We are the heroes of our own stories, which makes it easy to think that anyone who opposes us is a villain. To think, perhaps, that the libs are out to destroy the United States. Or, conversely, that right-wingers are undermining the social contracts of our country.
But to those people’s perspective, they’re the heroes. We might not be happy about their choices – I know I’m often not! – but other people are trying their best, too.
In a grocery store checkout lane in Chicago, I found myself talking to a cashier about their tattoos. They’d recently finished a tableau from Greek mythology across their back, a project that had taken years.
Because I’m both a mythology fan and an excessively earnest person, I asked this person about their favorite characters from Greek mythology.
“Well,” they said, “I’m really happy with the Medusa on my back.”
“Oh, cool!” I exclaimed. “Medusa is one of my favorites, too! Medusa and Arachne.”
“Well,” they said, momentarily abashed, “my tattoo has Perseus holding Medusa’s head.”
Medusa and Arachne are heroes who oppose the abuses of privilege & power. In a world of harmful traditions – deities who treat mortals as their playthings, who would never dream of asking for consent because human autonomy matters so little compared to the desires of a god – Medusa and Arachne fought back. Their cause appeared doomed from the beginning; nevertheless, they persisted.
Medusa was a beautiful young woman who worked in Athena’s temple, up until Athena’s uncle Poseidon broke into the temple and assaulted Medusa. Then Athena was angry that her temple had been defiled, and so she cursed Medusa to be so hideous that she’d turn onlookers to stone.
Athena, in her cruelty, wanted only to punish the victim, but even gods make mistakes: Medusa brandished her curse as though it were a gift, suddenly dangerous even to the gods.
Because Arachne was proud of her achievements as an artist, Athena challenged her to a competition. Although Arachne had no hope of wining a subjective contest against a god, judged by gods, she used the contest as an opportunity to convey a heretical message: that the lives of a lesser species are as inherently meaningful to them as the lives of gods are to gods. Her artwork depicted transgressions and wanton cruelty committed against us human animals by the divine.
Athena was enraged. How dare a mere nothing creature question her kind’s treatment at the hands of her superiors? The offending artwork was promptly destroyed; Arachne was cursed to live on in an even more loathesome form.
We humans would be just as irked if a cow or a lab rat began protesting the ways we’ve treated them.
In their interactions with Athena, both Medusa and Arachne are tragic heroes, victims who are punished further for having been victimized. As characters in their own right, they’re my favorites, clear champions of the powerless.
And yet, they exist within a whole universe of overlapping stories. As symbols, they can be interpreted in myriad ways.
In a subsequent myth, a wealthy aristocrat tried to rid himself of a nettlesome young man named Perseus by demanding that Perseus bring him a gift of Medusa’s severed head. But then Athena helped Perseus find & kill Medusa. And so Medusa as a symbol can represent almost any adversity. In her interaction with Perseus, she is simply an obstacle to be overcome. To Perseus, Medusa represents a troubled past, a looming calamity.
Symbols twist & shift as our perspective changes.
In Pulp Fiction (which I haven’t seen in almost two decades, worried that I’d now like it less), John Travolta spends much of the film as the hero. He charms viewers, saying “I gotta know what a five dollar shake tastes like” before taking a sip using Uma Thurman’s straw.
But in the scene when John Travolta dies, he’s irrelevant. Just a background prop. A villain. A symbol. At that moment, Bruce Willis is the hero, and we’re wrapped up in his perspective.
And then, because the episodes in Pulp Fiction are presented out of order, John Travolta is alive again. As soon as he returns to the screen, he’s the hero. His ignominious impending demise is irrelevant to our perception of his antics.
Medusa is not a monster; she is a victim.
Medusa is a monster; she has the power to stave off even gods.
Medusa is a monster; Perseus shows us that with faith and pluck, we too might triumph over adversity.
In stories, all can be true at once.
header image by Victoria Borodinova
photograph of marble statue of Perseus with Medusa’s head (carved by Antonio Canova) by Mary Harrsch
Medusa miniature sculpted collaboratively with my five-year-old on a day she had to stay home from school, following advice from Dinko Tilov in “Sculpting Mythical Creatures Out of Polymer Clay.”