#iseesnakes – not a fallacy!
In Greek mythology, the gorgans are hideous looking women whose features include a coiffure that comprises living snakes instead of hair, and whose visage will turn you to stone if gazed upon; you get petrified – literally.
While the three best-known of the gorgons were the sisters, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa, the latter was the most notable of all. Legend has it that she was slain by Perseus who avoided petrification by looking upon her indirectly through her reflection in his shield.
I first came across their mythology as a kid watching a Hammer House of Horror film, The Gorgon, in which Megaera, the last of her line, was responsible for some mysterious deaths in a remote German village.
This all came back to me a few months ago when a colleague posted an article on Yammer by the Classics professor, Mary Beard. It was a thought-provoking article, based on earlier lectures in which she traced the history of the lack of a public voice for women back to the classical civilisations. It also provided a horrifying picture of the internet abuse that she has received as a woman speaking publicly in the modern-day.
Her lectures, which have now transformed into a short book, Women and Power: a Manifesto by Mary Beard, in part discusses the evil image of a harridan that was fomented by the gorgon myth, and how that translates directly today into the visual and verbal abuse directed at Hillary Clinton by, you’ve guessed it, Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, I do take issue with Professor Beard’s comment on the symbolism inherent in the gorgons’ snakes-as-hair imagery. She wrote:
“It doesn’t need Freud to see those snaky locks as an implied claim to phallic power.”
I think that is nonsense. I see snakes! When I pointed this out to my colleague, her reply was along the lines of “I’d love to see you argue that with Mary Beard!“. But actually, I would.
When I saw Megaera in my youth, I saw snakes, not a willy-derived metaphor, and I still see snakes. My view is that you do have to be a Freudian to interpret the gorgons’ serpentine barnet as symbolic of phallic power; as I wrote in The Tall Child’s autograph book when he was wee: “It’s not what you look at that makes you different, it’s what you see” and I strongly suspect that most people see snakes – I can’t be that different from other folk!
I’m not qualified to critique Professor Beard’s interpretation of any of the other classical symbolism in the silencing of women. It seems mainly to relate to Greek Gods and Goddesses and there is some criticism of it in a second Graun review, but that does not detract from its powerful central message in either my mind or that of the Graun’s reviewers. It remains a good read that is both interesting and educational.
… and, just to raise the tone a bit, it also inspired this week’s limerick:
There once was a Classics professor
Whose lecture notes claimed to address a
Of the Serpentine sort
‘Bout a dickhead with a dodgy hairdresser