Current events which have my young children asking me why the news keeps talking about people grabbing cats (!), has made me return to Greek myths I was thinking about last semester. In recent years, myth courses have been the subject of musing about trigger warnings for their depiction of sexual violence (among other things). And while many classicists, including myself, often chortle at the idea, the campaign discourse and public discussion has made me rethink the way we talk about sexual violence and myth.
Let’s be clear: in the ancient world, mythical discourse emerged from and helped to reinforce a world that normalized sexual violence. If we teach myth in any way that does not make this clear almost every day, we are simply engaging in rarified “locker room” talk. Such ‘male’ discourse, as the following retelling of Medusa implies, leads to sexual violence. Period.
(from Pausanias, 2.21.6)
“A mound of earth is not far from a building in the Argive marketplace. People claim the head of the Gorgon Medusa lies here. Leaving aside the myth, here are the other things said about her. She was a daughter of Phorkos and, after her father died, she ruled those who lived near Lake Tritôn, going forth to hunt and leading the Libyans in war. When she was in camp with the army against Perseus who was followed by selected troops from the Peloponnese, she was deviously murdered at night. Perseus, who was amazed at her beauty, even in a corpse, cut off her head and took it to display to the Greeks.”
τοῦ δὲ ἐν τῇ ἀγορᾷ τῶν ᾿Αργείων οἰκοδομήματος οὐ μακρὰν χῶμα γῆς ἐστιν· ἐν δὲ αὐτῷ κεῖσθαι τὴν Μεδούσης λέγουσι τῆς Γοργόνος κεφαλήν. ἀπόντος δὲ τοῦ μύθου τάδε ἄλλα ἐς αὐτήν ἐστιν εἰρημένα· Φόρκου μὲν θυγατέρα εἶναι, τελευτήσαντος δέ οἱ τοῦ πατρὸς βασιλεύειν τῶν περὶ τὴν λίμνην τὴν Τριτωνίδα οἰκούντων καὶ ἐπὶ θήραν τε ἐξιέναι καὶ ἐς τὰς μάχας ἡγεῖσθαι τοῖς Λίβυσι καὶ δὴ καὶ τότε ἀντικαθημένην στρατῷ πρὸς τὴν Περσέως δύναμιν—ἕπεσθαι γὰρ καὶ τῷ Περσεῖ λογάδας ἐκ Πελοποννήσου—δολοφονηθῆναι νύκτωρ, καὶ τὸν Περσέα τὸ κάλλος ἔτι καὶ ἐπὶ νεκρῷ θαυμάζοντα οὕτω τὴν κεφαλὴν ἀποτεμόντα αὐτῆς ἄγειν τοῖς ῞Ελλησιν ἐς ἐπίδειξιν.
The Byzantine Suda has its own take on the legend. It is not less misogynistic:
“Medousa: She is also called Gorgonê. Perseus, the son of Danae and Pêkos, after learning every kind of magical display, because he wanted to establish his own kingdom, made plans against the realm of the Medes. And so, after he travelled over much land, he saw a maiden who was intelligent and ugly and, as he looked away from her, he asked “who are you” and she said, “Medousa”. He cut off her head and prepared it as he had been taught and held it up. He made everyone panic and killed those who witnessed it. He called this head the Gorgonê because of the sharpness of its power.
From there, he went to the land ruled by Kêpheus and found a virgin girl in a temple who was named Andromeda and whom he married. He founded a city in this country called Amandra and set up a pillar which held the Gorgonê. This was called the Ikonion and, because of the object, the Gorgonê. He then made war against the Isaurians, the Kilikians and he founded a city which he called Tarsos, which before was called Andrasos. He had received a prophecy that after the victory he should found a city and name it Tarsos in thanks for the victory in the place where he put the flat of his foot [tarsos] in when he got off his horse.
After conquering the Medes, he changed the name of their country and called it Persis. He taught some of the Persians whom he named Magi the mystery rite which he had performed with the Gorgonê. At that time, a ball of fire whirled from the heaven. Perseus took some of it and gave it to some of the tribe to guard and honor because it had been hurled from heaven.
Then he waged war on Kêpheus, whom old age left blind and dull in the dead, because he thought the Gorgonê was now useless But when Perseus campaigned against him and saw [Medousa’s head] he died. Later on, Merros, Perseus’ son, burned the head.”
Μέδουσα: ἡ καὶ Γοργόνη κληθεῖσα. Περσεύς, ὁ Δανάης καὶ Πήκου υἱός, διδαχθεὶς πάσας τὰς μυστικὰς φαντασίας, ἰδίαν βουλόμενος ἑαυτῷ καταστῆσαι βασιλείαν κατεφρόνησε τῆς τῶν Μήδων· καὶ διὰ πολλῆς ἐρχόμενος γῆς εἶδε παρθένον κόρην αὐχμηράν τε καὶ δυσειδῆ, καὶ ἀποβλέψας εἰς αὐτὴν ἐρωτᾷ, τίς καλεῖται· ἡ δὲ εἶπε, Μέδουσα, καὶ ἀποτεμὼν αὐτῆς τὴν κεφαλὴν ἐτέλεσεν αὐτὴν ὡς ἐδιδάχθη, καὶ ἐβάσταζε, καταπλήττων πάντας καὶ ἀναιρῶν τοὺς ὁρῶντας· ἥν τινα κεφαλὴν ἐκάλεσε Γοργόνην, διὰ τὴν ὀξύτητα τῆς ἐνεργείας.
ἐκεῖθεν δὲ ἐλθὼν εἰς χώραν βασιλευομένην ὑπὸ Κηφέως εὗρεν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ παρθένον κόρην, τὴν λεγομένην ᾿Ανδρομέδαν, ἣν ἔγημε· καὶ κτίζει πόλιν εἰς κώμην, λεγομένην ῎Αμανδραν, στήσας καὶ στήλην βαστάζουσαν τὴν Γοργόνην. αὕτη μετεκλήθη ᾿Ικόνιον, διὰ τὸ ἀπεικόνισμα τῆς Γοργόνης. ἐπολέμησε δὲ καὶ ᾿Ισαύροις καὶ Κίλιξι καὶ κτίζει πόλιν, ἣν ἐκάλεσε Ταρσόν, το πρὶν λεγομένην ᾿Ανδρασόν. χρηματισθεὶς δέ, ὅτι μετὰ τὴν νίκην ἐν ᾧ τόπῳ ἀποβὰς ἀπὸ τοῦ ἵππου τὸν ταρσὸν τοῦ ποδὸς ἀπόθηται, ἐκεῖ ὑπὲρ τῶν νικητηρίων κτίσαι πόλιν,ταύτην οὖν ἐκάλεσε Ταρσόν.
νικήσας δὲ καὶ τοὺς Μήδους ἤμειψε τὸ ὄνομα τῆς χώρας καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτὴν Περσίδα. ἐδίδαξε δὲ καὶ τὴν μυσαρὰν τελετὴν τὴν ἐπὶ τῇ Γοργόνῃ τινὰς τῶν Περσῶν, οὓς ἐκάλεσε μάγους. καθ’ οὓς χρόνους καὶ σφαῖρα πυρὸς κατηνέχθη ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, ἐξ ἧς ἔλαβε πῦρ ὁ Περσεὺς καὶ παρέδωκε τοῖς τοῦ ἔθνους φυλάττειν καὶ τιμᾶν, ὡς ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατενεχθέν. συμβαλὼν δὲ πόλεμον τῷ Κηφεῖ, τοῦ δὲ διὰ τὸ γῆρας μὴ βλέποντος καὶ τῆς κεφαλῆςμὴ ἐνεργούσης, δοκῶν αὐτὴν ἀνωφελῆ εἶναι, ἐπιστρέψας πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ὁ Περσεὺς καὶ ταύτην θεασάμενος ἀποθνήσκει. ταύτην ὕστερον ἔκαυσεν ὁ υἱὸς αὐτοῦ Μέρρος.