an essay by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.
for the anthology
Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom
I first saw Her in myself, and gave voice to Her, after I had given a paper on Women and Religion, at the Women and Labour Conference in Australia in 1980; and the paper had attracted quite a bit of media attention. I felt myself to be seen as She was: that is, as some-thing completely out in and of, the wilderness – though I did not yet correctly name Her: I did not really know who She was at that time. I did not know my heritage then – my Hera-tage: it was only just beginning to emerge from the Great Below. As a method of processing this experience I had a dialogue with Society as an entity. It proceeded thus:
Society: What is this thing that you are – where do you come from? Who dug you up? You are ghastly. You have snakes on your head for hair. You have demons within you. You are Lillith. You are damnation. Give me a chance and I will be rid of you – the likes of you I had hoped were burnt long ago. But you have crawled forth from the earth again. You have come like a poisonous gas: you will corrupt me and all that I feed on. I wish to exorcise your presence.
Glenys: You are right that I mean to be part of radically changing you. You flatter me to say that I am Lillith. You honour me to connect me with my sisters long gone. Am I so totally opposed to you? Have I grasped so clearly your demons – your shadow? Has some special darkness of yours come to rest so completely in me? When you see me you cringe so … like as if I were a leper – unclean. Am I such a puzzle to you? Do I show so much of your inadequacy?
Society: You are like the one from whose mouth fell toads and frogs. How is it that I honour you with these things? Was Eve honourable?
Glenys: What of Joan of Arc? Your brothers called her witch and burnt her – then they canonized her later when they forgot her potency.
And a little later I added: You wish that I didn’t exist, so in some ways you rob me of my existence. You will, not to give me a mirror by which I may see myself … though you do in a distorted fashion.
At around the same time in my life I had been reading Robin Morgan’s book of poems Monster, and in particular the poem by that name at the end of the book, in which she feels identified in mind, spirit and body – so completely – as monster, by the cultural context and even by her toddler son. She concludes:
May my hives bloom bravely until my flesh is aflame
And burns through the cobwebs.
May we go mad together, my sisters.
May our labor agony in bringing forth this revolution
be the death of all pain.
May I learn how to survive until my part is finished.
May I realize that I
monster. I am
I am a monster.
And I am proud.
I did feel myself to be this monster, however I wasn’t sure that I could bear it: my inner resources were meager, and I didn’t really know how I could be proud. I had a dream at that time after giving the conference paper wherein I was an ancient woman on the plains dressed in animal skin and holding a spear. Words were spoken to me, telling me to rise up and that my ancient spear would find its mark; there was also notice of future wounding in the process. I felt strengthened in my wild mission to find Her and more words for Her, my wild mission to know Her more deeply.
So off I went to study, across the seas, alone – without family. Amongst the readings in the research process was Barbara Walker’s Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets: including in it an introduction to Medusa, in which Barbara Walker confirmed that despite patriarchal perceptions, Medusa may represent “an ancient, widely recognized symbol of divine female wisdom”. She was named at last, and fuller notice of Her character given. Then there was Hélène Cixous’ ovarian work The Laugh of the Medusa, which praised Medusa’s wild beauty, and inspired further action and writing to restore this divine beauty. Hélène Cixous wrote: “Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts!” I was beginning to grasp some threads. My journey with Her was just beginning, though I had no idea: life got busy and it would be another ten years before I really felt Her again, in devastating circumstance as is often Her way.
I was after all a daughter of the patriarchy, and real change in my core being was required: I felt strongly the cultural assignment as sex object, with no sense of organic agency – a colonized bodymind, vulnerable to predation. I was blessed however: my life fell apart. I wrote a little later in reflection:
What did it take … to develop a shell, a protective boundary, to pull the shades on the imposing mostly male Gaze, to allow a fertile darkness within my being, where “I” could begin? What did it take to create this kind of darkness, a safe place to Be, to shut out the world and scream “I”? … A sex object has to completely fall apart before she can rebuild herself in her own image. She has fall into the mud, begin again, perform her own acts of Creation, mold herself of this solid material. It is out of the mud that the lotus blossoms. It does not grow on some pedestal, under the light of the eternal Gaze. … How ironic that our paternal mythmakers made Medusa’s gaze the deadly one!
In the process of rebuilding myself and my life, I began at last to facilitate classes, gathering groups of women for Re-storying Goddess as the classes were named … and so we did this in-forming for each other, filling our bodyminds with noble ancient images and story, and hearing each other into speech. In these many classes and workshops I would always invoke the Crone aspect in this way:
There is a time for the waxing and there is a time for the waning. Medusa, Hecate, Kali … we call you. Once you were not separate, we restore you to your place in the cycle, in the communion.
Gradually I was able to form the question in my mind, and later wrote it into my doctoral thesis and then into my book:
What might be the consequences of changing our minds sufficiently, so that Medusa for instance, can be comprehended as metaphor for Divine Wisdom? Many scholars contend She once was understood this way. What might it mean for our minds to welcome Her back? Would that alter the way we relate to earth, to Being?
I was able at this time to identify Goddess – “the Female Metaphor” as I named Her, in all Her three qualities, with Cosmogenesis, the Western scientific story of the creative unfolding of the Cosmos, as told by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. They describe these three qualities of Cosmogenesis as “the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence”, characterizing the evolution of the universe “throughout time and space and at every level of reality”. And so, did I identify Goddess’s three qualities: as primordial and all pervasive Creative Cosmic Dynamic. I now saw clearly Her aspect of Crone, Dark One, as essentially creative: the breaking down of the old, the “waning”, was actually creative, in the context of the whole and larger picture, the communion. With Her process She allows space for renewal: I named Her as She Who Creates the Space to Be.
When I began the practice of celebrating the full year of seasonal ceremony in a serious committed manner in 1998 – having noticed the power of such religious practice, the power of speaking with the Mother Cosmos in this way – I always wore a significant headpiece that actually was characteristic of the ancient primordial Medusa, though I did not know it. The artist who created the headpiece had named Her Melusine and that meant very little to me at the time also. The reason I bought the headpiece was because a child – “Stephanie” was her name – saw me trying it on and exclaimed “Fairy!” with delight: I was seduced. I had no idea who She was, and only began to play with the headpiece and the armband that came with it, in the Re-storying Goddess workshops a few years after buying it: indeed all the women played with Her. But with the serious engagement in the ceremonial celebration of the full year of the Seasonal Moments I decorated Her – this headpiece – each time according to the themes of the Season, and wore Her. This headpiece became an entity over the years; I wrote:
As I pace the circle … I see “Her” as She has been through the Seasons … the black and gold of Samhain, the deep red, white and evergreen of Winter, the white and blue of Imbolc, the flowers of Eostar, the rainbow ribbons of Beltane, the roses of Summer, the seed pods and wheat of Lammas, and now the Autumn leaves. I see in my mind’s eye, and feel, Her changes. I am learning … The Mother knowledge grows within me.
Only gradually have I come to identify Her snake coils and bird wings, as an ancient combination representative of Medusa as Miriam Robbins Dexter describes in this anthology. I realize now that I had been invoking Medusa; calling Her into my being, embodying Her in Seasonal ceremony, embedding Her regenerative creativity in my life. As Marija Gimbutas points out, the earliest Greek gorgons as Medusa was, or wherever Goddess appeared as a mask of death, She was never separate from symbols of regeneration.
I did not “choose” Her. She chose me it seems. I was a space wherein She could grow, and She was re-storing the integrity and nobility of my femaleness: perhaps “the curse” in all its valences of body cycle, spirit and mind that I held in my female being and story, was actually a portal of deep connection to Earth as Mother. My cultural context has tried to ignore this Beauty and ubiquitously abuses it. Was the shame and the horror actually a blessing? Was She – the Medusa and all She represented actually beautiful, as Hélène Cixous and others had perceived? Perhaps this was why they couldn’t bear to look at Her? I began to understand that Her awesome visage was indeed characteristic of any ultimate Deity: fearsome to behold, but it included intense beauty as well as terror.
Still She dawns in me, gradually rising and coming to fullness, the Regenerative One whom She is. Still I learn how the darkness and the shedding of the old, which She represents, is simultaneously space for renewal – one does not happen without the other, whether or not one can see it. Gradually Her ancient knowledge of never-ending renewal is restoring to my being.
© Glenys Livingstone 2017 C.E.
 Robin Morgan, Monster, p. 85-86.
 Barbara Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, p. 629.
 Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, p. 885.
 Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology, p.75.
 Nelle Morton used this expression somewhere: “hearing each other into speech”.
 Glenys Livingstone. The Female Metaphor – Virgin, Mother, Crone – of the Dynamic Cosmological Unfolding: Her Embodiment in Seasonal Ritual as Catalyst for Personal and Cultural Change.
 Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology, p. 66.
 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, pp. 71-79.
 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.71
 I develop this further in PaGaian Cosmology, pp. 117-120 in particular.
 Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology, p. 181.
 Miriam Robbins Dexter, page 11.
 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p. xxiii and p.207.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen). Signs 1 no. 22, Summer 1976, p.875-893.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. NE: iUniverse, 2005.
Livingstone, Glenys. The Female Metaphor – Virgin, Mother, Crone – of the Dynamic Cosmological Unfolding: Her Embodiment in Seasonal Ritual as Catalyst for Personal and Cultural Change. Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Sydney, 2002.
Morgan, Robin. Monster. NY: Vintage Books. 1972.
Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.
Wow, this is wonderful.
so glad you enjoyed Harriet …
..thank you for the nurture your commitment and integrity provide to a fellow traveler in the other hemisphere.
thank you marierichardson
Thank you for sharing so much such a gift
… so glad you enjoyed