It’s been an interesting time to spend two and a half weeks in the USA – though of course it’s hard to find a time that isn’t interesting in one way or another these days. On this occasion, as I was travelling the country telling the old Celtic story of the Rape of the Well-Maidens, yet another smug, privileged politician was being accused of sexual abuse, whilst his (male-dominated) establishment protected him, and the only recourse women had was to fall back on rage again.
If you don’t yet know about the old story of the Rape of the Well-maidens and the lost Voices of the Wells, click here, and discover how one of the oldest stories in what we now refer to as the Grail canon tells us that the coming of the Wasteland was caused by a king raping the maidens who tended the sacred wells – not a wound in the groin of the Fisher King, as later Grail romances insisted (reflecting a very clearly documented tendency as the centuries progressed for everything that gave authority and meaning to women to pass over to men). ‘The Kingdom turned to loss, the land was dead and desert in suchwise as that it was scarce worth a couple of hazel-nuts. For they lost the voices of the wells and the damsels that were therein.’ So says the unknown author of ‘The Elucidation’, a prologue to Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval: le Conte du Graal. They lost the voices of the wells, the source of the land’s life, and the voices of the women who tended them. As a consequence they lost the land’s spiritual heart: the court of the Fisher King. And so we came to live in a Wasteland, barren in body and soul.
Other mythologies have more than their fair share of rape and its consequences. I tend to steer clear of Greek mythology these days; it’s vastly overdone (and often equally vastly misunderstood). I’ve focused in more on my own native mythology. But there’s one character I’ve kept coming back to down all the years: Medusa. Remember Medusa? And what is it that you remember about her? Everyone, it seems, remembers the eyes that could turn you to stone, the writhing, venomous snakes for hair. What a monster she was, we all shudder prettily, caught up in the story and relieved in our hearts that the great man-hero Perseus had the good sense to decapitate her and put a stop to all that nonsense. And what a fine thing came of her death, surely: the beautiful winged horse, Pegasus, emerging from her gaping neck.
But hang on a minute – what abut the backstory? Even a monster deserves a backstory. And according to Ovid, Medusa was once a beautiful young woman, one of three sisters known as the Gorgons. Unfortunately for her, those weren’t the best of days to be a beautiful mortal woman: she caught the eye of the sea-god Poseidon, who didn’t think twice (as the gods rarely did) about raping her in the temple of Athena. But it’s easier, for sure, to demonise the woman. Furious at this act of desecration in her temple, it was Athena (never the most sympathetic of Greek goddesses, with a tendency to be utterly merciless to human women who get in her way) who proceeded to transform Medusa into that monster with the power to turn to stone anyone who looked at her face.
Good old Perseus; after taking Medusa’s severed head and using it to defeat his enemies in battle, he presented the head to Athena, who subsequently displayed it on her shield. And, through yet another manly, swashbuckling hero narrative, the name Medusa became a byword for monstrosity. (Yes indeed: as we’ve seen in the case of Kavaunagh and his tight-lipped Republican biddies, and as we’ve seen with Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale, women can be complicit in the patriarchy too.)
So many stories about women who are raped. The great father-god Zeus committed more than his fair share. Leda, raped by the swan into which he transformed himself; Europa, raped by Zeus in the form of a bull. He raped Calliope, and Antiope; he raped his daughter Persephone. His mate Poseidon got in on the act, raping her mother, Demeter. What fine role models they all made, these gods: the finest of role models for our powerful men.
The truth is, these are less ancient myths than contemporary realities. Because when it comes to raping women, patriarchal cultures the world over have had centuries of practice. The #metoo movement has pulled a handful of them up short, but we’ve a long, long way yet to go. It’s time to restore Medusa’s voice, and it’s time to restore the Voices of the Wells. The day of the Hero is done. It’s time to take back our own stories; time to refashion them for a new mythology which remembers the days when women had wings – and uses those newly fledged wings to rise.
‘If women remember that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted, like trees. And if we rise up rooted, like trees … well then, women might indeed save not only ourselves, but the world.’
from If Women Rose Rooted.