by now, most of you have probably seen this post about how “Athena gifted Medusa with ugliness and the power to turn men to stone as a way of protecting her from further violations of her person…As the original myth tells it, she lived in solitude because she did not wish to be around men after what Poseidon had done. And Athena gave her the power to never be at the mercy of a male again”
In addition, it makes some claims about how the image of Medusa’s head was found on the lintel of women’s shelters, and it was patriarchal Rome that subverted this myth into the one of rape and victim-blaming and turned her ugliness into something shameful.
….EXCEPT REALLY NOT
first let me say, I am all for reinterpreting and retelling Greek myths! People have been doing it down the ages, and I love the Romantic fixation on Prometheus and Freud’s fetish for Oedipus and tumblr’s fascination with Persephone/Hades. And I am definitely all for reclaiming stories that have been used to shame and silence women.
But I am also allergic to those retellings being retroactively fitted back into their sexist framework. On top of this being just plain old revisionist history, it does a disservice to why we needed to retell it in the first place.
Medusa was (probably) not natively a feminist heroine and her head was not hung above doorways of women’s shelters (not sure if Classical Greece had anything recognizable women’s shelters, my research hasn’t turned up anything.) Ancient Rome is not automatically more patriarchal than Ancient Greece, because Greece was pretty damn gross in a lot of ways and their myths are not exempt from that.
Let’s unpack the history of Medusa, shall we?
[cut for length and excessive sourcing]
When archaeologists work to understand an ancient civilization, they often use that civilization’s texts to get a clue as to how they saw themselves. But these people didn’t live in isolation. They traded; they invaded. They carried inventions and knowledge back and forth down the Silk Road, the Tea Road and Roman roads. They also, sometimes, wrote down what they thought of each other.
A few years ago, the University of Washington’s John E. Hill drafted an English copy of the Weilüe, a third century C.E. account of the interactions between the Romans and the Chinese, as told from the perspective of ancient China. “Although the Weilue was never classed among the official or ‘canonical’ histories, it has always been held in the highest regard by Chinese scholars as a unique and precious source of historical and geographical information,” says Hill. Read more.