Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.09
David Leeming, Medusa: In the Mirror of Time. London: Reaktion Books, 2013. Pp. 128. ISBN 9781780230955. $25.00.
Reviewed by Kathryn Topper, University of Washington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This book traces the development of Medusa from her earliest appearances in Archaic art and poetry to her recent incarnations in film, body art, and high fashion. Aimed at non-specialist readers and surveying a broad range of media and genres, it could serve as an unofficial companion to Garber and Vickers’ Medusa Reader, a 2003 compendium of many of the same texts and images.1 Leeming’s stated interest is the study of Medusa in her historical, intellectual, and social contexts, and his gorgon is presented as a Rorschach blot that reveals her observers’ preoccupations and fantasies— for Marx, she stood for the evils of capitalist production, for Freud, the young boy’s fear of castration, and for Cixous, the promise of feminine resistance to an oppressive phallocentric discourse. This capacity for dramatic metamorphosis makes the gorgon a fascinating object of study, and Leeming’s proposal to follow her through her many transformations initially looks promising. Unfortunately, this program is undermined by a careless handling of evidence and some problematic assumptions about the nature of myth, shortcomings that are troubling in a book that is marketed as a study of history and mythology for the general reader.2 In fact, I worry that the non-specialist readers at whom the book is aimed are the very readers who are most likely to be misled by its frequent distortions of the evidence, so I find it difficult to recommend without a long list of caveats.
As noted in the Preface, Leeming’s goal is to “interpret [Medusa] in both her universal and more parochial cultural contexts” (p. 8). Accordingly, the first eight chapters proceed in chronological order, beginning with Hesiod and ending with Versace; the final two attempt to shed light on the nature of myth (Ch. 9: “Myth as Dream”) and of Medusa herself (“Conclusion: Who is Medusa?”). The range of representations included in the survey is commendable—along with Petrarch and Caravaggio, we encounter Annie Lennox and a Hammer Horror film—but the benefits of the scope are outweighed by serious problems in the author’s treatment of his evidence. Some of the most critical flaws occur in the chapters on the Greek and Roman material (Ch. 1: “The Myth” and Ch. 2: “Medusa’s Lineage”); under different circumstances, it may have been possible to dismiss these chapters as isolated weak points in an otherwise solid book. Unfortunately, Leeming’s interpretations of the later material build substantially upon his shaky understanding of the ancient evidence.
The shortcomings of this book lie in both the use of sources and the treatment of specific details. Leeming begins by attempting to reconstruct Perseus’ encounter with Medusa — as if it were an event lending itself to objective reconstruction —relying heavily on information attributed to Robert Graves, as well as some that appears to be of his own invention. Regarding Athena’s role in Perseus’ quest, for example, we are told that “It seems that the goddess Athene … overheard the conversation between Perseus and Polydektes about Medusa’s head and, hating Medusa for her own reasons, decided to help Perseus on his mission” (p. 12); no ancient source is provided for this detail. When ancient texts are cited, attention is rarely paid to genre, social context, or circumstances of composition. Authors such as Ovid and Apollodorus are used to fill in perceived gaps in earlier accounts, as if they were simply reporters of facts, and versions that do not suit Leeming’s understanding of the myth are written off as non-canonical variants.
The ancient images do not fare better than the texts, and they are badly misunderstood in places. Leeming writes, for instance, that “in its oldest Greek depictions in art the Gorgon is just as likely to be male as female. The faces are often bearded. When associated later more specifically with the Perseus myth, the Gorgon becomes exclusively female and gains a body; later her head becomes not in itself ugly—sometimes beginning in about the third century BCE, it is even beautiful, as if to emphasize its femininity” (pp. 23-25). Both the chronology and the understanding of visual details are erroneous. Although the absence of citations makes it difficult to know precisely which images the author has in mind when he refers to the “oldest” depictions, the bearded gorgon illustrated in this chapter appears on a Corinthian bowl dated to ca. 625 BCE (British Mus. GR 1861.4-25.46). Leaving aside the question of whether an isolated gorgoneion is always Medusa, it is clear that artists had begun by this time to associate gorgons with Perseus, as both the Eleusis amphora (Eleusis Mus. 2630) and the relief pithos in the Louvre (CA 795) attest. Nor is Leeming correct that the beautiful Medusa first appears in the third century BCE; this type can be traced at least as far back as the fifth century, when it coexists for some time with the monstrous version. Finally, the assumption that a bearded gorgon is male is incorrect. Vernant has written eloquently of the gorgon’s face as one in which “all the categories … overlap in confusion and interfere with one another,”3 and the beard belongs to that program of confusion; as with the masculine eyes on many black-figure gorgons, transgression of conventional gender norms is the point.4 One problem here seems to be that Leeming has consulted little current classical scholarship on his subject,5 relying instead on work by earlier authors such as Robert Graves and Jane Harrison and non-specialists such as Stephen Wilk.6
Leeming attempts to construct a narrative in which the monstrous gorgon of the pagan world evolves into a femme fatale in the medieval and early modern periods, then into the “beautiful victim” of Romantic and Victorian times before becoming a more polysemic symbol in the post-Victorian world. This argument requires him not only to ignore Medusa’s complexity in Greek representations (where she is alternately hideous and pathetic), but also to shift the entire Roman Imperial period into a medieval Christian milieu. This move is most evident at the beginning of Chapter 3 (“Medusa in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: The Femme Fatale”), where, after a brief survey of femmes fatales in the western tradition, it is stated that the “development of Medusa as a femme fatale began early in the Christian era in Greece and Rome and flowered when Christianity attained hegemony in Europe” (p. 31). Leeming goes on to discuss Lucan, Lucian, and Pausanias in this context, stressing the dangerous quality of feminine beauty in each of their accounts. Even if one were to accept that the representation of the gorgon as a femme fatale is an invention of the Imperial period,7 the implication that it was a consequence of Christian misogyny is baffling; one need only recall figures such as Pandora and Helen to understand that the profound suspicion of female beauty was far older than Christianity,8 so it is unnecessary to resort to the latter to explain Roman anxieties about the gorgon’s beauty.
An equally serious problem involves Leeming’s understanding of myth. For reasons that are never explained, Medusa is discussed as if she were a historical person: post-Victorian theorists are criticized for co-opting her narrative and adapting it “with little concern for her actual life story” (p. 103), while the poet Ann Stanford is praised for bringing readers “as close as we ever have [come] to what might have been the real feelings of Medusa in at least part of her story” (p. 74). As he notes in the Preface, the author sees himself as the gorgon’s biographer: “like any biography, [this book] is based on an examination of events, descriptions and interpretations recorded by earlier scholars, witnesses and contemporary commentators, and in part on the interpretations of the biographer” (p. 7). The problems with this approach to a mythological figure hardly require detailed elaboration,9 but it is unclear why Leeming would resort to it at all, especially when he cites no precedents or parallels for his methodology. Similarly puzzling is his attempt in the final chapter to discern the “real meaning of the myth” (pp. 104-105), as if the metamorphoses traced in the previous chapters could simply be undone, and an original and universal truth about Medusa could be uncovered. Although modern interpreters have understood Medusa in many different ways, Leeming writes, “our views do not change the reality of the myth. We are not Greeks, and it is an ancient Greek myth” (p. 105). As in the early chapters, the ancient Greeks are reduced to a monolithic group whose art and culture are the stuff of sweeping generalizations, and the arguments Leeming attempts to construct on this premise have a difficult time getting off the ground.
In the end, it is the sense of wasted potential that makes Medusa: In the Mirror of Time so disappointing. Its shortcomings aside, the book shows clearly that Medusa has held people’s attention for the better part of three millennia, and she shows no sign of letting go any time soon. In fact, while this review was being written, the singer Rihanna appeared on the cover of British GQ with her head covered in snakes—an indication, if one were needed, that Medusa still has much to say to consumers of twenty-first century culture. A study tracing her complex representations in the societies that have adopted her could reveal much about shifting attitudes toward sexuality, femininity, race, otherness, and many other issues, and such a study could undoubtedly appeal to non-specialist readers as well as to scholars. Unfortunately, Leeming’s book misleads more than it illuminates, so the definitive cultural history of Medusa remains to be written.
1. M. Garber and N. J. Vickers, eds. 2003, The Medusa Reader, New York/ London: Routledge.
2. The book is classified as “History/Mythology” on the dustjacket and as “General History” on the University of Chicago Press website.
3. J.-P. Vernant, 1991, “Death in the Eyes: Gorgo, Figure of the Other,” in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, ed. F. I. Zeitlin, Princeton/ Oxford: Princeton UP, pp. 111-138.
4. It is not only ancient art that receives questionable treatment; in his description of Edward Burne-Jones’ The Baleful Head (1887), for example, Leeming notes that the head rests in a tree (p. 51), even though it is clearly held by Perseus.
5. The bibliography is extensive; select recent discussions include R. Mack, 2002, “Facing Down Medusa (An Aetiology of the Gaze),” Art History 25, pp. 571–604; G. Hedreen, 2007, “Involved Spectatorship in Archaic Greek Art,” Art History 30, pp. 217-246; K. Topper, 2007, “Perseus, the Maiden Medusa, and the Imagery of Abduction,” Hesperia 76, pp. 73-105; S. Langdon, 2008, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100-700 B.C.E, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge UP; R. Taylor, 2008, The Moral Mirror of Roman Art, Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge UP.
6. J. E. Harrison, 1991 , Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Princeton: Princeton UP; R. Graves, 1955, The Greek Myths, Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc.; 1966, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, rev. ed., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; S. R. Wilk, 2000, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Oxford; New York: Oxford UP.
7. Beautiful gorgons appear in earlier art and literature; whether they may be described as femmes fatales is open to debate.
8. See most recently R. Blondell, 2013, Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation, Oxford; New York: Oxford UP.
9. For a more nuanced approach to the changes undergone by a single mythological figure, see the excellent introduction in M. G. Hopman, 2012, Scylla: Myth, Metaphor, Paradox, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge UP.