‘Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma’ (2017)
In Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom, edited by G. Livingstone, T. Hendren, and P. Daley. Girl God Publishing, 206-222.
Here is an excerpt:
Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma
‘Rather than being a bleeding image of female disempowerment, Medusa may be read as...one of the most ancient European symbols of women’s spiritual abilities... [and] an empowering image of feminine potential.’
Medusa is familiar to many as a symbol of women’s rage. Many feminists see their own rage reflected in the image of Medusa, ‘female fury personified.’ With her fearsome countenance framed with snakes, able to paralyse with a glance, it is true that Medusa is terrible, terrifying – but she is also terrified. Her face, frozen in an openmouthed scream, eyes wide, teeth bared, is the primal, primate mask of fear. This gut-wrenching image is an eloquent expression of women’s rage, but also, I suggest, of women’s trauma. In this short essay, I suggest that Medusa, Athena and Metis – goddesses of wisdom, healing, and protection – can offer valuable support to those on the journey of healing from trauma, but first we must look beyond patriarchal stereotypes which denigrate these powerful goddesses. Ultimately we are invited to hold our fear, rage and trauma in a place of love and compassion, for ourselves and others, so that we can be protected, instead of paralyzed.
Hillman states that ‘myths live vividly in our symptoms,’ and Keller responds, ‘symptoms live vividly in our myths.’ Paralysis, rage and disembodiment, three main elements of the Medusa story, are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to trauma healing expert Bessel van der Kolk, numbing, freezing, and immobilization are common responses to trauma, particularly sexual trauma. As well as causing a sense of being emotionally shut down, long-term trauma held in the body can result in ‘stiff,’ ‘rigid,’ or ‘stilted’ movement, posture, and expression, resembling paralysis. Trauma can also erode key social skills of self-control and self-regulation, causing the uncontrollable rage characteristic of PTSD. The brutal separation of head from body, a third element of Medusa’s story, may reflect the dissociation, fragmentation, and disconnection from the body also typical of the post-traumatic state....
Towards the end I write about the Goddess Athena in conncetion with the ancient practice of women's circle dance:
Healing from trauma is also facilitated by rhythmic action shared with others, such as music, song and dance. In ancient Athens, Athena was celebrated with choral dance and song, and similar practices can still be witnessed today in traditional women’s circle dances of Greece and the Balkans. Through my lifetime of researching these dances in situ, I have come to believe these dances provide essential comfort and healing support for women who must live under patriarchal oppression.
The dance circle itself is like Athena’s temple, the polis, the round enclosure within which the women are safe. To protect the city is to protect the city’s women, and this was Athena’s special domain: she was the guardian of the sacred space, the temple, the walled city or polis within which the women are kept secure.
I believe that traditional circle dances provide a context for women to affirm and transmit pre-patriarchal values, such as the importance of community, mutual support, and shared leadership, within a circular, not a hierarchical structure....
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