Saturday, January 01, 2005

Medusa head at bottom of column, Istanbul, Turkey Posted by Hello

ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. This stone head at the base of a Roman column can be found in the innermost deepest part of a small waterworks museum in Istanbul, near the Haga Sofia and hippodrome. The museum allows visitors to wander a series of boardwalks around an underground water works from Roman times; I took these pictures while on sabbatical there in March 2004.

Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, with snakes intwined in her hair, commonly appeared on such columns at important buildings in ancient Greece and Rome. Originally, Medusa was a very beautiful woman who fell in love with Perseus. Mythology tells us that Athena became jealous of Medusa, and transformed her so that anyone who looked at Medusa would turn to stone (a feminist would ask: Is this the appropriate end for female beauty, a target of jealousy?). Even so, Perseus eventually killed Medusa, beheading her, thus ending her hypnotic power. Yet, the image of Medusa also appears frequently on Roman armour and shields, offering protection in battle. And statues of Perseus killing Medusa appear again and again.

Here, in this small museum, what's fascinating is that the column is turned upside down, as if to deliberately end the power of Medusa, yet in some way, continue her protection, as her face is not defaced or destroyed. Stephen Harris and Gloria Platzner, in their book Classical Mythology, point out the conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal belief systems (pages 123+):

"As long as death is perceived as part of the ongoing cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the Goddess's serpent is portrayed as a beneficent creature. Once the patriarchal perspective takes hold, however, death becomes the final blow to the hero's ego, and the Goddess's Underworld functions come to seem terrifying. The once beautiful serpent is now transformed into the hero's perpetual enemy, the dragon."

Harris and Platzner go on to refer specifically to the Greek Gorgon sisters (Stheno, Euryale and Medusa), showing a Gorgon from a marble relief at a temple of Artemis at Corfu (6th Century BCE), "whose bulging eyes, protruding tongue, and hair of snakes, along with her belt of entwined snakes, render her a truly hideous figure" (123). Since the snake is such an important symbol to east and west, how interesting this symbol is converted from a sign of power and protection to a female mask that one must destroy out of revulsion.

See the Gorgon pediment (west facade of the Doric Temple of Artemis) at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu at

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