Medusa: More than Just a Head of Hair

Head of Medusa by Caravaggio (left) Versace Medusa Logo (right)

Watching Clash of the Titans, reminded me of another movie I had seen decades ago in which Medusa also figured prominently. We were then living on a farm in Negros and when we ventured into the city for the day, I begged my father to bring me to the cinema. He pointed out that the only thing playing was a horror flick which, he was sure, would be too frightening. Vehemently, I insisted that I would be very brave. Needless to say, I spent most of the movie facing the back of my seat. I have since been able to look up on the internet that horror film of my childhood. It was entitled “The Gorgon”, the generic name for the sisters that formed the trio of which Medusa was part. Now I wonder what I had found so frightening. It was just a woman with too much make up and a bad hair day of mythic proportions! Admittedly, the Classical monster in the Clash of the Titans was creepier. I cannot imagine finding the courage to take on an adversary who could slither around and turn you into a large paperweight for all eternity. Yet when given a glimpse of Medusa’s face, I wasn’t actually repulsed. With the high cheekbones, blazing almond eyes, full lips, what’s there not to like? In some ways, I can relate to the little boy in a Woody Allen film that confesses to a perverse interest in the evil queen. Archetypes abound in the juxtaposition of the beserpented one’s sultry looks with the fair, selfless image of Princess Andromeda. The present Hollywood remake, despite its many liberties with the tales of the Ancients, reminds us of a timeless duality: the whore and the virgin. Medusa is the exotic temptress who lives in a palace on the other side of the world. The symbolism of her ability to turn a man rock-hard in moments is quite clear, though perhaps too racy to elaborate before a classroom of children. Meanwhile, dutiful Andromeda remains at home, serving her people, ready to throw herself before leviathans to save the kingdom. This intertwined duality is well appreciated in the Philippines’ local incarnation of the lady with the diadem of vipers. In the various versions that have come out through the years, Valentina and Darna are portrayed as childhood friends and even as long-lost twins.

Valentina and Darna (Source: Phil. Star)

Valentina protest poster in a photo appearing in Inquirer

Medusa’s reptilian strands are writhing with subtler meanings. For centuries, images ranging from Mary Magdalen wiping feet with her long tresses to Farah Fawcett showing off her blow-dried blondness, demonstrate just how hair has always been a universal fetish. This is why it must be controlled – braided, powdered, veiled, shaved. Hair can even play a role in politics. Think of the galvanizing message of sacrifice, courage, and acceptance which former President Aquino delivered to the nation by refusing to hide her shocking white streak in the last months of her illness. Think too of all the candidates who are trying to project illusions of eternal youth by using decades-old pictures taken when they still sported thick pompadours. Interestingly, some years back, a press printing posters which depicted another Philippine president as Valentina was raided by government agents. The combination of snakes and a woman’s locks is quite explosive. It conjures all manner of contradictory emotions from fear to lust. It is both potent and perilous. What was so arousing when flowing in soft lengths, had suddenly turned murderous. Since snakes are phallic symbols as well, this is tantamount to a double whammy! An uncomfortable brush with homosexuality is hinted at by the revelation that what had once been the object of men’s desires has now taken on a masculine form. Simultaneously, what was desired is also feared as a terrible weapon that could bite, poison, and petrify. The swords have turned on the gladiators. With such a disquieting configuration, there can be only one appropriate reaction: decapitation! Yet, even death does not grant the poor creature peace. Upon separation from the rest of the body, her head is thrown into a sack and bandied about to fell monsters, win kingdoms, revenge affronts. Even if the kraken never gets to devour Andromeda, another woman must still be sacrificed to restore the established order. We realize just how unfair things are when we delve deeper into Medusa’s story. We learn that Perseus’s hapless enemy was once quite beautiful. Unfortunately, her beauty could tempt even the gods. Poseidon was soon in hot pursuit. In the temple of Athena, his archrival, he finally managed to have his way with his quarry. Strangely, Athena’s wrath over this desecration of her shrine fell not on her hoary adversary but on the winsome maiden. Apparently, it is the fate of mortals to endure the anger of the heavens, no matter how arbitrary. Athena promptly turned Medusa into the infamous monster of lore.

Arbitrariness was a central theme of a Classical art exhibit I had seen in the Liebieghaus museum in Frankfurt. It stressed that the gods of Greece and Rome were far from perfect beings whose every move was just, and wise. They were impulsive, lecherous, jealous, and worse. In other words, they were very human but on a grander scale.

Sign outside Frankfurt art exhibit

The rest of the tale of our luckless lass was just as instructive about the impunity with which the gods reigned. It turns out that Perseus’ slaughtered foe was bitterly mourned by her sisters, the other two Gorgons. The intensity of the sisters’ grief was such that they let loose powerful, haunting wails heard all the way in Mount Olympus. Somehow this detail made the narrative suddenly more moving. It drove home the point that even a monster can be missed. Lulled by the Gorgons’ heart-breaking song, Athena herself became entranced. It was in trying to replicate the plaintive sound that the wise goddess invented the reed pipe. Eagerly, the Patroness of Athens then went before her fellow divinities to demonstrate her new creation. To her surprise, she was ridiculed for the facial contortions blowing the pipe required. In a rage, Athena destroyed and cursed her instrument. Innocent of its fey fate, the satyr Marsyas later restored the reed. The music he produced was so beautiful that he earned the ire of the gods. This time, Apollo challenged him to a contest. When Marsyas lost, the sun god commanded that the satyr be flayed alive.

The Flaying of Marsyas by Titian

Walking through that Frankfurt exhibition hall filled with Classical statuary, I was surprised to find a room dominated by a flat screen on which pop star Robbie Williams was performing his hit, “Rock Dj”. I

only understood the connection when Robbie, trying to impress a bunch of roller-skating fashionistas who were ignoring him, resorted to taking off all his clothes. He eventually tore off his own skin and flesh, leaving just a bloodied skeleton. The message was clear: the artist was exposing the truth that even those who were supposed to be leaders in the pursuit of beauty could really be parasites and vampires feeding on the bodies of the exploited. In a most imaginative way, the Frankfurt show illuminated why Marsyas has, for many centuries, been a symbol for augury, for speaking truth to authority. The ordeal of this innocent musician was the subject of works by many great artists. The satyr seemed to have served as a reminder, even in different ages, that those who ruled could be whimsical and unjust. Of course, some may, as well, have smugly read into the story a warning that those who dared challenge authority could lose their skin. As a closing piece, the exhibit featured an exquisite Botticelli portrait of a Renaissance woman wearing a medallion of Marsyas.

Botticelli portrait with Marsyas pendant

In a similar vein, the tale of Medusa and her terrible head has meant different things in various contexts. Even though, like Marsyas, the erstwhile beauty had also been unfairly punished by the powerful, goodness still arose from her tragedy. In the movie Clash of the Titans, it is the agency of the Gorgon’s awesome gaze which saves Argos from the catastrophe unleashed by the gods. Of course, there will always be those who only see one side of the story. tired tourists will note. By placing Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus and Medusa in Florence’s main piazza along with Michelangelo’s David, the town fathers may have wanted to show how their beloved city was capable of felling formidable opponents. Happily, this message is no longer unchallenged. A feminist writer has dryly pointed out that the statues’ arrangement show the biases of the ruling cabal of men: all the works depicting females are consigned to the back. Except for the monument to Judith, the prominent spots are reserved for sculptures glorifying males. The only ladies present in the front row have been beheaded (as in the case of Medusa) or been the victim of violation (as in the Rape of a Sabine).

Statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s head in Florence

So amazing is the efficacy of the head of serpents that it has long been used as an icon to scare away evil spirits. The Gorgon in all her glory is the center of the Corfu temple fragment, one of the oldest surviving pediments from Greece. With her proud stance, Medusa has been reincarnated as a fearless guardian, ready to save her people with her icy stare. Such protective devices are known as apotropaic symbols, or in Irish speaking areas, sheela na gig. Three interesting examples dating to the 18th century can actually be found in Bohol. The bell towers of Baclayon and Dauis churches both feature heads with bulging eyes as does the inner wall of Loboc’s convento or priests’ quarters. These are thought to ward off demons. A friend of mine thinks it significant that the Boholano symbols appear to be male. Pointing to their fierce scowls, a feature that links them with their Classical antecedents, she thinks that these prove that sometimes, men can just be as scary as any Greek harpy, regardless of hairstyle.

Celebrated painters like Caravaggio and Rubens have essayed renditions of Medusa’s awesome visage. Shelley even wrote a poem on this subject as inspired by a work in the Uffizi attributed to Leonardo. In our times, we have the famous logo of Gianni Versace. This was selected by the Italian designer as his personal symbol recognizing perhaps that the Gorgon’s head was an image of terror but also of beauty. Like the volcanoes of Versace’s native southern region, the crown of snakes stood for both destruction and creation. Despite a long history of vilification, artistic visionaries now see in the Medusa’s head an affirmation that, out of tragedy and injustice, retribution and renewal could still be obtained.

Medusa as apotropaic image (a symbol meant to scare away evil spirits) on a pediment from Corfu

Apotropaic image, Baclayon Tower, Bohol

Image in Loboc Convento

Image, Dauis Tower

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful