Outside a New York City courthouse now stands a sculpture by Luciano Garbati, depicting the mythical Medusa, who was cursed with a gaze that turns all who look into her eyes into stone. In this rendering, she holds the decapitated head of the demigod Perseus in one hand and a sword, tip pointed at the earth, in the other. It is intended to subvert the classical story, in which Perseus beheaded her.
Like any myth worth its salt, there is more than one Medusa tale. Each is no less true than the other; all depends on who is doing the telling, and who is doing the listening. We know her largely because of Greco-Roman mythology, but according to the 5th century historian Herodotus, she was absorbed into their mindscapes from the Berber traditions of North Africa, where the snakes rooted and alive in her scalp were sacred. The goddess in some cultures became a monster in others.
It is not only because of the relationship to stone that Medusa’s story is like Ahalya’s, of the various Ramayanas. In the version we are mostly familiar with, via the poet Ovid, Medusa was a priestess of Athena. She was punished with snake locks and a fearsome appearance after being raped in the temple by another deity, Poseidon/Neptune. But then, the contemporary poem by Patricia Smith, in which Medusa didn’t mind at all that they “defiled that temple the way it should be defiled” is another way to see her. Even if seeing her comes with a consequence.
Similarly – perhaps Indra deceived and raped Ahalya, for which she was punished with petrification. His punishment was having his body covered by a thousand vaginas, which later turned into a thousand eyes upon worshipping the goddess Nagapooshani, over whom snake heads loom like a parasol. Ahalya, turned to stone, must wait for touch to free her.
But in ancient and medieval texts including Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara, Kamban’s Ramavataram and the Yoga Vasistha, as well as modern renderings, Ahalya knowingly and delightedly responds to the seduction. An S. Sivasekaram poem rues over why she chose a humiliated life over eternal life as a stone; in K.B. Sreedevi’s story Shilpe- rupini, she turns back into stone upon hearing of injustice done to Sita; in Sant Singh Sekhon’s play Kalakarshe invites Indra’s artistic gaze. In Sujoy Ghosh’s short film, she is a desirous woman, and accomplice to a darker greed.
To look upon desire with fear is to be unable to recognise what it is truly dangerous (and may come disguised as beauty). In Hélène Cixous’ well-known 1975 essay entitled “The Laugh of the Medusa” are these words: “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she isn’t’ deadly. She’s beautiful and laughing.”
When I view images of Garbati’s Medusa, with her Caucasian features and her thigh gap and her pudenda curiously free of serpentine curls, I still think – this is just one version of her. One interpretation doesn’t usurp all the other ways in which an archetype speaks to us. Each of our gazes is its own rendition, and none need to be set in stone.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 24th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.