Unbelievable part 13: We need to talk about Perseus
31 January 2020
‘Perseus [sometime after beheading Medusa] paused for refreshment at Chemmis in Egypt, where he is still worshipped, and then flew on. As he rounded the coast of Philistia to the north, he caught sight of a naked woman chained to a sea-cliff, and instantly fell in love with her. This was Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus, the Ethiopian King of Joppa, and Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia had boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids, who complained of this insult to their protector Poseidon. Poseidon sent a flood and a female sea-monster to devastate Philistia; and when Cepheus consulted the Oracle of Ammon, he was told that his only hope of deliverance lay in sacrificing Andromeda to the monster. His subjects had therefore obliged him to chain her to a rock, naked except for certain jewels, and leave her to be devoured. [... After saving her, Perseus] laid [the Gorgon’s head] face downwards on a bed of leaves and sea-weed (which instantly turned to coral).’
(Graves p. 226)
There were four sculpted Medusa heads across Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable cast in bronze (Punta della Dogana room 8), gold-plated silver (Dogana room 13), crystal glass (Dogana room 14) and malachite (Palazzo Grassi room 18), and another drawn in graphite pencil, ink and gold leaf on vellumi (Grassi room 23). That there were so many scattered throughout the exhibition may account for the amount of coral on the artefacts in the exhibition; between multiple Medusa heads and the invocation of the Shakespearean sprite Ariel in the opening text, there was ample coverage of fictional coral from fictional sources. Of The Severed Head of Medusa, the guide description (p. 17) reads:
‘Imbued with great apotropaic powers, the Gorgon – depicted here following her decapitation at the hands of Perseus – features repeatedly in the collection. Rendered in diverse materials including malachite, gold and crystal, these works emphasise the unique combination of themes Medusa personifies: horror, fear, sex, death, decapitation, female subjugation and petrification. Once severed, her head retained extraordinary transformative properties: Ovid relayed that it was Medusa’s blood, dripping from her neck onto twigs and seaweed strands, and still harbouring the power of petrification, that accounted for the existence of coral.’
|The Severed Head of Medusa, crystal glass, Damien Hirst, 2017, Punta della Dogana room 14 (with Mermaid behind outside)|
In deliberately describing the Gorgons as possessing magic that deflects harm or evil, and in pointing out that even in death Medusa retained transformative, life-giving rather than deadly powers, the guide invites a reconsideration of a potentially misunderstood adversary of the ancient mythical heroes.
The first head was situated in a room close to that of Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, otherwise known as Nereus, whose brother Phorkys who often shares the title and, partnered with their sister Keto (a name indicating large sea-creatures), is father to the Gorgons, the third of which being Medusa. Further keeping it in the family, Proteus was accompanied by Cerberus, whose Greek equivalent is Kerberos, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld, and who is grandchild to Phorkys and a sibling of Hydra (March pp. 38–9) about to battle Kali in the double-height room close by. This monstrous dynasty spawned by Phorkys keep the great mythic heroes busy, and it is through their encounters with them that the heroes win their fame.
However, the heroes were notably absent from the exhibition. As quoted above, Perseus is named once in the guide text while his great-grandson Herakles is not only excluded altogether, but replaced in one of his most famous battles by a westernised and cinematised version of the Hindu goddess Kali. This was a show in which misunderstood baddies are granted the limelight, and against whom, as in all the best horror movies, fantasies and fairy tales, plucky, isolated women must fend for themselves to survive. Captured in frozen moments before a violent encounter, we can only let our imaginations fill in the gaps – and perhaps indulging in some fan-fiction-like scenarios is precisely what is called for.
As per the myth, in Andromeda and the Sea Monster, fittingly cast in blue bronze, Andromeda (adhering to contemporary western beauty standards rather than the ancient world’s) is naked, chained to a cliff-edge, and bracing herself for the cruel fate sent by a vengeful Poseidon surging towards her. At the very instant to which we bear witness, Perseus should have landed and be working that apotropaic magic on the monster, who is none other than the shark from Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975). But no, with no winged sandals or Gorgon heads on the horizon, Andromeda is left to her own devices. And much like the first victim in Jaws – a young woman demonstrating sexual agency and freedom as the USA was retreating back into conservatism – it seems like Andromeda is helpless and without a saviour. There she shares company with the woman being raped in the graphic Minotaur, and the endless work facing Kali in batting off constant and exhausting multiple threats embodied by Hydra.
Although regarded as one of the Greek heroes, Perseus’s story shows him up to be rather a cad. He goes after Medusa purely to live out a boast likely not meant to be taken seriously. He is helped by the war goddess Athene and the trickster Hermes. He blackmails the Graiai, the three sisters of the Gorgons, to tell him where to find particular nymphs to equip him with his winged sandals, Hades’s cap of darkness to render him invisible, and a special bag for Medusa’s head. He beheads Medusa as all three Gorgons sleep, and hastily flies off (March pp. 170–1). It sounds more cowardly than heroic when put that way, and even worse when we add that Medusa was pregnant (with Pegasos, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, meaning ‘Golden Sword’) and that her immortal sisters were heartbroken (March p. 172).
And the caddish behaviour doesn’t stop there. Perseus turns Medusa’s head upon Atlas for refusing him refuge because of his deed, giving us Mount Atlas holding up the sky. He also lets the blood drop over Libya, gifting it with deadly snakes. It is over the land of the Ethiopians that he comes across Andromeda, whose mother, boasting of her daughter’s beauty, angers Poseidon, and here we are. The story continues that Perseus immediately falls for Andromeda and cuts a deal with her father to save her, which he does, but she is betrothed to her uncle, so guess who gets shown the head? It would have been a happily-ever-after except Perseus manages to accidentally kill his grandfather. Still they have a family, a kingdom and constellations named after them. Their first child who remains with Andromeda’s parents as heir to their throne, Perses, becomes the ancestor of the Persian kings, so if Perseus doesn’t show up in the Treasures imagining of Andromeda’s story, I can only imagine a Back to the Future fading-from-the-photograph type scenario for him and some sort of feminist utopia in which all the women subjugated to men in these stories have a chat and form an alliance against kings and heroes.
Before indulging in such fantasies, in neither case does Andromeda possess autonomy, which, recalling my discussion of Hydra and Kali, indicates a trend that begs deeper exploration. And as with Hydra and Kali, the sea-monster hurtling towards Andromeda is sexed female and has a singular goal of killing. This might indicate power struggles rather than solidarity between the lesser privileged characters in these stories while also demonstrating a degree of parity in a world usually full of male-on-male and male-on-female violence. Given that Hydra’s heads are shaped like different breeds of snake from all over the world and that Poseidon’s sea-monster is embodied in the great white from Jaws, these characters are loaded with bigger issues than simply being terrifying killing machines, including, for example, globalisation, fear of the other, the effects of colonisation, fear of female sexuality and autonomy, and eco-critical readings of human interaction with the natural world.
This absence and replacement of the heroes and the centring and more rounded characterisation of the creatures the heroes attack and kill in the myths puts me in mind of Maleficent (dir. Robert Stromberg, 2014), a reframing of the fairy tale/Disney villain of Sleeping Beauty in which she retaliates for a neighbouring king’s damaging encroachment on her forest. From Hydra’s point of view, like the shark in Jaws she is protecting her territory and is attacked unprovoked by Herakles who has been given tasks that aim to finish him. Herakles’s fight with Hydra, just like Perseus’s with Medusa and the sea-monster, is about him proving himself and his masculinity at the expense of a being otherwise minding her own business (or following orders). It’s never about her, but him, and in each related work in the exhibition, the him is removed. While the retaliations for actions in the myths are harsh, in each case the mythical ‘goodies’ with their hubris and sense of entitlement instigate the tit-for-tat violence – Herakles is not sent on the twelve labours for nothing, for example. Looking at the stories in this way shows that the exhibition and works such as Andromeda and the Sea Monster and The Severed Head of Medusa invite a re-evaluation of what we consider good and bad as well as truth and lies, and that just like the latter, the former are blurred, complex and changeable depending on how you look at them.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: The Folio Society, 1996 [Penguin, 1955].
March, Jenny, The Penguin Book of Classical Myths (London: Penguin Books, 2008).
i It’s interesting how folk don’t seem bothered about the use of skin-based parchment paper, but are up-in-arms about preserved carcasses.