There is a trend for retelling the ancient stories. Last year in our book group we read Mythos by Stephen Fry. He is a spirited re-teller of those ancient stories. I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker which I reviewed on this blog. It is an account of the final days of the Trojan wars told by Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose city is sacked, and who is Achilles’s prize in battle.
I was interested enough to attend a discussion (on-line) called Myth and Fiction at the British Museum, between Mary Beard and Charlotte Higgins. They discussed retelling myths in modern novels, including from the women’s point of view. The subject of this post is one of the books they mentioned, Stone Blind the retelling of Medusa’s story. I thought I would give it a try – after all, what did I know about Medusa except that she had snakes instead of hair and could turn people to stone by looking at them.
Medusa is a Gorgon, who is looked after by her two sisters in a cave on the coast. One day she decides to explore beyond the small area she calls home and she finds a temple dedicated to the goddess Athene. The god of the sea, Poseidon, finds her there and rapes her in the temple. Athene, who is a daughter of Zeus and a warrior goddess, is much offended by the defilement of her temple and decides to get revenge.
She cannot revenge herself on Poseidon, he too is a god. So she tracks down Medusa and rips off her scalp and damages her eyes. After this attack Medusa is in great pain, but as she recovers, she tries to use her eyes again, untying the bandages, gradually realising a terrible truth.
She heard her name being called by Sthenno [her sister]. She opened her mouth to reply. But then, with no warning, the snakes became a hissing writhing mass of fear and anger. She had no idea what frightened them and they gave her no chance to find out. They pulsed around her skull, frantic and desperate. What? she asked them. What do you want? What can I do? The snakes continued their seething fury. Medusa was not afraid of them, and at the same time she knew she must do what they urged. But what was it? She could not understand. She raised her hands to her temples and felt a sudden surge of energy. Yes, that is it, yes.
She still held the bindings in her hands. And just as she knew that the snakes wanted to lie on the sand, she knew this. They wanted her to cover her eyes again. She did not attempt to reason with them. She didn’t try to understand why they wanted her eyes to be closed, or how they were telling her that she must cover them up. (196-7)
The snakes help Medusa to avoid turning her sisters to stone, but a passing scorpion is less fortunate.
But things get worse for Medusa. Perseus is one of Zeus’s many sons. He lives with his mother, whom he adores. But one day a narcissistic mortal, king of Seriphos, Polydectes decides to marry his mother. To prevent this Perseus is given the task – to bring the head of a Gorgon to Polydectes within two months. Perseus is not up to the job.
Poor little Perseus, the reluctant hero. Defender of his mother’s honour. Boastful little fool. If he had simply kept his mouth shut while Polydectes was swaggering around trying to intimidate him. All he had to do was behave like any other of the king’s subjects. Say yes sire, no sire, whenever he was spoken to, and the whole thing would have been over by now …
The idea that Perseus is a hero is one I have taken exception to since – I can’t even tell you how long it is. As long as I have known his name. He’s arrogant, and he’s spoiled. (112-3)
Since he is Zeus’s son the king of the gods sends some lesser gods to help him with his task. He is assisted by Athene and Hermes, but he is still pretty useless. As he approaches the Gorgon’s cave he has to be guided through innumerable adventures and puzzles by his two mentors. The two stories of Medusa and of Perseus finally come together, along with some of the other stories of the gods and of the kings and queens of the ancient Greek islands. There is a monster from the sea, a tsunami, people gathered to celebrate a wedding are turned to stone, and other terrible things happen.
So why retell this story? Does it make more sense to modern readers than the older versions, or is the modern idiom more appealing to current readers? The story was told in many, many short sections, through the eyes of several different characters, and follows many gods and mortals as they effect Medusa’s story.
I put the book down thinking that the male gods, especially Poseidon, and many of the male mortals come across as believing themselves to be entitled, taking offence far too easily, becoming vengeful out of all proportion and are hardly role models to look up to. The same can be said of the selfishness of many of the female goddesses and the women. They are vain, and vengeful too.
It is a story in which a goddess blames a mortal for the offence against her by a god. Don’t blame the men. The blaming of women, even by women, for the sins of men is as old as the Greek myths.
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes, published in 2022 by Picador. 371pp
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Bookword May 2019)