Much like the myth of Medusa, it’s a tale as old as time.
The story goes like this: Men sexually abuse women and get away with it for a very long time due to a culture of silence. Women start a movement aimed at speaking out about the abuse and bringing down these men. A lot of men don’t much like this movement, and write things about how this movement is Bad, Actually, because of reasons and facts, and definitely not because they don’t like being called out. Years later, the movement itself becomes epitomised by a statue of a mythical monster/woman made by a man, which annoys a lot of men into writing about it, and women just sort of stand by the sidelines and wonder when, exactly, their movement got co-opted into being some kind of bizarre art critique of male art by men.
There are many things that I, as a lady, a Classicist, and the author of a novella retelling the myth of Medusa from her perspective (it’s called Here, the World Entire; you won’t have heard of it) would like to say about the statue of Medusa by Luciano Garbati, some of which are positive and some of which most certainly aren’t, and when I have more than half an hour to sit down and write it, I will. For now, let me try and point out why so many of the critiques of this statue fall flat.
This morning, The Critic, a magazine which boldly claims to prioritise intellectualism over opinion, published what I can only describe as a Take on the Garbati Medusa. In a nutshell, the article, written by human male and not-Classicist Daniel Miller, conveys some sort of garbled nonsense about how the statue doesn’t work because Perseus was innocent, actually (perhaps Miller forgets the part of the myth where Perseus indulges in some light decapitation) and because myth being retold or changed for a political message is millennial narcissism, which also leads into Covid being a lie and gender studies being invalid, or something. And you know, fine. There have been a multitude of bad takes about this statue since its conception in 2008. This is just one of many; it doesn’t so much break new ground as it does tread the same old manure heap. But for it to be published in a supposedly non-partisan magazine which proudly purports to value pure intellectualism over ethos, you’d expect it to at least back up some of its assertions with actual logic, right?
Apparently not. The article was posted in a Whatsapp group I’m in which largely (although not entirely) consists of women, all of whom work with myth and Classics to some degree, and the overall response to the article wasn’t, as I’m sure Miller would expect from such a group of women, so much ‘I disagree with him on an ideological level but find his rigorous intellect sound’ as it was an incredulous ‘what the hell, does this dude even know what myth is?’
So, because The Critic is definitely a publication which values facts and intellectualism and doesn’t have any partisan affiliations whatsoever,* I assumed that they would want to correct this oversight, and I wrote to them.
I’m writing in response to a recent article, entitled ‘The Mirror of #MeToo’ by Daniel Miller, which first appeared on your site this morning.
I must admit that my first reaction to the article was complete bemusement. I chalked it down to reading it without my glasses, which is a frankly terrible habit and will only cause me problems further down the line, but when I reread it with my new and improved 20/20 vision, I didn’t find the peace I’d longed for. Instead, my emotions moved from bemused to very, very weary.
To be quite blunt, I found the article lacking in myriad ways, ranging from its complete misunderstanding of what the statue is supposed to represent to its total lack of awareness of Classical Reception as a field of study. It frankly seems to have been written with ‘statue bad because statue not like myth — prove?’ written on a Post-It note positioned above the writer’s laptop, which would almost be excusable if the article then made rigorous intellectual arguments to substantiate that reading. However, it doesn’t even come close.
It puzzles me, considering The Critic’s stated editorial commitment to counter the ‘lack of intellectual rigour’ you perceive in other publications, why The Critic would not have approached someone with an understanding of myth and narrative to write the piece. To be clear: although I disagree with Miller’s conclusions, I don’t take umbrage with his personal opinion. He’s allowed to feel however he likes about the statue; I myself have numerous issues with it, although not the same issues as Miller. I do, however, take issue with the fact that he takes several lumbering missteps to reach the aforementioned conclusion.
I frankly don’t have time to detail the numerous factual errors with the piece unremunerated, but a selection for your perusal follows:
- ‘In the original myth, Medusa wasn’t a sexual assault victim of Perseus, but the god Poseidon […]’
This is factually inaccurate. Firstly, there is no ‘original myth’. Myth as a narrative form cannot be accurately said to have an ‘original’ version at all, owing to the primarily oral nature of its early incarnations. Certainly, we have what I would term ‘earliest extant versions’, or perhaps ‘earliest surviving versions’, which in the case of Medusa would be Hesiod, dating from around 800–700BC, but this is not the ‘original’ myth by any means; Hesiod himself was drawing on earlier oral traditions.
Secondly, Miller is quite clearly referencing the myth as recounted by Ovid in this sentence, as this is the first extant version of the myth in which Medusa is raped by Poseidon. Even if we are to take Miller’s incorrect assumption that myth has an ‘original’ version, Ovid’s version of the myth dates to around 8AD, more than half a millennium after Hesiod’s, and so can hardly be a contender for the title.
It seems intellectually dishonest therefore to bemoan the besmirchment of a perceived pure, original myth, and use this besmirchment as the ideological crux of Miller’s article, and then cite as evidence an already much modified version of the myth. Again, I find that this directly goes against The Critic’s statement that intellectual rigour should be valued above an editorial line.
- ‘[…] if one can even really be the assault victim of a god.’
Well, quite frankly, one can, certainly within the context of myth. Ovid himself, in the recounting of the myth that Miller uses, tells us that Medusa was ‘violated’ by Poseidon, and there is an immense corpus of academic work by Classicists on the subject of rape by deities in Classical myth (see: Curran, Deacy as perhaps two of the foremost writers on the subject.) The idea that humans cannot be raped by gods is, somewhat ironically, a very modern idea, and not one that would have had any credence with the ancient Greeks and Romans that Miller accuses modern receivers of the myth of speaking over. Greek and, to a slightly more nuanced but not lesser extent, Roman deities were beholden to an entirely different moral code than humans, it’s true, but this does not negate the fact that rape and assault are, ultimately, crimes which occur when the victim does not consent.
Themes of maidens attempting in vain to escape the whims of the gods are abundant in myth (see: the myths of Daphne, Europa and Thetis as three excellent examples) and indeed often form the entire basis of the narrative (see the myth of Caenis/Caeneus, who is raped as a woman by Poseidon and asks to be turned into a man so that she can’t be raped again; surely one of the most damning ancient examples of the trauma of rape.) Miller’s presumed assertion that gods raping mortals is a modern ideology holds absolutely no academic or intellectual weight.
- ‘In the first place, Medusa is not a moral person, or merely a negative feminine stereotype, but an archetypal figure of equal cosmic power to the hero. They need each other, and every human person contains in some proportion both, but when one assumes the power of the other, the myth breaks down, and ceases to make sense.’
Again, this is untrue. Perhaps Miller would be interested in engaging with the field of Monster Studies, which posits that a monster, far from existing only to counter the Hero (indeed, if we’re discussing archetypes, this should be capitalised) in fact has a discrete and distinctive narrative role. Monsters are liminal creatures, existing on the periphery of society, often embodying cultural or social fears. Medusa herself is an excellent example of this (see: Cohen, Gloyn) and is often taken as symbolic for the fear of the sexually transgressive woman. To say that she exists merely as a foil for Perseus the Hero is a reductive reading of the myth and belies a lack of understanding of narrative theory.
- ‘Is it crazy to imagine that these phenomena are linked? According to Robert Graves, the myth of the Medusa corresponds to a real historical event: […]’
Using Robert Graves as a source here makes every single Classicist both sides of the equator shudder uncontrollably. This sentence was the point at which I broke out in metaphorical hives. Graves is not a Classicist; his euhemeristic (i.e. attempts to historicise) reading of mythology is without basis. It may interest the editor to know that Graves’ most famous work, The White Goddess, is a work which has been accused of single-handedly almost destroying the field of Celtic Studies through his assertion that Celts worshipped a tree goddess entirely of his own invention. Miller does not do his due diligence here by citing Graves in all seriousness.
Furthermore, any euhemeristic reading of a myth must be taken with not only a pinch but a generous armful of salt. There is absolutely no archaeological basis to support Graves’ assertion here, nor Miller’s citation of it, and his theory is based on little more than an unproven etymology of Medusa’s name. I cannot stress enough how unintellectual the whole thing is. It’s intellectually equivalent to claiming that Atlantis was situated in Georgia, and stating that we know this is definitely true because it sounds quite a bit like Atlanta.
- ‘Indeed, the idea that one can simply change a myth according to the ideological prejudices of modern political narratives holds up its own mirror to the narcissism of the contemporary world in its contempt for the past.’
This is the most intellectually dishonest sentence in the entire piece, and also the entire basis of its ethos, which is perhaps why the piece fails so spectacularly. Miller’s complete failure to understand the form and function of myth renders his entire argument flat.
Myth has been changed ‘according to […] ideological prejudices’ since time immemorial. We need only look back to Aeschylus’ retelling of the myth of the House of Atreus in his Oresteia trilogy, most notably the third part, Eumenides. Here, Aeschylus takes a myth which would have been familiar to his audience and decides to set the third and final act in the Areopagus Court at Athens, which was not previously a concept during the mythical setting of the narrative. Why did he do this, you may ask? Because the play was performed at the same time as sweeping justice reforms at the Areopagus Court at Athens. Aeschylus reworked the existing myth in order to comment on the contemporary justice reforms that he was living through. When did he do this? Around 500BC. Hardly an indictment of the ‘narcissism of the contemporary world.’
This is not an isolated incident, either. Plato retold the myth of Prometheus in his philosophical dialogue Protagoras, introducing a brother of Prometheus (foresight) named Epimetheus (hindsight) in order to draw attention to its themes of rationality and reasoned debate. Ovid reworked almost every ancient myth under the sun to comment on authority. Beyond the ancient examples, Emperor Charles V’s armour depicted him as a modern Hercules, slaying the Nemean Lion; the 13th century French roman Le Roman de Silence is, effectively, a reworking of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe with medieval gender norms thrown in for effect; and the Nazis used Classical iconography to hark back to a perceived historical (but in fact entirely mythical) all white European cultural heyday. This is not, as Miller posits, a narcissistic millennial trope.
Myth is inherently fluid, not static. This is not a bug, but a feature of both its form and function. The whole purpose of myth is that it can be reshaped, retold and reworked. These are not concrete narratives with accreted layers that can be chipped away at until you reveal a perfect original; the accretions are the narrative. I can only suggest that Miller reads about Classical Reception as a field of study. He might find something interesting in it after all.
I find these errors perhaps symptomatic of the choice of Daniel Miller, who is not, as far as my Google trawls can tell, a qualified Classicist, to write this article. It does rather make me wonder whether he was chosen for his ideological stance rather than his credentials, which, to me, seems like a flagrant violation of everything The Critic pertains to stand for.
I look forward to your reply, and if ever you feel like hiring a qualified, published Classicist and writer to give a critique of the statue which is well informed and intellectually rigorous, you know where to find me.