For thousands of years, the symbol of the Medusa was used to represent the power of fear and the knowledge that we can, by approaching our fears in an enlightened state of mind, find a way to overcome them.
However, for a brief time, in the first half of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud seemed to turn an archaic myth on its head, if you’ll excuse the pun, and render its transformative motifs into something far more repressive.
In his poorly argued essay, Medusa’s Head, Freud declared the Medusa to be a symbol of castration. He cites the decapitation of the mythic female figure as a response to a male’s first sight of female genitals and the resulting emasculation anxiety. (1.)
This particular view has been rejected today and in particular by feminist writers and thinkers who, rightly, argue that Freud was reducing the Medusa to a visual construct for men, with no integrity or role in her own right.
Obviously, we can find all kinds of phallic symbolism in the Medusa, from snakes to her power to ‘stiffen’ and this falls into Freud’s obsession with penis-envy. However, Freud himself seems to be unsure of how to prove his own theory, writing in Medusa’s Head that, “In order seriously to substantiate this interpretation it would be necessary to investigate the origin of this isolated symbol of horror in Greek mythology as well as parallels to it in other mythologies.” (2.)
Perhaps Freud’s failing is best summed up by Freudian scholar and Professor of philosophy at Lakehead University, Todd Dufresne when he writes, “… it is psychoanalysis itself that has infected the Western soul with penis envy, oedipal conflicts, death drives and so on. For these ideas are not given to, and cannot be found in, the world. They must be created.” (3.)
When we return to the original myth we discover that the role of the Medusa does not end with her beheading. In fact, it is only through her death that Perseus discovers the gifts hidden within the Gorgon.
This is also what Freud failed to take account of and, perhaps, deliberately overlooked in order to try and substantiate his theory.
So, who is the Medusa and what was her original role? We might be surprised to learn that the Medusa is most likely a Greek version of The Green Man.
The Green Man is a nature deity usually portrayed with vines emerging from his head and this compares well to the Medusa and her snake hair. (4.) (5.) His first incarnation was as Osiris, who was portrayed as being green skinned, just as the Medusa, and was representative of the primal logos. Logos has been mistranslated as meaning word, but in fact, it’s true descriptive is ratio or pattern, linking it more to the Tao rather than the anthropomorphized Christian meaning.
We can now reassess the Greek myth and begin to understand its true lesson.
On the surface, Perseus must find a way to slay something whose direct gaze will turn a person into stone. Immediately, we are given a hint about the archaic, yet well-observed psychology at work in the story. What we are being told is that sometimes a fear is best overcome by guile and an unorthodox approach, rather than a direct confrontation.
The Greek gods can be seen as representations of the mind, and in this context, the gifts they give Perseus are then allegorical, psychological tactics.
These gifts consist of Athena’s mirrored shield, a cloak of invisibility from Hades, winged sandals from Hermes and a sword from Hephaestus.
In archaic symbolism, these represent the same aspects of gnosis and the attributes of mind needed to overcome a fear or blockage in our spiritual progress.
With the mirrored shield Perseus is showing us that we must find a new angle to approach our fear; sometimes face to face confrontation is useless and we must learn to find a new perspective which gives us an advantage we were previously unaware of.
The winged sandals represent the opportunity for lateral thinking: Hermes is the messenger of the higher mind which overlooks all things, so allowing Perseus to take flight means to break from the used paths of before and compliment the perspective of Athena’s shield.
The sword has been a symbol of direct action and force of will in almost every culture and, the god Hephaestus, who made the sword, is often given the epithet Polumetis, which means crafty or shrewd.
Finally, Perseus is given the gift of invisibility. Interestingly, this may be based on the syncretism of Greco-Buddhist philosophies which had begun as far back as the 5th century BC in Hellenistic cultures. (6.)
In this instance, the concept of invisibility is directly related to the prevalent Orphic or Asclepian practice of incubation meditation, where a seeker would remove themselves from all sensory stimulation in order to receive the communication of the gods or higher mind.
All of these gifts represent alternative ways of thinking which can be utilized in order to progress past fear.
In his philosophical work In the Dark Places of Wisdom, Peter Kingsley writes of the secret Pythagorean meditation techniques, saying, “That’s the real reason for the stillness practiced in incubation. It was a method for coming as close as possible to the divine world.” and, “For the stillness itself was something that belonged to the heroes and the gods. (7.)
So, Perseus, representing the self that must grow past its fear, is equipped to overcome the Medusa by utilizing the gods, or higher mind, of which he is a part and which was always the potential of the self.
When Perseus has conquered his fear he has moved onto a new stage in his psychological evolution. This is shown by the two ‘brothers’ who spring forth from the dead Medusa’s body; Pegasus, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, a youth who carries a golden sword.
We see that what is overcome is also transformed: Pegasus and Chrysaor being symbolic of the ability to think from a higher perspective and to discern with a new sharpness.
Of course, these myths are profound not just because they contain psychological wisdom but also the macroscopic, universal wisdom of the ages. By understanding how these myths speak to us, we can see past the literalism and cultural motifs and apply the esoteric lessons and gnosis that they have always contained.
David Halpin. © 19/12/2015
- Sigmund Freud. On Sexuality P311.
- Sigmund Freud. Medusa’s Head (Das Medusenhaupt, 1922)
- The Mythic Forest, the Green Man and the Spirit of Nature: The Re-emergence he Spirit of Nature from Ancient Times into Modern Society. Gary R. Varner (P.129.)
- Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, p. 43
- Peter Kingsley. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. (P 186.)