The word ‘Medusa’ means ‘sovereign female wisdom’. The most popular legend about Medusa is that she was once a young and beautiful woman, but that she was seduced by the sea-god Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Athena was furious and turned her into a monster with snakes for hair and the power to turn everything she looked at to stone. The Greek hero, Perseus, was given the task of killing the Gorgon, Medusa and was helped by Hermes, who gave him a pair of winged sandals, and by Athena who guided him to the right place and held up a polished shield so that he could cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone by her gaze. On the way home from his successful quest, he used the Gorgon’s head to rescue Andromache, a beautiful maiden, from a sea monster.
A feminist reading of the mythology sees this myth as symbolising the suppression of the divine feminine by the rising patriarchal society of Classical Greece. Snakes have always played a dual role, both as representatives of evil and of healing. Freud saw the myth as symbolising a fear of castration in the male, where snakes have a phallic image, and the innate fear of female sexuality finds expression in Perseus’ slaying of Medusa.
In Duffy’s poem, we hear the voice of Medusa as a wronged woman – the bride left at the altar, having been betrayed. The snakes become symbols of the jealous suspicious thoughts inside her head. Duffy uses sound patterning to reinforce this idea "my thoughts / hissed and spat on my scalp". She is changed by the poison of jealousy, rather than by Athena "My bride’s breath soured, stank/in the grey bags of my lungs./I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,/yellow…
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