In Descant 154: Sicily, Land of Forgotten Dreams, 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.