“Ancient Archetypes, Amber Heard, and How to Avoid Both” read a headline on a rightwing US website in May. It was illustrated with Caravaggio’s painting of Medusa, her hair a writhing mass of snakes, her eyes bulging, her mouth open in a silent scream. “Don’t look at her, Johnny! She may turn you to stone!” read the first line of the piece.
There is no more potent symbol of male fear of the female gaze than Medusa. She can destroy you with a single glance. For my generation, we knew this at a very early age, from the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans. Harry Hamlin, as the handsome young hero Perseus, has been sent on a quest to find the head of a gorgon. He hunts Medusa to a dark cave, and discovers that she is hunting him too: armed with a bow, she picks off his comrade with an arrow, and then petrifies him with her glowing eyes. Perseus has to approach her by looking at her reflection in his shield, and even once he has killed her, she is toxic. Her spilled blood is lethally corrosive. I love this film: it was my first introduction to Greek myth. But it cemented the idea of Medusa as predator in my mind for a long time. And, in recent years, the monstrous Medusa has become a default allegory for a hated woman in the public eye.
A 2016 cartoon of Benvenuto Cellini’s statue Perseus With the Head of Medusa became a hugely influential meme during the US presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s decapitated face replaced the gorgon head. The Cellini statue shows Perseus trampling on the torso of the woman he has beheaded. But, of course, she’s a monster, so we don’t have to worry about her feelings, or her body. It is a potent illustration of violent misogyny: even once he has killed this creature, his hatred is not quenched. He holds up her head as a trophy, crushes her ruined body beneath his feet. He who fights monsters, said Nietzsche, should take care he doesn’t become one himself.
Ancient Greek and Roman sources tell a very different story about Medusa. She isn’t a monster, although we have come to think of her that way; she is the mortal sister of two immortal gorgons. The three live together, and are devoted to one another. Her mortality is described by the poet Hesiod as a wretched condition: her sisters know that she will die while they live on. Medusa is also a survivor of rape. The assault on her body is compounded by a curse from the goddess whose temple her rapist profanes. No one punishes the rapist god, of course, but Medusa is given snakes for hair.
I spent the long winter lockdown of 2021 writing a novel about Medusa. When I finished the first draft, in September last year, I cried for two days. It wasn’t just relief at finishing the book (though I had been ill, so that was part of it). I realised that these gorgons were the family I had made to keep me company when I missed my own. By submitting the manuscript, I was leaving them, or allowing them to leave me, these women who had looked after my mind while I was trying to repair my body.
This dual nature – defending and attacking – is the key to understanding Medusa as something more than a monster. When the god Asclepius learns the art of healing, he is able to save the dying and revive the dead. He has the power to achieve this, according to Pseudo-Apollodorus (an ancient mythographer), because he is given two drops of Medusa’s blood by the goddess Athene. The droplet from the left side of her body is deadly poison. The drop from the right side is salvation. Medusa is – and always has been – the monster who would save us.
My book Stone Blind is the story of Medusa that I wanted to tell. She’s not a monster but a monstered woman, an early example of the way in which many societies punish women who have suffered physical and sexual harm. For a long time, I assumed it was simply misogyny that provoked this response: she was asking for it, she deserved it. As I get older, I wonder if it is a more complicated problem than that. The pain of seeing that a woman has been hurt – attacked by a police officer, beaten by her partner, raped by a stranger, a soldier, a boyfriend, a peacekeeper – is very hard to tolerate. And the statistics that accompany sexual assault are dizzyingly awful: 12 million women shared stories of abuse, assault and discrimination through #MeToo. More than a third of teenage girls in the UK say they have been sexually harassed at school. So now I wonder if we dehumanise women who talk about their pain because otherwise their pain would become ours. How else do we look at a roomful of teenage girls and tell them we accept the statistics they’re living through?
In 2018, we saw one example of Medusa being used to fight back against a narrative that literally silences women. At the time, Prof Christine Blasey Ford was giving evidence against supreme court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she claimed had sexually assaulted her many years before. He would go on to be appointed to the court. A meme circulated that showed a gender-switched reversal of another Perseus statue by Antonio Canova from the beginning of the 19th century. Canova’s statue shows Perseus in gleaming white marble, every inch the young hero, holding the head of Medusa. The 2018 meme showed Luciano Garbati’s reimagining of Canova’s statue, with Medusa naked, holding the severed head of Perseus. Some versions of the meme came with an accompanying text. “Be thankful we only want equality, and not payback.” The first time I saw this, I gasped. Then I wondered why I’d never gasped at the Canova statue.
A version of Garbati’s gender-switched statue now stands outside a courtroom in Manhattan. It may offer a more retributive version of justice than we would choose to see our legal system dispense, but it is no less important for that. Casual violence is done to women in art, in sculpture, in literature that we see all around us all the time. And we surely all need reminding that although this reflects normality for countless women, it isn’t normal, and we should keep noticing it.
• Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes is published by Mantle on 15 September. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.