Young adult author Peternelle van Arsdale (The Beast Is an Animal) has spun an incredibly atmospheric and deeply feminist retelling of the myth of Medusa with her second novel, The Cold Is in Her Bones. In an isolated rural village, 16-year-old Milla dutifully works on her parents’ farm, prays and performs the old rituals to keep her home free of demons. But when a girl from a neighboring town moves to the farmhouse nearby, Milla learns some unsettling and harsh truths about the society they live in and must question her own identity. Packed with emotion, empathy and poetic prose, this story is a modern fairy tale that reads like an old classic.
I’ve always had a soft spot for monsters. I’m not sure why that is, but it may have something to do with my church upbringing. I was never convinced that biting the apple, as the snake convinced Eve to do, was a bad thing. And I was intrigued by Satan’s backstory, that he was a jealous and resentful angel—rebellious and questioning of God’s supreme authority. To me Satan seemed . . . curious-minded. Intriguingly skeptical. In the books and movies that most moved me as a child, I saw the monsters as the unfortunate outcasts, rejected by those lucky enough to be born acceptable. As a self-loathing, disaffected child and adolescent, I felt pretty monstrous myself. I empathized with the creatures who caused others to recoil, who behaved in unpleasant ways because in truth they were so hurt, so damaged.
Enter Medusa. It’s fascinating to me that she’s as reviled as she is, because of all the mythical monsters, she has arguably the most tragic backstory. I have a few theories as to why so few of us know how she became a monster, even though it’s right there in Ovid’s account. I think it’s because the facts of her story make us deeply uncomfortable. They make us question the goodness of our heroes and heroines. They make us question ourselves. So we look away and stick to what’s comfortable, clear and black and white.
Before her tragedy, Medusa was one of three sisters known as the Gorgons; she was the only mortal of the three and also very beautiful. They were grandchildren of Gaia, the maternal earth goddess. Gaia came long before Zeus, the uber-masculine deity whom we most often think of when we think of myth.
One day, when lovely young Medusa was worshipping in Athena’s temple, Poseidon, the sea god who was also Zeus’s brother, encountered her and he did what gods so often did when they saw a mortal they wanted: He raped her. In myth and story, such encounters were often described with euphemisms such as “ravished.” But even in Ovid’s original, this was clearly rape, entirely nonconsensual. When Athena learned what had happened, she was furious—she considered this an insult to her since it took place in her temple. Because she couldn’t punish the powerful male god Poseidon, she instead cursed Medusa to monstrosity. Irony of all ironies, the young woman whose only crime was to be desirable was doomed to turn men to stone with her eyes, her beautiful hair replaced by venomous snakes.
This would have been a horrible enough fate, but even worse things awaited Medusa. She slithered away to a lonely island and should have been left alone. But she wasn’t left alone. The demigod Perseus promised King Polydectes that he would bring him Medusa’s head. In turn, Athena pledged Perseus her assistance in his quest.
Wow. That is some grudge. And that’s the part of the story that I keep coming back to. Why wasn’t Athena’s curse enough to satisfy her? What was it about Medusa that made Athena so angry, so offended? Athena is the goddess of wisdom, after all. Shouldn’t she have more sympathy for a young victim of rape? But here we come to Athena’s own backstory: although a goddess, she is the most male-identified of all goddesses. She was literally born of man—from the forehead of her father, Zeus, after he swallowed her pregnant mother. And while there are many things to love about the mythical Athena (or Minerva, as she was known by Ovid and the Romans), in this story she is doing the work of the patriarchy for them. She is handling things for the men, making the messy woman with a grievance go away, and then obliterating that woman altogether. Fascinatingly, once Perseus had beheaded Medusa by using the mirrored shield that Athena had given him, Athena affixed Medusa’s head to her own shield. I’ve wondered if Athena did this as a way of further asserting her power over Medusa, further underlining that Athena would never be so in-the-wrong-place, so unwise and weak, as to be raped by a god.
As I was writing The Cold Is in Her Bones, I was both plagued and inspired by the degree to which we women are products of the patriarchal culture in which we’ve been raised. The effects of this are both subtle and gross, and I tried to portray that spectrum in my characters. So, yes, there are women who play the Athena role and others who play the Medusa, and there are those who play all parts in between—who do things out of what they believe to be love and concern. Who do things they think to be right, but turn out to be very wrong. And don’t we all do that? It’s hard to look at these things—we want to turn away from them and think of heroes and heroines as pure and unsullied by complexity as Perseus and Athena have always been viewed. But life, and in fact myth, aren’t like that. We’re all sullied. We just need to open our eyes and get honest about that. It’s okay. It’s safe. We won’t turn to stone.
Author photo by Elena Seibert.