THE MEDUSA HAIRDO
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
“Medusa loved to feel the serpents which served for hair curled close to her neck and dangling down her back, but with their heads raised to form an impressive bang over her forehead – in what has since become the fashionable style at Rome. And when she used a comb, their poison would flow freely,” wrote the poet Lucan.
Medusa, as we know so well, could turn anything into stone with a mere glance. “No living creature, in fact, could bear to look at that face, not even the serpents on her head; which explains why they curled back from her forehead.”
Nero himself adopted the Medusa Hairdo. Maybe the Medusa Hairdo will become the rage again in our own time if we can find a suitable model – how about Sharon Stone? After all, Elizabeth Taylor’s adoption of ancient Egyptian garb and cosmetics was all the rage at one point time – a girl could not wear too much blue eye shadow.
Muslim women could drop the veil if the Medusa Hairdo were effectively styled. That would suit two prehistoric cosmetic purposes: disguise the creature oft preyed upon; frighten away would-be attackers; turning them into stone would no doubt suffice. Cosmetic camouflage became ritualized hence we have social camouflage; stereotypical facial characteristics emerge as images of beauty, and vary over time. Perhaps the “stony look” we observe in some men and women today is a vestige of the Roman Medusa Do.
Women employ cosmetics to put their cosmos in order. The cosmetic art of kosmetikos was not only a matter of camouflage and adornment but was a medical art as well. Cosmetics had hygienic uses and were employed as medicines for disease, such as the eye paint used by Egyptians to protect their eyes from a disease caused by exposure to the Sun. Cleopatra wrote a book about alchemical cosmetics. And of course there are psychological advantages to putting on one’s face or war paint: a woman feels more beautiful and secure. However, “painting her eyes and arranging her hair” did not save Jezebel from her fate, as we see in 2 Kings 9:30.
All sorts of substances were used. For example, pomades for damaged hair were made of sheep and bear grease; hellebore and pepper mixed with rat’s heads and excrement; bone marrow of the deer; and so on. As for beauty, coiffures for men and women even in prehistorical times included permanent waving and bleaching – urine was used as bleach.
The Romans set the standard for civilized elegance with their attitude towards hygiene and their liberal employment of perfumes and cosmetics. What Ovid said of the art of cosmetics applies to many artistic techniques to this very day: “Artifice is a fine thing when it’s not perceived…. The art that adorns you should be unsuspected.”
Both sexes of the Roman upper class invested several hours each day in their toilet. Caesar himself was in the wig business: he reportedly forced Gauls to cut their hair as a sign of submission; hence blondish wigs were plentiful in Rome where blondes were having more fun. Portraits in those days had detachable hairstyles to keep up with fashion. Since razors were dull, Caesar preferred to have his facial hairs plucked out one by one; there were depilatories available, made of such substances as resin, pitch, ivy gum extract, ass’s fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood, and powdered viper.
Lucan mentions the Medusa Hairdo in Pharsalia. Cato is marching in Africa at the head of a remnant of the republican forces during the Civil War; the supreme commanders of the opposing forces were Pompey and Caesar. A spring surrounded and inhabited by all sorts of snakes was encountered in the middle of the desert. The men, fearing the water was contaminated by snake poison, would not drink it, but Cato assured them that snake venom has no effect unless a person is bitten; he took a gulp of the spring water himself to prove his point, the only time he had ever taken a drink before his men instead of after them all.
Lucan did not know why Libya was beset with snakes, so he turned to mythology. “Having been unable to ascertain why the soil of Libya is mysteriously plagued with such myriads of venomous reptiles, I can do no better than record the delusive but widespread legend of Medusa, daughter of Phorcys. Medusa is said to have lived in the far west of Africa, at the point where the ocean laps against the hot earth, in a wide, untilled, treeless region which she had turned to stone merely by gazing around her. The story is that, when her head was cut off, serpents were bred from the fallen blood and came hissing out to display their forked tongues.”
Lucan further notes in respect to Libya that Athena wanted Medusa’s head for a trophy, so she advised Perseus how to cut it off. She gave Perseus a bronze shield, and instructed him to fly backwards, using the shield as a mirror, when he reached the Libyan frontier, thereby avoiding petrification. Perseus found Medusa asleep there. and cut off her head. He wanted to fly over Europe with it but Athena forbade him from doing so because Europeans would look up and be turned to stone. So he flew back over Libya with the head; the blood dripped onto its soil, wherefore the extraordinary abundance of snakes in that particular region of Africa.
Note: Translation by Robert Graves appears in the Penguin edition of Lucan’s Pharsalia