Medusa's Head

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Medusa's Head (Das Medusenhaupt, 1922), by Sigmund Freud, is a very short, posthumously published essay on the subject of the Medusa Myth.

Equating decapitation with castration, Freud maintained that the terror of Medusa was a reflection of the castration complex aroused in the young boy when the sight of the female genitals brought home the truth that females have no penis.[1]

Analysis[edit]

The hair upon Medusa's head is frequently represented in works of art in the form of snakes. Freud considered that, as penis symbols derived from the pubic hair, they serve to mitigate the horror of the complex,[2] as a form of overcompensation.[3]

This sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone. Observe that we have here once again the same origin from the castration complex and the same transformation of affect! In the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact. [4]

Medusa's head as symbol of horror was classically worn upon her dress by the virgin goddess Athena. Freud considered that as a result she became the unapproachable woman who repels all sexual desire by carrying (symbolically) the genitals of the mother.[5]

Protection[edit]

Freud argued further that, because displaying the genitals (male and female) can be an apotropaic act - one aimed at intimidating and driving off the spectator[6] - so too was the defensive use of Medusa's head in classical Greece. Representations of her head - the so-called Gorgoneion - were pervasive there, appearing on walls, gates, fortifications, armour, and personal amulets.[7]

Literary references[edit]

The heroine of Possession: A Romance claims to be planning a paper "to do with Melusina and Medusa and Freud's idea that the Medusa-head was a castration-fantasy, female sexuality, feared, not desired".[8]

Criticism[edit]

  • Later analysts have linked the Medusa's effect of petrification to the freezing effect of fear.[9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 311
  2. ^ Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (1997) p. 202
  3. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 330
  4. ^ Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (1997) p. 202
  5. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 311n
  6. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 72 and p. 347
  7. ^ H. Nettleship ed., A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1894) p. 258-9
  8. ^ A. S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance (1990) p. 315
  9. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 178
  10. ^ Julia M. Walker, Medusa's Mirrors (1998) p. 20

Further Reading[edit]

  • Sandor Ferenczi, 'On the Symbolism of the Head of Medusa' in Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psycho-Analysis (London 1926)
  • Sandor Ferenczi, 'Nakedness as a Means of Inspiring Terror' in Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psycho-Analysis (London 1926)
  • Freud, S. (1963) Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. NY: Collier. (pp. 212-213). ["Das Medusenhaupt." First published posthumously. Int. Z. Psychoanal. Imago, 25 (1940), 105; reprinted Ges. W., 17,47. The manuscript, dated May 14, 1922, and appears to be a sketch for a more extensive work. Trans.: James Strachey, Int. J. Psychoanal.,22 (1941), 69.}
  • M. Garber/N. J. Vickers eds., The Medusa Reader (2013)