Author Archives: Nathan Baker

Sicily, Medusa, and Representation

In Descant 154: Sicily, capsule Land of Forgotten Dreams, prostate Gaetano Cipolla discusses the origins of the triskelion symbol on the Sicilian flag: three bent legs radiating from the centre of the coat of arms (perhaps representing the three corners of the island). At the centre of the symbol is the head of the Gorgon Medusa. According to myth, those who gazed at the ghastly Medusa with her head of snakes were turned to stone. Cipolla gives us the history of this symbol as it was used in Sicilian heraldry:

The head of Medusa became part of Athena’s shield, symbolizing the goddess’s invincibility. At the time of the Romans, the head of Medusa was replaced by a sweet-looking young maiden with stalks of wheat protruding from her head instead of the horrifying snakes. The substitution was probably made to emphasize the fertility of Sicily. The Romans, in fact, used the island as the granary that fed its legions. (p.141)


As an interesting aside, the coat of arms of Dohalice, Czech Republic (pictured on the right) hasn’t undergone such a revision. It prominently displays the ugly, snake-tressed head of Medusa.

Also in the Sicily issue, Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews draws on the myth to characterize the island in her poem, ‘Sicily’: ‘Medusa’s Gorgon lair / of unexpected dangers / rising from her deep, dark seas.’ (p. 131)

With her great metaphorical potential, Medusa has been invoked variously in literature, visual art, psychology, and feminist thought. Some sources indicate that the early stories of Medusa portrayed her simply as a monster with snakes for hair. The myth evolved, however, and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was once a beautiful maiden whose hair was her most alluring trait. The goddess Athena turns her into a petrifying monster as a punishment after Poseidon rapes her in Athena’s temple. The irony of her fate is horrific, and the images associated with her annihilating power are haunting enough to have endured and captured many artistic imaginations over the centuries.

In the resolution of the Medusa tale, Perseus succeeds in approaching Medusa and decapitating her by looking at her only through the reflection in his shield:

Across the fields and along the tracks he had seen the statues
of men and of beasts transformed to stone at the sight of Medusa.
He, however, had only looked on those terrible features
as they were reflected in bronze, on the shield which he held in his left hand

(Metamorphoses Book 4, trans. Raeburn)

Extrapolated beyond their literal context, these four lines are fascinating for what they imply about the relationship between fear and representation. Perseus’s method resembles the superstitious way we use images to mirror reality, thinking that they will allow us some degree of control over it. We arm ourselves with symbols and ideas as we approach the unknown, not wanting to look at it directly — only ‘as it is reflected in bronze.’

We do the same thing when we assign an emblem to a place. When the Medusa image on the Sicilian coat of arms was replaced with a benign agrarian symbol, the latter represented only one facet of the island’s reality (which, after centuries of war for its control, must have been complex). So perhaps the original Medusa head, as a symbol of the totality that we refuse to face head-on, is a more faithful image for the inscrutable nature of the real world at any single time, in any single place.

End-of-Summer Thoughts on Dennis Lee’s ‘400: Coming Home’

… You are on the highway, there is a kind of
laughter, the cars pound
south. Over your shoulder the scrub-grass, the fences,
the fields wait patiently as though someone
believed in them …

Descant #39: Dennis Lee Special IssueIt’s been almost 40 years since Dennis Lee’s ‘400: Coming Home‘ was published as the opening piece in Civil Elegies and Other Poems. But Lee’s meditation on the freeway between Toronto and Barrie, the route so many summer vacationers take north from the city, has lost none of its resonance.

Reading the poem this time of year in Toronto, where much of Civil Elegies is set, its element of tragicomedy is more palpable than ever. In this climate, where our compulsion to take advantage of summer light and heat can reach a frantic pitch, ‘there is a kind of laughter’ amid the ‘swish and thud’ of traffic heading south back to the city. The poem doesn’t offer any particular cause or source for this laughter, but perhaps we can begin to understand the muted joke when we observe our own customs from a distance. On the highway with Lee, what had seemed real and solid suddenly seems arbitrary:

Back in the city many things you lived for
are coming apart.
Transistor rock still fills
backyards, in the parks young men do things to
hondas; there will be
heat lightning, beer on the porches, goings on.
That is not it.

The poem begins and ends with, ‘you are still on the highway.’ We are still on the highway moving toward the idea or ideal of a life and the void on the other side of it. Across the median, the escarpment rises above us and ‘the edges / take care of themselves.’ In this in-between space, an undefined freedom could be another cause for laughter: ‘there is / no strain, you can almost hear it, you / inhabit it.’

Many of the themes that Lee will take up in the nine elegies that form the second part of the book appear subtly here. Among them are materialism, the inertia of routine, our exploitation of the land, and ‘void.’ In ‘400: Coming Home,’ his political concerns are not yet explicit, but the intense spirituality of the poetry is immediate. And as we discover when reading Lee, the political is not divisible from the spiritual.

This poem does much more than appeal to one’s bittersweet experience of the end of summer, one’s nostalgia for the country, or the thrill of the highway—its impact is complex, its voice both serene and troubled. At the time of its writing, Lee was trying to find a new language and a new way of being in colonized space, but the cadence that began to guide his line was more elemental than a nation or way of life (see his essay, ‘Cadence, Country, Silence‘). Four decades on, this cadence still feels new. Though the setting and events in ‘400: Coming Home’ remain very familiar, in the act of reading this poem we also still find ourselves at an uncanny remove from what is habitual and known in our lives.

[Pictured above: Descant #39, the Dennis Lee Special Issue, Winter 1982]