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The succubus in Ancient Greece

We move from the diabolization of the original Lilith and the witch in Ancient Mesopotamia - from creative Great Mother to the Terrible Mother with the Evil Eyes - to the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa, which picks up on the same theme. The image of Medusa marks the progression from a world dominated by the generative powers of the female to one overseen by the moral authority of the male. According to many classical legends, Medusa was once a most beautiful woman, a Gorgon whose grimace meant the pain of childbirth. She eventually became a seductress who was raped in the Temple of Athena by Poseidon. In revenge, Athena, the goddess born without a mother from the head of Zeus, changed her beautiful face into a monstrous one, the epitome of ugliness and evil. The monster Medusa (whose name meant “queen” or “ruler” in the feminine gender) could turn men to stone with a single glance from her lovely, terrible face.

After Perseus beheads her, Medusa’s head is placed on Athena’s breastplate. Here Medusa’s potential survives injust her face, a form that subordinates its powers to the control of the patriarchal state. Medusa has remained to this day the quintessential succubus, the symbol of male castration and death (see Figure 2.6, Medusa

Medusa as La Syphilis, from Louis Raemaker's L'Hecatombe. Courtesy of Ebling Library for the Health Sciences, Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Figure 2.6 Medusa as La Syphilis, from Louis Raemaker's L'Hecatombe. Courtesy of Ebling Library for the Health Sciences, Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

as La Syphilis, from Louis Raemaker’s L’Hecatombe). She wrenches masculinity away from the male through eye contact - his eyes meeting those of Medusa looking at him. Her castrating powers, in other words, are derived from the onlooker’s own desire, and she seduces a man to meet her stare with petrifying results.

It is in the ransacking of matriarchal Greek culture that we are afforded a close look at the derivatives of the succubus. The value system, norms, and the mores of Greek society were totally committed to instituting the domination of women; in fact, the Greeks considered the victory of males over females the very foundation for a civilized existence. The succubus explodes in Plato’s philosophy that the authentic soul is incarnated as a male, and only when it succumbs to the body is it reincarnated in the body of a female, and then into the body of some beast resembling the evil character into which it has fallen. The body becomes the site of shame, and patriarchy projects upon the female of the race all its abhorrence, hostility and fear of the bodily powers which tempt and seduce, and from which he wishes to be independent. One can feel this hostile shame in the despised and rejected form of the succubus, the power of woman in the face of which he feels threatened by diminishment. “Woman,” says Euripides, “is a more terrible thing than the violence of the raging sea, than the force of torrents, than the sweeping breath of fire.” Aeschylus’s vision of the feminine is of a disgusting “wet biology.” His vision conjures forth images of the furies, archaic beings dripping with dark blood screaming for revenge. In the Oresteia, Orestes cries out to Apollo, when, after the matricide, he sees the furies:

Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply,

Repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes.

(Aeschylus/Lattimore, 1969: 161)

This is what has become of woman’s ties with nature; her very existence has become a testimony to the gods’ hatred of mankind. Unfortunately, this is also a supreme articulation of man’s alienation from the sources of his own natural essence as a human being.

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