Homer, Iliad 11.36-37
“And set on the shield as a crown was a grim-faced Gorgon, glaring fiercely”
τῇ δ’ ἐπὶ μὲν Γοργὼ βλοσυρῶπις ἐστεφάνωτο / δεινὸν δερκομένη…
The Gorgon’s face is one of the most recognizable symbols from antiquity, adorning everything from vases and cups to temple pediments and metopes to confront the viewer with her petrifying stare and snaky ropes of hair. While the apotropaic function of the Gorgon is usually attributed to the directness of her gaze (one that is highly unusual in Greek art), depictions of Gorgons–including their most famous representative, Medusa–in archaic art frequently include an additional provocation in the form of a tongue.
Long and lolling, often poised between vicious-looking canine teeth, this aspect of the Gorgons’ iconography has conventionally been interpreted as a way to enhance her grotesqueness. Over time, however, depictions of the Gorgon shifted dramatically to portray these figures with typically feminine, even beautiful, features while retaining her uncompromisingly confrontational gaze. You can see a great timeline visualizing this evolution on the MET website.
The ubiquity of the Gorgon’s tongue in archaic art has always intrigued me. That this feature of her iconography is unique to this period, and a feature unique to the Gorgon in particular, makes it all the more intriguing, as it suggests a fleeting but pervasive mode of representing female transgressiveness. The Gorgon’s tongue made me wonder about the significance of this gesture: why would a stuck-out tongue be characteristic of a female monster? After all, in contemporary iconography (I’m thinking here especially of emojis) a stuck-out tongue is correlated most often with silliness and disinhibition, a response to the goofy or outrageous.
Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to think of counterexamples. We, especially as children, might stick out our tongues in response to something offensive or unwelcome. And, of course, the gesture in the right context may appear sexually charged. A good illustration of the latter comes in the form of Miley Cyrus, a figure who, like the Gorgon, also exhibits a dramatic shift in her public image.
Google “Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance” and the prevailing image that will turn up is one that sees Cyrus bent over against co-performer Robin Thicke, clad in flesh-toned latex bustier and shorts, her tongue stuck out sharply, complementing the two spiky buns above her brow. The performance drew shock and condemnation, not least because of the transformation it evinced in the former Disney Channel darling.
Like Cyrus, the evolving image of Medusa calcified in ancient art is also a testament to transformation. As Ovid relates (Met. 4.793-803), Medusa was formerly a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena and punished by the goddess with her snaky hair. While earlier accounts like that of Hesiod (Theog. 270-6) suggest that Medusa was born to her distinctive form, the Ovidian narrative connects Medusa’s sexuality and desirability–and Athena’s savage punishment of this–with the transformation in her appearance.
Likewise, Cyrus’ performance cast her in a sexually-charged role that drove home her evolution from Disney Channel PG fame. While Cyrus later said in an interview that her hairstyle was consciously infantilizing, it was hard for me not to see those spiky buns in conjunction with Medusa’s similarly unconventional and distinctive hairdo.
Why, then, would a stuck-out tongue define such a transformation? On the one hand, it is provocative, a function that seems at odds with the archaic Gorgon’s apotropaic power. But coupled with her fierce, frontal gaze, the Gorgon’s visage forces viewers into a confrontation. As some would characterize Cyrus’ performance, the Gorgon’s ferocious visage is similarly nothing if not transgressive.
And it is the tongue, I think, for both Cyrus and the Gorgon, that embodies this quality. A stuck-out tongue reaches out into the space between viewer and viewed. The tongue, after all, is the only part of the body that can easily be extended out of its natural confines. Thus, unlike the eyes, it is vividly visceral. In this sense, the petrifying effects associated with the Gorgon’s gaze gain clearer significance. While her face is safely rendered in paint or stone, her eyes and tongue can still serve to confront the viewer with a reminder of their fleshy corporeality. The tongue, in particular, serves as a gesture of defiance against the medium in which the Gorgon’s gaze has been fixed.
Cyrus’ performance, too, can be interpreted as an act of defiance against the public image she had accrued earlier in her career. More specifically, her exaggerated facial and bodily expressions make the viewer aware that they are viewing her like an object. This is a dynamic that meets active resistance in the display she created at the VMAs, one that works to displace the previous image of Cyrus that each viewer brings to their perspective on her performance.
Amy Lather is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek aesthetics, hence her fascination with the Gorgon’s tongue. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.