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The Myths

Medusa myth for blog

The Minoan snake goddess

Historians tell us that the Minoan Snake Goddess was powerful and revered in prehistoric civilizations. The snakes, held high in her outstretched arms, were venerated for their connection to the earth – the ground of being - and for their ability to transform as they shed their old skin for a new one. This image is from a time when women were honored. (15th or 700? Century BCE)

The slaying of Medusa

The myth of Medusa describes in archetypal and symbolic metaphor changes in the relationship between the masculine and feminine at many levels simultaneously. The myth describes the alteration in the relationships between masculine and feminine within the collective psyche and within the psyches of men and women. The myth reflects shifts in relationships among societies. It also reflects changes in religion which describe the relationship between people and the numinous.

Historically, it is associated with actual events taking place between the close of the Bronze Age and the dawn of the Iron Age, around 2500 B.C.E. It was close to this time that the Minoan civilization of Crete disintegrated as the matriarchal goddess worshipers gave way to those who paid homage to the Greek pantheon. The fall of the Minoan cultures was concurrent with the fall of other goddess worshipping civilizations and the invasion around 1250 B.C.E. of the Indo-European warrior tribesmen with their singular male god (Joseph Campbell). In other words, the relationship between the overarching archetypal patterns of masculine and feminine shifted. When this occurred, there was a synchronistic shift on the earth below.

Greek mythology is rife with stories describing facets of the archetypal movement in which solar, patriarchal consciousness and cosmology gained dominance over the old lunar consciousness and the cosmology of the great mother goddess.

Joseph Campbell holds that Greek mythology is traditionally told from the patriarchal perspective (Joseph Campbell). From this androcentric vantage point, the heroic cause of the male gods is virtuous, and their goals are noble. The mission and deeds of the hero are justified by the gains he makes. Loyalties to the old mother goddess have become dangerous.

According to the Myth of Medusa, after the gods of the Greek pantheon had defeated the great earth goddess, they divided up the spoils of victory: Poseidon took the sea, Zeus, the heavens, and Pluto, the underworld.

As the legend goes, Medusa's mother, Ceto, was half goddess and half sea beast. Her father was Phoroys, who lived in the voluminous folds of his wife's skin. Medusa was the only beautiful and human looking offspring born of this couple. The rest of their children, the other gorgons, were monsters. Medusa, it is said, was as at home and comfortable swimming in the sea as she was walking on the land.

When Medusa was a beautiful young girl, Poseidon arranged for a race to be held among the sea nymphs, planning to take the winner for himself. Poseidon, in his anticipation, asked the cyclopes Brontes to fashion a necklace out of pearls and gold ingots from the sea, which Poseidon could give to the woman he chose.

The goddess Athena, who had been born from her father Zeus’s head after Zues swallowed her mother Metis, saw the necklace being forged. Because of the nature of her birth, she had become became a father’s daughter. She was consumed with envy for the feminine power Zeus had stolen from her by swallowing her mother. She so craved the necklace that her craving scorched her insides. She writhed with jealousy. She was determined the necklace, and symbolically the jewels of the lost goddess, would be hers.

The race among the nymphs had not even begun when Poseidon came upon the beautiful Medusa sitting on a rock. He wanted her. He gave her the necklace which Brontes had forged for him, and he took her.

When later Medusa saw a fisher-lad drowning in the sea, not aware of the new rules of possession and ownership, she followed her natural instincts. She saved his life and then, holding him to her, she comforted him and loved him. This enraged Posiden. He was a God. It was his right to claim her as his own.

Synchronicity. Just at that moment Athena reappeared, still consumed by a raging envy. She aimed her hostility and aggression directly at Medusa, the reminder of her lost mother and feminine power. The legend holds that it was at this moment that Athena turned Medusa's beautiful flowing hair into writhing snakes. The daimonic is often unleashed during times of transition (Rolo May)

When the fisher- lad returned to the sea the world had changed. He now saw Medusa’s hair through the new patriarchal lens – seeing snakes as evil and dangerous. He had lost his connection to Medusa and her healing love. He was petrified. Unable to relate, he turned to stone and sank to the bottom of the sea.

Horrified, confused, terrified. and ashamed, Medusa flung off her ill-fated present and swam away into the remote and outlying regions of the sea where she became an exile feared by all men. Athena, by the way, adeptly caught the pearl and gold necklace. (Edith Hamilton; Graves& Campbell).

The story of Medusa is a myth imaging the exile of indigenous feminine power. We can only begin to imagine the scope of Medusa’s confusion, shame, and rage at being misunderstood and so punished for the crime of living by her own instinctual truth. And it naturally follows that, placed under an exile such as hers, Medusa would become vindictive against not only men, but also those gods and goddesses who allotted her with such a forlorn fate. Some say she froze and became a stone-cold bitch. From that time on women’s power frightened men.

Poseidon's taking of Medusa is one symbolic story among many which illustrates the triumph of the masculine over the old feminine sea goddess. It was preceded by the earlier victory of Zeus over Typhon, the daughter of Gaea (gia) the earth goddess, by which the reign of the patriarchal gods of Mount Olympus was secured over the Titan broods of the great mother goddess (Joseph Campbell). The theme is repeated in other mythologies as well. The Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, describes brutal battles ravaging the old goddess civilizations. And there is Yahweh's victory over the serpent of the cosmic sea, Leviathan. In the Vedic tradition of India, there is the story of King Indra's victory over the cosmic serpent, Vitra. All are variations on the same theme. (Campbell)

When interpreted from the classic patriarchal perspective, the evolution of consciousness necessitated de-potentiating the old snake goddess. Joseph Campbell tells us this interpretation of events holds that, inherent to the process of becoming conscious, is the fight for free will and "a self-moving destiny over any earthbound serpent destiny" (Campbell).

According to some psychological theorists, Greek mythology, and later the mythology of the dragon-slaying heroes of the Middle Ages, depicts the dawning of the light of ego consciousness coming out of the blackness of the maternal sea of the unconscious. They consider this occurrence a developmental milestone for the culture and the individual.

To the rising masculine consciousness, the earth goddess, or the feminine, and conflating gender and sex, women, are seen as a source of danger, a terrifying enemy. When faced with her potent power, a man can become catatonic with fear, unable to move forward in his evolutionary path, just as the fisher-lad was frozen with fear when he gazed at Medusa.

This new relationship between the masculine and feminine is symbolized in the story of Perseus, who slew Medusa. Perseus, who exemplifies the Greek solar hero (Hamilton& Graves), was half man and half god. He was the product of the rape of his mother, Danae, by Zeus, while she was being held captive by her father. Danae’s father was keeping her prisoner, hoping to prevent her from being impregnated and bearing a child, since he had been warned that her son would be his demise.

But he couldn't protect her from Zeus, who entered the brass cage in which Danae was imprisoned, as a shower of gold. After their union, Danae managed to escape her father and find her way to an island. Unfortunately, it was inhabited by pirates and ruled by the evil king, Polydectus. And so, it was there that Danae raised her gifted son, Perseus.

The king Polydectus was a dangerous man. He had a history of abusing women and murdering his wives. He became infatuated with Danae, and held her captive on the island, hoping to persuade her to marry him. He believed that, to have complete control over her, he had to get rid of her son, who was growing older and stronger each day. Polydectus was cunning; he used the boy’s youthful hubris to manipulate him into taking on a task which, Polydectus believed, was larger than any man could handle. He challenged Perseus to kill the terrible gorgon, Medusa believing it would be his demise.

Filled with adolescent pride and optimism, Perseus accepted the challenge. He believed he would rid the world of this monster, and then return to free his mother from the evil Polydectus. Our protagonist, at least from the patriarchal viewpoint, charged off on his heroic mission. Athena, who was apparently still filled with envy, gave Perseus a bronze shield so he could kill Medusa without looking directly at her, and a crescent moon sword. Perseus beheaded Medusa. Brandishing her head with its hair of writhing snakes, he went on to perform many additional heroic missions. Using Medusa’s head as a weapon he turned his enemies to stone. (Hamilton).

According to the classical psychological interpretation of this myth, the myth of Perseus is the story of the heroic ego and its mission to separate from the unconscious. The hero represents the ego, solar consciousness, and the masculine. Medusa represents the lunar, unconscious, and the feminine. Within this interpretation, masculine and feminine become restricted, polarized, and embattled. The mission of the ego is to free itself, even through violent means, from the archaic feminine, and this is understood to be a necessary step in the development of a more rational and superior humanity. This view splits and polarizes - dangerous feminine unconscious

What the Fuck

Myths are now commonly analyzed from another perspective, with a revisionist lens. Revisionist scholars, from a broad range of fields including anthropology, history, archaeology, and women's studies are giving new meanings to the old stories. These scholars are telling the tales from the perspective of the great goddess instead of that of the masculine god (Campbell, Gimbutas, Shuttle, Walters, Pagels, D. George, V. George). Their interpretations give historical and mythological events a different slant, focusing on how the patriarchal gods destroyed, suppressed, or subsumed the mother goddess and her serpent power. As opposed to a patriarchal interpretation, which focuses on what was gained, the revisionists focused on the violence of the overthrow and how much regenerative energy was forfeited with the demise of the snake goddess.

According to the revisionist explanation, the violence of the patriarchal takeover was indefensible. And the way the followers of the new patriarchal gods used power to dominate others had devastating effects on our civilization, effects which can still be felt today. The patriarchal coup vanquished a matriarchal culture which, according to recent anthropological and archeological studies (Eisler & Gimbutas), did not comprehend the idea of domination and control. According to these investigators, the matriarchal civilizations were based on a reverence for nature, harmony, and equality. Power was more thought of in terms of responsibility toward others rather than domination over others (Riane Eisler).

In the retelling of the myth, Poseidon's taking of Medusa is rape. Medusa, they might conjecture, coming from the matriarchal perspective, would not have known that sexual union meant ownership and possession. Patriarchal consciousness is credited with the idea of ownership. The notion that she shouldn’t consort with the fisher-lad would have been a foreign concept to Medusa. The shift from a solar to a lunar interpretation also shifts the way in which the fisher-lad's change of heart is construed. At first, Medusa was his savior and he rested in her regenerative arms. At this point, apparently, friendship with Medusa could save one from drowning. Later, when both he and Medusa have undergone an alteration in outlook, he becomes petrified of her instinctual nature. Revisionists might hypothesize that his fear of the instinctual feminine made him rigid, and this rigidity was his demise.

Through the eyes of the great goddess, Danae, Perseus' mother, was the victim of patriarchal violence, like Medusa. Danae was sold out by her father for his own protection, and was raped by the ruling male principle, Zeus, the first father god. She was then imprisoned within the negative father complex – on an isolated island with the evil pirate Polydectus. As is true with so many abused women who continue to be vulnerable to perpetrators of violence even after becoming conscious of their situation, Danae is trapped within the negative father complex, and suffers under its tyranny.

In the myth, after his success in killing Medusa, Perseus believes that he must save his mother Danae from the evil Polydectus. Revisionists might interpret the nobility with which Perseus rescues Danae as another incidence of the patriarchal prejudice of Greek mythology. Interpolating from a revisionist slant, his magnanimity implies a condescension. It is of the genre of stories wherein the hero saves the helpless maiden from the clutches of the evil villain. Both the maiden and her savior concur in the belief that she is indeed helpless, a concurrence which establishes and enables a hierarchical power dynamic in the relationship between masculine and feminine. In addition, the revisionist might ask, just how that maiden had become so helpless to begin with.

The myth, when elucidated in this way, tells the story of the assault and violation of the historical matriarchal civilizations and of the actual women within them. It also describes how, when unchecked, the dominating masculine, like Zeus, Poseidon, and Polydectus can invade the psyches of men and women, devastating the unsuspecting feminine.

The reworking of these stories adds an additional dimension to the symbolic meaning and significance of the events they describe. Understanding different perspectives helps to establish a fuller picture of the historical and psychological situation. Adding the revisionist perspective does help to explain and give meaning to the powerlessness, shame and rage which underlies the psychology of many women.

However, the patriarchal and revisionist versions of the myth of Medusa are splitting and polarizing. In one version the patriarchy saved civilization from the destructive nature of the goddess. In the other version the Goddess worshipers were all good, idealized. One side all good and the other all bad. These are fundamentalist positions – absolute, with no tolerance for ambiguity. Splitting like this often happens in times of transition – much like in our world today.

Let’s take a closer look at the hero Perseus for example. He was the fruit of the union between the abused feminine, Danae, and the ruling patriarchal principle, Zeus. Perseus is a boy who is half god and half human. He represents a kind of masculine energy that can develop within both women and men when such a psychic collusion between the abused feminine and the dominating masculine occurs. Perseus is the product of a what Jung called the lesser coniunctio, the coupling of a masculine and feminine which are still split and polarized.

Perseus' status as half god and half human describes a confusing state of inflation and deflation, and of victim/perpetrator or victim/savior, it’s binary. Caught in this psychological state, one easily careens between an inflated masculine and deflated feminine identification.

The split perspectives of these interpretations of the mythology help to explain what happened to me on a personal level. My father was quite narcissistic and patriarchal, having come from that age and tradition. When I was young, he was powerful - like a Zeus to me. Because of his own deep wounds, he was unable to adequately love me. My mother seemed fragile and helpless, unable to protect herself or me from his control. But she was the more sympathetic character. My psyche stepped in to protect my young and vulnerable self from overwhelming feelings of abandonment by splitting – poor victim mother and diabolical father. Splitting occurred within my psyche, just like in the patriarchal and feminist version of the Medusa myth. In Donald Winnicott’s language, neither parent was “good enough” so, I couldn’t balance the negative and positive aspects of each parent and come to any middle way of acceptance.

The personal, collective, and spiritual losses from this splitting are devastating. Splitting fractures relationship to the self and others, disconnects us from our instincts, results in pervasive self-hatred, reactivity, constant anxiety and fear, shame, guilt, and a lack of confidence. Eventually these open wounds harden into scars.

This splitting left me locked in an isolated powerless place, like Danea trapped by her father then on Polydectus’s island. Also, by splitting I had denied my own diamonic shadow. Thus, I was self-righteous and aloof. My snakes hissed with passive aggression or cold detachment. I had internalized the negative aspects of the patriarchy. I had unconsciously identified with the aggressor. Thus, like the patriarchy, I didn’t feel responsible for my behavior. To me it was justified, deserved. I BEGAN TO MAKE THE UNCONSCIOUS CONSCIOUS AND TO TAKE A LOOK AT MY DEFENCES AND WHAT TRAUMA I WAS DEFENDING AGAINST.

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