Sinister Myth: The Harpy and the Medusa

[Featured image by Christian Schloe, Lost in a Dream.]

I am very excited this month to see the first episodes of my podcast going live, a project which I developed with Brendan Walsh. The title is Sinister Myth: How Stories We Tell Perpetuate Violence, and the logo was designed by the brilliant Breanne LeJeune.

But why “Sinister Myth“? This semester, I was teaching a course on fiction, and I always stress to my students the importance of storytelling: how it can be a tool that helps us to understand ourselves. The origin of the word “story” can be traced back to its root in the Latin word meaning “wise man,” and it is often true that in consuming stories, we are seeking something, perhaps some kind of wisdom or truth. Stories, however, do not always support ethical ways of being in the world, and they can be used to reproduce harmful narratives, especially when they are based on stereotypes.

The problem is that sometimes stories can be used to confirm people’s prejudices, and such stories sometimes become myths, in the sense that the narratives are used to explain or justify behaviours that are far from ethical, just, or compassionate. Take for example the association with African American people with violence, which extends its long tendrils out of slavery in America, and the Jim Crow backlash to emancipation, when racist white people needed an excuse to justify imprisoning and policing black individuals and communities. (See Ava DuVernay’s amazing film 13th on this story.) Or we could talk about how narratives about trans people frame them (especially people of color) as deceptive, a myth that allows transphobic people to justify their mistreatment of that particular community.

Sinister Myth seeks to challenge these narratives, as well as looking for ways to learn how to be better allies to vulnerable communities. The title has two sources of inspiration. The first is a zine that my mother used to publish in the 1980s in the UK called Sinister Women. The second is a journal titled Sinister Wisdom. The word sinister, in both cases, is used in a subversive way to suggest how narratives that seem natural or straightforward about what or who is “bad” can sometimes be lacking. Sinister Wisdom notes how the title queers assumed knowledge, and “recognizes the power of language to reflect our diverse experiences.”

Sinister can mean unlucky, evil, unfortunate, foreboding, or pernicious. It comes from the Latin word for “on the left hand” which was thought to be unlucky, and has been used ever since in a negative way. But who decides what is sinister, and could we reclaim the word to reverse the meaning of problematic stories that often do harm to women and minorities?

Enter the harpy, the logo for Sinister Myth, designed by Breanne LeJeune. The harpy was a monster of Greek mythology, half woman/ half bird, though LeJeune imagines it as a more androgynous creature here. They were mischievous or even cruel to their victims. Supposedly hideous, they had the task of carrying souls to the underworld, though in their origins, they were simply described as spirits of the wind. The harpy is a cousin of the furies, and of the Valkyries.

In recent years, monstrous creatures from myth have begun to be reinvented. Take the story of the Medusa, who like the harpy, has been spurned as a frightening spectacle, and who must have her head chopped from her body by Perseus in the old myth, so that he can go on to face the Kraken, and save Princess Andromeda. What if Medusa is not a monster though? What about the injustice that having been raped by Poseidon, Artemis rather than protecting Medusa, expresses her rage and jealousy by changing Medusa’s form, giving her a death stare, and turning her hair to snakes? Writing recently in Bitch, Mckenzie Schwark notes that “The portrayal of Medusa as a monster becomes the central sexist device of the myth, used to scare women off from casting a harsh gaze on their oppressors for fear of seeming monstrous as well.”

Perseus holds up the head of the Medusa in the 1981 film Clash of the Titans

What if through Medusa and the harpy we could turn our scrutiny away from stories that seek to minimise the violences that happen to women and minorities? What if we could gaze back without fear? What if we could make our own stories with a particular kind of sinister wisdom?