“Nature, red in tooth and claw”, these lines by Tennyson describe man’s primeval fear of nature. The jellyfish has neither tooth nor claw, it is not even a fish, but it is a pretty terrifying beast all the same: all are painful stingers, many are deadly. Alluding to the creatures’ agonising tentacles as well as it’s chilling beauty, the Swedish poet and botanist Linneus in 1752 coined the name Medusa.
Medusa had chthonic parents, but was not herself immortal, thus she was slain by Perseus who thereafter used her severed head as an offensive shield to petrify his enemies. Chthonic means from the deep, from the earth. These were the older gods who came to be displaced by the Olympians, they are the nature gods and their essence is androgynous or feminine.
They represent the awfulness of nature, the fear, but also the wonder; this is the cult of Dionysius. The Olympian masculine and warlike gods replaced the chthonic gods. This is the cult of Apollo who represents masculine dominance over nature, both nature without and nature within, and significantly is the god of art and music. How many female artists and composers can you think of?
Medusa, deadly, beautiful, but not necessarily vicious comes and goes in the history of art, her frightfulness seems to wax and wane according to men’s views on women. She was for example especially terrifying in the late nineteenth century, a time of rapid social change when women were asserting themselves and when a syphilis epidemic meant promiscuous sex was deadly.
And yet it is from this period that I have chosen Evelyn De Morgan’s sculpture of Medusa. There are precious few famous women painters and fewer still sculptors. Her Medusa is neither decapitated as she is in most art nor frightening. She looks like Ovid describes her, as a victim; raped by Poseidon, the goddess Athena and fellow Olympian then transformed the unfortunate woman’s beautiful hair to serpents and made the mere sight of her awful face so terrifying as to petrify mortal men.
Ultimately Medusa was a blameless victim with deadly power, like the snake itself which rarely bites unless provoked, and the medusa jellyfish which stings only if you invade its space. Nature is as cruel as it is blameless. Women and the feminine side of men have suffered as a result. Perhaps the result of all this suffering is art.
“A woman’s countenance, with serpent-locks
Gazing in death on Heaven.”