Saturday, 5 August 2017
Medusas, Rapes, and Virgins
Ah, Medusa. They think they know you well. Your visage horrific, horrifying, horrendous. Snakes entwined around your head, the serpentine tousled hair. You, whose very look turns brave men to stone. Such is the story they tell about you, at least.
Yet, Medusa, as you know only too well, it wasn't always like that. One face of the Triple Moon Goddess, gloriously you went, beyond the distant shores of northern Africa. One aspect of the resplendent moon, one of the three great lunar sisters. Athena, maiden goddess of the waxing moon; Metis, mother goddess of the moon in fullness. And you, Medusa, the beautiful, the wise, splendid Lady of the Dark Moon, presiding over divination, death, renewal, and all manner of magic. Thus were the three sisters of the starry night, roaming across the skies of northern Africa.
Then came the Hellenes, the Greeks, across the seas. With them, the patriarchs, the new gods, the solar gods, their solar religion, their solar-centric view of life. No more welcomed with your wisdom of the dark places, Medusa, you had to go. Or, rather, you had to change. Friend of the courageous, provider of fearlessness, now to be transformed into a figure of horror and fear, in keeping with the new myths of the new races.
You were, so the story goes, raped by Poseidon, the god of the sea, your independence violated, your power broken. Dear sister Athena, in misguided outrage, took your breathless beauty, turning it against you, into petrifying horror. Beauty turned to terror, lunar silvery liquid debased into cold, hard stone. A sight to transform men of the sun into stone indeed. Medusa - gravest threat to the dominance of the new solar religions on Earth. Betrayed by one of her sisters, no less - into a monster. And then, Medusa, in a final act of humiliation, you were slain by the hero Perseus, great solar warrior hero of the new patriarchal peoples, your head to be worn as a trophy. Debasement of the Dark Moon Goddess was complete; nothing remained to be said.
There is a dual aspect to myth, mythology, fairy tale. One face is sociological/historical, myth seen as an expression of a particular culture at a specific point in time. Thus do we witness the transformation and humiliation of Medusa the Dark Moon Goddess, as her ways are seen as a threat to a new world order, and must be supplanted. The sociological is the 'modern' way of going about things. Academics can't get enough of it, and it has its place. But there is another way to see myth, as communicating realities which are more universal, with one foot at least outside the vagaries of space and time. This is the more completely archetypal perspective.
For myself, I specialise in getting caught up in 'either/or' fantasies, when 'both/and' may work far better. So it is with myth. Bypass the temptation to indulge in the 'but what is the real way to read mythology?' question, and embrace both approaches simultaneously. Then the richness of the stories stands a chance of being experienced properly.
Rape. Not a very pleasant topic; not something which most of us care to dwell on overmuch at all. It is an unavoidable reality, however: that rape is not uncommon in the myths and legends of ancient Greece, among others. It almost seems the normal way of going about things among the gods. Take Zeus, Big Chief Daddy of the Greek pantheon. I am not the cataloguing type, but I know enough bits and pieces to recognise him as a serial rapist. No goddess, nymph, or mere mortal female was safe from his clutches. Europa and Semele are two of the well-known unfortunates who undergo unwilling abduction by Zeus, who often takes on a sneaky guise in order to get his way. We have already seen how Medusa was, according to some accounts, raped by Poseidon. And Pan, the horned goat-god, was inclined to impose himself on any nymph or mortal who happened to be passing by.
From a historical/sociological perspective, the stories seem to tell the tale of a take-over bid by predominantly patriarchal, solar cultures. Rape is one unambiguous and unsophisticated means to show who's in charge now, and to vividly communicate the disdain with which the old ways of the moon worshippers were to be regarded from now on.
This is one view of the ancient myths. But there is another.
Probably the best-known rape in mythology is that of Persephone, daughter of Demeter. Sweet young Persephone was out one day collecting flowers with her buddies. Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who had previously taken a fancy to her, saw his opportunity and, coming out of nowhere, grabbed poor little Persephone and dragged her kicking and screaming down into the Underworld (it is from this incident that the term 'deflowering' is apparently derived).
Raped into the Underworld. That's how it can seem. Unbidden, unwelcome, out of control. A force greater, stronger, than everyday consciousness, ego-consciousness if you like, turns up and just takes you away, drags you down. 'You' have no choice, no part to play. It's an event activated by a big, scary, unknown, 'Other'.
That was unquestionably my own experience some 25 years ago, when I underwent my own tumble into the nether realms. It is a scenario re-enacted in less dramatic fashion to this day. It's an integral part of any spiritual life worth its salt, really. Stuff happens that's not 'you'; it comes upon you, smothers, takes over. Not nice. Rape.
This is rape deliteralised; seen for what it is in mythology, granted its archetypal meaning. There is a lucid chapter on rape in 'Pan and the Nightmare' by James Hillman, the master of deliteralising, of restoring a mythological perspective.
At the other end of the spectrum to rape, and thus intimately connected, are the virgins. Thanks to two thousand years of Christianism with its distinctive tendency to take things literally, we have ended up with a very unmythological angle on the topic, embodied in the image of the Holy Virgin Mary. This is 'virginity' seen as a completely literal and physical phenomenon. Has she actually done it with anyone or not? This is the question, the only question. Thus has physical virginity become fetishised, to the detriment of many young - and not so young - females and males.
Taken less literally, more archetypally, we could say, the virgin is the embodiment of freedom, of joyous autonomy, of energy untrammelled, unfettered. "I am nobody's but my own." In the mythologies of Greece and Rome, she roams the hills and forests under the name of Diana the huntress, or Artemis before her. Hecate, Dark Moon Goddess, overseer of magic, mystery, lady of the yew tree, is another embodiment of the 'virgin spirit'.
In her original form, Medusa too shared in this free, untamed femininity, along with her Amazon priestesses. Whether or not they do it, or have done it, is irrelevant. I recall a quote from way back from Neil Kramer, who averred that he hoped God had more important things to do than worry about where we've been putting our private bits (I paraphrase, though not wildly). Diana and Hecate roam free, unattached, untamed and untameable. Yet they remain fully sensuous, sensual, sexual. They have sacrificed not one iota of their physical being-ness. They radiate beauty, physicality, as a necessary aspect to their archetypal magnificence. Our Holy Virgin Mary, by contrast, is an incomplete version of a universal image, I have to report sadly. Not that some of the depictions of her in Byzantine and Renaissance art are not beautiful. But she is a fallen figure. Some parts have gone missing, and the results have been devastating.
Images: Top: Medusa by Caravaggio
Centre: Medusa when she was beautiful, apparently
Bottom: Hades kidnapping Persephone (most elegantly .....)