“Perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung” (Griffin, 1992, p. 8).
“Rebirth to a higher level of consciousness…is recovered through encountering the chthonic devourer, the dark side of the Great Mother” (Woodman, 1996, p. 58).
I saw you once, Medusa; we were alone.
I looked you straight in the cold eye, cold.
I was not punished, was not turned to stone.
How to believe the legends I am told?
I turned your face around! It is my face.
That frozen rage is what I must explore-
Oh secret, self-enclosed and ravaged place!
That is the gift I thank Medusa for. (Sarton, quoted in Downing, 1999, p. 125)
I, Medusa, have finally come into rest. I have moved into a new sense of being-one in which I feel valuable, no longer destined to live out my fate as a monster. How did this remarkable transformation come to occur? I will tell you my story.
I was young and beautiful once. Looking back into myself, I see, now, that I was also still sleeping. My name meant queen. My father, Phorcys, raised me to be a regal figurehead, a prize for some suitor not yet named but already chosen.
Late in my youth, I left the land of my birth and went forth to serve the goddess Athena. It was my hope that my initiation would provide me with experience and learning, and that I might return to my kingdom a wiser, more refined young woman before I was old enough to marry. I could not know of the troubles that awaited me there, in Athena’s land, as I embarked on my journey with several chests of belongings and my girlish enthusiasm for adventure and new experiences. Once settled in my new quarters with early nerves soothed by the kindness of my fellow maidens, I took to my new duties like a fish to water.
But the water was my undoing. This confused me, I, who came from a land that borders a great sea. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but I was too intent on primping my golden curls and ruby red lips even though Athena’s rules-and my father’s plans for my eventual marriage-prohibited me from courting. The trouble started with Poseidon, that potent hoary man with his intriguing link to horses-his trident dangerous at close range. When he first came ’round, I will not deny it: I was captivated by his charisma and charm. When he sought out my company, I was honored. I had no idea of the danger I was in. After my chores were done, I passed many late hours on the temple grounds in deep and thrilling conversation with Poseidon before the god first broke decorum and attempted to touch me in ways I could barely understand. I resisted, but it was already too late.
As I ran to take refuge in Athena’s temple, he was upon me. When he finally stopped writhing, I lay still, like a dead thing that would not wake again. Finally I knew he had gone, unrepentant, back to his watery kingdom, swallowed up by the sea and the creatures that served him. I was inconsolable, horrified at the violence and loss I had endured, bereft and trembling at the theft of my innocence, annihilated under the weight of a grief that- shared with many an innocent girl who found herself in a similar state-was only partially mine.
The devastation I wore like a ruined garment only hinted at the pain to come. Athena arrived without warning. For my collaboration with the god-her god-she harangued me, cursing me for my “crime.” I could not respond. I could not speak. This was not the Athena I knew, not the just goddess I had willingly served. The force of nature before me swelled with rage. I trembled before her. My life, I knew, was in her hands which held no mercy. It is well known what happened next. Fuming, Athena turned my hair into hissing snakes, my eyes to bulging disks. My delicate ruby lips, now bruised and bleeding from Poseidon’s harshness, she made into horrid wrinkled flaps of skin from which a blackened tongue protruded. The lethal tusks of a wild boar emerged from my gum line. My heart screamed. This was all so unfair, so wrong. But Athena was not finished. With one last flourish she made it so no mortal could look upon me without being turned to stone.
Alone, I made my way back to the land where my sisters dwelled. Immortal, and thus safe from my killing stare, my sisters took me in and comforted me as best they could. It was not an easy thing to do, for I could not bear myself. I could not fathom, or accept, what I had become-what Athena had made me into: a hissing lethal monstrosity. Everything I looked at turned to stone. On my journey home from the temple of Athena, I had watched with horror as people’s faces, on regarding me, became shadows, then clouds, then steel grey stone in an instant. Caught in motion, men with their arms upraised, at work in their fields, bargaining for their dinner, carrying a bag; women preparing the evening meal or gathering water from the well; and children-worst of all the children. Running and playing, skipping stones, romping with pets: they all, all turned to stone, immobilized in the blink of an eye, their lives stolen as surely as mine had been. I could not bear the horror I instilled in others, inflicting torment, terror, and death upon them. Killing others reminded me of my own wound-recalled the excruciating particularities of the moment when Athena cursed me. The experience of pain and death was simply insufferable. How was I going to go on like this? I did not know.
My sisters drew me away to the edge of the world where I could do little harm-save to the occasional travelers who had ventured way out of their league-and there I resided in agony and distress. Sadness began to accompany me. My body felt like an open wound. I tried to reconcile what had happened to me. I found this difficult to do. Never would I know a lover’s arms around me, or feel his caress. Gone were my dreams of a child that I might care for and love. Dissipated, stolen even, were my hopes for a life of gentle pleasures, fulfilling work, laughing with friends. Hopeless, I stayed there in that foggy half-world for eons, the desolation interrupted only by the horror of witnessing in every face I turned to stone the nightmare I had become. I sought what comfort I could from the earth, the only thing that I could not seem to turn to stone. She had the power before me, her stone-making came from her will alone-a gift I could never possess. I have no way of knowing how much time passed before a change began to manifest–an eternity, a lifetime of despair. It was hardest of all to accept the irrevocable unfairness and cruelty of my situation. How could I make sense of being made into a perpetrator whose perpetration is part of her own victimization? And yet, as the unfailing embrace of the earth and my sisters began to penetrate my stone-wrapped consciousness, in brief moments I discovered that I too could hold, tend, and honor even the most difficult and devastating aspects of my condition. Then I would hear the deafening hiss of the snakes that crowned my grotesque head and my sadness and rage would return: How could I be expected to accept something beyond understanding?
The need to make sense of what seemed so senseless nagged at me, fraying the edges of the compassion I felt from my sisters, accentuating the loneliness of my plight. As I thought about my past at Athena’s temple, I remembered witnessing the initiations of others, and knowing that if I stayed with Athena I also would enter the mystery of initiation. Was it possible that I was being initiated–tested to the extreme of endurance in order to fulfill my named destiny as Queen among goddesses? I began to believe that the horror I was inflicting on everyone who crossed my path was meaningful to them; they, too, were initiates; they were the ones who were given the opportunity to transform themselves into something new.
Though I held tight to these possibilities, I felt the weight of guilt pulling me down. How could I rationalize their suffering to ease my own? But how could I relinquish hope? Would that not turn mind and heart to stone? As my infamy spread and my accidental visitors became fewer, I missed the brief moments of contact with a purely human face reflecting back to me such an exquisitely painful flash of all I had lost. I wondered if, upon seeing me, they looked their shadow in the face, and if so, I wondered what they saw. I remembered then, the first time my soul turned to stone under the weight of Poseidon. I found myself crying for the unknown girls whose warm and supple bodies carried hearts turned to stone by shame and fear.
A change was occurring in me. My identification with my fate loosened by these internal struggles, I began to pay attention to what was happening in my inner world. As I wept an image arose from within me: water eroding stone.
As I think now about my struggle to escape–or at least find a way to come to terms with–my petrifying state, I imagine my condition gradually eroding as I was swept by courses of tears and rage between the contrary needs to accept, and to refuse to accept, the unacceptable; until I was ground into inner silence and the surrender of an aching and profoundly baffled, yet opened and yearning heart. In this place I remembered that snakes, of all the creatures, are able to live between this world and the one below, symbolizing life and death. On the one hand, I thought–with bitter cynicism–how fitting that I should be crowned by them.On the other, I began to listen to their hissing more carefully, becoming vividly aware that the snakes on my head might be a connection to something deeper; to some needed aspect of soul emerging from the Underworld (Downing, 1999).
It was only when my heart opened and I had begun deliberately to listen to the Underworld, forgetting my own desire to end my life that the gift was finally bestowed. In the silence I heard a message from the depths. I was given the chance to die and be freed. No longer using my horrific looks to objectify others, if I had the courage to sacrifice my life, I was made to know that this phase could end and a new one begin. Thus, when Perseus arrived outside my cave in the moonlit night, I knew it. I had known he was coming for every step of his journey, and his winged shoes, the pouch he borrowed to transport my severed head, and the cape of invisibility were superfluous, not really necessary in the scheme of things.
On that final night of my existence then, immobilized into the image of the monster I had become, I listened as Perseus unsheathed his circular sword and with stealthy steps he entered. Granted, to survive this task, the polished shield of Athena that acted as a mirror protected him (Shearer, 1996), for even in spite of my willingness to die, to surrender it all, I could not have prevented him from also being turned to stone had he looked on me with a naked eye. But, guided by the reflection, he approached me where I pretended to be deeply asleep.
I will not say falsely that I was not afraid, deeply afraid in the sense of one who has known death and faces it again. The “me” that I was died once at Athena’s hands, and the “me” I had come to accept at long last was about to give way again, surrendering to what was, giving over to trust forces greater than me. Upon his final step that closed the distance between us, I felt my breath catch and a great grief flooded me. I opened my eyes and gave over to it, honoring it, feeding it with my life, knowing it was a force that must be kept alive in the world so that humans can continue to exist without having their hearts turned to stone.
The swift and hideous blow transpired, and my head, sliced cleanly from my neck, tumbled to a rolling stop on the hard stone floor of the cave. It was done! As my living face ran to grey and the hissing serpents hardened to stone, my eyes registered one final image: Perseus. As he stashed the head in his bag and turned on his heels to flee for his own life from the wrath of my sisters already beginning to stir, I saw him enter into his own initiation, the next step on his path to individuation, his hero’s journey, and I understood how interconnected we all are, each providing meaning and context to another’s journey, inextricably linked together in a greater pattern that cannot be inhibited.
To this day I wonder, did those whose flesh I turned grey and stony, have siblings to hold them? Did they rest in the lap of Gaia and receive a vision to show them the way? Did they find the beauty of stone in silence and surrender? Were they given the opportunity to transform themselves into something new? I hope so. Much remained and may always remain a mystery.
But this I do know, even in death–perhaps especially in the face of death–the creative force cannot be checked. So as I left this world, the fruits of my labors sprang forth. As the blood flowed freely from the neck with my severed head so recently gone, out of it sprang the giant Chrysaor, the child of my sacrifice, and Pegasus, the winged horse who came to be known for magic and poetry (Downing, 1999). Now my wings enable me to move freely as an intermediate between worlds. And even though I have moved on through the portal of death, Athena wears my head on her breastplate (next to her heart), a touchstone to the merciless, instinctual, dark side that swallowed us both in the aftermath of Poseidon’s violation of me. And yet ultimately, it was through willingness to journey inward through that darkness that I found redemption. (Downing, 1999). Now my blood, given to Asclepius, the great healer, can be used to kill or to heal (Siebers, 2002). In the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, there is an image of me, with winged feet and wearing a healing caduceus of snakes on my belly, presiding over childbirth (Monaghan, 1994). Now, having told you what I can of my story, I would say to you who think you are already born: Come, my children, begin your life anew. Be turned to stone and live.
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Bonnie Bright is the Founder of Depth Psychology Alliance She holds M.A.s in Psychology and Depth Psychology and is a doctoral candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute.