As a boy I learned mythology from the classic little book Mythology by Edith Hamilton. On the cover was Perseus, the Son of God, standing there virtually naked and exquisitely beautiful, holding out in front of him the severed head of Medusa. But somehow I never read the whole story.
Perseus, as the offspring of the Father God Zeus, is himself “the Son of God.” So he represents the pinnacle of humanity linked to the Divine – as the Greco-Roman world understood the Divine. So his story tells us a lot about what that society believed about life.
Medusa was a beautiful young woman. She was blessed with the loveliest raven hair and onyx eyes. So she was admired by many. But she had eyes only for the god-man Perseus and loved him with all her heart. Unfortunately for young Medusa, the goddess Athena also had her sites set on the handsome Perseus, which made the goddess jealous of her human rival. So she cursed Medusa. She turned her lovely hair into snakes. And she cursed Medusa’s enticing eyes so that anyone who looked into them would be turned to stone.
When Perseus discovered what had happened, he drew his sword and lopped off his lover Medusa’s head. Thereafter, he would carry her head into battle (as shown on the cover the Edith Hamilton book) and so won many a war by turning the enemy soldiers into stone.
When the Emperor Justinian had the Basilica Cistern built under Constantinople to provide water for the city, it was supported by many majestic pillars. At the base of each of two pillars in the Northwest corner, there is a head of Medusa –one upside down, one sideways. No one knows what that it means, but it probably is not a sign of respect.
I am unable to get the “love” story of Perseus and Medusa out of my mind. I keep associating it with a word used by the Apostle Paul. As I said in LIVE FROM ANATOLIA: PART XI, Paul taught a spirituality of love. It meant loving each other so much that we forgot ourselves and transcended the snare of ego. He called loving behavior “the fruits of the spirit.” He called unloving behavior “the works of the flesh.” One such work of the flesh was porne, which we translate as “fornication” and assume it means any sort of unauthorized or inappropriate sex – but porne actually means to use another person for your own ends, to gratify your ego agenda – that could be sexual (especially as the Greco-Roman world thought of sexuality) but it was not essentially sexual – it was essentially predatory manipulation and exploitation in any form. I keep thinking of Perseus decapitating the once-lovely Medusa and using her severed head to win battles. It was a pretty good way to express the moral and spiritual perspective of Greco-Roman society (see Sarah Ruden, Paul Among The People) including the gender dynamics of Perseus’ use of Medusa before and after her curse.
Against, this view of God, which means to say against this notion of the whence and the whither of life, this sense of what constitutes truth, goodness, and beauty, against this basic value of Greco-Roman paganism, another narrative, a counter-narrative was posited:
The Son of God did not decapitate anyone. Instead, he healed, forgave, and reconciled. Finally, he “gave himself” to death on the cross to save the people he loved – though they did not yet love him in return – from the consequences of their own wrong-headed perversity.
Paul eventually came to love Jesus back; and so, in that love, he gave up his whole self-serving life agenda, saying that all he had achieved (and it was much) he now looked upon as “excrement” (that’s what his Greek word actually means – not the milder word in our English Bibles) compared to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Philippians 3: 8 He saw that surrender of his old life-for-self as a kind of crucifixion and said,
I have been crucified with Christ and yet I live –
No, it is no longer I that live but rather Christ
who lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh
I live by trusting in the Son of God who loved me and gave
himself for me. – Galatians 2: 20
God (in Jesus) demonstrates his love for us in that while we were
yet sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5: 8
Paul told quite a different narrative, proposed quite a different moral world than the moral world into which he introduced this love story. It was quite a different God revealing himself in quite a different Son. When we ask what’s it all about, the picture of Perseus holding the severed head of his one-time lover as a weapon is not the answer. Jesus on the cross forgiving the people who put him there is the answer.
So if the Christian love ethic/ spirituality challenged 1st Century Roman Empire social norms, what might it say to 21st Century Americans? What might it say about the treatment of labor, children, the elderly, the immigrants, the poor, the disabled, the anyway othered? The thing about a good story is that it asks hard questions and the gospel is more than anything a very good story.