Gorgon: a vicious female monster with sharp fangs. Her power was so strong that anyone attempting to look upon her would be turned to stone. The Gorgon wore a belt of serpents that intertwined as a clasp, confronting each other. There were three Gorgons, and each one had hair made of living snakes.
In The Gorgon in the Gully (2010), Melina Marchetta’s delightful book for 10-12 year olds, no one has ever seen a Gorgon. But one apparently lives in a small valley near the sports fields at the school attended by a boy called Danny. When Danny looks up Gorgon on the internet, he finds the above definition. And his local Gorgon’s reputation for fierceness is only equalled by its record as a hoarder of balls.
So when Danny’s ball goes into the gully, and Simmo, the School Bully, dares him to go in after it, Danny is caught between his fear of the Gorgon, and his fear of being a “gutless wonder”.
His mother advises him to:
look at whatever you’re scared of from a different angle. Look at it up really close. Find a friend at school who’s not afraid to look at things up close with you.
Which is what Danny does. Gradually, he becomes friends with Simmo, and they work together to confront the Gorgon. When they finally do, they discover it is nothing like their imaginings. Indeed it’s not a Gorgon at all. It is a gentle old man who has been wondering when the children are going to retrieve their balls. In conquering his fear, Danny conquers the Gorgon, gets his ball back and becomes known as “Gorgon-buster”.
The Gorgon in the Gully goes neatly to the core of the Medusa allegory: if fear is petrifying, one needs to know how to look at it “up close”.
And like the hero Perseus assisted by the goddess Athena, who used a reflective shield to deflect Medusa’s stare and avoid being petrified, Danny finds a way to look closely at his fears from different angles, and to overcome them.
Lurking in literature
Monsters from classical myth have been lurking in the gullies of Western literature for a long time – in retellings and adaptations, and acting as symbols and metaphors for aspects of the human experience.
They’ve been surfacing recently in fantasy for children and young adults. Imaginary Medusas, realistically drawn Minotaurs, as well as a multitude of many-headed Scyllas, Hydras and Cerberuses: they all appear in Australian children’s and YA fiction.
Why are so many contemporary writers reconnecting with the monsters of classical myth? I think it’s partly because they provide profound connections to issues of identity, coming of age, and finding one’s place in the world. These are fundamental matters in children’s literature, which aims to educate and socialise children to fit in, and also to express their concerns about the world and their place in it.
And writers are working now in a globalised context, with a rich cornucopia of referents. The mash-up culture of film, television, gaming and comic book franchises is a case in point, in which protagonists connect with figure after figure from myth and legend.
It’s fun to play with mythical beasts. And it’s interesting to connect to them as well.
Mixing with Medusa
Connecting with Medusa can mean confronting her monstrous powers, facing the fear she represents. It can also mean sympathising with her.
As Ovid tells it, in one version of the myth (which like all classical myth has many variants), Medusa was seduced (or raped) by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and Athena transformed her beautiful hair into snakes as a punishment for this defilement. Like many monstrous tales in Greek mythology, it doesn’t seem fair.
Today, some Australian writers are more sympathetic to Medusa, as can be seen in The Gaze of the Gorgon (2002), by Karen R. Brooks. This is the second novel in a four-part portal fantasy in which a magic necklace takes 13 year old Cassandra Klein to Morphea, a mystical realm in which myths and fairytales are living and real. There, she does battle with the witch Hecate, who is trying to get control over this fantasy world, and who forces Medusa to use her powers to turn the Morpheans to stone.
But when Caz meets Medusa, she discovers that she is, in fact, an unwilling tool of Hecate. Together, they agree to “reverse the evil” that has been done, and give the petrified ones back their lives. This means that Caz has to kill Medusa.
Gazing at the bowed head of the Gorgon, Caz took a deep breath. ‘I am so sorry,’ she whispered. And before she could change her mind, raised the sword above her head and dropped her arms.
Caz and her friends gather the blood spurting from Medusa’s neck, and use it to heal wounds and revive the petrified. By willingly submitting to Caz’s blade, Medea’s death-dealing monstrosity is transformed into healing powers. It’s a revisionist take on the subject that comments on and compensates for the essential unfairness of Medusa’s treatment, both at the hands of Brooks’s Hecate, and Poseidon and Athena.
Mining hidden fears
This revisionist approach, which challenges the original myths, can also be seen in treatments of the Minotaur. To summarise the famously tangled myth: it is half-bull, half-man, the product of a union between Pasiphae, the queen of Crete, and a snow-white bull sent to the King (Minos) by Poseidon for sacrifice.
Because Minos kept the bull alive, Poseidon punished the family by making Pasiphae fall in love with it. And when she gave birth to the Minotaur, King Minos had it shut away in the Labyrinth, created by the master-inventor, Daedalus. Minos demanded regular sacrifice of Athenian youths and maidens – to be sent into the Labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.
The Athenian hero Theseus volunteered to go. Ariadne (daughter of Minos and Pasiphae) helped him find his way in and out of the labyrinth, using a ball of thread to guide him. He repaid her by abandoning her on an island, where she was discovered and taken up by Bacchus.
Jennifer Cook’s Ariadne: The Maiden and the Minotaur (2005) is set in ancient Greece, and tells this story from the point of view of a key player, the princess Ariadne, or Ari.
Cook’s Ari is an impatient, irreverent, lively modern teenager, highly critical of her family.
Here, Cook draws attention to the point that the Minotaur is Ariadne’s blood relation, recasting it as Ari’s little brother “Tori”, a disabled child, Pasiphae’s illegitimate son (born from an affair, but not an affair with a bull). To his family, Tori is a symbol of shame and disgrace, both illegitimate and disabled.
In Cook’s story, it’s the Labyrinth, designed to contain many vicious traps, and King Minos’ insistence on the sacrifices, that kill the Athenians not the Minotaur.
In conspiring with Theseus, Ari saves Tori, and escapes with him. Far from being abandoned by Theseus and taken up by Bacchus she finds true love elsewhere, fading out of recorded story, with satisfaction.
When I asked Cook what drove this depiction of a feisty Ariadne, she replied:
I remember hearing the Minotaur myth and wondering about Ariadne and thinking how typical it was of the Greek hero Theseus to get all of the help from her and then take all of the credit. To add insult to injury he dumps her and takes off with her sister. And her reward? To get ‘married’ (Greek myth parlance for raped) by Dionysos [Bacchus]. And yes, I did my honours degree in feminist history.
Cook’s feminism, coupled with her sympathy for the Minotaur as unwitting victim of a dysfunctional family (and also of the gods), influences her approach to the myth. In essence it is a coming-of-age story, in which Ariadne identifies the true monsters in her family. Tori stands for all that the family is ashamed of; the myth of the Minotaur stands for the lies people tell when the truth is too frightening. In caring for Tori and rescuing him, Ari demonstrates modern Australian ideas of love, justice, and empathy far different from the stark ironies of the Ancient Greek myths.
Liberating and facing the Minotaur
These modern Australian attitudes can be seen too, in Myke Bartlett’s fantasy novel for teenagers, Fire in the Sea (2012), in which a terrifying Minotaur comes to Australia on a mystical mission to restore the lost city of Atlantis to life:
All eyes were on the matted fur of his head, the exposed and bloodied teeth, and the horns. The head of a bull, the body of a man, the teeth of a lion.
In this story, fantasy elements intrude on the real world and have to be dealt with by the protagonist, a teenage orphan called Sadie. She faces a brutally bestial fighting machine in the Minotaur. Yet as the story unfolds, Sadie discovers the Minotaur is a slave to Atlantis’s head priestess, Lysandra, acting against its will to keep her in power.
In the novel’s end game, when Lysandra’s realm is disintegrating below the waves, Sadie confronts the Minotaur, believing she is ready to kill it. But she looks into its eyes, and sees flickers of humanity. Unable to slay the beast, she severs the chain around its neck, liberating it from servitude.
Here, Bartlett points to the tragedy of the Minotaur’s origins: as an unwitting byproduct of the gods’ and humans’ treachery, it is forced to act as a symbol of monstrosity.
The book also makes a point that life is worth the risk of death. As an orphan who has witnessed her parents’ death, Sadie is deeply afraid of dying. Letting the Minotaur go means risking that it will kill her: what she is most afraid of.
Worse things than death?
But perhaps there are worse things than death. And in Requiem for a Beast (2007), writer-illustrator-musician Matt Ottley uses the figure of the Minotaur to explore the pain of monstrous pasts, personal and national.
Requiem for a Beast is the story of a young stockman who confronts his own, his father’s and his country’s past. During a routine muster, he tracks down a magnificent bull that has evaded capture. He traps it in a ravine, where it falls and is badly wounded. Knowing that if he does not act, it will die a lingering death, the boy takes his knife and kills the bull.
Coming of age can mean confronting one’s demons, coming to terms with one’s past. And as the boy reflects on his encounter with the bull, his story is told through flashbacks: to his childhood, to learning of his father’s shameful story – he had been part of a group of men who had killed a young Aboriginal boy – and reflections about the Stolen Generation.
This book is shot through with iconic Australian imagery – the big sky, the harsh but beautiful landscape, the image of the drover and the muster. And linking them to the boy’s inner drama is the image of the Minotaur.
Otley anchors this specifically to a key memory from the boy’s childhood: visiting a museum with his father, they enter the mythology room, where the father explains the myth of the Minotaur.
What was it that happened that day? Why did that strange beast follow me – out of the museum and into the rest of my life? It hunted me, tracked me through the years, and slowly drew my spirit – who I was – from me until there was nothing left.
What indeed? What is Ottley’s Minotaur? A symbol of the repressed and repression? Of the violence of Australia’s past? A symbol of the demons teenagers face as they transition from childhood to adulthood, and come of age?
The book connects classical myth to the teenage experience, and also to the iconic myths and stories of Australian culture, while considering important national issues like the Stolen Generation. It runs the risk of imposing the standards of the Western canon onto the local context (as Erica Hately points out) yet it also shows the power of classical material to open up important discussions about our own culture.
Myth in our DNA
I’ve focused here on Medusas and Minotaurs. But Australian authors explore many other mythical beasts, engaging with their entertaining, fun and scary aspects.
Geoffrey McSkimming’s energetic diesel-punk adventure series, Cairo Jim, exploits the resonant power of myths from Gorgons to Satyrs. Ian Trevaskis takes children back in time to help the ancient heroes fight ancient foes in Hopscotch: Medusa Stone.
Terry Denton finds the more cuddly aspects of the Minotaur in The Minotaur’s Maze (2004), while Phillip Gwynne turns Cerberus, the three-headed guard-dog to the underworld, into a computer program in Bring Back Cerberus (2013). And in The Zoo of Magical and Mythological Creatures (2009), Sam Bowring’s hero, Zackary, becomes the keeper of a whole zoo of magical creatures.
Sulari Gentill’s Hero Trilogy retells Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of a girl called Hero. When I asked Gentill what it was about classical myth she thought connected to young readers, she said there was an engaging familiarity to them:
I suspect that there is a kind of DNA that classical/ancient myth has contributed to all the stories that have come after them in Western literature. Consequently there’s a strange familiarity to them even if one has never heard the particular legend before. They add to our appreciation of new stories and we feel a connection even if we don’t know why.
We might think that Medusa and the Minotaur are buried in the past. But they surface in the present surprisingly often: testing our bravery; challenging our ideas about monstrosity and danger; and revealing the continued influence of classical antiquity, and its power in literature for our young readers.
This is an edited version of “Medusas and Minotaurs: Metamorphosis and Meaning in Australian Contexts,” presented at Chasing Mythical Beasts … The Reception of Creatures from Graeco-Roman mythology in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture as a Transformation Marker, hosted by the Centre for Studies on the Classical Tradition in the Faculty of Artes Liberales, University of Warsaw (May 12-15).