Medusa, Too?

Most of you have probably heard by now about Medusa with the Head of Perseus, a 7-foot statue that was recently installed outside the courthouse in New York City where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of sex crimes. And if you’ve heard of the statue, you’ve also heard a myriad of interpretations of it, because WOW do people have strong opinions about this. For some survivors of assault, the sculpture is cathartic and empowering both in its content and its current display context. Others see its simple “flip the script” narrative as everything that is wrong with art. Some folks are angry that Medusa is conventionally pretty.

Though its fame is recent, the sculpture was completed back in 2008 by Luciano Garbati. The work existed in relative obscurity until 2018, when it was hailed as “a symbol of feminist rage” and thus closely tied (by the media) to the rise of the #MeToo movement in the popular consciousness. I will say that my initial split-second reaction was basically triumphant feminist rage. But my next-second reaction was more like, “Wait…where’s her vagina? WTF kind of feminist symbol is a Barbie vagina?!” So, a different kind of feminist rage. And one in which I’m not alone, though it is amazing to me how many people are more angry about Medusa’s nudity than they are about her anatomically incorrect nudity. Garbati went to so much trouble to make the breasts and figure realistic; are vaginas really so offensive that he couldn’t continue the realism there?

Please notice the distinct lack of vagina. Is this what men think we look like under our clothes? Do they think vaginas are scary and/or ugly? For girls who see this statue, what does this tell them about their bodies?

The statue’s rise to fame alongside the Me Too movement and its current placement in Lower Manhattan have caused many people to misinterpret the statue as a symbol of Me Too. But it is not at all symbolic of Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement, and attempts to say otherwise are misguided and misinformed about both the sculpture’s place in art history and the true purpose of Me Too.

Text of Burke’s caption: I have been sent this @nytimes article several times in the last day or so. For those who haven’t seen it – this statue of Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus has been placed across from the courthouse in Manhattan.
Normally I let these things pass but I just feel the need to speak on this.
This statue of Medusa holding the head of Perseus has been dubbed by some, including apparently the sculptor, as a tribute to the ‘me too.’ Movement and it could not be more INACCURATE.
First, let me say as a survivor, if this feels cathartic to you – I’m not taking anything away from that. However, this Movement is not about retribution or revenge and it’s certainly not about violence. It is about HEALING and ACTION.
But let me tell you what the Movement is also not:
People who don’t identify as women experience sexual violence.
Children experience sexual violence
and MEN experience sexual violence.
This statue doubles down on the idea that this Movement is about hunting down men. It also ties our healing to revenge and casts the semblance of justice that comes from the judicial system as retribution as opposed to accountability.
Even in this article the sculpture says that Medusa was raped by Poseidon but she’s holding the head of Perseus.
None of it is right. This isn’t the kind of symbolism that this Movement needs and honestly, if the sculptor wanted to pay tribute to the ‘me too.’ Movement he should have given me a call and I would have told him to take a clue from @breakthesilenceday who built the first ever Survivors Memorial recently unveiled in Minneapolis. It pays honor to the courage and strength of survivors of sexual violence on whose backs this movement is built. It provides a beautiful space for respite and restoration and doesn’t involve harm doers in any capacity. He could have even created something to memorialize the women who have stood outside of that courtroom in beautiful solidarity.
This monument may mean something to some folks but it is NOT representative of the work that we do or anything we stand for. Be clear.

Ultimately, whether you like Garbati’s sculpture or not, its artistic choices, its current display location, and the attempts to connect it to a movement that was not the actual context for its creation combine to make this an excellent example of why displays of public art really need to be accompanied by good labels to give context. Maybe then, at the very least, people wouldn’t be so confused about why she’s holding Perseus’s head instead of Poseidon’s.

But if you, dear reader, are one of those people confused about whose head Medusa is or should be holding, allow me to enlighten you.

The myth of Medusa is a sad one. In Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses, Medusa was a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Athena was furious that such an act defiled her temple. But as was usual in antiquity and all too common now, all that rage was directed squarely at the victim rather than the perpetrator. Rather than try to punish her fellow god, Athena punished Medusa by transforming her into a monstrous creature with snakes for hair whose stare would turn any living creature to stone. (Lots of people will have you believe that Medusa’s gaze would specifically turn men into stone, but the sources don’t support that. It’s just that Medusa only ever petrified men because only men were stupid enough to try to get a close look at her.)

Medusa lived in exile (in some versions, with her sisters who were also monstrously transformed), cut off from all human society forever. Rather than become an object of pity, men continued to consider her body as an object for the conquering: killing Medusa was the new object of every would-be hero. Of course her petrifying gaze conquered all of them, until Perseus came along. He managed to behead Medusa by only looking at her reflection in his shield, in which her gaze was rendered innocuous. Ovid also has Perseus kill Medusa while she sleeps, which fits the tradition when confronted with monsters (think Odysseus blinding Polyphemus), but makes him decidedly less impressive in my book. Perseus kept Medusa’s head in a special bag, since her eyes maintained their petrifying power even in death, and used it as a weapon to defeat the sea monster sent to destroy Andromeda.

Unknown artist, late 1st c. BCE. Wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda in landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase. Housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by yours truly, 2019.

The story of Perseus “defeating” Medusa and using her power to rescue Andromeda has been a popular theme in art since antiquity, even in our own times with the 1981 film Clash of the Titans and the (truly dreadful) remake in 2010. The Italian Renaissance was no exception to this, of course. More than one artist tried his hand at this theme, but the most famous version remains Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, housed at the Loggia in Florence.

Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-1555. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Wikimedia Commons. Please note the anatomically correct genitalia.

This work was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, a great-grandson of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent). Cellini needed the work to make a statement of the Medici’s power over Florence, so placing Perseus and Medusa’s petrifying head in a loggia already filled with marble statues made a playful but powerful statement. Even Cellini’s method made a statement of grandeur: monumental bronze statues of the day were cast in several pieces and then put together, but Cellini took the much more difficult (and thus more impressive) road of casting the sculpture all in one piece. Cellini’s statue stands on a marble base with scenes from the story of Perseus and Andromeda on each side; figural bases were common in antiquity but not in Cellini’s time, so this was both an innovation and a nod to ancient tradition. Notice, too, that Perseus is trampling on Medusa’s nude headless corpse. Perseus is shown definitively as a conquering hero, a destroyer of monsters and protector of women and social order. (Barf.)

If you have done any study of European art history, or any travel in Italy, you know about Cellini’s Perseus. And if you know about Cellini’s Perseus, then it was immediately obvious to you what Garbati’s Medusa was trying to do. This is a textbook flip-the-script, in many ways: though some details of stance are changed, all Garbati has really done is reverse the roles. Medusa does not hold Poseidon’s severed head, as some people seem to wish she did, because there is no statue of Poseidon holding Medusa’s head. And there is no statue of Poseidon holding Medusa’s head because Poseidon was not her killer (at least not directly).

Garbati’s Medusa is in dialogue with art history as much or even more than it is with ancient Greek mythology. Garbati’s Medusa fits Western beauty conventions because Cellini’s Perseus fit Western beauty conventions. Medusa is nude because ancient heroes were always depicted nude, and Renaissance painters and sculptors followed that precedent. Perseus holds Medusa’s head aloft as a weapon; Medusa’s only weapon is her sword, her petrifying gaze rendered static so we who view her full in the face are not in danger. Perseus is triumphant, a conqueror who saw only a monster in Medusa; Medusa is somber, a victimized, mutilated, and outcast woman who has killed in self-defense.

Of course, Garbati’s Medusa fails to live up to its goal in a few key ways, number one being the Barbie crotch. (Why, whyyyy the Barbie crotch?!?) Although flipping the script can be a powerful method of making viewers confront their preconceived notions of gender, it is really only useful as a first step toward dismantling internalized patriarchy. Although portraying powerful women refusing to take any shit feels cathartic, we know that very little real progress can be made when women and femmes simply replicate the power structures and methods of our oppressors. In some ways this Medusa does us a great service in pointing out all the ways in which our society is still very backward when it comes to the treatment of women’s bodies, because it plays into some of those outdated cultural narratives.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. A sculpture that holds deep emotional meaning for me may mean nothing to you; neither of our feelings are invalidated by the other’s. Garbati’s Medusa is a response to and engagement with the Western art historical tradition, nothing more or less. To attempt to make her more than that, to attempt to make her represent the entire Me Too movement which is built on rejecting violence, distorts both the sculpture and the purpose of the movement.

The Princess Bride is a Greek Novel: Part Two

Another full-length blog post on the Greek novels and The Princess Bride?? Inconceivable!

Last week we talked about the frame narrative, historical past setting, pirate encounters and fake deaths, false identities and disguises, and the episodic plot that are all common to both this late 80s favorite and the ancient Greek romance novels. Today we finish off our comparison between The Princess Bride and Chariton’s novel Chaereas & Callirhoe with four more parallels, so settle in for some sidekicks, subplots, and melodrama:

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  • Rival suitors and marriages

So remember that bit about Buttercup being engaged to Prince Humperdinck instead of Westley? Buttercup makes sure that Humperdinck knows she does not love him, but she is just a farm girl, and what the prince says, goes. We aren’t privy to exactly how their engagement came about, but we can be sure that refusing Prince Humperdinck would have been dangerous for Buttercup and her family. (Of course it turns out that Humperdinck isn’t really into Buttercup either, he’s just using her, but that doesn’t diminish the powerlessness of Buttercup’s situation.)

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So too in our ancient novel, after Callirhoe is sold as a slave, she finds herself backed into a corner: her new master Dionysius is desperately in love with her and wants to marry her. Callirhoe wants to refuse but can’t tell him that she is already married, since slaves were not allowed legal marriages. But as she debates what to do, Callirhoe discovers that she is pregnant by Chaereas. For a female slave who had refused to sleep with her master to turn up pregnant by another man would be downright dangerous. For the safety of her child, Callirhoe has no choice but to marry Dionysius.

Eventually, of course, Chaereas finds out that Callirhoe is not only not dead, but in fact remarried; the dispute over whether she should stay with her first or second husband ends up going all the way to the Persian royal court for the Great King to decide. What could go wrong there?

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  • Helpful sidekicks

Every Batman needs a Robin, and every Greek novel hero has a best friend and sidekick without whom he would never be reunited with the heroine. In Chariton’s novel, Chaereas’s best bro is named Polycharmus. Chariton says they are like Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, the most famous (and controversial) bromance in Western literature. Polycharmus talks Chaereas out of suicide several times throughout the novel and is even sold into slavery with Chaereas, where Polycharmus completes both their allotted portions of work each day to save the despairing Chaereas from beatings. There’s no way Chaereas’s story would have had a happy ending without Polycharmus.

Even the antagonists get sidekicks in Chariton: the Great King of Persia is supposed to settle the dispute between Callirhoe’s first and second husbands and decide who gets to keep her, but of course he finds himself falling for her beauty in the process. Although the King never actually tries anything with Callirhoe, he does send his closest advisor to talk to her and figure out if she might be open to him making a move.

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And where would Westley be without Inigo Montoya and Fezzik? Sure, they try to kill him at the beginning when they’re working for Vizzini, but when Westley is “mostly dead” from being tortured at Prince Humperdinck’s hands, it’s Inigo and Fezzik who rescue him, take him to Miracle Max for a cure, plot to help him rescue Buttercup, and carry him when he’s too weak to stand. It’s safe to say that Westley would not have been a successful hero without his sidekicks, either.

As in Chariton, the movie’s bad guy gets a sidekick too: Prince Humperdinck’s six-fingered right-hand man, Count Rugen, encourages and enables Humperdinck’s worst tendencies. Count Rugen takes Westley off Humperdinck’s hands and tortures him under the guise of research. He’s a vicious character, but you have to admit that he has Humperdinck’s back….until his own past comes back to haunt him.

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  • Sad subplots

Many of the Greek novels feature secondary characters with tragic pasts, but since Chaereas & Callirhoe isn’t one of them, we’ll have to turn to a different novel instead. Achilles Tatius’s novel Leucippe & Clitophon actually has multiple tragic subplots: the first is the hero Clitophon’s cousin and mentor, Kleinias. Kleinias gives his boyfriend a horse as a gift, but when the young man takes it out to ride the first time, he is thrown from the horse and killed. Our narrator actually includes the entire story of the young man’s death and Kleinias’s private lament blaming himself for giving his beloved the horse that killed him.

Later, when our hero and heroine are fleeing to Egypt, they meet a young man Menelaus, who tells them his own sob story about being held responsible for the death of his boyfriend. (Personally I think both these stories are part of the ancient novel genre’s heterosexist agenda, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Our sidekicks in The Princess Bride have their own sad subplots as well. We don’t know much about Fezzik’s past except that he used to be “unemployed in Greenland,” which doesn’t sound like fun — though the book goes into more depth about Fezzik’s time in various fighting rings before he met Vizzini. Inigo’s 20-year quest to avenge his father’s murder, on the other hand, is a tragic subplot so compelling that he gets the most memorable line in the movie, which he says six times:

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  • “This is true love. You think this happens every day?”

In the Greek novels and in The Princess Bride, our star-crossed lovers are periodically separated and reunited during the course of the story. After Callirhoe’s apparent death and kidnapping, and after Chaereas’s search for her results in slavery, they meet in the court of the Persian King, where they are able to see each other but not speak directly. They are separated again by the war which breaks out in Egypt, and finally reunited for good when Chaereas finds Callirhoe among his captured women and they return to Sicily in triumph. 

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Likewise, Buttercup and Westley are separated for five long years, during which the presumed-dead Westley goes from pirate prisoner to captain’s protégé and Buttercup gets engaged to an evil prince. They are temporarily reunited when Westley returns to rescue Buttercup from Humperdinck’s hired mercenaries, but separated again when Buttercup agrees to return to Humperdinck if he spares Westley’s life (a deal which Humperdinck does his best to break). Finally they are reunited when a recovering Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik storm the castle, rescue Buttercup, and ride off into the sunset.

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There you have it, friends: definitive proof that The Princess Bride and Chaereas & Callirhoe are basically the same story. I genuinely believe that if more classicists realized this fact, more of them would be studying and teaching the novels. Seriously, what better way to get students interested in ancient literature than assigning them to watch movies like The Princess Bride and Ladyhawke as homework?? You heard it here first, people. If you need me I’ll be designing my future undergrad course on the Greek novels and 1980s fantasy-romance movies.

The Princess Bride is actually an ancient Greek novel.

Lest any of you think I am trying to stir drama: I am not saying that William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride, plagiarized his whole delightful book. I am saying that the general story, as laid out by Grandpa in the opening of the 1987 movie adaptation, has been around forever: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” Of course this may remind you of the Odyssey, and rightly so, but only slightly less well known is this: it corresponds even more closely with the Greek romance novels written in the first few centuries CE.

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Even the opening scene of Grandpa reading a book to his sick grandson and peppering it with commentary reminds me of the Greek novels: Achilles Tatius’ novel Leucippe & Clitophon, for example, begins outside the main story, as Clitophon agrees to tell the tale of his amorous adventures to a stranger. This is a device as old as time: the One Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Talesand Decameron are all stories within a story, characters spinning yarns of varying length and detail to pass the time, or to distract each other from what is happening around them, such as illness.

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Fred Savage & Peter Falk make up the outer frame story of The Princess Bride (1987)

The parallels with Greek novels inside the main story of The Princess Bride are much more striking, and there are a lot of them, so we’ll just cover Part One today. I’ll use the Greek novel we think is the oldest, Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton (1st century CE), as our main point of comparison, but I’ll bring in other ancient novelists occasionally where the parallels fit.

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Haters of PDA, never fear: the Greek novels are generally pretty chaste. The novels’ heroes (for the most part) and heroines keep it in their pants until marriage, whether they want to or not. In two of the novels, including Chariton’s, the couple actually gets married at the very beginning of the story before their separation begins, but even so, we see little more than a kiss or two.

Behold, definitive proof that The Princess Bride is modern America’s ancient Greek novel:

  • Historical Past Setting

The Princess Bride is essentially historical fiction: it is set in medieval or early modern Europe, in the made-up countries of Florin and Guilder. Similarly, Chaereas & Callirhoe takes place in the 5th century BCE and includes historical places and figures: the heroine Callirhoe is presented as the daughter of Hermocrates, a general from Syracuse who played a role in defeating the Athenians’ Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War.

  • “Murdered by pirates is good!”

In the Greek novels, the sea is always a dangerous place, and expeditions usually end in either shipwreck or capture by pirates. In Chariton, Callirhoe is taken from her tomb in Syracuse by pirates and sold as a slave in Ionia (modern-day Turkey). Why was she in a tomb in the first place? Chaereas thought Callirhoe was cheating, and in his rage he kicked Callirhoe in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her so she seemed dead. This of course is another trope of the novel: the fake death, or Scheintod.

In The Princess Bride, Westley sails off to seek his fortunes, but his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Westley is presumed murdered; Buttercup despairs and declares she will never love again. Of course, this is a Scheintod: we know that the hero can’t die in the first 15 minutes of the movie, but we also don’t know how or when Westley will show up again. Which leads to my next parallel…

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“You’re the Dread Pirate Roberts, admit it!”

  • False identities and disguises

What’s an adventure romance without a little good case of mistaken identity? Near the end of Chariton’s novel, Chaereas mistakes his beloved Callirhoe for one of the Persian women he’s just captured, and she mistakes him for an Egyptian general. Callirhoe finally recognizes Chaereas by his voice, and a joyful reunion ensues. In Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Tale, the heroine disguises herself as a beggar so that she can make her way across the Egyptian countryside unnoticed; her disguise is so good that the hero doesn’t recognize her until she speaks their code word. In Achilles Tatius’ novel, the heroine is sold into slavery: with her shaved head, tattered clothes, and scarred back, the hero can see only a slight resemblance to his beloved and only discovers for certain that it is her when she writes him a letter.

In The Princess Bride, Buttercup is kidnapped by mercenaries (very Greek-novel-esque) and then “rescued” from those mercenaries by none other than the Dread Pirate Roberts. By his attitude and carriage and little eye mask that really doesn’t hide his face convincingly, Buttercup is convinced of his identity as the man who killed her Westley. She does not realize that the Dread Pirate is in fact her beloved Westley until he cries out his signature phrase to her: “As you wish!”

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  • Episodic adventure

In The Princess Bride, the lovers face strange and exciting obstacles in their quest to be reunited: a sword fight, a giant fight, a lethal battle of wits, the dangerous terrain of the Fire Swamp, capture, torture, revival by grouchy miracle man, and storming a castle. The progression of adventures and obstacles doesn’t necessarily make sense. Each new adventure that the hero and his friends must face is seemingly random; there is no logical reason for the Fire Swamp and its many terrors, or a giant fight, or for the subplot of Inigo Montoya’s quest for revenge against Count Rugen — and yet.

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The ancient novels are the same way; each new adventure episode is introduced seemingly by chance. Pirates just happen to notice Callirhoe’s expensive funeral and decide to raid her tomb, where they find her alive; Chaereas and his best friend Polycharmus are in the wrong place at the wrong time while looking for Callirhoe and get sold into slavery, and they only escape execution by the skin of their teeth, because someone hears Polycharmus lamenting about Callirhoe. War just happens to break out in Egypt in the middle of the court trial for who will be Callirhoe’s husband, giving Chaereas the opportunity to beat the Persian King and get Callirhoe back.

There is no rhyme or reason to the heroes’ wanderings in any of the ancient novels, but if getting back together were straightforward and easy, the books would be no fun at all. The happy ending isn’t the interesting or good part, it’s all the stuff in the middle that counts.

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There is more to talk about here, but I can feel your eyes glazing over already, so here ends Part One of our exploration of the wonderful world of “Sara’s dissertation topic meets The Princess Bride memes.” See you next week for Part Two!