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Medusa: In the Mirror of Time, by David Leeming

Reviewed by Kathryn Topper

This book traces the development of Medusa from her earliest appearances in Archaic art and poetry to her recent incarnations in film, body art, and high fashion. Aimed at non-specialist readers and surveying a broad range of media and genres, it could serve as an unofficial companion to Garber and Vickers’ Medusa Reader, a 2003 compendium of many of the same texts and images. Leeming’s stated interest is the study of Medusa in her historical, intellectual, and social contexts, and his gorgon is presented as a Rorschach blot that reveals her observers’ preoccupations and fantasies— for Marx, she stood for the evils of capitalist production, for Freud, the young boy’s fear of castration, and for Cixous, the promise of feminine resistance to an oppressive phallocentric discourse. This capacity for dramatic metamorphosis makes the gorgon a fascinating object of study, and Leeming’s proposal to follow her through her many transformations initially looks promising. Unfortunately, this program is undermined by a careless handling of evidence and some problematic assumptions about the nature of myth, shortcomings that are troubling in a book that is marketed as a study of history and mythology for the general reader. In fact, I worry that the non-specialist readers at whom the book is aimed are the very readers who are most likely to be misled by its frequent distortions of the evidence, so I find it difficult to recommend without a long list of caveats.

As noted in the Preface, Leeming’s goal is to “interpret [Medusa] in both her universal and more parochial cultural contexts” (p. 8). Accordingly, the first eight chapters proceed in chronological order, beginning with Hesiod and ending with Versace; the final two attempt to shed light on the nature of myth (Ch. 9: “Myth as Dream”) and of Medusa herself (“Conclusion: Who is Medusa?”). The range of representations included in the survey is commendable—along with Petrarch and Caravaggio, we encounter Annie Lennox and a Hammer Horror film—but the benefits of the scope are outweighed by serious problems in the author’s treatment of his evidence. Some of the most critical flaws occur in the chapters on the Greek and Roman material (Ch. 1: “The Myth” and Ch. 2: “Medusa’s Lineage”); under different circumstances, it may have been possible to dismiss these chapters as isolated weak points in an otherwise solid book. Unfortunately, Leeming’s interpretations of the later material build substantially upon his shaky understanding of the ancient evidence.

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