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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Medusa and Athena. Reflections on Changing My Mind and the Shadows of Certainty.

Updated: May 3, 2023

Have you ever completely changed your mind about something? Like waking up from a dream and experiencing yourself as changed or shifted in some way, and you think- what was that all about? Except you know what it was about and you have to take a deep breath and face the fact that the thing you were so sure of, wasn’t such a safe bet after all. I have - more than a few times now. The occurrence of these world view shifts has taught me to be wary of my certainty.

Areas of certainty for me typically come with a surge of emotion when challenged - for example the sort I get when I read a tweet or see a facebook message that feels against a personal value I hold. I might then experience the other person as an obstacle, maybe even a bad or difficult one, something I need to get over. Sometimes I want to help them understand why they are wrong, to help them shift their not knowing, ignorance or uncertainty and give them a new reality more aligned with my life - I want to remove them as an obstacle. In the past I have liked to imagine this is me being compassionate and communicating, maybe even kidding myself that I am using my psychological mindedness. Other times I’m a bit more honest. I just want war.

Being both right and helpful to others, whilst also wanting to win at a challenge: a battle to achieve something important, reminds me of the Greek goddess Athena. I love Athena. She was the goddess of wisdom and war. Being a ‘virgin deity’ she was also – somewhat paradoxically – associated with peace and handicrafts, especially spinning and weaving. Majestic and stern, Athena surpassed everybody in both of her main domains. In Athens, she claimed victory over Poseidon in championing the capitol (some say Athens was named in her honour). Athena was able to think deeply about human needs and understood that the personal is political. As such she gave humans the olive tree in return for their allegiance.

However Athena has a rather dark aspect of her story. Born a young adult, she emerged from her father Zeus’s forehead, wearing a full suit of armour - she never had an infancy and as such hates being dependent on others and not knowing things. In ancient times the term Virgin was an expression of independence in a woman and had little to do with sexual naivety. It meant rather someone who was not invested in married partnership with the ‘other’ - with men. Athena, due to her family politics, missed out on the developmental experiences of many of her peers. Instead she comes with quite a lot of defense - well she is the goddess of war. Her loss of young childhood means she had no embodied understanding of development - either of sexuality or personal growth. So whilst she is painstakingly fair, skilled and thoughtful she has some profound blind spots.

When one day her priestess Medusa, is ‘seduced’ by the god Poseidon, and becomes upset Athena doesn’t understand the situation and becomes motivated to action. Athena can’t see the abuse, or possession - instead she sees only Medusa having made a choice to desecrate her Temple and break a promise of fidelity to this Virgin identity. Athena weaves, spins and formulates an interpretation of Medusa’s experience as one of conscious choice. To make the point in a slightly different way, the 1963 essay collection, Computer Simulation of Personality: Frontier of Psychological Theory, Silvan Tomkins wrote about "the tendency of jobs to be adapted to tools, rather than adapting tools to jobs". He wrote: "If one has a hammer one tends to look for nails, and if one has a computer with a storage capacity, but no feelings, one is more likely to concern oneself with remembering and with problem solving than with loving and hating."

Athena was all about storage capacity - facts, figures and theories and knew much less about the psychological processes of sexuality and shame. As such she led her decision with the ideology of the day: Medusa had broken a promise of allegiance to the temple and as such violated its rules. Athena treated Medusa accordingly. Medusa is turned into a monster that has a hair full of snakes. Any person that looks Medusa in the eye is turned into stone.

In Jungian psychology, each character in a myth or fairytale is often seen as one part of the self, or a group and the story then offers a relational dynamic. So in this understanding both Athena and Medusa represent one part of the same person or group.

In many ways Medusa is the embodiment of trauma. Embodied trauma can feel like having a head full of snakes that make us feel chaotic, unpredictable, full of life and creative potential, a little intimidating to get close to and sometimes a bit of a dickhead. What is difficult about certain types of trauma, particularly hurtful experiences that occur in childhood, is that our desire to have an experience not be that important and then how we hold memories of those painful experiences become interwoven. It’s not that anyone forgets an awful experience, but rather sometimes we minimise its importance, numb it up and push away the memories when they pop up. Luckily we know that when it comes to both childhood experience and desire, the body holds the score - that whilst our brains are extraordinary at mis-direction, the body doesn’t make mistakes and holds us on our path. Communicating constantly symbolically through its dis-eases, dreams, our choice of words, our activities, behaviours and feelings. Our body is like an internal sat nav trying to help us find our way home.

Clinical Psychologists’ professional siblings, psychotherapists know this and so when people speak they often are looking for clues: parts of stories communicated yet unheard/untold/unknown (unconscious) to the speaker. It can be important to create space in the therapeutic relationship to allow some of these narratives to emerge. To do this therapists tend to focus on validating feelings rather than specific experiences or world views so they can stay connected whilst encouraging the development of an analytic gaze in the patient. They draw attention to how someone has a strong emotional reaction to something, and invite a slowing down to have a look at the situation in more detail.

As clinicians we all know it is vital to hold onto the fact that none of us really know ourselves very well, and that minimisation and denial are standard fare. We know that no one is too clever for denial and nothing is too big to be denied. Psychotherapists also know it is the patient that must learn to analyse themselves, that is not actually the task of the clinician. Clinicians don’t read minds and don’t know what they should or shouldn’t be validating. The clinician’s task is only to clear some space so the patient can work out their own psyche. Insight does not lead to change, but it does lead to understanding and self-acceptance. It allows us to make choices based on what things can actually give us, rather than the fantasy of them.

In modern literature Athena characters turn up quite a bit. For example, in the JK Rowling Harry Potter books there are two. One is Professor Minerva McGonagall (Minerva is the Roman equivalent of Athena) and she presides over the sorting hat ceremony deciding which school houses the children belong in. Professor McGonagall also teaches Transfiguration. The second is Hermione Granger. Hermione is very rule bound and disconnected from relationships. She doesn’t read a room well and desperately wants to be seen to know things. Not seeing how much this shuts things down. However, as Herminone matures through the books and learns the difference between rules and boundaries (theories and embodied knowledge) she starts to find her sense of internal authority and it is at these points she becomes magnificent.

Rowling interestingly also uses a misdirection technique over and over again in her books. Teaching the reader that we must look deeper than where her conversation initially draws the reader. Similarly in the Harry Potter books the body of the text holds the score and when we go back and pay attention the evidence was there all along. We just need to slow down and not commit to ‘who dunnit’ certainties too quickly. There is an extraordinary amount of psychology in the Harry Potter stories. Rowling only gives a fleeting mention to Medusa, although like Medusa the theme of snakes, trauma, death, belonging and chance versus choice occur throughout.

The rape of Medusa when taken up literally must be considered a traumatic event. Held symbolically this event also might be something experienced beyond the concrete interpretation of sexual assault - a description of an assault from the unconscious. Now interestingly Poseidon is the god of the sea, which often is a metaphor and symbol used to represent the unconscious. An assault from the unconscious can feel like a possession or consuming fire - it’s pretty common in teenagers; but a similar process that occurs in many other parts of life. For example, how many aspiring psychologists feel somewhat taken over by their desire to become a clinical psychologist and the application process to get onto a clinical psychology training.

Like Harry Potter receiving an abundance of letters at the bringing of the Philosopher's stone, the body will persist in sending us messages until we pay attention to what it is trying to communicate - whether the rationale Dursleys like it or not. The feeling of just wanting/needing something and being prepared to give up just about anything for it is a hallmark of this kind of event. What can be even more bizarre is that for many people who get onto clinical training and qualify there is often also a sense of anticlimax, ambivalence and sometimes even regret. Training did not give the trainee what they hoped it would,

Actually if we slow down how could it? It is a career - it can only give you career related gifts; a job, a salary etc. Likewise a new partner is just a person, money is just money and body shape is just body shape. There is only so much any of these things can give us. A new way to be perceived by others, maybe. Escape from a toxic environment to be safe - yes. A understanding of ourselves and a sense of wholeness - probably not. And if the toxic environment was partly internal we end up in a worse place than before - be careful what we wish for because ‘wherever you go, there you still are.’

So if these objects are not actually the sources of our psychological dis - ease, what is going on? I would suggest that we mistook the communication of the symbol for reality. If this is the case we need to look a little deeper to understand what the communication of the unconscious assault might be, beyond the literal. How many people dream of the symbol of going to school? How many people in childhood dreamt of adventures in schools or ‘alone home’ without parents. The symbolic fantasy and reality of these things are very different. As therapists we know we must learn to distinguish between the two. What might a clinical psychology training represent to someone? What symbolically was someone hoping to learn? How to be important? How to be loving or loved?

I sometimes think clinical psychology training is also a training ground for Athenas. We have arrived fully armoured from our early career struggles and ready for battle with no real space for safe dependency (in other training this would be where personal therapy comes in). We grow quickly in our few years of training and then put out into the battlefield. However being moved round so quickly in 6 month placements it can be hard to find places to fully attach. I also think we are pretty good at wisdom and war. Sometimes because we have had such little embodied experience of safe professional dependency we cannot fully understand the developmental aspect of dependency in psychological growth. Instead we look for more adult aspects of our clients psyche. We rely on their conscious truth telling and seek out the theories and evidence to back it up.

So how do we find our way out -well luckily myths hold answers as well as descriptions of problems. Athena whilst being part of the problem is also part of the solution, she equips a hero to take on Medusa. For the problem to be resolved Medusa’s head must be removed to release her body. However to get to Medusa you must not look her directly in the eyes, as she will turn us to stone. Instead the hero must keep his eyes fixed on a reflective surface, Likewise we must learn to navigate our way through using our skills in reflection. When this happens there is a transformation/birthing from Medusa. From Medusa’s body leap a golden giant with a sword and a winged horse - the healthy fight and flight instincts of the person are released. Both powerful symbols of what emerges when people are able to give self-acceptance. We are able to thrive in our animal world and pick our battles as we go. Athena goes on to be an even more fearsome protector and warrior and she keeps Medusa’s head on her shield, integrating her understanding of Medusa and the trauma caused by certainty into her arsenal.

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