The use of symbolic acts as modes of protest is a complex marriage of opposites. In protest, a symbolic act can inject energy. It is a high-optics demonstration which triggers emotion rather than reason. This attracts publicity but also backlash. Anything that is open to interpretation is equally open to misinterpretation, be that intentionally or unintentionally. Even the executor of the symbolic act can become confused about its originally intended meaning. Symbolic acts are rarely homogenous.
So why utilise symbolic acts that can be misinterpreted to demonstrate a cause you believe in so firmly? I seek to answer this question by looking at a specific example of symbolic protest – the destruction of female beauty – in particular, Minerva’s transformation of Medusa into a Gorgon.
Unlike the gorgon we usually envisage upon hearing her name, Medusa was originally a beautiful young woman. In fact, she was superlatively beautiful – clarissima forma, according to Ovid (Met. 4.794). In an ode written in 490 BC, Pindar describes her as fair-cheeked Medusa (Pythian 12.16 εὐπαράου… Μεδοίσας). She attracted a string of suiters – all of whom were drawn, in particular, to her luscious hair.
Medusa was transformed into a gorgon following her rape by Poseidon within Minerva’s temple. This event is best documented by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (4.794–803), where Perseus explains why Medusa’s head is covered by snakes:
“[Medusa] clarissima forma
multorumque fuit spes invidiosa procorum
illa: neque in tota conspectior ulla capillis
pars fuit. inveni, qui se vidisse referret.
hanc pelagi rector templo vitiasse Minervae
dicitur. aversa est et castos aegide vultus
nata Iovis texit; neve hoc inpune fuisset,
Gorgoneum crinem turpes mutavit in hydros.
nunc quoque, ut attonitos formidine terreat hostes,
pectore in adverso, quos fecit, sustinet angues.”
“[Medusa] was most famous for her beauty, and was the jealous aspiration of many suitors. In all of her there was no part none more admired than her hair. I met a man who reported that he had seen her. It’s said that the Lord of the Sea [Neptune] violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste face behind her aegis. So that this might not go unpunished, she transformed the Gorgon’s hair into foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies with dread fear, she wears the snakes that she created upon her breast.”
Enraged by this deed, Minerva transformed Medusa’s hair into grim snakes as punishment: neve hoc impune fuisset. By doing so, Minerva removes the physical feature which made Medusa so renowned for her beauty, following her ultimate period of vulnerability. This episode is usually interpreted as Minerva punishing Medusa for being an accomplice within the desecration of her temple. Poseidon can leave, scot-free – he is a male god of course. This has led to, understandably, a rather critical view of Minerva for her lack of female solidarity.
To our knowledge, Medusa is the first example of a rape victim transformed into a monster in Classical myth. Ovid provides a string of examples of women being transformed to avoid rape. Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree to avoid Apollo. Syrinx is transformed into hollow water reeds to avoid Pan. Arethusa is transformed into a stream to escape the river god Alpheus. Since Minerva’s transformation of Medusa does not precede her rape, it’s difficult to categorise her transformation as salvation, alongside the examples of Daphne, Syrinx and Arethusa. The damage has already been done – surely transforming Medusa into a gorgon following such trauma is just rubbing salt into the wound?
But what if Minerva’s punishment was not directed towards Medusa, but rather Poseidon? Since the phrase neve hoc impune fuisset does not specify who merits punishment, it opens the door for interpretation. Since Poseidon is a deity himself, an attempt to punish him directly would be an uncalculated decision by Minerva. She’s aware of her position of power in relation to the perpetrator.
Mortal men who sneak a peek of divine women, especially in a state of undress tend to come to bad ends, as Ovid makes clear in his Metamorphoses (Met 3.138–252). After being witnessed bathing by Actaeon (his innocence is debated among sources), Artemis, enraged, transforms Actaeon into a stag so that he is chased and lacerated to death by his own hounds – the hunter becomes the hunted.
However, Poseidon is no mortal, and hindering his gaze and sexual violence is beyond her control, not to mention Medusa’s. Instead, she turns to Medusa’s most beautiful feature – her fair hair. By removing Medusa’s most beautiful feature Minerva simultaneously removes her primary vulnerability. Punishment becomes a form of protection and protest.
When considering the use of symbolic protest, we need to consider the identities of the people who are committing these symbolic acts. They are generally individuals subdued in some way by society or government and are therefore unable to implement direct change to improve their own situations. I would argue that Minerva was a woman (albeit a deity) enraged by injustices actioned by men against her gender, but did not possess the power to stop the perpetrator directly. Therefore, she turned toward indirect action. Symbolic protest becomes the only available weapon to action the change she wants.
This form of protest brings to mind the act of suffragette, Mary Richardson (1882–1961), who in 1914 vandalised the Rokeby Venus (Diego Velazquez’s Venus at her Mirror, 1644) in the National Gallery by slashing it seven times with a meat cleaver – seven “lovely shots” in her own words. Following her arrest, it became apparent that her act of vandalism was in protest of Emily Pankhurst’s arrest the previous day.
A few decades later, Mary revealed in an interview an additional motivation for her vandalism: “I didn’t like the way men visitors to the gallery gaped at it all day.” One spokesperson, quoted in The Times while discussing Mary’s vandalism, offers himself as a perfect exemplar of the male gaze which irked Richardson to such an extent: “All the injuries were inflicted on the most important part of the picture – the naked flesh.”
By hacking away at this painting of Venus, Mary was not destroying Venus’ beauty as a woman, but rather what she perceived to be the male objectification of her. I think a parallel can be drawn here between Mary mutilating the painting of Venus and Minerva turning Medusa into a monster. They both cry “You can’t have her!” while undertaking their destruction of female beauty. They’ve identified a woman, vulnerable – and undertake the responsibility of female solidarity by protecting and protesting on their sister’s behalf. This is stark. Could it be that in a world where women are unable to prevent the male gaze, their only method of protecting themselves is to destroy the very thing that attracts that gaze – their physical beauty?
With the benefit of hindsight, it could be said that Minerva’s act was all in vain. Medusa’s gorgon head is now the Versace logo. She has been portrayed by Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman and Rihanna. Her monstrous form has been sexualised in such a way that she falls into the category of dangerous seductress – a far cry from her origin story.
However, I would like to end on a more positive note, which I think is possible, in light of contemporary depictions of Medusa. This malleability of interpretation is what makes symbolic protest so effective. Unlike manifestos, the meanings embodied within symbolic acts are elastic. This can be immensely useful, especially for political movements which last decades and need to adapt and reflect societal progress. Feminism promoted by suffragettes would be deemed archaic by today’s standards and considerations of intersectionality. Instead, symbolic protest can become mythology, which can in turn be utilised by future generations to sustain the cause.
Enlli Lewis works as a civil servant in the health sector. She studied Classics ab initio at Cambridge University and continues to dabble in the subject: her previous publication, on Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, can be found here.
Natalie Haynes, Pandora’s Jar (Picador, London, 2020), esp. pages 85–112.
Vanda Zajko, Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought (Oxford UP, 2008)
Julia Jacobs, “How a Medusa Sculpture From a Decade Ago Became #MeTooArt,” New York Times, 13 Oct. 2020.