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  • Medusa's Gaze in Imperial Latin EpicIn memoriam R. Elaine Fantham (1933–2016)
  • Alison Keith (bio)

The mythical figure of the Medusa has had a potent afterlife in twentieth-century critical theory from Freudian psychoanalysis to French feminism.1 In her classical literary reception, too, Roman authors struggle to come to terms with the power of her image. From Ovid in Metamorphoses 4, through Lucan in Bellum civile 9, to Statius in Thebaid 1, we can see the Latin epic poets treating Medusa's gaze as a powerful image of the desiring female and wrestling with the threat it poses to masculine projects, both heroic and literary. In this study I argue that Ovid, Lucan, and Statius draw on a variety of androcentric rhetorical strategies to regain control of, and indeed annihilate, Medusa's threatening power of com-modification. Domestication of Medusa's gaze in these poems is necessary, I suggest, to confirm both the epic hero's martial valor and the epic poet's literary authority.

Ovid introduces Medusa in Metamorphoses 4 with the iconic image of her decapitated head (Met. 4.614–620):2

        impositus iam caelo est alter, at alterviperei referens spolium memorabile monstriaera carpebat tenerum stridentibus alis.cumque super Libycas victor penderet harenas,Gorgonei capitis guttae cecidere cruentae,quas humus exceptas varios animavit in angues;unde frequens illa est infestaque terra colubris.

One of Jove's grandsons [Bacchus] had now taken his place in heaven; but the other [Perseus], carrying the remarkable spoil of the snaky monster, snatched the thin air on hissing wings. When the victor hung over the Libyan sands, there fell from the Gorgon's head bloody drops, which the earth received; whence it is full of deadly serpents. [End Page 145]

Ovid distinguishes sharply between Perseus's heroic agency and Medusa's passive objectification in his diction: Medusa is a spoil worthy of the epic hero's story (memorabile, 4.615), not her own; she is a snaky monstrosity (4.615) and a bloody, truncated piece of flesh (4.618). In celebrating her death, in commodifying her as a body part, and in reducing her from super-mortal with immortal sisters to bestial object through her repeated association with snakes (4.615, 619, 620), Ovid gives us an exemplary instance of what the French feminist critic Julia Kristeva has called "abjection," by associating "the jettisoned object"—here the Gorgon's bloody head—above all with the female, with death, with flesh, and with blood.3 Ovid's abjectifying rhetoric is all the more remarkable when we recall Medusa's role in Greek myth, which was precisely to transform the living into the dead at a glance—turning animate into inanimate, man and beast into stone, warriors into cowards (there are no female victims of Medusa's gaze). Yet Ovid nowhere mentions her gaze—only her head, its snakes, and the drops of blood from her head that engender snakes in the Libyan landscape.

This pattern continues throughout Ovid's "Perseid" (Met. 4.610–5.251).4 Truncated to a body part and reduced to an inanimate, if still snaky, head, Medusa bears mute witness to the epic valor of Perseus as his heroic prize turned magical weapon (like the winged boots lent him by the god Mercury: Met. 4.616; cf. 4.665–667). Although we do not learn the story of his conquest over the Gorgon until the very end of the book—indeed Ovid chops up her story over the course of the book, much as Perseus chops her head from her body and drops of blood fall from her severed head—we nonetheless watch him deploy his gruesome trophy for his own purposes as he tours the Mediterranean. Thus, immediately after flying over Libya and there engendering a fearsome crop of snakes, Perseus reaches the garden of the Hesperides, where Atlas pastures his flocks and guards the golden apples in the orchard at the end of the world (4.628–638). Mistaking his uninvited guest for Hercules (about whom he has been warned in an oracle), Atlas declines to allow him shelter for the night and so he unwillingly looks on the proof of Perseus's...


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