A recent example of cultural degeneracy has taken centre stage. A brazen and provocative perversion of the classical Hellenic myth of Medusa was unveiled close to the City Courthouse in New York.
In this time of increasing social unrest and volatile political controversy, this statue malignantly depicts the nude femme fatale wielding a sword, with the decapitated head of the great hero Perseus in tow.[i] To see this melancholic inversion of the Greek myth is grotesque.
While some may argue that the statue is a “modern,” appropriate and progressive commentary on the nature of justice as it ideally pertains to the legal prosecution of rapists, for example, this erroneous and deliberate subversion of the classical myth is little other than the attempt to romanticize an inherently macabre idea. All spiritual value, literary context, and underlying symbolism are hastily discarded in favour of a swift fabrication of a modern, politically charged narrative.
Despite this egregious misrepresentation of classical culture, it serves as no surprise to the culturally literate admirer of Hellenic glory. The great Hesiod himself had sternly warned of such degradation of high culture and civilization almost three millennia ago in his Works and Days:
For now, truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night, and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils…The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost [for] their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for good, but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right, and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis [shame of wrongdoing and indignation against the wrongdoer], with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake humankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men. There will be no help against evil. [sic][ii]
This dire prediction of the collapse of culture and moral purpose appears all too reminiscent of our reality now than that in Hesiod’s day. His age is arguably deemed by many to be a time in which the pinnacle of Western civilization was cultivated from the raw materials of ambition, piety, philosophy, and tradition.
The modern dismissal of spiritual purpose in the hubristic pursuit of materialistic atheism cannot succeed, however vehemently it may attempt to do so, to escape the mythological narrative. Rather it inevitably returns, to fashion for itself an altogether blasphemous inversion of sacred truths, as well as traditions and mythological motifs: to sardonically scoff at the foundations of culture which have rendered human progress possible in the West.
However precarious the rebellious outbursts of the modern left-wing, revisionist, hedonistic pseudo-culture, it is impossible to placate, and this particular statue is far from an isolated example. We might likewise look to the recent unapologetic display of obnoxious debauchery that took the form of a naked woman taunting law enforcement during a Portland riot that was mockingly deemed “Naked Athena”–a phrase which altogether is intended to subvert the traditionally modest and discerning demeanour of the goddess of wisdom and warfare.
A plethora of fallacies run amok in this argument regarding the myth of Perseus and Medusa. I shall address these contentious points in succinct three parts, of which this is the first:
- the historical and mythological inaccuracies of the argument,
- the authentic mythological implications of the parable, and
- the larger cultural implications of these deliberate subversions.
Here I will focus upon the first point and address the inaccuracies surrounding the myth.
First and foremost, it must be fundamentally addressed that these errors are so blatantly obvious and swiftly refuted through observation of the myths themselves, that only one who is altogether unfamiliar with the Hellenic poets and possesses no authentically inquisitive nature to ascertain the truth regarding them, would confidently declare such assertions.
- A) Medusa is not sexually assaulted in the Hellenic myths. In Hesiod’s Theogony, the primary creation myth of Hellenic culture, she is not transformed into a Gorgon, rather, is born one. She is one of three primordial sisters born to the sea deities Ceto and Phorcys. Additionally, Hesiod records the following description of their encounter:
“With her lay the Dark-haired One[Poseidon] in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.”
The mention of Medusa in Apollodorus’ The Library provides an account of her physical description when encountered by Perseus:
And have also received from Hermes an adamantine sickle he [Perseus] flew to the ocean and caught the Gorgons asleep. They were Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. Now Medusa alone was mortal; for that reason, Perseus was sent to fetch her head. But the Gorgons had heads twined about with the scales of dragons, and great tusks like swine’s [sic], and brazen hands, and golden wings, by which they flew; and they turned to stone such as beheld them. So Perseus stood over them as they slept, and while Athena guided his hand and he looked with averted gaze on a brazen shield, in which he beheld the image of the Gorgon, he beheaded her. When her head was cut off, there sprang from the Gorgon the winged horse Pegasus and Chrysaor, the father of Geryon; these she had by Poseidon.
The description here is consistent within the context of Hesiod: the Gorgons are depicted as primordial entities which possess a sphere of influence over the less organized forces of chaos, in explicit contrast to the harmonious and orderly divinity of the Olympians.
A fascinating excerpt is included within Apollodorus’ account of the Gorgon:
“…he gave back the sandals and the wallet and the cap to Hermes, but the Gorgon’s head he gave to Athena. Hermes restored the aforesaid things to the nymphs and Athena inserted the Gorgon’s head in the middle of her shield. But it is alleged by some that Medusa was beheaded for Athena’s sake, and they say that the Gorgon was fain[pleased] to match herself with the goddess even in beauty.”
The implication here is that Medusa was beheaded for two reasons; first, as a necessary condition for Perseus on his heroic journey, and second, as a consequence of hubris. This is similar to other myths concerning prideful women who encountered Athena.
- B) The only mention which refers to the rape of Medusa is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Despite the text serving as an exhaustive compendium of the various Hellenic and Roman myths, the literary context may be properly understood only within the framework of Ovid’s motivation for recording them: He lacks the piety that invigorated the works of Homer and Hesiod altogether and instead wrote with a sardonic commentary. Edith Hamilton notes Ovid’s bitter declaration of his opinion on the myths:
“‘I prate of ancient poets’ monstrous lies,
Ne’er saw or now or then by human eyes.’
…in his hands, the stories which were factual truth and solemn truth to the early Greek poets Hesiod and Pindar, and vehicles of deep religious truth to the Greek tragedians, become idle tales, sometimes witty and diverting, often sentimental and distressingly rhetorical. The Greek mythologists are not rhetoricians and are notably free from sentimentality.”
The Hellenes’ sense of reverence and contemplation upon the spiritual implications of the myths are absent from Ovid, who prefers a theatrically dramatic connotation. Although it was a Roman who crafted this intricate form of mythological writing that would later serve as an inevitable distortion of the Hellenic mythos, another Roman, Sallustius, would later correct these erroneous interpretations three and a half centuries later.
Despite this, the mythological errors set forth by Ovid that were likely inspired by the rise of Christianity during his lifetime, as well as his expulsion from the Roman empire, persist today. In addressing these points, and acknowledging the Hellenic authors and poets as the rightful literary authorities on the subject, we can begin to observe the mythological implications of Perseus and Medusa and begin to answer the question as to why such an easily refuted mischaracterization has taken a front and centre role in our present culture wars. [iii]
[ii] Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by Evelyn-White, H G. Loeb Classical Library Volume 57. London: William Heinemann, 1914. Author’s emphasis