Angela Giallongo’s book The Historical Enigma of the Snake Woman offers an excitingly thought-provoking evaluation of the snake woman coursing through history, particularly the Gorgon Medusa, while encapsulating hybrid creatures like Mélusine, Echidna, the Furies or Erinyes, the Hydra and the Basilisk. Giallongo draws her readers through a captivating trail of history, mythology, philosophy, literature and narrative to show how such creatures came to represent woman as the Other, through her deathly gaze and serpentine locks.
The first sentence sets the scene: “A fatal stare, a protruding tongue, a horde of slithering snakes and a rivulet of blood among petrified bodies,” such images representing the collective nightmares of the patriarchal psyche. Tracing women’s thrilling association with theriomorphic creatures, reptiles and snakes, we see how female status was reduced from parthenogenetic goddesses and the snake women of Crete, to petrifyingly blood-cooling hybrids.
Once the devil was connected with the fallen Eve, all women were indomitably condemned through fear as women came to represent the mother, castration, and death. Giallongo traces the connection of the eye symbol with the vulva of the procreative goddess, showing the evil eye debased into a site of death and destruction through the menstrual taboo, which, cold, damp, and maybe noxious, yet offers fertility and renewal, as does the snake.
Journeying through ancient and Medieval reflections of Medusa, on to contemporary monstrous women in film and elsewhere, Giallongo presents dazzling Medusas and her avatars. Surpassing the limitations of Freudian theory, she smartly reflects writers like Barbara Creed to shed insight on male fantasies about Medusa. This fascinating contribution to mythology and gender studies enables us to appreciate the curiously sinister enigma of gaze, menstruation and serpent.
The final statement on Christine de Pizan offers her subversion of fiction thus: beyond “that odious snake-woman who heralded the return of chaos and the black primordial abyss [… Medusa] was a luminous, serene, liberating, beneficial and entirely human creature” (261).
The Historical Enigma of the Snake Woman from Antiquity to the 21st Century, by Angela Giallongo, translated by Anna C. Forster, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017.
Blurb by Gillian M.E. Alban, author of The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive, Cambridge Scholars 2017, and Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology, Lexington 2003.