The Medusa:
Confronting the monster before us

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Jan. 3, 1998)

The temptation, in a year-end column in this space, is to write about the death of the New Age. That movement's positive aspects have become integrated in the mainstream: Even Harvard is now teaching alternative medicine. And its sillier aspects seem, at least in my reading, to have been relegated among reasonable people to the theatrics of snake-oil salesmanship.

Perhaps, as we approach the millennial year, the open-minded skeptic will continue to gain ground. In the meantime, we remain stuck in many ways -- not quite sure of what is true or how to find our way out of the stuckness. What we call the New Age -- and now, often, the transpersonal or holistic movements -- is, after all, about finding solutions to problems that seem intractable before conventional remedies and wisdom.

In my work with clients, I often tell the story of the Medusa as a parable of the appropriate way to respond when we feel stuck. The Jungian analysts Pat Berry and Marion Woodman also tell the story in that way, as did the mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Now, even before I tell the story, I have to make some qualifications. When you go in search of a myth's origins, you discover that there's no such thing. David Miller, who teaches mythology at Syracuse, often tells the story of assigning students the task of finding the story of Dionysos' origins. They are given weeks to complete the task -- and they always come back empty-handed and embarrassed.

What we know -- and Miller's students learn -- is that myths change according to what needs to be expressed in a given time. Those oral storytelling cultures we tend to sentimentalize are full of people who change the details of a myth quite literally to suit their immediate situation. The embarrassment Miller's students feel signifies the (scientistic) belief in our culture that everything has a fixed origin.

The story of the Medusa is no different. There are many different versions, so we give ourselves permission to imagine the story in several ways.

The Medusa, if you remember your Greek mythology, was one of three terrible sisters, the Gorgons, whose winged bodies were covered with golden scales. Their hair was a mass of writhing snakes. Whoever looked directly at them was transfixed, paralyzed, turned to stone.

Perseus, for reasons irrelevant to our purposes here, was given the task of slaying the Medusa, who was the one mortal sister of the Gorgons. His dilemma, of course, was how to slay her without looking at her.

Two popular solutions have been told for centuries. In the most common, the hero was given a shield by Athena. Rather than look directly at the monster, which lay sleeping, he was to look at her reflection. He did so and then decapitated her. In another story, Perseus simply averts his face and lets fortune, with Athena's help, guide his hand. As Berry says, he feels his way to her, and then chops off her head.

From her gushing blood then sprang the winged horse Pegasus, who flew into the sky and then back down to earth. His hoof struck the ground on the mountain of Helicon, where the muses lived, and a spring, Hippocrene, issued forth. The spring, like Pegasus himself, was forever beloved by poets and the muses gathered there to dance.

Most scholars with a psychological orientation regard the Medusa as a symbol of the stony stuckness in which we can become trapped. We are moving along in our lives and suddenly we encounter something -- a Medusa -- with the potential to arrest us, derail us, stop us in our tracks and impede our progress. We regard this as a terrible thing. And it is true that to look directly at this thing, will bring us to a standstill. Depression is like that.

Berry asks why the thing, the Medusa, does not want to be looked at directly. (In some stories, the Medusa was formerly beautiful, cursed out of envy by Athena, so shame is her motivation, not blind monstrous evil, as our modern reading always seems to simplify it.) Let's say you are well on your career path and you all of a sudden encounter an enemy or a rival who seems to want to inhibit your progress. You make all sorts of explanations, you instinctively avoid the person. But when you do think about your enemy, "look at him directly," you regard him as a monster dropped from the sky just to make you miserable. You can't do a thing. The "thing" is demonized. You are an innocent victim.

In other words, by looking directly at the "monster," you create an enormous, polarizing distance between the two of you. You are victim; he is aggressor. If you regard this as an internal dynamic, it's akin to refusing to consider what is constituted between the forward-moving part of yourself and the part that sabotages you. And life is like that. What we disown in ourselves -- something we don't like about ourselves, usually -- appears in the environment, stopping us, demanding we pay attention. As long as it is demonized as a monster, we are stuck. In the real-life situation, as long as we demonize our "enemy" at the office without finding a way to really examine his motivations, his situation in relationship to our own, we have no hope of resolution.

What is the solution? The two versions of the myth provide two psychological solutions.

One is the wisdom of carrying a shield that reflects the truth as an image that can be perceived with less threat. Psychotherapy might be regarded in that way. There is a monster to be dealt with, but it cannot be looked at too directly because it will immobilize you. So, the therapist shields you and reflects for you what he sees. By approaching the issue indirectly, with shielding, you can begin to liberate energy -- Pegasus -- from the stoniness and give the muses of creativity a place to perform. Power and delight can return to your life.

Likewise, in the second version, you must feel your way into the issue. You can't deal with the monster, which is an image of yourself in some disowned respect, until you feel your way into it. You touch it, rather than just hold it in your critical gaze. It is a thing of nature, as Berry says, and it cannot be held apart from yourself.

What impedes us, then, has the potential to reveal our greatest power and joy, if it is adequately reflected and felt. Thus in some stories of the Medusa, as Joseph Campbell notes, the blood of the Medusa is scavenged by Asclepius, the god of healing. He uses the blood from the left side of her body to slay and from her right to cure and reawaken life. Like the Indian goddess Kali, the giver of life is also the destroyer.

The problem, in short, contains its own solution. Creativity itself arises out of stuckness. Skepticism, doubting but not knowing, allows us reflection and feeling.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan. 3, 1998


"Echo's Subtle Body," Pat Berry; "Occidental Mythology," Joseph Campbell; "The Pregnant Virgin," Marion Woodman.

Paradigms | Archetypal Advice | Articles | Essays | Writings Home

What Is SoulWork
Greeting The Muse
Is SoulWork For You?
About SoulWorks LLC
Upcoming Events
Top Of Page
Copyright 1997-1998 SoulWorks LLC