of not-knowing. That way you can understand what others feel when they are caught in the fear of not knowing what to do or what the answer is.” She continues, “as you become familiar with this place, you can release your own fear of uncertainty and not knowing. You must become okay with the unknown, because we are now entering into places of not-knowing, places we have not been before. But it is in these places of not-knowing where the new emerges, from where the answers and solutions will arise.”
In a subsequent journey to Medusa, she told me that we now have to uncover what has been rejected and repressed in our paradigms and stories. We must discover what is hidden in our stories. We must recover what has been lost. She told me that before her myth was interpreted through a patriarchal lens she was a goddess of wisdom and healing. She said “we must now re-imagine our myths and our stories and find out what is underneath them. When we are afraid or when things are heavy or dark, it is important to find what is hidden there, to find out what is hidden behind the stories that we hold” By facing the fear that I felt with Medusa, I discovered that hidden in her story was another story, one of wisdom and healing. What might be hidden in other stories that I hold?
At this shamanic gathering, another participant journeyed into the place of the unknowable and saw the coronavirus as a red flower, fiery and aggressively blooming and then almost instantly turning white, calm, and peaceful. The flower reminded her of a white magnolia. She said this change was an abrupt turn. (Private conversation with Lori Dalvi)
In another journey to Medusa to ask her what message she may have for me, I came to a cave. I entered. It was quite beautiful. There were candles burning all around making a beautiful glow of golden light. It was quite warm and welcoming. There were beautiful artifacts and tapestries adding to the beauty. I see Medusa. She is quite beautiful. Her hair is long and lush, made of snakes. They are also quite beautiful. There are also snakes around in other places. I thank Medusa for meeting me and ask what message she has for me. She says “my capacity to turn you into stone has been misunderstood. What I do is freeze forms of consciousness that are no longer useful, rendering them powerless so that the new consciousness may emerge. The snakes are both my wisdom and my capacity for transformation and rebirth. So, when I see an attitude, a belief, or a consciousness that abuses or violates the goddess and no longer serves the divine feminine, I will turn it into stone. That is, I will freeze it, bring it to death, render it powerless so that the new consciousness may emerge. This new consciousness is of the Earth, of love and connectedness.”
The message seemed clear. We must look beyond the patriarchal interpretation of these ancient goddesses which vilifies them and shows them in such negative light. As Medusa noted in my conversation with her, we must look beyond the distortions of patriarchal interpretations and begin to reclaim ancient Goddesses in their original autonomy and power. Because of patriarchal stereotyping, “the beautiful and powerful women of the pre-Hellenic religions are made to seem horrific and then raped, decapitated or destroyed.’”[i] Thus Medusa was converted into a monster. I understood her message as a reflection of what we have been doing to the earth and nature-to the feminine herself–for the past several centuries—raping it, destroying it, and cutting off her wisdom.
The name Medusa actually means ‘sovereign female wisdom,’ ‘guardian and protectress,’ ‘the one who knows’ or’ the one who rules.’ It derives from the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit Medha and the Greek Metis, meaning “wisdom’ and ‘intelligence.’[ii] This call from Medusa can be understood as a call to return to the way of the goddess, a remembering of the divine feminine which has been split off, repressed and rejected. Her message remains hidden in our stories. We must look for her. We might get a hint of where to look for her at the end of the Medusa story. Once Poseidon cuts of the head of Medusa with the snakes, he gives it to Athena for her breast plate. Perhaps the wisdom of the divine feminine is found in the heart. Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, once asked a Hopi elder why he thought the white man was mad. The Hopi replied “They say they think with their heads . . . . We think here,” he said indicating his heart.
Another important symbol in the story of Medusa are the snakes that make up her hair. Hair itself is a symbol of the life-force and when growing out of the head represents strength, higher powers, spiritual forces and inspiration.[iii] In ancient times “serpents were ‘generally linked to wisdom and prophetic counsel,’ associated with ‘female deity.’”[iv] Snakes are often guardians of a hidden treasure, a symbol of the wisdom of the depths and of the great mysteries. Because it sheds its skin the snake is a symbol of death, rebirth and resurrection.[v]
Shamanism connects healing, snakes, the unconscious and the priesthood as reflected in the myth of Iamos, sun god of healing who was brought up by serpents and became the first in a line of priests. The healing power of snakes was celebrated in Greece, where the serpent was not only an attribute of Asklepios but of Hippocrates, Hermes and Hygiena. Anthony Stevens in his book, Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind, says “the power of the snake as a symbol of healing lies in its ambivalence: it can both kill and cure. When God punishes the Israelites by sending them a plague of poisonous serpents, He provides Moses with the antidote, the Brazen Serpent, so that anyone who looked upon it would be saved. To the Christians, the Brazen Serpent was a prefiguration of Christ. The staff of Asklepios twined about by the snake symbolizes authority combined with ‘the wisdom of the serpent’, The World Tree encircled by the healing life force of nature.”[vi]
The white magnolia from my colleagues journey also made its way into my painting. According to Tess Whitehurst (The Magic of Flowers), the magnolia is so ancient that she predates bees. Gazing at a magnolia awakens a primal connection to the earth and one’s spiritual lineage. In our genetic memory we hold ancient wisdom. Magnolia can help us remember this wisdom and allow it to be reborn into our present life. According to Whitehurst, “the magnolia embodies the fiercer face of femininity and algins us with the powerful goddess energy that already dwells within.”[vii]
When I journeyed into the cave to meet Medusa, I was struck by the number of candles lighting the cave with a warm, golden light. Candles symbolize light in the darkness and the illumination of the spirit of truth.
This painting then becomes my way of re-imagining Medusa. The snakes of Medusa can be understood as the divine wisdom and healing powers of the goddess so much needed at this time. When I find that a particular state of consciousness or a certain way of being no longer works for me, perhaps Medusa is at work freezing it, rendering it dead and lifeless so that something new may emerge. The white magnolia symbolizes our connection to the ancient wisdom of the goddess that already lives, hidden within us. The candles suggest that now is the time to bring to light that which has been hidden in our stories.
[i]Pratt 1978:168, quoted in Monaghan 1994:237.
[iii] Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, 78.; Cirlot, J. E., A Dictionary of Symbols, 134.
[iv] Stone 1976: 199, 200, 209 quoted in “Re-visionary Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom” edited by Glenys Livingston, Ph.D., Trista Hendren and Pat Daly.
[v] Cirlot, J. E., A Dictionary of Symbols, 286-289.
[vi] Stevens, Anthony. Ariadne’s Clue: A guide to the Symbols of Humankind, 344-345.
[vii] Whitehurst, Tess. The Magic of Flowers. 237-240