Eshleman on Medusa

by on Jul.20, 2011

[This is a piece Clayton Eshleman wrote in 1998. It will be part of the collection of essays, The Price of Experience, that Black Widow Press will put out in early 2012.]


The Greek iconography of the Medusa’s face includes “bulging or glaring eyes, gnashing tusks, a protruding tongue, and snake-like hair.” In some versions, she also has “grossly foliated skin, the absence of corners in her mouth, and single or multiple dots on her forehead” (1). This syncretic image is, I suspect, only the surface of a palimpsest with earliest scratches in the Upper Paleolithic (thus from this viewpoint, the Perseus story is a late addition). Here are some hunches and sightings about the construction of the Medusa’s lethal face.
It is possible to imagine the snakes encircling the face as the winding corridors of a cave, and the tusks or fangs, in the center of the face, as the ghosts of those dreadful encounters where in total blackness and at times far from the cave entrance, a human met a huge cave bear or cave lion.
To set a fanged beast mouth into a woman’s face is to associate women with “predation.” Barbara Ehrenreich argues that Cro-Magnon women probably participated in “drives” of big game animals, and acted as butchers and bearers once the animals had been slaughtered (2). In this regard, the Spartan name for Artemis (who may have originally been a bear or lioness, and of Upper Paleolithic antiquity) is Artamis, meaning “cutter” or “butcher.” (3)
While most Upper Paleolithic hybrids are male (with bison or bird heads), there is a lion-headed 30,000 year old statuette from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, that is probably female (the genitals are difficult to identify, but there is clearly no phallus). At this point in time, the animal had only been partially differentiated from the human image (the Greek Medusa subordinates animal parts to a basically human head). The dots on the Medusa foreheads may indicate the lion’s superciliary tufts of hair above the eyes.
Another link between women and hunting predation may have involved menstruation. There was probably no way to camouflage bloody discharges as there is today. It is also believed that prehistoric women synchronized their periods which also closely matched the 29.5 day cycle of the moon. According to Ehrenreich, “it may have seemed that women’s cycles control the moon, or else that the divine presence that is the moon expresses itself through the bodies of human females.” (4)
Thus the Medusa’s fanged face may also contain a bleeding vagina, suggesting an origin for the superstition of the “vagina dentata.” On a vulvar level, the snakes evoke pubic hair encircling a site of possible castration in which a phallus has been replaced by the fangs responsible for the rending. I also think of an octopus here, with its snake-like tentacles encircling a powerfully-beaked mouth (the Medusa and her sisters were said to reside on the shores of Oceanus).
Another explanation for the Medusa’s snakes is to be found in Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove’s The Wise Wound:

A.P.H. Scott points out that during an eclipse of the sun, during which the
menstruation of women was thought by Pliny to be particularly dangerous),
the moon’s shadow rushing towards you across the land ripples with the
refractions of the earth’s atmosphere like snakes. The solar corona can also
be observed wriggling like a crown of snakes round the moon’s shadow,
if you use smoked glass. However, we have also seen that it is a common
cultural image of menstruation that a woman is bitten by a snake-god who
comes from the moon. The moon sloughs herself and renews, just as the
snake sheds its skin. (5)

A Cro-Magnon child’s terror at seeing not only its hunter-mother’s bloody hands but also her bloody vagina circulates upward through the centuries to become a snake-wreathed slaughterface, impacted with holy dread—as if the gate of life were revealed to contain a carnivore mouth.

1. A. David Napier, Masks, Transformation, and Paradox, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986. See chapter 4, “Perseus and the Gorgon Head.”
2. Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites, Metropolitan Books, NYC, 1997. See chapter 6, “When the Predator Had a Woman’s Face.”
3. Barbara G. Walker, The Woan’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row, NYC, 1983. See the entry for “Artemis.”
4. Ehrenreich, p. 105.
5. Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, The Wise Wound, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp. 263-264.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Clayton,a concise and proliferative piece, and I love the summation of bristling and spasming language at the end– “snake-wreathed slaughterface.”

    I wonder if you could clarify, in this model, why would only women’s genitalia/bloody hands be frightening? What makes the women’s body more frightening than a man’s? Or is the notion that fear of man’s body/bloodiness is siphoned into the other hybrids, and this particular hybrid is a receptacle for fear of the woman?

    Thanks for your insights,

  2. Clayton Eshleman

    Joyelle: Women’s bloodiness may have been frightening because of the association of predation (if indeed women were directly involved with hunting and slaughter)with the missing penis/vagina dentata in that fantasy. There are a jumble of confusions here, brought home monthly by menstruation.
    Given the complex of predation/vagina dentata/menstruation, it might have been very hard for a Cro-Magnon child to clear that “debris” away from that place through which he emerged into the world.
    The Redgrove/Shuttle book, published in 1979 when there was virtually nothing on menstruation mythology, is terrific, and reading it can open the gate to the poetry of Peter Redgrove, in my opinion one of the most unusual and imaginative 20th century poets.
    Judy Grahn’s Blood, Bread and Roses is also quite engaging. –CE

  3. Laura Carter

    The Price of Experience is a great title for a collection including this set of ruminations…. Thanks for posting! I’ll look for it.


  4. Josef Horáček

    Love the connection from the Cro-Magnon to the Greek, Clayton. Can’t wait to read more.

    Question: If the Cro-Magnon child had seen all the women around her menstruate since a wee age, how would that be any more frightening than, say, seeing them chew on their mammoth carpaccio?

  5. adam strauss

    I love this question!:

    ” If the Cro-Magnon child had seen all the women around her menstruate since a wee age, how would that be any more frightening than, say, seeing them chew on their mammoth carpaccio?”

    Did cro magnum have speech in the human sense, or more a lexicon of “grunts”?

    Too, I’m with Joyelle–“snake-wreathed slaughterface” is rockin’!

    I love G Davenport’s proposal that Picasso is cro-magnum; if anyone here hasn’t read his story Robot–oh do!