The story of Medousa, from her own point of view, was one I had wanted to write for many years. The first scene I had actually conceived was that of Stheno and Euryale trying to chase down Perseus, in agony over the slaying of their sister. It came to me while reading one of the last story cycles of Neil Gaiman’s superlative Sandman series, The Kindly Ones. There was a scene in which Daniel’s mother, Lyta, was searching for her child, and was wandering around the city, either delusional, or seeing beyond reality to the narrative underpinnings of reality. She ran into two women, who turned out to be Stheno and Euryale; and while they could not help her with her personal quest, they invited her to live with them, and let them look after her. “Would you like to be our sister?” they asked her. “There should be three of us. You could be the mortal one.” They implored her to become their third, and that she should be their sister. It occurred to me then how much Stheno and Euryale loved Medousa.
Another of my inspirations for this book was the graphic novel Epicurus the Sage, by William Messner-Loebs and Sam Keith. Two things stood out for me in that comic. There was the overall theme of mixing historical figures with the mythical, and the idea that those stories of myth and legend with which we think ourselves so familiar, are not quite true. Furthermore, Messner-Loeb was able to give us a more personal and intimate look at the warts and wrinkles of the Gods and their unsavory doings without actually doing damage to the old stories at all. This inspired me to do two things. First, I decided to try to remove as much of the fantastic as I could from my story. I wanted to bring the story as close to “reality” as I could. Of course, I really couldn’t get away from the fact that I was writing about Gods, Goddesses, fabulous creatures, monsters, and heroes. So I contented myself with trimming a bit of the excess as I thought appropriate. For example, when I describe Alkyoneus, rather than giving him serpents for limbs, as in the old sculptures and paintings, I described him as having markings on his arms and legs that might make them resemble serpents. Likewise, with Campe, rather than give her the dozens of animal heads ringing her waist, I described her as having stylized tattoos about her torso, instead. And I gave the Gorgons skin, as well, but skin beneath which their scales could be seen, leading to the legends that their bodies were covered in gold scales. I gave the immortals, if not needs, then indulgences, like eating and bathing. You get the idea. Second, I worked with the conceit that the ancient myths were not quite what they seemed. My idea was to change the stories with a gentle touch, so that the usual order of the cosmos—Gods are the “good guys,” Titans are the “bad guys–” could be inverted. This I found I was able to do without really changing any of the myths. The old stories were much more context-dependent than I had realized. Much of good and evil came to depend upon one’s point of view. And I liked the idea of doing a story that essentially said, “You’ve heard this; now let me tell you what really happened.”
And so, what I gained from Gaiman and Messner-Loeb, was the understanding that Medousa was very much loved and valued by those who knew her, and that the Gods were in fact far more cruel and unjust than their stories might indicate at first glance. In contemplating the old stories of Medousa, I had been under the impression that most people only remembered Ovid’s tale of a vain young woman who was so proud of her beauty, and especially of her golden hair, that Athena herself punished her by making her a Gorgon. But in the older stories of Hesiod and Apollodorus, we learn that Medousa, a priestess of Athena, was raped by Poseidon, in Athena’s temple. And it always struck me how unjust it was. Medousa herself, punished for being the victim of a violent crime, because it somehow defiled Athena’s temple? Why didn’t Athena defend her priestess? Why didn’t she bring complaint against Poseidon? Why did Medousa have to be destroyed because of what was done to her? Hadn’t her rape been enough to suffer through, but that she had to be driven from mortal lands, a monster, living in lonely desolation? Of course, later on, as I began to write, I found that there were many writers and artists that portrayed Medousa as victim, rather than monster. But of course, we see that scenario even today. In America, a girl is drugged and raped by a group of young men, and the community protects the males while condemning the woman and any who might help her. In the Middle East, a young woman is raped, and when she sues for justice from the authorities, she herself is condemned for ‘lewd behavior.’ In central and southern Asia, a girl is raped and abused, and when she pleads for justice and redress, her village elders condemn her, and her family is shamed until they ‘cleanse’ their ‘honor,’ often by slaying the girl who was the victim.
And so, I wanted to write Medousa’s story. Of course, we all know how she ended, and I felt that I couldn’t change that ending, as tragic as it was. But I don’t want Medousa to be remembered as a mindless monster, preying on the innocent, as she has often been portrayed in modern popular culture. I cannot think of Medousa as malevolent, or ill-intentioned. She was, rather the victim of a horrible crime, and she suffered for it. To be sure, there were several versions of the Medousa Myth; there are numerous versions of most of the myths we think we know. And the story of Medousa has certain elements that might afford a very different tale indeed–For example, serpents, and mortals being turned into stone, are elements of Athena’s history; I could have as easily written a tale in which Medousa was Athena’s Lady High Executioner and cultic guardian. Perhaps I will write such a story one day. But again, here, my aim was to show that Medousa herself was not a monster, but a tragic heroine. She was a young woman with her own life, and dreams, and hopes, and loves. And although Medousa’s story is complete, in a sense, her story continues: Every time a woman is attacked, and then–if she survives–is herself blamed for it…Every time a devout believer is not only abandoned by, but attacked by, the god, goddess, or gods (or, more accurately, its self-appointed representatives) s/he had been dedicated to… Every time a woman is cast out of her community for being who and what she is, through no fault of her own…With every ‘honor killing…’ With every rape cover-up…With every one–Medousa’s story continues. And I hope to Gaia and Ouranos, it STOPS.
Medousa is full of anachronisms. It is set in a time when reliable historical records were not kept, but oral literature thrived. There is Medousa, herself a mythic figure who would have existed perhaps several thousand years BCE, before the rise of Hellenic civilization. There are Aias, the legendary warrior of Salamis, known to us through Homer’s “The Iliad,” along with Helen of Sparta. And there is Cynisca, the first woman in history to have won Olympic gold, who lived during the fourth century BCE. We see Athens and Sparta, at a time before any animosity existed between to two states, and yet, Spartan society, as I describe in the book, post-dates the fall of Troy by five or six centuries. Helots did not even exist until after 1100 BCE with the Dorian conquest of Sparta, and were even then communally held slaves of the State, precluding the brutal kidnapping of Medousa as a child; after all, she would already have been a slave of the polis. And the biggest anachronism at all would be the decision to include the Amazons at Troy; for Medousa’s slayer was Perseus, who afterwards went on to become the father of Greek civilization. Homer repeatedly calls Troy’s besiegers “Danaeans.” Children of Danae, Perseus’ mother. It seems a very long time between Perseus and the rise of the Hellenic people, does it not?
Many of the source myths I decided to use for my novel are not the conventional ones, but lesser known alternates. For example, I do not describe Medousa as a daughter of Phorkys and Keto as Stheno and Euryale are; I instead make her utterly mortal, as in Ovid’s late tale of Medousa as a young woman, without any ties to the Titans. I use Apollodorus’ alternate genealogy for Echidna, as a daughter of Gaia and Tartarus, and mother to Keto, thus making her at once grandmother and great aunt to the Gorgons. And while most myths tell of the Gorgons living on the isle of Sarpedon, I decided to place my Gorgons on the isle of Cerna in the Gorgades. And although the Gorgades generally refer to a tribe of wild women covered in hair, Diodorus and Palaephatus note the island Cerna in a small group of islands called the Gorgades situated in the Western Ocean. Commentator Henry T. Riley (Ovid, The Metamorphosis, ISBN 978-1-4209-3395-6) associates the island group with the Azores. It is only recently in human history that the subject of history became concerned with the accurate recording of ‘exactly what happened,’ in ‘exactly what place,’ at ‘exactly what time,’ and ‘involving which persons.’ Until the late Victorian era, most histories were written in order to illustrate moral lessons, or to indulge in poetry and florid prose, or to attempt to explain why things were so, or to create foundation myths for peoples and tribes. History was treated almost as Midrash–a narrative constructed to convey the lessons of history, as opposed to history itself. My book is written in those terms, rather than as a piece of real historical fiction. It fails as a piece of real historical fiction. On the other hand, as a piece of Mythical History, I believe it to be perfectly adequate. Remember; it’s only Myth.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to my dear friend Robert Dorf, who acted as my editor, helping me to construct an emotionally true narrative, and kept me focused on the heart of the story, giving it its soul, and who would not allow me to quit. I owe a great debt to my friend James Fitzpatrick, who also rendered much editorial assistance, bringing to bear his vast scholarship in Classical and Ancient Greece upon my work. His criticisms were much appreciated. Many thanks also to Joseph and Jeannie Michel, who despite having read many early drafts of this book, insisted that I complete the story and publish it. Thanks also to Amy Myers, who actually prodded me to begin this project in the first place. And thanks, again, to Ross Watson and Jennifer Rehnay, who most generously shared with me their knowledge and experience in preparing a book for publishing. And many thanks to Emily Fripp, for her masterful cover art, and illustrations.
Some final notes on measurements—I have used ancient Greek units of measurement wherever possible: Pous—Approx. equal to 31cm. Pechys—Approx. equal to 46cm. Haploun Bema—Approx. equal to 77cm. Bema—Approx. equal to 1.5m. Plethron—Approx. equal to 31m. Stadion—Approx. equal to 185m. Schoinos—Approx. equal to 7.4km. Stage—Approx. equal to 29.8km. Xylon—(Ancient Egyptian) Approx. equal to 1.57m. To put some of this in perspective, Ajax would have been about 6’4”; Medousa before her transformation, 5’10” and after, 7’6”; Stheno and Euryale were each about 9’; Alkyoneus 13’; and Campe is about 10’6” from her forefeet to the top of her head, and a little more than 50’ in length.
Some of my sources, for the curious:
Sappho, trans. by Stanley Lombardo, copyright 2002, Hackett Publishing Co.
Hypomnemata, Borimir Jordan, Servants of the Gods, copyright 1979, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, Gottingen
Fall of Troy, Book I (abridged), Quintus Smyrnaeus, trans. by Way, Greek Epic C4th AD
Hesiod, trans., intro., & notes by Apostolos Athanassakis 1983, 2004, The Johns Hopkins University Press 2004
Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae, trans., & intro. by R. Scott Smith and Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Hackett Publishing Co.
The Iliad, Homer, trans. by Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press 1951, 2011
Medusa In the Mirror of Time, David Leeming, copyright 2013, Reaktion Books Ltd.
Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Stephen R. Wilk, copyright 2000, Oxford University Press