Medusa Kills Perseus

We have taken on the project of making a dance of Medusa. I spend a lot of time these days thinking about the myth and what it really means. Freud sees Medusa as a symbol of castration (head cut off), yet of potence as well: phallic snakes, stony hard ons. I don't quite subscribe to his views, yet I agree that there is a paradoxical nature to the Medusa myth, and clear gender clashing.

Amanda Abrams and Alexander Short in Odysseus Comes Home

First of all, Medusa is a victim. According to one version of the myth, she is raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple. As a punishment! Athena turns Medusa into a Gorgon, a creature so hideous that looking upon her turns others to stone. This effectively exiles Medusa from all human company. To top it off, Athena then sends Perseus out to kill her! Athena and Hermes send Perseus to the nymphs, through the Graiae sisters, to obtain an avalanche of armaments: a mirrored shield with which to stalk Medusa, a curved sword with which to behead her, a helmet of invisibility with which to escape her Gorgon sisters (who, unlike Medusa, are immortal), a special bag in which to safely keep the head afterward, and winged shoes by which to travel to Medusa. Finally, she guides Perseus's hand during the fateful chop. Medusa just can't catch a break!

Yet, Medusa has immortal powers. After he beheads her, Perseus uses her head to calcify various armies during his adventures. Some part of Medusa still lives, then, or at least fails to degrade like all flesh. The only safe way for Perseus to dispose of the head, ultimately, is to give it to Athena to wear on her shield.

Does Medusa win or does Athena win? Athena persecutes Medusa with amazing malice! Yet, Medusa becomes immortal into the bargain: she lives on forever, after a fashion, on Athena's shield. Medusa's image is the scarlet H (for Heartless) branded on Athena's forehead. This seems a punishment fit for a god.

Perseus dies a natural death. If he chopped off Medusa's head, he still did not outlive her. I wonder why Athena even bothered with Perseus, since, having taken on the insane project of killing a Gorgon, he would have gotten nowhere without all of the gear she heaped on him. Perseus moved entirely under the aegis of Athena, even to the final stroke.

Thus, the gender study becomes awfully sticky. Medusa's story is really about her rivalry with Athena, not so much Perseus, a hapless hero who could do nothing for himself. Yet, it all stems from the violence of Poseidon, who is never punished, or even blamed for his crime. Medusa is neither a martyr for women, nor a castrator of men: she symbolizes the violence that runs under the surface for all people.

What of Pegasus? Pegasus is born from her neck after Medusa's head comes off. He is the child of Medusa and Poseidon, born of rape. Yet, he comes away clean from the whole business. Pegasus is free from the violence into which he was born. He, at least, is able to fly above it all.