Hey sister! Sisterhood in Greek myth

Hello readers! My name is Kendra Leonard. I’m a poet, librettist and music scholar currently living in Houston, Texas. I’m delighted to contribute to Aesop’s Fox, a blog that has challenged me to think about the ways I understand language and Classical thought.

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The Greek myths have always fascinated me, especially myths about Medusa. In my first published poem, I imagined Medusa defeating Perseus in battle, gaining immortality and becoming a college professor. More recently, I have written a novella about Medusa entitled Protectress (forthcoming in 2021 from Unsolicited Press). The research for this work involved a fantastic journey through myth and proto-myth, family trees and alternate tellings. The meaning of Medusa’s name (‘protectress’ or ‘guardian’) became a central theme of the book, while her sister Stheno means ‘fierce’ and Euryale ‘far-roaming’.

In writing about the Gorgons—perhaps the most famous siblings of Greek mythology—I explored connections between sisters. I considered how the sisters might have interacted with one another and what kinds of relationships they may have had. In his Theogony, Hesiod (fl. 750 BCE) writes:

To Phorkys Keto bore the fair-cheeked Graiai,

gray from birth, who are given this name

both by the immortal gods and by men who tread the earth,

well-robed Pemphredo and saffron-cloaked Enyo;

then the Gorgons, who dwell beyond glorious Okeanos

at earth’s end, toward night, by the clear-voiced Hesperides,

Sthenno, Euryale, and ill-fated Medousa

(trans. A. Athanassakis)

In Hesiod’s version of the myth, the Gorgons seem to live together. What would that be like? Did they have a roster for cleaning the house and making meals? I think of my own sisters: sharing houses, cooperating and communicating honestly. I imagine the sisters enjoying a hot drink together: Stheno asking Medusa about her plans for the day, Euryale telling them about a dream she had, and Medusa saying she’d found a new path for running. I think of how Stheno and Euryale must have taken care of Medusa after she had been raped by Poseidon and given snakes for hair by Athena: did they carry her home, bathe her wounds, hold her tight? I imagine that they did:

Euryale bathes her sister,

her eyes,

her bruises,

all over her arms and legs,

and abdomen,

and then each

minute, coiled, delicate, transparent

baby snake.

They emerge from  Medusa’s scalp

sightless:

they have no eyes themselves.

They seek not to bite or crush

but relish the touch of

the cool skins of one another

and the heat of their—what?

carrier? mother? bearer?—

her

head.

What about the Gorgon’s other sisters? We know from Hesiod that the Graiai lived together and shared one eye and one tooth. But did they know their younger sisters, the Gorgons? Did they sing cradle songs to them, the forever aged rocking the newborn Gorgons? When Perseus stole their eye and forced them to reveal how to kill their sister Medusa, did they alert her? The name Pemphredo (Πεμφρηδώ) means ‘alarm’; Enyo (Ἐνυώ) means ‘horror’, and Deino (Δεινώ) means ‘dread’. I imagine them making a sisterly visit to the Gorgons to warn them of Perseus’ impending arrival. They become part of the Gorgons’ plan to fool the warrior:

He’ll use your head as a weapon,

Stheno tells Medusa.

He won’t get it, she replies, hoarse-voiced

but resolute.

And so in an all-nighter

to dwarf every all-nighter since,

the sisters put their healing arts

to devious ends.

Stheno makes a mask

of her sister’s lovely face,

while Euryale draws forth from the

sea a slithering of serpents

full of toxins.

The Graeae, themselves full of wrath

at the arrogant Perseus for stealing their eye,

make a special sisterly visit,

applying the attributes of their names

to the head:

alarm, horror, dread.

Later in the novella, other sister-groups visit the Gorgons, including the Hesperides. In myth, the Hesperides always seem to act as one, singing, as Euripides describes, or collectively guarding the golden apples. As with the Gorgons, there is little said about their sisterly relationships. I decided to model them upon my own nieces. My nieces are good at taking charge of situations, making people feel at ease, turning conflict into common sense solutions and laughing. In turn, I make Arethusa cook dinner using the light and heat from her own hands, Aegle pulls in more guests from her enormous contact list, and Erytheia hands out gifts, happily chirping about each one. When Aegle tries to give a speech, Erytheia interrupts and Aegle continues, since she is accustomed to her sister’s interjections.

Sisters are everywhere in the myths, but rarely do we think about them as sisters—what they share and don’t share, how their parentages define them, and what stories were told and lost about their sisterhoods. The beauty of fiction based on myth is that, drawing on names and places and ancient text, we can make new stories, and give sisters their due.

 

You can find more of my work at https://kendraprestonleonard.hcommons.org/, follow me on Twitter at @K_Leonard_PhD, and read my poem “Professor Medusa” at https://www.haggardandhalloo.com/2013/04/23/professor-medusa/

Image: https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/gr/original/DP-12515-001.jpg

 

 

 

One thought on “Hey sister! Sisterhood in Greek myth

  1. […] I’ve just contributed a guest post to Sonia Pertsinidis’s fabulous blog, Aesop’s Fox. Read about my research into Greek and myth for my forthcoming novella-in-verse, Protectress (Unsolicited Press, 2021), imagining sisterhood among mythical figures, and more here. […]

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