In Greek Mythology the gods/goddesses acted in vicious, irrational petty ways and Athena the goddess of wisdom was no exception.
Not all things are clear with myths, especially as these things can be mutated and twisted by many factors. One is the arrival of Christianity (which was detrimental to the myths) and the other, the simple act of forgetting.
Medusa was a virgin priestess of Athena serving in her temple. When Poseidon raped her, Athena’s wrath focused on Medusa (not Poseidon) and she turned her into a gorgon, hideously cursed with evil looks and left to live out her life as a monster.
The story of Medusa is rather late, from OVID. In his ‘Metamorphosis’ he refers to Medusa being ‘violated’ and Athena ‘shielding her eyes’. It also states that Poseidon had been lured by Medusa’s hair, so Athena turned it to snakes. However, another tradition, used by Mallarmé in Les Dieux antiques (1880), stressed a more personal rivalry: Medusa had once boasted that she was more beautiful than Athena. The differences are in whether Medusa is full of herself or if she is truly a victim of violence. Since we are directly told that Medusa is originally a virgin or is an anima-based personality, I have serious doubts as to the validity of this version of the story.
In her 1975 manifesto The Laugh of the Medusa, the feminist theorist Hélène Cixous asserts that man created the monstrous legacy of Medusa through fear of female desire. If, she argued, they dared to “look at the Medusa straight on,” they would see that “she is not deadly, she’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” By documenting their experiences, Cixous wrote, women can deconstruct the sexist biases that portray the female body as a threat. After centuries of silence, conversations about rape culture began to restore Medusa’s voice.
It’s easy to see why Cixous’ manifesto resonated far and wide. The story of a powerful woman raped, demonized, then slain by a patriarchal society? It seems less of an ancient myth than a modern reality. I strongly feel we need to continue to look beyond the distortions of patriarchal interpretations and begin to reclaim ancient Goddesses in their original autonomy and power.
Miriam Robbins Dexter’s conclusions about Medusa could equally apply to Athena:
‘[Medusa] reminds us that we must not take the female “monster” at face value; that we must not only weigh her beneficent against her maleficent attributes but also take into consideration the worldview and socio-political stance of the patriarchal cultures which create her, fashioning the demonic female as scapegoat for the benefit and comfort of the male members of their societies.’
From this, therefore, we can see why feminists have chosen to use myths to re-evaluate traditional perceptions of women. Feminine voices are few and far between in the classical narratives that have formed the foundations of our literary traditions, so by using myths female writers have been able to give the feminine voice an element of authority that is equated, as, with so-called ‘high culture’, putting them on an even playing field with the male voices that have oppressed and silenced them for so long. Once on an even playing field, these female writers are in prime position to question, destabilise and ultimately change the traditional narratives that have been so instrumental in defining and silencing women.
Words Cheryl Gault
Image Claire Miskimmin