Most of you will be familiar with the legend of Medusa and her snakeyfied locks with a look that could turn men to stone. But are you aware of how she came by her serpenty hairdo? Well, wonder no more.
With the exception of the poet, Sappho, most ancient Greek scribes were men. And, as is typical of most men, women don’t fair too well in their myths and fables. This is my attempt to redress the balance a little bit.
The Alternative (and true) Legend of Medusa and Perseus.
By David Milligan-Croft.
Perseus crept stealthily through the tunnels of Medusa’s grim cave, sword extended before him, eyes peeled wide over the rim of his shield trying to absorb as much light as possible. He clung to the mirrored shield Athena had given him to protect against the serpent-headed monster. Perseus brushed against something solid. It felt like a statue. But on closer inspection it was the petrified figure of another warrior seeking fame and glory.
Perseus had been sent on his quest by King Polydectes of Seriphos in order that he might fail and leave his mother free to marry the king. However, King Polydectes had not counted on divine intervention from the goddess Athena. “Do not look directly into Medusa’s eyes,” she had warned him. “Otherwise, you will be turned to stone just like the countless others who have tried before you. Use the mirror to see where she is, then cut off her head. But, be careful, Perseus, she is wily and cunning and will use all her powers to trick you.”
The orange glow of a torch began to illuminate the far end of the tunnel. Cautiously, Perseus edged towards the light. The closer he got, he began to hear the sound of sniffling. Closer still, he detected the sound of a woman crying. He could see that the tunnel opened into a cavernous space. Perseus turned around and held the mirrored shield before him so that he might see behind him into the cavern. He angled the mirror and saw a woman seated at a dressing table with her head in her hands, weeping.
“Have you come to kill me?” came a muffled voice.
As he adjusted his grip on the mirror, Perseus saw the serpents slowly uncoiling. “I am Perseus, of Mycenae. I mean you no harm, good lady. I am a weary traveller and merely seeking shelter until the storm passes.”
The hunched woman chuckled. “‘You mean me no harm, is that so?” she said. “Then why do you approach with your sword drawn?”
“It pays to be cautious when entering an unknown labyrinth such as this, my lady.”
“Well, as you can see, I am quite alone. You may sheath your weapon now.”
Perseus scanned the cave for Medusa’s two monstrous sisters, Stheno and Euryale, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Medusa straightened herself up and looked in the burnished mirror of her dresser at Perseus, who flinched, stealing himself against attack. “You need not worry, brave Perseus,” she mocked. “My reflection cannot harm you. Only if I stare directly into your eyes will you become petrified. But then, you know that already. Otherwise, you would not be approaching so covertly with your own mirror.”
“It is Athena’s mirror,” he said, proudly. “The goddess is my protectress.”
“Ah, the goddess Athena,” Medusa said wistfully. “It was she who cursed me to be like this.”
“You defiled her temple by fornicating with the god Poseidon!” Perseus exclaimed.
“Is that what she told you?” Medusa let a wry smile cross her lips. “Poseidon raped me in Athena’s temple whilst I was making an offering to her.
“When he took my virginity, he took my ability to serve as her priestess, so she cast me out!
“And yet, she took no action against her uncle. Nor sought reparation from her father, Zeus. Instead, she chose to punish me with these accursed snakes!”
“I … did not know that,” Perseus said. “I’m sure the great, benevolent goddess had her reasons,” he said, composing himself.
“Yes, jealousy being one of them.”
“Why would a goddess be jealous of a lowly mortal such as you?”
“When I begged Poseidon to intercede on my behalf, he said it was because of my beauty. She wanted to make it so that no man could ever look upon me with desire again without facing instant death.”
Perseus studied her face in the reflection of his shield and tried to visualise her without the hideous snakes for locks. Instead, he imagined long golden curls cascading about her shoulders, framing her oval face. She was more than a match for any divinity. It was not difficult to see why the gods would be envious of her.
“But you could help me, Perseus,” she pleaded.
“Help you how?” he inquired.
“Take me to Lesbos! It’s an island populated only by women. My curse does not work on women – it only petrifies men.”
“Why only men?”
“Because women don’t try to rape me or cut off my head!”
Perseus shifted uneasily. “What would be in it for me?”
“Hundreds of warriors have come here to claim my head as a prize and all have failed. The treasure from their abandoned ships would be yours.” Medusa said.
Perseus contemplated the vast wealth within his grasp.
“Plus, everyone knows you defeated the Minotaur of Crete, you are already a legend. Perhaps you will also be famous for your compassion as well as bravery.”
“But it was Athena who gave me this mirrored shield. She said you would try to trick me!”
“Trick you how? It was she who turned me into this monster in a fit of rage, when it was I who was wronged!” Medusa sobbed. “I do not wish to live if this is how I am to be. Skulking in dank caves for eternity, fending off assassins like you trying to claim my head as a prize. You may as well take it now!”
Perseus saw his chance and raised his sword. Medusa instinctively spun around and, before Perseus could swing his blade, she was upon him, her snakes coiled around his throat. Medusa stood behind the great Perseus as he gasped for air. He looked at her reflection through his bulging eyes and saw torment and despair in her face. A snake slid down his sword arm and wrapped itself around his wrist, squeezing until he was forced to release his grip and it hit the rock floor with a clang.
“You know,” she whispered in his ear. “I could force you to look into my eyes.” A snake began twisting Perseus’ neck around toward her. He squeezed his eyes tightly. “Perhaps the gods don’t want me revealing the truth about what they’ve done to me?”
“I’ll take you!” Perseus yielded.
Medusa sensed deception.
“I give you my word,” Perseus gasped. “I shall surrender my weapons to you for the duration of the voyage if you give me your word you will not petrify my crew and I.”
“And what of Polydectes? He will need a head.”
“We could trick him.”
“You mean, murder an innocent maiden?”
“No, no! One recently deceased. We could thread snakes through her skull.”
“The skull would contain no power, unlike mine.”
“I could say it was a myth. Once you had been decapitated all your powers died with you.”
Medusa walked slowly back to her dresser, her head bowed in contemplation. Perseus glanced at his sword lying on the ground, but dismissed the treacherous thought. “You could live out the rest of your days in the light. Without the need to hide in the shadows, nor fear trophy-hunting men.”
“Like you?” she smiled.
“Like me,” Perseus bowed his head slightly.
“There is something you should know before we set sail on the high seas.”
“What is it?”
“I am pregnant with Poseidon’s child,” Medusa said. “If he finds out while we are at sea, he may not take kindly to you and your crew aiding me.”
Perseus picked up his sword. Medusa flinched as he walked toward her. But Perseus got down on one knee and offered up his sword in his palms. “Then we shall have to be cautious and travel in disguise. Wear a hooded cloak and veil. Your sisters can act as your attendants.”
It’s unknown whether Perseus delivered Medusa to the Isle of Lesbos. Legend would have us believe that Perseus sailed to Seriphos with what he claimed was Medusa’s head and presented it to King Polydectes shortly before chopping off his head. In the ensuing commotion the head was conveniently lost, or so it seems.
Sailors who unloaded their cargo at Lesbos heard tales that Medusa was befriended by the great poet Sappho and gave birth to Poseidon’s children – Pegasus, the winged horse who was seen flying above the island’s mountains before departing for Mount Olympus to be by Zeus’ side. And his twin brother, Chrysaor whom Medusa and Sappho raised as their own child until he was old enough to be called a ‘man’ and had to leave the island for his own safety. Whereupon, he was known as Golden Sword and travelled to far off lands in search of his own fame and glory.
At first, Medusa wore a headscarf and veil when she ventured out on the streets of Lesbos. But Sappho, and the other women, begged that she take them off and let the world see her for who she really was: Medusa – the woman, whose beauty, even the gods were afraid.
As 2022 slips into 2023 a new dawn fades, bringing with it that sense of expectation to make one’s life better than it was the previous year. Fresh start and all that malarkey.
It actually had the opposite effect and got me feeling quite nostalgic and, if truth be known, a little melancholy. I was playing a few old tunes on Youtube when a memory washed over me.
It was about when I was selling books in Italy in the 1980s and I ended up jamming Joy Division with a band.
Below is a little anecdote about it if you’re interested.
As 2022 slips into 2023 a New Dawn Fades.
1985. It was a freezing cold February afternoon in the Italian port of Livorno. I was about 21 years old. My overcoat collar pulled up against a flurry of snow, my winkle pickers squelching slush from the holes in the ends of them. I was wandering the docks trying to hawk books door-to-door. I hated the job but I didn’t have enough money for a flight home. I could see an enormous Italian naval frigate in the distance behind a chain link security fence. I headed towards it to get a closer look.
As I was walking past warehouses with my head down, shoulders hunched, I heard the faint hum of a band jamming. I looked up and saw an orange glow from a first floor broken window. I pushed at a paint-peeled door and walked up a flight of rickety wooden stairs, the music getting louder. At the top, the room opened up and, at the far side, a three-piece band was practising. They were playing Disorder, by Joy Division – one of my favourite bands. I watched them for a while from the shadows. Snow melting from my black hair, dripping onto the floorboards.
When they’d finished, the guitarist & vocalist spotted me and said something in Italian which I didn’t understand. (I’d been in the country a short while and had only learnt my sales pitch phonetically.) He spoke again and, this time, offered up his guitar in his palms for me to play. I shook my head then tentatively pointed at the bass. The bassist un-slung his guitar and gestured for me to join them.
I swallowed hard. I wasn’t a very good guitar player. My fingers trembled as I took the bass from him and slid the strap over my shoulder. The three of them looked at me expectantly. The vocalist nodded encouragingly.
I began playing the bass riff of New Dawn Fades by Joy Division. It was one of the few songs I knew how to play and was confident about. It was also one of my favourites. After a few bars, the guitarist and drummer joined in. They knew what they were doing.
It felt exhilarating. We must have played that song for about 10 minutes straight. When we eventually stopped, I handed the bass gratefully back to its owner. He bowed his head in thanks.
The four of us just stood there looking at each other, smiling. Not talking. We had no need for language. Music had said what we could not.
Eventually, I left without saying a word and stepped out into the snowy night.
I sometimes think back to that experience and wonder what happened to those three guys. Did they make it in music? What are they doing now? Are they still alive? Still friends? Do they ever meet up and say –
Hey, remember that guy who crashed our practice down by the docks?
That was really surreal.
Couldn’t speak a word of Italian.
Yeah, didn’t we play Disorder or something?
Nah, it was New Dawn Fades.
Oh, yeah, I remember.
Wonder what he’s up to now?
Yeah, probably. He was heading towards the naval base.
(The story of my subsequent detention by Italian naval security guards is for another time.)
At least, that’s what Google translate tells me. It could say ‘f*ck you’ for all I know. Which would work just as well.
Saying farewell to the year in a foreign tongue has become a bit of a custom for reasons I shan’t go into right now.
Greek mythology and the divine muses have been pretty prominent for me in 2022, so it seems quite appropriate.
This year, I’ve managed to paint lots of pictures, visit lots of the Peak District and write lots of poetry. So much so, I’m hoping to publish my second collection of poetry, “Go tell the bees” some time in 2023. (I’ve even been dabbling with a book cover design for it.)
To see out the year, I thought I’d leave you with a few samples of abstract doodling which I’ve been doing quite a bit of lately. It’s a very cathartic and mindful exercise if you want to give it a go. I’ve even tried it with patients on the ward and it went down really well. (Remember, it’s about the process of doing art rather than the end result.)
It just remains for me to say, thank you for visiting my blog, your support is very much appreciated. I hope you have a very happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2023.
Keep being creative and tell those closest to you that you love them.
Extreme Doodling is not doodling whilst snowboarding down the lava doused slopes of an erupting volcano. It’s a tad more sedate than that. It’s doodling with purpose.
Like my previous post about abstract doodling, this exercise is mindful and relaxing.
Simply take your pen or pencil and take it for a stroll around the page.
Don’t think about it. Just spiral around, looping up and down, over and under, without lifting your pen off the page.
Next, (this is the ‘purpose’ part), fill in the shapes that you have created. As you can see above, I have used similarly spaced lines at varying angles, but you could fill each shape with a different design or pattern, as below.
Something like this would lend itself to being filled in with colour – felt tips, pencil crayon, watercolour…
You could even add more geometric elements to it.
There’s no right or wrong.
Nor is there any pressure on it having to be any ‘good’. By ‘good’ we usually mean in the eyes of others. Or, worse still – by yourself!
This is for you.
For you to spend some time relaxing whilst doing art.
It is the process not the result.
I could go on – I’ve got millions of the little blighters. But you get the idea.
I usually do them when I’m out and about and having to wait for something or someone (hence them always being black and white). So it’s a great way to pass time and not get frustrated about having to hang about.
Anyhoo, thank you so very much for taking the time to read/look at my blog. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it, and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.
Here’s a little abstract doodling exercise that anyone can do.
Simply divide a page of your sketchbook up into four with masking tape. (Don’t use cello tape as it will tear the paper when you remove it.)
Next, take a pencil and randomly scribble around the four boxes. Then, do the same with a felt tip pen.
For the colour, I used a combination of oil and chalk pastels. (Mainly oil.) But you could use watercolour paint, acrylic, markers – whatever you feel like using. Just don’t try to think about it too much. Let your subconscious do the work.
Remember, this exercise is about the process of doing art as a mindfulness activity, not the result.
You don’t have to divide your page into four. Do as few or as many shapes as you want.
When you feel you’ve finished, gently peel off the masking tape and – Ta-daaahhh! Behold your masterpiece. Guaranteed to give you a little dopamine hit. (The pleasure/reward chemical in your brain.)
It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s extremely relaxing and gratifying.
Your finished work may not get hung in the Tate Modern, but that was never the objective in the first place. Doing art for its own sake and the mental wellbeing it brings was.