A New Edition is On the Way

A Reposting of the Afterword from Medousa

I am currently working on yet another edit of my first novel, while working on the next one. Well, the next one will probably be more of a novella rather than a full blown novel. Still.
This new edition of Medousa will be just a bit more “realistically grim,” as if the story wasn’t already grim enough (those of you who have taken the time to read it by now will understand). I expect to have the editing completed within the year, and am trying to decide whether or not I should attempt to submit it to a traditional publisher, or whether I should again self-publish. And if I chose the latter option, should I go again with Amazon’s platform, or try another.
Decisions, decisions….

In the meantime, here is a re-posting of the Afterword from Medousa. I still feel very strongly about my reasons for writing the story the way I did. I consider Medousa to be a feminist book, addressing injustice, as well as class stratification and unequal relationships. And I am pretty sure it passes the Bechdel Test. And I have come to feel very protective of Medousa over the years I have worked on this story–

One Hallowe’en, some years ago, when I still lived in the United States, I was shopping at the local pharmacy. As the holiday was oncoming, they had displays of decorations and props on display along with the candy. One of the displays featured a Gorgon’s head whose eyes lit up when you jostled it, and the snakes writhed, and the mouth moved, to croak out an appropriate Hallowe’en greeting.
As I made my way down the isle, I noticed a youngster, perhaps eight or ten years old, playing this toy on the shelf. He kept poking at it to make it move, and groan, and talk. It took a surprising amount of willpower not to scold the youngster; my first thought was, “Stop that! Hasn’t she suffered enough?

The story of Medousa, from her own point of view, was one I had wanted to write for many years. The first scene I had actually conceived was that of Stheno and Euryale trying to chase down Perseus, in agony over the slaying of their sister. It came to me while reading one of the last story cycles of Neil Gaiman’s superlative Sandman series, The Kindly Ones. There was a scene in which a woman was searching for her child, and was wandering around the city, either delusional, or seeing beyond reality to the narrative underpinnings of reality. She ran into two women, who turned out to be Stheno and Euryale; and while they could not help her with her personal quest, they invited her to live with them, and let them look after her. “Would you like to be our sister?” they asked her. “There should be three of us. You could be the mortal one.” They implored her to become their third, and that she should be their sister. It occurred to me then how much Stheno and Euryale loved Medousa. Another of my inspirations for this book was the graphic novel Epicurus the Sage, by William Messner-Loebs and Sam Keith. Two things stood out for me in that comic. There was the overall theme of mixing historical figures with the mythical, and the idea that those stories of myth and legend with which we think ourselves so familiar, are not quite true. Furthermore, Messner-Loebs was able to give us a more personal and intimate look at the warts and wrinkles of the Gods and their unsavory doings without actually doing damage to the old stories at all. This inspired me to do two things.

First, I decided to try to remove as much of the fantastic as I could from my story, without completely divorcing it from Fantasy. I wanted to bring the story as close to “reality” as I could. Of course, I really couldn’t get away from the fact that I was writing about Gods, Goddesses, fabulous creatures, monsters, and heroes, so I contented myself with trimming some of the excess as I thought appropriate. For example, when I describe Alkyoneus, rather than giving him serpents for limbs, as in the old sculptures and paintings, I described him as having markings on his arms and legs that might make them resemble serpents. Likewise, with Campe, rather than give her the dozens of animal heads ringing her waist, I described her as having stylized tattoos about her torso, instead. And I gave the Gorgons skin, as well, but skin beneath which their scales could be seen, leading to the legends that their bodies were covered in gold scales. I gave the immortals, if not needs, then indulgences, like eating and bathing. You get the idea.

Second, I worked with the conceit that the ancient myths were not quite what they seemed. My idea was to change the stories with a gentle touch, so that the usual order of the cosmos — Gods are the “good guys,” Titans are the “bad guys” — could be inverted. This I found I was able to do without significantly changing any of the myths. The old stories were much more context-dependent than I had realized. To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” And I liked the idea of doing a story that, in the tradition of Philip José Farmer, essentially said, “You’ve always heard this version of the story. Now let me tell you what really happened.”

And so, what I gained from Gaiman and Messner-Loebs, was the understanding that Medousa was very much loved and valued by those who knew her, and that the Gods were in fact far more cruel and unjust than their stories might indicate at first glance.

In contemplating the old stories of Medousa, I had been under the impression that most people only remembered Ovid’s tale of a vain young woman who was so proud of her beauty, and especially of her golden hair, that Athena herself punished her by making her a Gorgon. But in fact, Ovid does note that Medousa, a priestess of Athena, was raped by Poseidon, in Athena’s temple. The older tales of Hesiod and Apollodorus are less definitive, saying only that “Poseidon, he of the dark hair, lay with one of these [Medousa], in a soft meadow and among spring flowers.” (Trans. by Evelyn-White.) Ovid relates that “Medousa was violated in Minerva’s shrine by the Lord of the Sea. Jove’s daughter turned away and covered with her shield her virgin’s eyes. And then for fitting punishment transformed the Gorgo’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 4; as trans. by Melville.)

And it always struck me how unjust it was. Medousa herself, punished for being the victim of a violent crime, because it somehow defiled Athena’s temple? Why didn’t Athena defend her priestess? Why didn’t she bring complaint against Poseidon? Why did Medousa have to be destroyed because of what was done to her? Hadn’t her rape been enough to suffer through, but that she had to be driven from mortal lands, a monster, living in lonely desolation? Of course, later on, as I began to write, I found that there were many writers and artists that portrayed Medousa as victim, rather than monster. And this same type of injustice is something we still see today.

A woman is sexually assaulted, and she bears the stigma, while her attacker is protected. The woman is expected to take responsibility for protecting herself, but we do not teach our boys not to rape. Men with vast sexual experience, consensual and not, are respected, but women who even express interest in sex, are shamed.

In America, a girl is raped, but the boy goes free because “he just made a mistake” or “we don’t want to ruin his entire life over one moment of poor judgement.” In central and south Asia, a woman is raped, and then she herself is punished for bringing “dishonor” upon her family, while her attackers go free. Women around the world are assaulted, but say nothing, because they know that there will be shame and stigmatization, but no redress of injustice. Indeed, we even elect rapists and misogynists to high office, turning deaf ears toward the cries of their victims. We have pity for the men, unwilling to see their lives ruined by their own actions; but we have none for their victims, the women whose lives have in fact been destroyed by them. And when those women dare cry out for justice? They are met with incredulity, and threats of murder and rape.

And in these women’s lives, Medousa’s story continues. Every time a woman is attacked, and, then, if she survives, is herself blamed for it… Every time a devout believer is not only abandoned by, but attacked by, the god, goddess, or gods (or, more accurately, its self-appointed representatives) s/he had been dedicated to… Every time a woman is cast out of her community for being who and what she is, through no fault of her own… with every ‘honor killing’… with every rape coverup… with every one — Medousa’s story continues.

But Medousa will not be silent; her cry of rage will echo throughout history for as long as her story is repeated in the human saga.

And so, I wanted to write Medousa’s story. Of course, we all know how her story ended, and I felt that I couldn’t change that ending, as tragic as it was. But I don’t want Medousa to be remembered as a mindless monster, preying on the innocent, as she has so often been portrayed in modern popular culture. I cannot think of Medousa as malevolent, or ill-intentioned. She was, rather the victim of a horrible crime, and she suffered for it. To be sure, there were several versions of the Medousa Myth; there are numerous versions of most of the myths we think we know. And the story of Medousa has certain elements that might afford a very different tale indeed. For example, serpents, and mortals being turned into stone, are elements of Athena’s history; I could have as easily written a tale in which Medousa was Athena’s High Executioner and cultic guardian. Perhaps I will write such a story one day. But again, here, my aim was to show that Medousa herself was not a monster, but a tragic heroine. She was a young woman with her own life, and dreams, and hopes, and loves.

Medousa is full of anachronisms. It is set in a time when reliable historical records were not kept, but oral literature thrived. There is Medousa, herself a mythic figure who would have existed perhaps two or three thousand years BCE, before the rise of Hellenic civilization. There are Aias, the legendary warrior of Salamis, known to us through Homer’s “The Iliad,” along with Helen of Sparta. And there is Cynisca, the first woman in history to have won Olympic gold, who lived during the fourth century BCE. We see Athens and Sparta, at a time before any animosity existed between the two states, and yet, Spartan society, as I describe in the book, post-dates the fall of Troy by five or six centuries. Helots did not even exist until after 1100 BCE with the Dorian conquest of Sparta, and were even then communally held slaves of the State, precluding the brutal kidnapping of Medousa as a child; after all, she would already have been a slave of the polis. And the biggest anachronism of all would be the decision to include the Amazons at Troy; for Medousa’s slayer was Perseus, who afterwards went on to become the father of Greek civilization. Homer repeatedly calls Troy’s besiegers “Danaeans.” Children of Danae, Perseus’ mother. It seems a very long time between Perseus and the rise of the Hellenic people, does it not?

There are many other inaccuracies as well; slaves were expected to forage for their own sustenance, and find their own places to sleep. Young boys would never have sneaked out of their barracks for personal or family business, and their upbringing was in fact far more brutal than I describe. And the Spartans would regularly humiliate Helots to keep them in their place; a favorite technique was to force them to drink until thoroughly drunken, and then parade them around in public for the Spartan children to see. They were ridiculed and held up as object lessons. Furthermore, while beatings like the one Medousa received were common (a slave would be beaten daily, for no other reason but “discipline”), being strung up was not something that would have happened. That said, a slave or Helot as beautiful as the myths say Medousa was, would never have been beaten that way, because it would have marred her beauty and thus damaged her value. She would almost certainly have been trained as a courtesan for the royal household.

But wherever the needs of the story clashed with proper archeology, I exercised my poetic license.

Regarding Medousa’s “golden hair.” While many have taken the description to mean that the likes of Medousa, or Helen of Sparta, had yellow blonde hair, some have argued that the ancient Greeks considered “gold” a particular shade of reddish-gold colored hair that would indeed glow a golden color in the Mediterranean sunlight. It is this particular shade of “gold” that I had in mind when describing Medousa; not flaxen, but Venetian blonde.

Many of the source myths I decided to use for my novel are not the conventional ones, but lesser-known alternates. For example, I do not describe Medousa as a daughter of Phorkys and Keto as Stheno and Euryale are; I instead make her utterly mortal, as in Ovid’s late tale of Medousa as a young woman, without any ties to the Titans. I use Apollodorus’ alternate genealogy for Echidna, as a daughter of Gaia and Tartarus, and mother to Keto, thus making her at once grandmother and great aunt to the Gorgons. And while most myths tell of the Gorgons living on the isle of Sarpedon, I decided to place my Gorgons on the Isle of Cerna in the Gorgades. And although the Gorgades generally refer to a tribe of wild women covered in hair, Diodorus and Palaephatus note the island Cerna in a small group of islands called the Gorgades situated in the Western Ocean. Commentator Henry T. Riley (Ovid, The Metamorphoses, ISBN 978-1-4209-3395-6) associates the island group with the Azores.

It is only recently in human history that the subject of history became concerned with the accurate recording of ‘exactly what happened,’ in ‘exactly what place,’ at ‘exactly what time,’ and ‘involving which persons.’ Until the late Victorian era, most histories were written in order to illustrate moral lessons, or to indulge in poetry and florid prose, or to attempt to explain why things were so, or to create foundation myths for peoples and tribes. History was treated as Midrash — a narrative constructed to convey the lessons of history, as opposed to history itself. My book is written in those terms, rather than as a piece of real historical fiction. It fails as a piece of real historical fiction.

But then, of course, this isn’t History; it’s Fantasy.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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