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Medusa

With concepts such as Narcissus and Oedipus, one would tend to see mythology as much on Freud’s mind, so the way he starts out his essay “Medusa’s Head”

(started in 1922, never completed, and published posthumously in 1940) is very strange: “We have not often attempted to interpret individual mythological themes, but an interpretation suggests itself easily in the case of the horrifying decapitated head of Medusa.” Freud saw the decapitation of Medusa as an obvious symbol for castration. Decapitation = castration, and the snakes that make up Medusa’s hair echo the same. Freud has this to say about Medusa’s resting place:

This symbol of horror is worn upon her dress by the virgin goddess Athena. And right so, for thus she becomes a woman who is unapproachable and repels all sexual desires - since she displays the terrifying genitals of the Mother . . . The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something. Numerous analyses have made us familiar with the occasion for this: it occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals . . . surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother.

(1964g: 273)

And yet Medusa is symbolically incestuous because she seduces the male into surrendering the boundaries of the ego-oriented self to merge with the mother. The turning to stone, stiffening like an erection, however, offers solace and reassures the boy that he is still in possession of his penis. The erect male organ has an apotropaic effect: Freud states that “to display the penis (or any of its surrogates) is to say: ‘I am not afraid of you. I defy you. I have a penis. Here, then, is another way of intimidating the Evil Spirit’ [Eye].” Medusa is an incarnate Evil Eye, for she can slay by a malign effluence coming from her eyes, and has a face that depicts hatred and terror as the source of evil (Ayers, 2003: 133).

Castration anxiety connected to the father is due to rejection, whereas with the mother it is seduction - the succubus and a psychotic place of maternal loss where Freud is petrified over being “literally smashed to pieces by the threat of castration.” Freud theorizes that the boy, panic stricken by the notion that his desire to murder his father and sexually possess his mother will lead to castration, renounces the most assertive impulse he has ever felt (hence, the beginning of a boy’s rage). One of the greatest insights of importance in masculine development is the idea that there is no way for a son to develop as a man without undergoing Oedipal erotic defeat, hence, castration. He “identifies with the aggressor” - his father - and participates wholeheartedly in repressing his Oedipal wishes. He no longer wishes to eliminate his father, but to be just like him. The boy sacrifices mirroring by the mother in the hopes of finding similar reflection through satisfactory adult experiences in love and work - the areas Freud marked out as indicative of successful male adaptation to culture. And so it is that castration threat, or the denial of shame, is the means by which the Oedipal conflict with the mother is resolved - and so it is that the mother is repressed and the succubus is catalyzed.

 
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