Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Was the Female gaze deadlier than the male’s?

Medusa as represented in the film Clash of the Titans (1981)

“Men do not simply look; their gaze carries with it the power of action and of possession.” (Bowers. Spring 1990. NWSA Journal p.217)

Perhaps asking this question may seem obvious remembering the fearsome eyes of Athena and Medusa, both female. However observing the many aspects of ancient Greek religion, the answer is not as straight forward as it may appear.

It could be claimed that that no male deity’s gaze could match the fatal eyes of Medusa. Although Zeus's lighting was said to blind the Titans with its "flashing glare."  (Hesiod. Theogony. 687) Indeed it seems that women were attributed with a powerful gaze in the classical world. Cicero remarked that women with double pupils in obe eye, were capable of killing those they looked at. Cited from Pliny, he seems to support this by claiming the existance of such women In Scythia. (Pliny. The Natural History. Book VII .Chapter 2. 26+29)

Several academics have used the Medusa as a symbol of female power.  Bowers suggested that the power of Medusa (hence women) was essentially in the head. Bowers points to an image of a beheaded woman, which ceases to be threatening. (Spring 1990. NWSA Journal p.218) Supporting the image of female power residing in the head, Kerenyi writing in 1969 pointed out that the same weapon; a sickle was used to castrate Cronus as it was to behead the Medusa. (cited in Root.2007 p.22) It could be argued that just as Cronus’s “male” attributes were a threat to Gaia so the Medusa’s “female” attribute, her eyes were also a threat.

However some of these academics in their need to present the Medusa both as a epitome of female prowess and as a victim of a Patriarchal overthrow, largely ignore cases in which powerful women were respected and supported. It is also clear that some of these female deities had “masculine” qualities as well. One example is the description of the eyes.

 Kyanopis was a description for downcast or dark eyes and often associated with the female ideal, so seen as perfect with Aphrodite. Even then the ideal “female” eyes could be seen as deadly as Kyaneos was associated with snakes, the gaze of which according to Aischylos was deadly. The snake itself was connected to the underworld and Hades.  On the other Glaukopis seem to be the opposite of Kyanopis, descriptions of it suggest brightness or constant movement. This description is given to Athena and could be describe as “masculine” as its attributes were also the opposite of Kyanopis. The Glaukopis was associated with the owl, an animal of the air, not the earth. As argued in a previous blog another masculine aspect of Glaukopis could be its connection to the battlefield, where Glaukopis not only had terror accompany it but could be seen as keeping observant and alert. However the differences shouldn't be exaggerated, considering th Glaukopis could also be considered deadly. The owl was also associated with death through its noctural habits and often placed on gravestones.

So what were Medusa’s eyes? A clue could be the attribute of being "Gorgon-eyed." 2nd century CE physiognomic writers described the brave as also having a "moist gorgon’s gaze, large eyes, not too wide open but not closed either…" (Cairns. 2005. Body Language in the Greek and Roman World p.128) "Gorgon-eyed" or gorgopis was also a description given to Heracles. There is also a case where Athena is called "gorgon-eyed." Such description could connect it to the flashing, brightness of the Glaukopis, considering it was connected bravery.

In conclusion it seems that although the deadliest looks were attributed to women, both Medusa and Athena's gaze seems to be considered a "masculine" attribute. Perhaps as a final point and a return to feminist academics, it was the the fact that a "male" attribute could be so effectively controlled by women is what made them threatening.


1.Bowers, S.R. Spring 1990. Medusa and the Female Gaze. NWSA Journal Vol.2 No.2 pp.217-235

2. Cairns, D. 2005. Bullish Looks and Sidelong Glances: Social Interactions and the eyes in Ancient Greek Culture. Body Language in the Greek and Roman Worlds. pp.123-155

3. Deary and Villing. 2009 What was the colour of Athena's aegis? Journal of Hellenic Studies 129 pp.111-129

4. Hesiod. Theogony.;jsessionid=FC65FC589FC3FD2DA7ADB0350314F371?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0130%3Acard%3D687

5. Pliny. The Natural History. Book VII. Chapter 2.

6. Root. I.B. 2007. Redeeming the Gorgon: Reclaiming the Medusa Function of Psyche.

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