Behind the hypnotic stare of a death mask

July 5, 2002

Stephen Wilk offers several pointers as to how he thinks his book might be received by reviewers and readers. He refers to "the oddball trajectory of this book" and, in the final paragraph expresses the hope that, whatever else readers may say about this book, they will not find it boring. I can state unequivocally that this is not a boring work and that its oddball trajectory is refreshing.

I reviewed this work as a classicist, but it is an excellent example of the multiple ownership of the past across different academic disciplines (Wilk is a senior optical systems engineer), and could have been reviewed just as aptly by an astronomer or a historian of science.

The structure of the book mirrors the mysterious nature of the phenomenon it seeks to clarify. Part one, "The mystery", comprises five chapters that acquaint (or reacquaint) the reader with different versions of the myth of Perseus and Medusa. Chapter three, "The gorgon in art", offers a well-illustrated overview of gorgon motifs in ancient Greek art and architecture, while in chapter four, "Parallels from around the world", Wilk introduces parallels from Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Indonesia, China, Japan, the Americas, Pacific cultures, and later Europe. He concludes that the motif of the gorgon was not spread by cultural diffusion from a single source, as others have argued, but that different cultures invented this motif independently. In later chapters Wilk suggests that the explanation for the diffuse occurrences of this motif is to be found in the effect of the gorgon's features on the viewer. Wilk argues that shields emblazoned with a gorgon head would have helped the bearer by intimidating and distracting the enemy. He claims that at different points in the world, at different times, different peoples observed the efficacy of gorgon-like heads on shields and thus this motif developed by a process of "convergent evolution".

The revelation of the mystery of the gorgon comes in chapter ten, "What the gorgon really was". Wilk argues that the gorgon's face is a representation of the face of human corpses in a state of putrefaction - the swollen face, the bulging eyes, the distended tongue. I found his argument compelling - at any rate more compelling than the thesis that the gorgon began as a representation of a cephalopod.

My chief complaint is that the book contains some aimless digressions. For instance, Wilk argues that the ancients combined a group of constellations that are close together and all have variable stars in a single myth. In the course of this argument he engages in a detailed and apparently gratuitous discussion of the role of variable stars in the history of astronomy.

However, for those whose gaze Medusa has already transfixed, this book will deepen their fascination - for others, read it at your peril. I have already had to jettison the cover to escape the gorgon's hypnotic stare.

Emily Greenwood is research fellow in classics, St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon

Author - Stephen R. Wilk
ISBN - 0 19 512431 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 7

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