Femme Métal: Medusa in Heavy Metal Music

The Gorgon Medusa is one of the most iconic and recognizable figures from classical mythology. Most people are familiar with her image as a woman with snakes for hair and eyes that literally petrify anyone who looks into them. Many also recall her as the victim of the demigod Perseus, who avoided her gaze by wielding a polished shield as a mirror and a divinely gifted scimitar to decapitate her, then using her head as a weapon to defeat a sea monster and rescue the princess Andromeda. These basic plot details were disseminated into modern popular culture through multiple artistic media, and one of the biggest impacts came with the release of the 1981 sword-and-sandals flick Clash of the Titans, remade in 2010 at the height of Hollywood’s renewed interest in antiquity. Fewer, however, have known the tradition of Medusa’s backstory, namely that she had once been a conventionally beautiful maiden who was raped by the sea god Poseidon in the temple of the goddess Athena. Athena, incensed more at the defilement of her shrine than that of an innocent woman, punished not the perpetrator but the victim by transforming her into the iconic Gorgon. Our earliest source for this prequel to the Medusa myth is the Roman poet Ovid’s epic anthology of legendary transformations called the Metamorphoses, published in 8 CE. In Book 4, lines 794-801, Perseus has finished his adventures and is recounting them to an audience of Ethiopians (my translation):

[Medusa] was most renowned for her beauty, and the enviable hope of many suitors. Of all her parts none was more attractive than her hair. I encountered a man who claims he saw her. It is said that the ruler of the sea violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away and hid her innocent face behind her aegis. And lest this would have gone unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair into ugly serpents.

The male poet, through the male hero, reports how the woman he had slain came to be, and as his quest to kill her had succeeded through Athena’s assistance, Perseus naturally implies that Medusa deserved her punishment. 

Ovid is our first extant source to mention that Medusa had once been a normal human being, and not always a Gorgon (Ovid uses hysteron proteron here). Earlier sources, such as the archaic Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony (written roughly seven centuries before Ovid), tell otherwise (lines 270-281, my translation):

Ceto bore to Phorcys…the Gorgons…Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a miserable fate. She was mortal, while the other two were immortal and ageless. With the one lay the Dark-haired one [Poseidon] in a grassy meadow and springtime flowers. When Perseus cut off her head, out sprang Chrysaor and the great horse Pegasus.

According to Hesiod, Medusa was a Gorgon from birth, and her encounter with Poseidon, phrased neutrally as intercourse in an idyllic outdoor setting rather than rape in a temple, serves only to explain her posthumous offspring. 

So the ancient sources diverge on Medusa’s origin, but also her appearance. To the Roman Ovid, Medusa retains her incomparable beauty with the exception of her hair, but near-contemporary Greek sources remain closer to Hesiod. Pseudo-Apollodorus tells us what the Gorgons looked like (Library Book 2, chapter 4, my translation):

The Gorgons had heads entwined with the scales of serpents, large teeth like those of swine, bronze hands, and golden wings with which they flew. They turned those who beheld them to stone.

Pseudo-Apollodorus’ description matches those illustrated on pottery from Greece during the Archaic period (750-480 BCE), such as this Attic red-figure amphora painted around 490 BCE by the Berlin Painter (now in Munich).

Yet much as the ancient literary sources diverge in their portrayals of Medusa, so do material media, especially as time progresses. Even around the same time the above vase was painted, the epinician poet Pindar described Medusa not as ghastly-faced, but “fair-cheeked” (Pythian 12.15). A century later was produced this red-figure Apulian bell krater from ca. 400-385 (now in Boston), a product of Greece’s Classical period (480-323 BCE). It depicts Athena receiving from Perseus the severed head of Medusa, which lacks the grotesque facial features of the earlier representations, and is instead an ordinary woman’s head, even with normal hair, plus a few snakes. 

Visual depictions of Medusa with a regular human face persist and proliferate well into the Roman period of Ovid and beyond. For example, there are numerous mosaics that present her as such, including this example from the late second century CE, which had been situated in a Roman bathhouse in modern-day Tunisia (now in the Sousse Archaeological Museum in Tunis). 

The popularity of Medusa in ancient Greco-Roman art is largely explained by the use of her head as an apotropaic symbol, like gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals, an evil to ward off other evils. This traces back to her myth, when Perseus after finishing his quests delivers Medusa’s head to Athena, who places it on her shield, the aegis. Medusa’s use as a prophylactic device can famously be seen on the breastplate of Alexander the Great in the famous mosaic of the Battle of Issus found at Pompeii. It evidently worked.

Such a use of Athena’s gorgoneion persists in the modern day, through Medusa pendants, belt buckles, and tattoos.

Image

Beyond showing her popularity in the Greco-Roman world, I have thus far presented evidence that in antiquity there was no orthodox, canonical version of Medusa or her myths (nor is the case for any other myths and mythical figures). Even if such multiplicity did not exist in the oral tradition, authors and artists adapted and reshaped myths to suit their own aims. Classical reception, therefore, is not only a post-antique or modern phenomenon. Questions about whether newer presentations of myth are “accurate” are largely misguided. The modern reception of Medusa, and criticism thereof, should be free from the constraints of “fidelity” to ancient sources.

Indeed, modern and contemporary revisions of Medusa are not only in the popular consciousness through films, books, video games, and yes, several genres of music, they are also involved in contemporary social and political movements. Specifically, I’m talking about the #MeToo movement and the statue of Medusa with the Head of Perseus sculpted in 2008 by Luciano Garbati, which was recently installed across from the New York City courthouse where in February of 2020 Harvey Weinstein had been tried and convicted of sexual assault and rape. This is not the first time Medusa has been adopted by some as a symbol of modern feminism, particularly as an emblem of female indignation that resists the forces of patriarchy. In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, Elizabeth Johnston identified Medusa as the original ‘nasty woman’ (a characterization of Hillary Clinton made by Donald Trump during one of their debates), whose image is conjured “whenever male authority feels threatened by female agency.” Garbati’s statue portrays Medusa as a nude, thin woman with snakes for hair, holding a sword in one hand and the head of Perseus in the other, a total reversal of the traditional myth, and specifically an intentional response to the 1554 Italian Renaissance sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini.

MeToo Medusa sculpture to be installed across from New York courthouse  where Harvey Weinstein stood trial | The Art Newspaper

Since its public installation, the statue has aroused fresh controversy over its validity as a symbol of feminism and the #MeToo movement. Critics point out its sexualization of Medusa, the fact that it was created by a man (Garbati) in competition with another man (Cellini), and that the beheading of Perseus does not exactly exact justice for Poseidon’s rape (nor should revenge be the goal of the movement). Nevertheless, it is inarguably a version of Medusa that attempts to humanize her and has brought her backstory into the popular consciousness, in contrast to previous instances of her modern reception in film. I’m talking specifically about her instantiations in 1981’s Clash of the Titans and its 2010 remake. The original movie featured her as the last of Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-motion animated monsters. Harryhausen totally remodeled Medusa, giving her green, scaly skin and beastly growl, arming her with an Amazonian bow and arrow and turning the lower half of her naked body into a giant serpent.

Dr. Liz Gloyn, in her recent book Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture, remarks on Harryhausen’s artistic choices and their impact (p. 54):

The importance of the visual for the monster is underscored by Harryhausen’s own comments on the design of Medusa. He claimed to find her representation as a beautiful woman with snakes for hair profoundly unsatisfying, and so is the first person (as far as I am aware) to represent Medusa with a snake’s torso and tail. Medusa is now overwhelmingly likely to be represented with a snake tail on screen and in books. Harryhausen created this shift by choosing to prioritise monstrosity over beauty: ‘I felt we needed a striking and yet unconventionally hideously ugly demon.’ To this end, he took the bone structure of Medusa’s severed head in Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa and made it ugly; the snake tail felt like ‘an obvious progression’ from the snakes in her hair. His decision creates a shift in monstrous femininity, again structured by an instinct for cinematic impact — but its influence highlights the control creators hold over monsters on the screen.

As Gloyn notes later in her book, this Medusa is given no backstory. Harryhausen’s inhuman, reptilian Medusa sharpens the contrast between heroic Self and evil Other characteristic of twentieth-century superhero films. As a culture hero, Perseus brings order and civilization to the world by ridding it of the monstrous forces of chaos in which it originated. 

Medusa’s serpentine form was retained in the 2010 remake of the film, switching from claymation to CGI. Yet the movie also reintroduces more human elements, giving Medusa a conventionally attractive woman’s face and voice (heard through grunts and screams — she never speaks in either film). There is thus a tension between her attractive femininity and her repellent monstrosity. Her face only becomes monstrously distorted when she delivers her petrifying gaze. Her lair is also shifted from the edge of the Underworld to the Underworld itself. When Perseus decapitates her, her expression returns to that of an innocent and vulnerable woman, earning her some sympathy from the audience. Her ending reminds us of how she is introduced in the film, when Io reports Medusa’s backstory of Poseidon’s rape and Athena’s vengeance. Her death, unlike in the original film, is still necessary to the plot, but perhaps more tragically so.

As her image was variegated and popular in Greco-Roman antiquity, so it is today in popular culture, and that variegation and popularity carries over into Medusa’s reception in heavy metal music, which, as I will show in the remainder of this piece, takes Medusa from both ancient and modern sources and transforms her into one of its own symbols, the heavy metal femme fatale

As a handful of scholars like myself have begun exploring in the past few years, the reception of Greco-Roman myth, history, and art is widespread in the heavy metal scene across the globe (albeit not as popular as Norse mythology). Tales of gods, heroes, monsters, and epic battles appeal to a genre that at its core is about instilling feelings of power and passion, rebelling from contemporary establishments, and offering a sense of escape to a legendary past from which an authentic humanity can be retrieved. From the rich tapestry of the classical legacy, metal bands pull on some threads more than others. Sparta is more appealing than Athens, Ares more than Artemis, Nero more than Augustus. The popularity of classical figures in metal can be quantified, thanks to Metal Archives, a database of every metal band past and present. According to Metal Archives, there have been 14 bands named Medusa, and another 11 with Medusa in their name (such as the arcane Canadian band Tales of Medusa). 15 albums have Medusa as or part of their title. The database also includes song lyrics, and a search for the name “Medusa” reveals 124 different songs, by over 100 bands all over the world, that have Medusa either in their title or lyrics. If we use this as our metric, this makes Medusa the most popular classical figure in heavy metal music, behind only Hades (which is somewhat unfair, as Hades is both a person and a place, often equated with the Christian Hell). 

Why is Medusa so popular in heavy metal? There are multiple reasons that will be elucidated as we dive into the music itself and its progression from the early 1980’s to the present day. But the first reason can be stated right off the bat. Metal music, while the defining element of a counterculture, very often takes its cues from the popular culture from which it rebels, especially from blockbuster films. For example, with the release of 300 in 2006 came a substantial increase in the number of metal bands writing songs and albums about the Spartans.

And so the origin of Medusa’s reception in Metal was also inspired by the silver screen, with the song “Gorgon” from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal band Angel Witch’s 1980, self-titled debut album. Inspiration from horror films was at the origin of heavy metal itself in 1969, when Tony Iommi’s band Earth changed its name to Black Sabbath, after the 1963 Boris Karloff film. In that tradition, Angel Witch based their song on the 1964 Hammer film The Gorgon, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The movie takes place in the modern day, where one of Medusa’s immortal sisters Stheno and Euryale takes possession of a mortal woman who gains the power to turn people to stone with her gaze. The film ends when she is killed tragically by her own lover. “Gorgon” is not technically about Medusa, but draws from the same myth, and presents the Gorgon-possessed woman as a femme fatale, “a female that brings doom.” The song is sung from the perspective of one advising the woman’s lover to reenact Perseus’ quest and behead her: “you have to get rid of her / The only way I know / Creep up behind with an axe / And decapitate with one blow.” Beyond recounting the literal story, the song becomes a metaphor for getting out of a relationship with a controlling woman: “I can see you’re all confused / And you feel you’re being used / And now your heart is broken.” The track reveals masculine fear of submission to the feminine, and contemplates the violent means to break the spell. 

Five years later, Medusa herself would get her first song with the rise of Thrash Metal. In 1985, the American band Anthrax released Spreading the Disease and its track “Medusa,” which cemented the Gorgon’s status as a heavy metal femme fatale, an evil, deceitful temptress who uses her sexual power to subjugate men. The lyrics are worth quoting in full to demonstrate how Anthrax navigate between a literal reading of the myth and its metaphorical reading of feminine treachery:

Endless curse, blood runs cold
Evil stare, will turn your flesh to stone
Land of doom, world of sin
All subside, don’t venture near
The island where she lives
Oh, she’ll suck you in

Destroyer of life, Demon
Oh I’m ready to strike, Gorgon

Serpents bride, the end awaits
Human prey, no swords or armor
Shield you from your fate
Hey you, you can’t escape
Wicked smile, full of lies
Head of snakes, approach her cave
But don’t look in her eyes
Oh, her eyes

Seize, appease, deceive, die
Seize, appease, deceive, die

Medusa, she’s staring at you
Medusa, with her eyes
Medusa

Evil witch, cast her spell, seducing you
She’ll take you to the very depths of hell
Cannot move, no eyes to see, a statue now
For all eternity Medusa laughs at you
And you’re her slave

Medusa, she’s staring at you
Medusa, with her eyes
Medusa, oh, she’s cold
Medusa

Anthrax situate Medusa on an island that is a proxy for the heavy metal underworld, an anti-heaven where evil and sinful passions are given free reign. Medusa is even suggested to be the queen of this underworld, as the “Serpents bride,” consort of Satan himself. The myth becomes replete with sexual innuendo: “she’ll suck you in” ; “approach her cave” ; “evil with, cast her spell, seducing you.” Petrification becomes a metaphor for the enslavement of masculine to feminine power. Anthrax interpret the myth psychoanalytically as the fear of emasculation. This was not the first or last time band leader Scott Ian drew from the Classics. Anthrax’s debut album featured a song called “Howling Furies,” and his crossover band Stormtroopers of Death later put out a track “Moment of Truth,” where the last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae becomes an anthem for heavy metal’s creed of rebellion and liberation. 

Three years later came a fresh take on Medusa’s story, this time from the American Thrash/Power Metal band Deadly Blessing, with the song “Cry of Medusa” on their 1988 album Ascend from the Cauldron. As the record’s title suggests, witches and their magic is a prevalent theme, including in the song “Salem’s Lot” about the Salem witch trials from the Puritans’ point of view. “Cry of Medusa” begins with Medusa’s origin story, but not the same one offered by any of the ancient sources: “She came from Mount Olympus, up high in the sky / She was an ordinary woman, until she lied / The curse was put upon her, through her pretty eyes / One glancing look at her, would be mortal man’s demise.” As in Ovid, Medusa starts out as a regular mortal, but her transformation comes as penalty not for Poseidon’s rape, but for a sin she actively committed, earning her punishment. What she lied about, and who punished her, is left unclear. Aside from the petrifying gaze of her “pretty eyes,” there is no physical description of her, only her actions and intent: “Black magic was in her realm, to seduce and maim at will / Cursed with a stare that’s made of stone / a master of the kill.” Once again, she is cast as a sexually alluring sorceress that actively menaces men. 

Deadly Blessing would not be the only band to offer an alternative origin story where Medusa deserves her fate. The Italian blackened symphonic Power Metal band Stormlord are no stranger to classical myth, having released a concept album based on Vergil’s Aeneid in 2013. Yet their song “The Curse of Medusa” from their 2001 album At the Gates of Utopia presents an origin for Medusa that is both novel and familiar: 

No man who beheld her could not fall
She had eyes of diamond and silken hair
Such a beauty was consumed inside

The fire of pride burned in her heart
That fire so many led to ruin
Ended by being the cause of her disgrace

Medusa dared to compare herself
To the golden armed daughter of Zeus
An affront the goddess could not bear

A revenge so cruel made her who
Was once by all loved and admired
Become a monster feared by the whole mankind

Medusa’s beautiful hair turned to
A tangle of poisonous snakes
Horrible scales covered her skin
Her eyes grew cold

The Ovidian Medusa is largely rewritten into a cautionary tale about the perils of hubris, the excessive pride that invites the wrath of the jealous gods. In traditional myth, such a fate befell Arachne for daring to put her skill at weaving into competition with that of Athena. In Stormlord’s version, Medusa begins as the consummately beautiful maiden of the Metamorphoses, but Athena’s vengeance comes upon her not for her violation by Poseidon, but through her own hubristic boasting. The enraged Athena transforms Medusa into the reptilian form of Harryhausen’s creation. Medusa’s punishment, moreover, fits the crime in a quasi-Dantean contrappasso. She continues to do in her monstrous form what she did as a normal woman, seduce men and rob them of their power: “No man who beheld her could not fall.” 

This hubristic Medusa crops up yet again in the song “Killing Gaze” by the American Heavy/Power Metal band Zandelle on their 2009 album Flames of Rage: “She once held such beauty which was unsurpassed / Matched only by arrogance which was just as vast / Boasted of her beauty as though it was her right / Angering Athena, turned into a victim of her spite.” The song recounts her career of calcifying terror, setting up Perseus’ heroic entry to put a stop to this menace. 

Some bands do acknowledge the role of Poseidon in Medusa’s backstory. The American Thrash/Doom/Sludge band Lair of the Minotaur demonstrate a wide reading of classical mythology in their lyrical concepts, exemplified in their song “Behead the Gorgon” on their 2006 album The Ultimate Destroyer: “She was a beautiful maiden / Until she lay in the goddess shrine / Athens (sic) swore revenge on Medusa / With repugnant tusks of a swine / Locks of snakes drape over her head / Brazen hands and golden wings / Demoness of the grotesque.” Lair of the Minotaur combine the Roman Ovid’s transformation narrative with the traditional Greek description of Gorgons seen in Pseudo-Apollodorus and Archaic art. Her rape by Poseidon is glossed over, with no mention of with whom she “lay,” while the verb suggests a more consensual sexual encounter. Once again, Medusa is framed as actively inviting her punishment, and also she actively pursues her masculine prey, “laying waste to the countryside.” Once more, Perseus arrives to rid the world of this pest as the narrator exhorts him: “behead the Gorgon!” 

Likewise, the French Death Metal band Kronos recount the story of Medusa and Perseus in their dilogy “Petrifying Beauty” on their 2007 album The Hellenic Terror. Part I characterizes Medusa’s encounter with Poseidon as consensual seduction: “Poseidon, under a spell of a gorgeous woman / With beautiful face and superb hair / Charms this jewel of femininity / Satisfying his sexual desire in the Athena temple.” Once again, Medusa is framed as complicit in the desecration of Athena’s shrine, and is then transformed into an evil monster that must as a matter of course be stopped by Perseus. 

Indeed, Perseus as the slayer of Medusa becomes himself a symbol of heavy metal masculinity, a role model of individualism, courage, power, and violent justice retrieved from a bygone age perceived as lacking in the contemporary world. Such iconization is consummated in the cover art to the Chilean Heavy Metal band Axe Battler’s 2014 self-titled album, which depicts a long-haired, muscle-bound Perseus in the guise of the ever popular in metal Conan the Barbarian. With his sword drawn he averts the gaze of a Medusa that, while having the serpent’s tail and green skin of Harryhausen’s beast, has smooth skin, an hourglass torso, and large breasts. The contrast between the muscular warrior and his sexualized nemesis is stark. 

A similarly eroticized Medusa is featured on the cover artwork of the Cypriot band Astronomikon’s 2013 record Dark Gorgon Rising (another buxom Harryhausen monster).

Astronomikon - Dark Gorgon Rising - Amazon.com Music

We see it also with the American band Ironflame’s 2017 album Lightning Strikes the Crown, which depicts a winged, large-breasted Medusa beside a petrified man lying in a position of sexual submission.

Lightning Strikes the Crown | IRONFLAME

Such portrayals of feminine antagonists on cover art go beyond this myth, including the nude Cleopatra on the Italian band White Skull’s 2000 album Public Glory, Secret Agony, or the nude, Orientalized woman enthroned on the American band Eternal Champion’s 2020 album Ravening Iron. Metal has a tradition of sexualizing powerful women as challenges to masculine authority, while at the same time voyeuristic objects that indulge the animal passions whose release is traditionally celebrated and encouraged by the heavy metal ethos. 

While Medusa’s status as a femme fatale in Metal artists’ retellings of the Perseus myth are evident, many bands bring Medusa and her story out of its ancient context and into the present day experience. She becomes the archetype of the woman that uses her sexual power to deceive and control her lovers, who become slaves to their lusts. The song “Medusa” by the British Heavy Metal band Koru (from their 2010 album Medusa) begins with the lines “She’s got the eyes of Medusa / She’ll hypnotise and seduce ya / She’d turn a man to solid stone / Her touch combusts your skin like fire / Internal flames of lust, desire / She’ll lead you blind, then rob your soul / And kill your horse to steal your gold.” That final line recalls the Greek poet Hesiod’s advice “don’t let a pretty-assed woman bamboozle your mind / beguiling you with wily words: she’s after your barn” (Works & Days 373-374, my translation). The British Speed Metal band Robespierre begin 2011’s “Medusa” with the words “Medusa is my lover / She gives me what I need / I take her with a shaft of iron / Yet it is me who will bleed.” The narrator sees in Medusa the indulgence of his sexual desires, thinking he subdues her with his suggestive “shaft of iron,” but pays the price for it.

Another British band, Catalyst of Damnation, set a similar message to blackened Death/Doom Metal, as their song “Temptation” goes “You hear her call – You seek her touch / You can’t resist the promise of heaven / The pleasures she brings will surely be your undoing / You cannot say no – You cannot refuse – You belong to her.” There are several other bands with songs like these, turning Medusa into a devil to whom a man sells his soul.

Thus far, we have explored songs and albums that demonize Medusa or at least represent her as a threat to masculine power. But some artists have, especially in more recent years, taken a more sympathetic approach to her. The Canadian Black Metal band Spectral Wound do so with the track “Slaughter of the Medusa” on their 2018 album Infernal Decadence. The song revises our view of Perseus, the “bastard son gods / Furtive behind your mirror,” and characterizes his murder of Medusa through stratagem as unheroic. The second half of the song looks back to Medusa’s rape by Poseidon and punishment by Athena:

Did you wonder not what torrent forced its deluge here?
By what brutal rite the sea defiled?
To what end, this venom blessed
These tresses serpentine?
By what violence forged
These locks that curl and writhe?
By what wry hex this sisterhood aligned?

Let us labrys-crack the brow of Zeus once more
See what bright horrors issue forth

Perseus’ slaughter of Medusa is called into question in this meditation on the cruelty of the gods. The final lines allude to Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus, and suggests that she, not Medusa, is the real villain and monster of this tale. 

The American Progressive Black Metal band In Human Form also view Medusa in a kinder light, but blame not only the gods for her condition, but us ourselves for viewing her as a monster. We deserve to be turned to stone by her gaze.

Her immortality is displayed with irreverence
And always with fear
Our dear Medusa was scorned
Disgraced in a Temple now profaned

With snakes for hair
And hatred for mortal man
Not the vengeful
Not the spiteful
But the wronged Medusa

Turn us to stone
Medusa
Use your gaze
Turn Us to granite
Make us weep tears of marble
Force Our eyes to your gaze
Medusa
We stare!

Some bands go further than reorienting our view of the myth; they deliver their songs from Medusa’s perspective and give her a voice. This makes her less a passive object of desire, hostility, or sympathy. Take the German Power Metal band Grave Digger’s song “Medusa” from the 2012 album Clash of the Gods:

Mother what have you done to me
You have seen me together with the god of the sea
Your mind is full of hate, I’ve touched your reign
There’s no excuse to bring you such a pain

You cursed my soul, my mind is dead
Eyes like a weapon, snakes on my head
A priestless I was, the pride of Athena
Now I’m banned to live the life of a beast

I’ve been mistreated
I can bleed no tears
My only will is to kill

Like other bands we have discussed, Grave Digger revise the nature of Medusa’s sexual encounter with Poseidon. Whether or not it was consensual, here Medusa chooses to blame herself, whether complicit or the victim. Nevertheless, she sees her transformation as an unjust act, which motivates and justifies her desire to harm others. 

The Italian Symphonic/Folk Metal band Evenoire take a similar approach with the song “Tears of Medusa” on their 2014 album Herons. Evenoire, fronted by Lisy Stefanoni, pen a letter from Medusa to Poseidon in the tradition of Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of letters written by mythological women to their often erstwhile lovers: “My dear Poseidon, that night / Your embrace was deep as the oceans / No one will love me anymore / Cold tears stream down my damned face.” 

Bands that put on Medusa’s mask do not necessarily focus on her victimhood. The Italian Gothic Metal band Theatres des Vampires, and their vocalist Sonya Scarlet, give voice to a Medusa whose powers transcend the ancient tales. In the song “Medousa” from their 2011 album Moonlight Waltz, the title Gorgon describes herself as “the crone Goddess / in my dreadful aspect / I’m the three and the one.” Later in the song, she calls herself “the guardian / of the underworld of deads (sic).” Medusa becomes assimilated to the Great Goddess of world mythology, an immortal, chthonic, feminine force that, like the phases of the moon, manifests itself as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. In her triple aspect she also resembles the Greek underworld goddess of magic, Hecate. The Great Goddess represents the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and has the power to give life and take it away. The song confirms this Great Goddess interpretation with the lines “From the right vein / I give back the life again / And from my left side / I will give you death and pain / Call me daughter, sister, queen or even God.” Mythologists have interpreted the Medusa & Perseus myth as reenacting the conquest of the primordial feminine, chthonic forces of chaos with the masculine order of sky gods (e.g. Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat), and may reflect an historical shift from the worship of the Great Goddess to patriarchal pantheons like Zeus’ Olympians. Theatres des Vampires recast Medusa as an avatar of the Great Goddess and reassert her power. 

J. J. Cohen wrote that “fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.” This explains our attraction to the monsters of myth and of horror films. Heavy metal music, which had the inspiration of horror movies at its origins, is often obsessed with the monstrous in legend, fiction, history, and human nature. Medusa’s reception in Metal is a supreme example of how fear and desire are intertwined, like the snakes around her head. From the early 80’s to the present, bands around the world, in every subgenre, have rewoven the threads of both ancient and modern versions of her myth into new tapestries that highlight metal’s perennial themes of evil and satanic forces, assertions of masculine power, and the tension between the liberation of, and enslavement to, one’s passions. Medusa embodies this tension, the femme fatale and sorceress who bewitches her lustful prey and emasculates them. Like Garbati’s statue, her destructive gaze that objectifies men is countered by a male gaze that objectifies her. While some bands have in recent years acknowledged her victimhood and given her control of her own narrative, the majority condemn her as a metaphysical evil destined to be conquered by the hypermasculine hero. The Metal counterculture has long been a male-dominated scene, and the demons of sexism and misogyny still have a ways to go before being fully exorcised. But the progressive diversification of metal, not only in terms of gender, but also of race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, shall enrich the music with new perspectives. Medusa will likely remain popular when bands turn to the classical world for inspiration, as more and more are doing, and fresh takes on her myth may likely result. 

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