Mark Brown Medusa

Medusa at the Chelsea Flower Show 2015

Photograph by Mark Brown

There are various different versions of Medusa’s origins and history, as is often the case with the dramatis personae of the Greek myths. Her story exists in at least two forms. In the first, Medusa was once a very beautiful young woman whose hair was her crowning glory, but in setting her beauty against that of the gods, she commits the crime of hubris and is subsequently punished by Athena (or Minerva): all Medusa’s luxurious ringlets are turned into snakes. The second version of the story is rather more prevalent: Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and the goddess, furious that her temple has been defiled, turns Medusa into a monster. This is how Medusa appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Her beauty was far-famed, the jealous hope

Of many a suitor, and of all her charms

Her hair was loveliest; …

…She, it’s said,

Was violated in Minerva’s shrine

By Ocean’s lord. Jove’s daughter turned away

And covered with her shield her virgin’s eyes,

And then for fitting punishment transformed

The Gorgon’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes.

Raped by a god and punished for this by a prim virgin of a goddess. Nice. But there is another way to look at this, if you choose to. Athena could not, presumably, take on Poseidon – at least not without massively annoying Zeus – so she turns Medusa into a weapon by granting her the power to destroy. Medusa herself can avenge her violation on every man who crosses her path. This fits nicely with the end of the story: Perseus gives Medusa’s severed head to Athena, who fixes it in the centre of her shield for use as a weapon: ‘Minerva still, to strike her foes with dread, / Upon her breastplate wears the snakes she made’ (Ovid). And this way, it becomes a story about female vengeance directed towards men, rather than each other.

So, what is generally agreed about Medusa? That she has snakes for hair, obviously. Those who look at her are turned to stone, and even after she is decapitated by Perseus, her severed head retains this power. She can only safely be viewed as a reflection, at one remove from reality, and Perseus defeats her by using his shield as a mirror to view her movements without having to look directly at her.


“Perseus (Benvenuto Cellini) 2013 February” by Morio – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It starts getting fuzzy after this. Medusa is usually an archer, carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. She is often depicted as half woman-half snake, like a sort of evil version of a mermaid (as in the picture above at the top), but even this is not necessarily a given (the statue in the picture directly above shows a foot). In some versions, Medusa’s blood is also poisonous and various monsters are engendered from the drops that fall on the floor. In Ovid, it is the flying horse Pegasus that springs from the body after her death: ‘and from their mother’s blood / Swift-flying Pegasus and his brother sprang’.

What we can only guess at, and where the myth opens itself up for creative re-workings and re-imaginings, is how much of her former self is left following the transformation. Is she also a monster in her mind, does she kill for pleasure or vengeance? Or – much worse – is her mind left untainted by her physical transformation so that she is horribly aware of her own hideousness and of her isolation from every living thing? She is exiled to a deserted island, but nothing can live in proximity to her in any case – she will forever turn to stone those she gazes upon. She is utterly alone. Those who venture near her island are the would-be-heroes who seek to destroy her for their own glory. Her lair is littered with stone statues, the grisly remains of the men who tried to kill her. Her very name has become synonymous with the monster, as is evident in the frequent use of the definite article when reference is made to her: the Medusa.

To get some idea of how Medusa features in a twenty-first century consciousness, you could do worse than start with a Google images search. Clearly, the Medusa still appeals to many. There are imaginative attempts to appropriate this figure and situate her within various discourses, but this inevitably entails some changes to the existing myth: the most obvious alteration is that the majority of Medusa-images thrown up by a search retain her trademark snakes but do away with the hideous visage. My guess is that Medusa’s power is attractive but her monster-face is not, so in the spirit having one’s cake and eating it, many of the images feature a beautiful face topped with glossy snakes that have somehow settled into an attractive hair-do. It’s a watered-down Medusa to suit those who want to be powerful and pretty.

The sadness of a lonely Medusa can also be found in images here and there:

Sad Medusa

(Artist is ‘Mattchew’. Visit the thread for a detailed blow-by-blow discussion of how the picture was created – it’s really interesting!)

And I’m afraid a very, very large number of Medusa images are quite simply pornographic. I’m guessing these are pictures produced by men, but this isn’t entirely fair because after all, Rhianna must have agreed to those distressingly tasteless photographs for GQ. I’m not posting any of those images here. If you want to see them, look them up yourself, because I’m afraid this sort of thing really gets my back up. Medusa is a killer, a slayer of men, a potent though possibly not entirely uncomplicated symbol of female power: to reimagine her in a pornographic light is quite simply to drag her back into the realms of male fantasy and the discourse of woman-as-sexual-object. Boooooooooring.

Let’s move on to take a look at how Medusa features in films. In the original Clash of the Titans (1981), a stop-motion Medusa is hideous and deadly:

I saw this in the cinema several times when it first appeared and I can still remember how my heart thudded through these scenes. The finale is unbearably tense: the quiet stillness of the hero; his face gradually becoming beaded with sweat; the focus on his hand as he tightens his grip on the sword; the slithering sound and warning rattle that accompany Medusa’s slow progress – all of this made my ten-year-old palms sweat, and it’s a far more effective climactic battle than that of the noisy 2010 remake:

Yawn. Noise, running around, slow-motion leaping, endless CGI, more noise, more impossible movement – it’s all very macho and very silly. It even has a rather pointless noble sacrifice. It’s all straight out of Churn-‘Em-Out Scripts ‘R Us. The Medusa herself is ugly/beautiful by turns (mostly beautiful). Daft. But nowhere near as daft as the Medusa in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (also 2010):

This is just awful. I couldn’t bear to watch any more than this tiny clip, even though Uma Thurman is beautiful enough to take your breath away. This Medusa is beautiful all the time, and what’s more, she has retained her female form – no slithering along the floor for Uma. But no matter how much the hero tries to appear scared, watching him running around a garden centre just isn’t going to make my palms sweat. And in this version, the Medusa’s victims have been reconfigured as naff garden ornaments. No no no. Nope.

But what is different here is that Medusa has a voice. She’s not supposed to, of course – she’s supposed to have a forked tongue following her transformation – but she talks here. In 1981, she couldn’t say a word, she just rattled and hissed. In 2010, she either does a lot of laughing and screaming or she engages in a bit of psychological warfare by taunting her intended victim. This brings me to the title of this post, because both Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Olen Butler have given the Medusa a voice and I’d like to briefly discuss here the differences in those voices.

Medusa with fingers

(Artist: Giovanni Mazzi)

The texts under consideration are taken from Duffy’s The World’s Wife and Butler’s Severance. Duffy’s text is a poem which forms part of a series of poems imagined to have been written by the wives of various biblical, mythical or fictional males (for example, Queen Herod, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Faust), but there are one or two real wives in there as well: Mrs Darwin, Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife). You can read the whole text here.

Duffy’s poem is structured thematically into two groups of three six-line stanzas, followed by a final stanza and then one line on its own. The first group of three deals with her transformation, and everything is heavily metaphorical: here she is not the Medusa of myth, but the bride of a philandering husband. The snakes are her jealous suspicions: ‘my thoughts / hissed and spat on my scalp’. The transformation is wrought by herself in something akin to self-harm, a physical manifestation of her mental anguish, and she projects her tortured psyche onto the landscape when she begins to turn things to stone.

The second group of three shows us her growing power through a series of repetitive shifts: ‘I glanced at / I looked at / I stared at’. Glances become looks become stares. The looks which destroy become longer and more deliberate: a glance can be performed almost unintentionally, but not so a stare. Her victims, too, become larger and larger in size as her power grows: bee—bird—cat—pig—dragon. And in the last six-line stanza, we meet her next (final?) victim: ‘And here you come’ (my emphasis). The last line of the poem, the line that stands alone, has both a declarative and an imperative function, with a different meaning for each: ‘Look at me now.’ In a declarative sense, the presupposed meaning in context is that she is asking her husband to compare her present ugliness with her former beauty. As an imperative, she is ordering the man to look at her so she can turn him to stone. As a riff on the theme of female vengeance, it’s pretty good.


(Artist: Ubbo Enninga)

Butler’s text is a prose poem from his book Severance, the premise of which is as follows. Apparently a head remains conscious for 90 seconds after decapitation, and, given that we can speak at 160 words per minute when sufficiently excited, a severed head should be able to produce 240 words before death is absolute. Butler has written sixty-two prose poems, all imagined to have been the words produced by the decapitated heads of sixty-two persons, the last of which is Butler himself. So far, so good: Butler and Duffy have done the same thing – putting words into the mouths (dead or alive) of various mythical / historical / fictional figures. Butler’s gruesome set-up is intriguing for a while, but I’m afraid it palls very quickly, not least because of the secondary fixation with 240 words delivered in 90 seconds: this means that all the prose poems are rapid stream-of-consciousness affairs with very little punctuation so after a while you feel as if you’re reading the same breathless monologue over and over, especially when most of them seem to run along a theme of How Much I Liked Sex When I Was Alive. Here’s the whole thing:

dreaming, surely I dream now: I can still shake my hair down long and billowing like waves upon the sea, how tender I am how fair I can see in the reflection of water and shield and a man’s eyes, and this softer hair makes no difference I still turn a man to stone who looks at me, the part of him that snakes inside me, a clefting of stone, and my body weeps the sea, pours forth the thickest sea for my god-man Poseidon who smells of brine and the great swimming creatures who attend him scaled and heavy wet limbs about me and that bitch Athena thinks her temple defiled but it was he who came to me and leaned his trident upon her marble face and dripped upon her floor, she tries to hurt me but I love my living hair these serpents whisper when men come close each strand with a split tongue hissing my desire for them I shake my dear children my tresses down and they curl back up their black eyes flashing and the man cries out at my beauty and then his tongue and face and chest and arms and thighs and his toad-headed serpent all turn hard forever the clearing before my cave is thronged with them my admirers, but my children are my true loves rooted in my brain and gathered sleeping against my face muttering sibilant dreams of love

For Butler, Medusa’s snakes are not vindictive thoughts, but penises. Of course. It’s taken me this long to get around to mentioning the phallic qualities of the snake, although I could have mentioned it when I was discussing the pornographic Medusas earlier. Butler’s Medusa is surrounded by stone admirers who are permanently hard for her. Poseidon is now a former lover rather than a rapist, and Medusa’s voice is not an angry one: she believes herself still beautiful and she is full of love for her children, the snakes. I could be generous and say this poem is a celebration of female sexuality, but frankly, it reads more like a love-affair with the penis that a male writer would imagine women to have. Poseidon even has a (phallic) trident that he leans against Athena’s marble face in the temple – but I must admit, I quite liked that bit.

So, Duffy’s Medusa is a woman rendered hideous and vindictive by long-standing neglect and ill-treatment, and Butler’s Medusa is in love with men’s trouser-snakes. Medusa was always a figure that was going to divide the sexes, and we have a perfect example of it here. For me, I will always cherish the terrifying monster of 1981, because let’s not forget, in that film Medusa’s severed head destroys the Kraken – thus saving the lovely Andromeda. Hooray!

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Butler, Robert Olen (2008). Severance. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Duffy, Carol Ann (1999). The World’s Wife. London: Picador.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986). World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Roman names in Ovid, Greek names used in this post.]

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