Last spring, I had a minimalist portrait of Medusa tattooed on my forearm. It’s my favorite and most visible tattoo, a constant reminder to be unapologetic in casting a harsh gaze against the patriarchy. But the story of Medusa is often seen as a tragedy: she is known for being powerless against Athena and Poseidon, doomed to a lonely life as a monstrous Gorgon, which most renditions describe as punishment. Many believe her story to be one of revenge and torment, but in rereading the myth of Medusa and Athena, a new mythological world in which women are protective of each other in a patriarchal society and their relationships are meant to serve as a lesson for others reveals itself. Whether in competition for affection or authority, women in patriarchies are repeatedly pitted against each other, but a feminist analysis of the myth of Medusa reclaims her curse as a powerful protection against the male gaze.

Though there are different versions of the Medusa myth, Roman poet Ovid’s Medusa was a mortal woman who had sworn to a life of celibacy. She had long, golden locks of hair, and is described as being exceptionally beautiful. Poseidon, god of the sea, lusted after Medusa and raped her in Athena’s temple. After catching word of Poseidon’s attack on Medusa, a supposedly jealous Athena turned Medusa’s lovely hair into snakes and cursed her with the ability to turn men who looked at her into stone.

Medusa, along with her two immortal sisters, was one of three Gorgons, which comes from the Greek word gorgós, meaning “fierce, terrible, and grim.” All three sisters were seen as monstrous for having the power to kill men. Medusa, however, was the only mortal and the most attractive of the three. She was also the most powerful, killing more men than either of her sisters, which also made her the most threatening and the most feared. As the Medusa myth is retold in a patriarchal and male-dominated society, the fact that she was a victim of rape is overshadowed by her terrifying appearance and ability to turn men into stone. This retelling sweeps the original violence against Medusa under the rug to center the violence she commits against men.

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The Power to turn the patriarchy into stone by McKenzie Schwark

April 23rd, 2019