Claire Litt //
Medusa was once renowned for her loveliness, and roused jealous hopes in the hearts of many suitors. Of all the beauties she possessed, none was more striking than her lovely hair. […] But, so they say, the lord of the sea robbed her of her virginity in the temple of Minerva. Jove’s daughter […] to punish the Gorgon for her deed, she changed her hair into revolting snakes. (Ovid, quoted in Seeling, 897)
Classical mythology’s abundance of arcane symbolism means that it will gratify any preconceived schema scholars apply to it. Nevertheless, the Medusa myth provides an origin and rough chronological marker for the emergence of a historical theme that links blood, stones, and snakes with women’s bodies. These interrelated symbols are associated with women’s bodies as sites of sexual reproduction. Instances of their appearance together in Classical Greek mythology, on gemstones from Late Antiquity, and a votive altar from Byzantium, illuminate a conceptual framework in which women understood their reproductive health in pre-modern times. My own framework of interpretation for these symbols in relation to women’s bodies sees blood as representative of two sides of the same coin, reproductive ability or miscarriage, and stones as protective materials. Snakes maintain their widely recognized connotation in Ancient Greek culture of wisdom or knowledge.
The Medusa myth is an archetype, making elements of it familiar even to first-time readers: the symbolic fertility of long hair, the punishment and ostracization of the victim of sexual assault, and the association of snakes with knowing things – in this case, of the loss of virginal ignorance. Like the Medusa story, snakes and blood are symbols that hold some resonance today. Snakes continue to be associated with women because the story of Eve’s temptation in the Book of Genesis is central to the Christian cultural heritage of the Western world. Blood has likewise endured as a symbol because menarche signifies reproductive ability. Stones are no longer particularly associated with women, but Medusa’s complicated relationship with them can help to recover a sense of their role in the symbolic material triad.
When Minerva, or Athena according to Greek mythology, turned Medusa’s hair into snakes, she also made her gaze turn men into stone. Despite the traditional interpretation that Athena’s curse on Medusa was a punishment, it can also be seen as a protective gift. This is alluded to in a subsequent myth, when the hero Perseus sought to defend his bride Andromeda from the advances of Phineas, who had dishonest designs on her. Perseus beheaded Medusa and held up her head to Phineas, who said, “Put it down, your Gorgon’s head […] that makes men marble” (V.220-222). While it was Medusa’s curse that she could never love a man, her monstrous appearance and petrifying gaze protected her from subsequent sexual assaults and went on to protect Andromeda from a similar fate.
Yet Medusa has a more significant association with stones which underpins their use in ancient medical practice:
The fresh seaweed […]
Absorbed the Gorgon’s power at its touch
Hardened, its fronds and branches stiff and strange.
After Perseus beheaded Medusa, he placed her head on a bed of seaweed on the shore of the Red Sea. The blood ran into the seaweed and turned it into coral. In the 1st century CE, Pliny tried to give the stone’s association with Medusa a more rational etymology. In Natural Histories he wrote “coral […] though soft in the sea, it afterwards assumes the hardness of stone” (Pliny, 37.56). It is because of its red colour and association with the Medusa mythology that coral has been identified as a bloodstone, a group of stones worn by women in antiquity for their medically apotropaic qualities (Budge, 314). Medusa’s mythological ability to turn potential assailants into stone was reinforced in practice by women wearing stones supposedly made of her blood to ward off evil.
The stone most commonly referred to as bloodstone, hematite, was thought to have medicinal qualities that were especially important for women. Greco-Roman hematite amulets were often engraved with an image of Medusa’s head and the word hystera (womb). Historians in the early twentieth century argued for hematite’s medical significance, stating that the “blood-red powder scraped off this stone was used freely as a medicine by the ancients to stop bleeding” (314). Scholars have agreed that these stones must have been used to ward off the evil eye and prevent ‘wandering womb’ and miscarriages. These conclusions, as well as the link between bloodstones, Medusa’s blood, bleeding, the image of Medusa’s decapitated head and the inscription of the word ‘womb’, are underscored by hematite’s high iron content. Coupled with evidence that ancient people chipped and powdered the stone, it seems likely that these supernatural amulets also had a practical medicinal use. Women could have consumed parts of the high-iron stone, either because they were anemic or because they had suffered miscarriages and felt that hematite would restore their iron levels. In myth, Medusa’s blood turned into stone, but in reality, perhaps stones turned into blood.
The connection between women’s reproductive ability and stones is complicated by the snake symbolism. While in Christianity the snake is an evil figure, or at the very least is associated with illicit knowledge, the pre-Christian snake is representative of knowledge in a broader sense. The Chnoubis has the body of a snake and the head of a lion, and is another device to protect women’s reproductive ability [Figure 1]. It is commonly found on ancient gemstones, and sometimes even on the front of stones engraved with a Medusa head on the reverse. The Chnoubis was meant to channel the healing knowledge and power of its celestial progenitor. Its head references the Leo constellation, which in ancient medical astrology reigned supreme over the kardia. This included the heart, stomach, and uterus (Pitarakis, 234). The Chnoubis’s snake-body melds the Medusa snake mythology with that of the healing god Ascelpius (March, 140), whose rod and snake remains a medical symbol today. Whereas Medusa’s snakes might be interpreted as women’s knowledge of sexuality, Asclepius’s snakes have healing knowledge. This is attested to by artefacts such as the “Votive Alter to Asklepios”, found in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Pitarakis, 200). It is a stone carving of a woman’s stomach, which has been opened to show a snake moving through its organs to heal them.
The appearance of these interrelated symbols in various places and times attests to the concern women had for their reproductive health throughout millennia. Blood, stones, and snakes effectively created a flexible conceptual framework in which women could interpret and attempt to remedy their health concerns. It is with in this system that women understood their reproductive systems, protected themselves from evil, and engaged in healing practices.
Budge, E.A. Wallis. (1930). Amulets and Superstitions. London: Oxford University Press.
March, Jennifer R. (1998). Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Cassell Reference.
Pitarakis, Bridgette. (ed.), 2015. Life Is Short, Art Long – The Art of Healing in Byzantium. Istanbul Pera Museum.
Pliny the Elder. “Book 37, Chapter 56” in The Natural History. Translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley. Perseus Digital Library. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hoppertex tdoc = Perseus: text1999.01.0126 (Accessed October 12, 2018).
Ovid & Melville, A. D, ed. (1998). Metamorphoses. Oxford Oxford University Press.
Seelig, B.J. (2002). “The Rape of Medusa in the Temple of Athena.” Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 83(4): 895-911.
Amulet. Magical Gems Collection, National Museums of Liverpool. Liverpool, England. Accession number: M12604. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/collections/an tiquities/roman/magical-gems/item-479672.aspx.