Medusa the Feminist VS Athena the Misogynist

I honestly thought that the next entry I posted was going to say, “Sorry, I’m done with this blog. See you in a few years!” But then someone sent me an email asking me to fix my entry on Medusa to reflect that Medusa was raped by Poseidon and thus the punishment was deeply unjust.

Medusa, by CaravaggioI thought about it. The emailer was correct that the word Ovid uses to describe their sexual intercourse does not emphasize consent. But, in the end I decided not to for two reasons: 1) I’m pretty sure Ovid considered Medusa responsible for the sex, and that is not a description of rape I am comfortable with, and 2) having re-read Ovid’s version, I now think that Medusa is an awesome resister of the patriarchy!

There is a third possible reason as well, namely that earlier versions of the myth describe “laying together in a soft meadow among spring flowers” and even Ovid later describes this event as a “mingling of soft embraces.” This could easily outweigh the one word “vitiasse” (which I have arbitrarily decided to translated as “spoiled”). But the reality is, I don’t think we SHOULD write off “vitiasse.” In fact, quite the opposite! I think that Ovid is making the point that Poseidon “spoiled” Medusa for marriage. I mean, Ovid’s whole introduction to this is about what a hot potential wife Medusa was! This would have been considered illegal for both parties in ancient Rome, which helps explain why Ovid continues that Athena’s mutation of Medusa was a punishment of her “filthy crime.”

Medusa, by R. Scott TerrySo, if you believe as Ovid appeared to that Medusa was complicit and responsible for this whole sexy-sex with Poseidon (which, for those who don’t remember the details of the story, took place in the temple of Athena), then Medusa is not the kind of victim that a current reading of the word “rape” might suggest. Instead, she becomes this totally awesome radical damn-the-man feminist! She says, “F* you, suitors, maybe I just want to have sex with a cute guy instead of sitting inside your women’s quarters for the rest of my life!” She says, “F* you, you daddy-loving, girl-power-hating Goddess! Maybe I don’t think you or any other representation of the system should get to decide where or with whom I get it on!” And, yeah, she totally suffers the consequence of breaking the rules, and, yeah, she is totally turned into this awful threat to women of “this is what happens to women who sleep with sexy men when they should be the property of their fathers,” but DAMN if she doesn’t go down fighting. Looking at it with a BIT of a revisionist eye, she lives out the rest of her life fighting against those “heroes” of patriarchal Greece. Even sitting on Athena’s shield should remind you of the dangerous power of a woman who decides to stop accepting the sexist rules and strikes out to do what she will!

Go Medusa!


12 responses to “Medusa the Feminist VS Athena the Misogynist”


  2. We miss you Alia.

  3. All of this merely depends on the way Ovid told the story, and his own opinions. So if you are suggesting that though he cruelly condemned her unfairly, she still acted as womynyst fighting the evil Phallocracy, it’s inconsistent with how Ovid is writing the story and thinking about the issues. And if you’re suggesting that Ovid was secretly a feminist trying to empower women through portraying casual sex, you raise an equally absurd point that I truly hope I don’t have to explain.

    Also, I should like to ask you why is it so many women get into Philology and Classical Studies only to rail about how evil all the writers were, all the negative things women suffered and generally read sexism into everything you touch only ever talking about the same things over and over? One would imagine you do this merely to indulge your own hatred.

    Perhaps you might consider that some of us genuinely enjoy the literature and languages with out being members of the diabolical male manocracy. And you might also consider that you could bash the sexism of men in the modern world and actually DO something about all the evils you protest instead of sitting around bitching all day.

  4. Hi Darel! What a fantastic comment!

    It seems like there’s a couple of things that aren’t as obvious as I’d hoped they were in this post. The person who emailed me was looking for a story that would reflect how women are victimized by rapists, because she wanted to connect with an ancient myth in that way. It was meaningful to her. Personally, I don’t find the victimization of women too empowering, so I wasn’t particularly excited about that. But, happy for me, Ovid’s Medusa myth demonstrates that she is not a passive agentless victim at all! For Ovid, the point might have been, “hey, you women, you better follow the rules or you’ll be turned into a Gorgon and eventually killed by a studly hero,” but MY point is that Medusa may have lost the battle, but she was still a strong character. Personally, I can CONNECT with that kind of a character more than one who appears strong (like Athena), but actually just supports her dad. So, no, I’m not suggesting that Ovid was secretly a feminist, NOR am I railing against the patriarchy that was ancient Greece. I am, in fact, celebrating a fucking awesome character.

    I’m interested to understand why it is exactly that you think that I think Ovid was evil. I think Ovid was awesome. He told awesome stories in a way that gives us some really entertaining insights into a culture that is still so meaningful to us today that we STILL care about connecting to the myths. I wrote a post celebrating an awesome character, you read it as a complaint about the writer. Maybe the reason you think we are “talking about the same things over and over” is actually that you are misreading the same things over and over? Just a thought.

    Also, I’m so glad you brought up the point about the sexism of men in the modern world. You might not have noticed, but this blog is actually not about sexism in the modern world (which is why I don’t blog here about what I do about it), but what might SHOCK you is that DESPITE that sexism, I still LIKE living in the modern world. Just like, despite the patriarchy of modern Greece, I still LOVE ancient Greek myths. Which is why I’ve spent 14 years maintaining a website on them. And why I majored in it. And why I can happily report that reading the Iliad in Greek was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

    What’s really sad is that you appear to think that in order to enjoy all these things, you have to erase the historical social inequality. Or perhaps you just think we should just enjoy the elements of literature about men? I am happy to report that my (white male) professors didn’t see it the same way as you, and my sense of what those myths might have meant to their original recipients is pretty deeply rooted in a good sense of who might have been hearing them. It’s a wayyyyy more interesting read when you bother to learn the history – you should check some of it out!

  5. Pussy, King of Pirates Avatar
    Pussy, King of Pirates

    RE: Darel

    A couple of problems with your post:

    “if you’re suggesting that Ovid was secretly a feminist trying to empower women through portraying casual sex, you raise an equally absurd point that I truly hope I don’t have to explain.”

    There are two possible interpretations to your comment:

    1. Ovid was not attempting to empower women, this is true that would be the point of interpretation

    2. casual sex is irreconcilable with feminism, this means that you obviously lack a background in the subject and should probably not speak on it.

    As for the rest of your post, you sound like you washed out of a program because of a sexual harassment charge and now have a serious problem with female scholars. While certainly the entirety of studying any discipline should not be railing against the prevalent sexism of source materials written in patriarchal societies, it does not seem necessary to conclude that it should be ignored.

  6. Darel Pates Avatar
    Darel Pates

    To respond to the second person first:

    My point was exactly that casual sex does nothing to empower anyone, which possibly has something to do with my calling the whole idea absurd.

    And an ad hominem attack does everything to invalidate any kind of legitimate argument you had to make.

    To the actual author:

    Thank you for remaining civil. To the point of your first paragraph, I say that is fair enough; she is interesting. However, I would like to add that I do not think Ovid was particularly interested in making his poem didactic or moralizing. Granted most Romans were overly fixated on that, but Ovid differed greatly from most Romans poets.

    To the second, we don’t seem to be fully understanding one another (I concede that and apologize). I didn’t mean to imply that Ovid was evil. I was being sarcastic there. Ovid’s the ONLY Roman poet I actually will say I love. Others I like, but as far as I’m concerned, they mostly badly imitated the Greeks.

    I am also not suggesting that all female Classicists are hung up on this, but that there are who are never stop talking about it. This vitriol absolutely does exist among Classicists. It can be equally said that there is sexism in our department, too, especially given the natural conservatism therein. The difference is it’s much easier to denounce sexism against women instead of against men.

    And to your final point, you make an over generalization. Do not assume that because attacks an aspect of feminism that he ignores all sexism. Yes, there is legitimate sexism among this, and no you shouldn’t just ignore historical context, but to get overly caught up in them is equally foolish. We can’t apply historical context to many aspects of the works of Ovid, Sappho, Vergil, Hesiod, etc. We simply do not have a complete history. In some cases we have none.

    And this brings me what I was MOST trying to get across: applying modern social thinking to ancient societies is folly. We think of defiance as necessarily a good thing. Sometimes the ancients did, sometimes they didn’t. Unless we have serious evidence of what OVID or any other thought, it is foolhardy to speculate about how he saw a character. And often, in trying to construct histories and charts and explanations for a piece of literature, we miss the point, which was not about anything social, but explicitly stated:

    in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
    corpora; di coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
    adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
    ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen

  7. Hey Darel,

    It’s been a while – at least partly because my comments crashed. I want to respond to two points:

    1) applying modern social thinking to ancient stories is folly


    2) female Classicists are hung up on patriarchy

    Here we go:
    1) If your goal is to understand ancient Greece, it is folly. But, honestly, that’s not most people’s goal. Most people who like Greek myths are into them because they feel they speak to elements of their own contemporary lives. In which case applying ANCIENT thinking becomes folly. There are plenty of instances in which I am totally down for understanding ancient Greece. This post, however, is obviously not about that. Women like me SHOULD be able to think about these myths with regard to their own lives and what they can take from it, and I hope that I can help them do that interpretation in a way that is grounded in better scholarship.

    2) In fact, it’s not just women. I am happy to report that my (as I mentioned above, white, male, straight) professors were extremely interested in gender and sexuality. But none of us were interested in whining, as your post seems to suggest, so much as actually understanding what was happening in ancient Greece and Rome. Sometimes it seems like we have JUST enough to titillate us but never enough to draw really clear conclusions. I myself find the gender relationships (especially the power relations) extremely interesting, and honestly, the part of the ancient Greek world I am most invested in engaging with. That doesn’t make me a bad Classicist, or one that misses the point, it just means that I have a different focus from you.

    I will add that comments like the above that “it’s much easier to denounce sexism against women instead of against men” make you sound less like a scholar and more like an uninformed amateur, but I respect that you are engaging with this despite your lack of background in the field.

    I don’t know that you’ll check back and see this, but if you do, I’d be open to continuing the conversation.


  8. I’m linking to your page, I hope you don’t mind.

    And yes these are nice reads! I chance upon your blog while searching for “Echo” and I love it. Keep it up! I’m writing my blog even though no one reads them… like no one at all. Ha~ And you are awesome!!

  9. Hey Alia,

    I keep checking back to see if my favorite blogger picked up the electronic quill and went back to work. 🙁

    I’ve got a proposal – if you would like to blog here and there but don’t really want to keep doing it here, you can always use Bubo’s Blog as a place to blog. You would add some much needed class to my site and could either do the well informed long blogs like you have been doing, or just hit some short little blogs like I tend to do. You are unlimited. If you’re interested, just e-mail me and I’ll send you the sign on info and you can do it anytime you’d like. This way you could blog without feeling like you have to do it.

  10. I didn’t get an email, so I didn’t know you’d replied.

    And again with the personal attacks that do nothing to lessen the validity of my argument. Stating that there is a double standard regarding sexism may make it sound like an amateur in as much as it is something anyone could know. Maybe because it’s true. Have women had it worse? Sure. But that doesn’t excuse letting sexism cloud your judgment on an academic matter.

    I never denied that men will write about this topic, by the way. I think it’s irrelevant, regardless. No matter how you try justify it, you’re still applying anachronistic thinking to a society that wouldn’t really understand it to begin with. You are trying to force reality to be something it simply is not.

    Personally, I find it amusing to be called an amateur by someone who’s obviously more concerned with what other (modern) people have to say about the Greek and Latin than actually reading the entire works in their original language. Not an ad hominem, I see this as a legitimate problem among classicists today.

  11. Hi I was looking up Ovid and Medusa. I found an translation of Metamorphoses but I realized that the Metamorphoses is made up of several books I was wondering which one to read in connection with your blog post

  12. Mythology is here not only to tell us about the past, but also to let new symbols be born in modern minds. This is why I think this article is so important.
    I have several ideas on this myth. There are (as always) diferent versions of the story. One is where Medusa willingly had sex with Poseidon. The other one, where she was raped. In both versions, she’s transformed into a monster. In the first one, no matter how unfair it was to be turned into a monster, we must remember that as a priestess of Athena she had an agreement with her goddess. She broke a pact. It has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with not being true to her word (of course, Athena could have been a little softer). In the second version, it’s just awful. She is punished for being asaulted. This sounds a lot more like Athena, since she protected the partiarchal values and most likely thought “It was her fault”. It’s sad that such a smart goddess could be so insensitive to women’s pain.
    Anyway, I do believe that discussion is necesary when we talk about mythology. It is something that evolves and lives with humanity. It’s not something that belongs to the past.

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