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Related: Greek - motif of harmful sensation - castration anxiety - mythology - decapitation - gorgon - monster - femme fatale
Medusa (1617-1618) - Rubens
In Greek mythology one of the three Gorgons, whose head, with snakes for hair, turned him who looked upon it into stone'
Medusa (1598-99) - Caravaggio
In Greek mythology, Medusa ("cunning queen"), was the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters.
The gorgons were vicious female monsters with brass hands, sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous serpents. Medusa's cheeks puffed out, and her tongue lolled between her fangs. She was literally petrifying to look upon: every creature who saw her was turned to a stone of the earth.
She was said to be a daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, a mortal woman whom Athena changed into a Gorgon as punishment for desecrating her temple by sleeping with Poseidon there. When Athena came upon Medusa and Poseidon (also an arch-rival of Athena's since he vied for dominance over Athens, Athena offering the olive tree, Poseidon, the horse), she turned Medusa's beautiful hair into snakey tendrils and banished her to the far ends of the earth beyond the Hyperborean lands where she remained with her sisters.
Medusa was killed by Perseus with aid from Athena and Hermes. After Perseus used Medusa's head to kill Phineas, he gave it to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the aegis.
From Medusa's blood sprang two children by Poseidon: Pegasus and Chrysaor. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medusa_(mythology) [Nov 2004]
Shelley and the Medusa
The "Head of the Medusa" that inspired Shelley is now attributed to the Flemish School, circa 1620-30. The painting is owned by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, inventory number P1472.
This image is from "Ekphrasis and the Other" by visual culture scholar W. J. T. Mitchell from the 1994 Picture theory (p. 174) via http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/shelley/medusa/figA.html [Nov 2006]
In the seventeenth-century Flemish painting which inspired Shelley and which he (like many others) mistakenly thought the work of Leonardo, the head of the Medusa is inverted and hence the mass of writhing snakes is in the foreground. The eyes, half-closed, gaze upwards, and the head is surrounded by a mist in which can be faintly seen a variety of bats, mice, and other more ambiguous and sinister creatures. Several other bats and toads are clearly delineated, looking at the Gorgon head from the ground or the air. Out of the half-open mouth issues a whitish cloud of breath, the "thrilling vapour" referred to by Shelley. -- Jerome J. McGann via http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/shelley/medusa/mcgann.html
Medusa and castration anxiety
Mark Dery, from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head; 2003
At the same time, the severed female head invokes what the feminist film critic Barbara Creed calls the monstrous feminine, that Gorgonian archetype whose stony glare and grinning gape mock the almighty phallus into shriveled impotence. The ur-text on this subject is of course Freud's over-the-top essay, "Medusa's Head" (1922), in which he asserts, "To decapitate = to castrate. The terror of Medusa is thus the terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something."16 For a young boy, that something is that unforgettable first glimpse of the awesome female pubes, most likely his mother's, with their snaky tangle of hair. To Freud's terrified little boy, mom's you-know-what is at once a fearful wound where the penis used to be and a shaggy maw, waiting to gobble up his organ as well. Medusa's serpentine locks are the severed members of her Bobbit-ized victims. --Mark Dery via http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/10/severed_head.php [May 2005]
Medusa's Head (1922) - Freud
On horror's head horrors accumulate." Othello (III,iii)
I. The Medusa's Head and the Castration Complex
Freud first wrote about the motif of the decapitated Medusa's head in a brief set of notes dated May 14, 1922. According to the editors of the Internationale Zeitschrift fur Psychoanalyse und Imago who published the manuscript posthumously in 1940 as an essay under the title "Das Medusenhaupt". --Thomas Albrecht, 1999 via http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3598/is_199912/ai_n8542501 [May 2005]
Matthew Hunt:Medusa, the female demon, is also evoked in vagina mythology, leading Orlan to display images of her vagina "[alongside Sigmund] Freud's text on the head of Medusa [which] read: 'At the sight of the vulva the devil himself flees[']" (1995). Barbara Creed's book The Monstrous-Feminine includes a chapter titled Medusa's Head: The Vagina Dentata & Freudian Theory (which itself features a section called The Castrating Female Genitals). Elaine Showalter also cites Freud's equation of Medusa with a deadly vagina: "According to Freud, the decapitated head of Medusa with its snaky locks is a "genitalized head," an upward displacement of the sexual organs, so that the mouth stands for the vagina dentata, and the snakes for pubic hair. For men to unveil the Medusa is to confront the dread of looking at the female sexual organs" (1992). Freud's equation of Medusa with the vagina is significant as it presents the vagina as an organ capable of castrating the male penis: "in its horrifying aspect [Medusa] would resemble [...] the castrating genitals, the terrifying vagina dentata" (Barbara Creed, 1993).
Thus, the "fearsome female genitals" (Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 1978) are repeatedly associated with diseases and foul smells, regarded as abject, disgusting organs, stinking and pox-ridden. Furthermore, they are also equated with demonic and satanic figures such as Medusa and the devil.
These misguided male associations perpetuate male anxiety about women's genitals, and thus also perpetuate the avoidance of them in male-dominated language and culture: "Men desire access to the vagina, but also fear it and are disgusted by it. They see it as a gaping maw, at times toothed, frighteningly insatiable. [...] It is when vaginas are accessible that they evoke disgust and horror in their own right. It is then that male fears make them monstrous, hellish, and vile, disgust-evoking places" (William Ian Miller, 1997). -- Matthew Hunt via http://www.matthewhunt.com/cunt.html [May 2005]
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