The Bewitchery of Medusa. Fibromyalgia: Parallelism Between Myth and Illness

Psyche the soul, our soul. All kind of events take place in it and in the beginning the opposites live together in harmony. Up and down, right and left, light and darkness, love and indifference, god and evil, masculine and feminine, and so on. In our souls exists all that we human beings have experienced over and over again since the very beginning of human existence on Earth, and this wisdom becomes visible through several expressions including dreams, art, myths and in some cases a physical illness. When people are ill, there is for them an opportunity to find out what is going on deep in their souls because, frequently, a physical illness is an expression of a wound in the soul.

The Bewitchery of Medusa
Fibromyalgia: Parallelism between Myth and Illness
By Jorge Alberto Piña Quevedo, M.A., Psychology

Psyche the soul, our soul. All kind of events take place in it and in the beginning the opposites live together in harmony. Up and down, right and left, light and darkness, love and indifference, god and evil, masculine and feminine, and so on. In our souls exists all that we human beings have experienced over and over again since the very beginning of human existence on Earth, and this wisdom becomes visible through several expressions including dreams, art, myths and in some cases a physical illness. When people are ill, there is for them an opportunity to find out what is going on deep in their souls because, frequently, a physical illness is an expression of a wound in the soul.

This may be the case of people with diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, a syndrome present among women and men in a mathematical relation of 20 to 1. For that reason I will refer mostly to women because it seems to me, and I hope that at the end of this presentation you will agree, that Fibromyalgia is a very old feminine illness or better said, an ancient illness of the feminine.

The Bewitchery of Medusa

The diagnosis says: "Fibromyalgia is a generalized, diffuse, intense and profound pain all around the body accentuated in the back of the neck and from there extending to the shoulders, for a period of at least three months". But it would not be fair to ignore the many more symptoms which make hard and painful the simplest daily activities. People diagnosed with Fibromyalgia suffer at three levels: physical, cognitive and emotional.

Among others, the physical symptoms include fatigue, headaches, colds, inflammations, stomach disorders, rheumatoid conditions, vertebral disc problems, lost of hair and high levels of metals in the blood. At the cognitive level the diagnosed people have to face difficulties to understand and to express ideas, to solve common job and home problems and the lost of recent memory. At the emotional level they experience, frustration, rigidity, depression, and stubbornness. 

My presentation refers to the parallelism I have found between the Fibromyalgia syndrome and two Greek myths: The first one is the myth of Medusa. I have done a field research and the results show connection points as to say that, in fact, the story of Medusa speaks metaphorically about the psychological root of the illness, in particular the first wound inflicted to a woman by an older woman. The second one is the myth of Perseus, which on the one hand is related to complementary aspects of the origin of the illness, specially about the second wound inflicted to a woman by a man, on a daughter by her father and in the other hand provides several indications about the healing process.

The Myth of Medusa tells the story of an enchanting woman whose most beautiful characteristics were her skin, her voice and her hair, and because of her feminine, sensual and lovely appearance many men and even gods desired to be close to her. One day, Poseidon raped Medusa at the temple of Athena. The goddess got angry and nearly crazy but took no revenge on Poseidon the god for the offense. Instead, she discharged her anger upon the human, upon Medusa herself, by turning her white skin into a green and scaly one, her voice into a thunder and her beautiful hair into a bunch of whistle snakes. Besides, Medusa was granted with the power of turning into stone any living creature daring to look at her face directly.

How does the myth relates to women with Fibromyalgia? Let’s think for a moment about Athena and Medusa, two very important archetypal images to be found at the inner world of a woman. Athena is the virginal aspect of the feminine dedicated to protect and promote the masculine activities and patriarchal values. She symbolizes the psychic creation and reflection; the social intelligence. Medusa, is the aspect of the feminine dedicated to sensuality and relationship. Both aspects live consciously related in the myth as well as within the girl’s psyche until the rape from a masculine force. At that moment and to preserve nothing but life the Self of the woman makes a split in her soul. Since that moment, what was joined before is now divided.

The split in the soul of a woman with Fibromyalgia is experienced at the ego level in specific ways, for example: She longs for a love relationship and she dates with a man. Inside her heart there is a memory about the time when she was an undivided woman. Her own Medusa with her sensual gifts is activated and begins to play the seduction game. After a time and when the man is falling in love due to the enchant of that sensual and lovely woman, deep from her unconscious, the rape comes again and Athena appears to play her roll in the opus. The ego of the woman is possessed by Athena and the diagnosed woman shows the man that she is more adapted to the masculine and the external world than he is, and you know that many men are afraid when they are exposed to the presence of a woman who works and thinks better than them. So the man begins to look around and wonder: Where is she? Where is the sensual and lovely woman gone? I can not see her anymore! Why is she hiding? The woman notes the man’s hesitation and looks for a reason but she can not find an answer because she is not aware that the curse of Athena is active again and what the man feels now terrifies him. He is about to look directly the face of Medusa and if he remains close to the woman sooner or later he will be petrified.

At the outside world, the woman is hurt because the man goes away and once again she experience, just like Medusa, the punishment of living in isolation and misunderstanding. Then comes fear, loneliness, sadness, and finally rage because the woman, just like Medusa, is paying for a crime she did not commit.

Following one of the most important ideas of Dr. Jung, as to say that “inside is like outside”, it is appropriate to look at the myth as an event within the soul of the woman and, from that point of view, we shall see that certain positive aspects of her inner masculine energies go away because, on the one hand, Athena, as the goddess she is, has the power and the capability to perform the activities that should be done by the inner man. On the other hand, Medusa, as the human she is, does not have the power to continue performing her original nature because since the curse took place, her sensual skills were erased from the surface and remain invisible. So, as a consequence of the presence of Athena and the curse of Medusa, the inner man of the woman faces emptiness because there is nothing to be related to. So he remains tied to his mother as a kind of Puer Aeternus. Let’s recall that Perseus was mostly motivated to his heroic journey as a way to prevent the marriage of Danae, his mother, with the king. Perseus began his journey as a Puer and end it as a man.

The reason why I think that the myth of Perseus teach us about the healing process of the illness is that, he was who killed Medusa and also unchained from a rock a beautiful young woman, named Andromeda, condemned by her parents to a very cruel and unfair destiny, just like women with Fibromyalgia.

How is that? In the myth there is this moment when Perseus was flying back home and since the heights he saw a reflect who called his attention. He flew down and found a sensual and lovely young woman crying and chained to a rock. Perseus asked her the reasons for her to be in that situation and, after a moment of silence, the beautiful woman told him that because of the vanity and ostentation of her mother, her father’s kingdom was in danger. Poseidon asked for revenge to the actions of the queen and the sentence was that the cities near the beach should be destroyed by the sea monster. Andromeda was chained because her father, the king, offered her in sacrifice to preserve his kingdom. She will have to die because the irresponsibility of her mother and the weakness of her father. In this way, Andromeda, just like Medusa and the women with Fibromyalgia, should pay for a crime she did not commit.

I began my investigation with two questions in mind: Is it possible for people with some specific attitudes to suffer from a physical illness? Is that the case of women with Fibromyalgia? Right here I want to be very careful and clear because I am not talking about hysteria and its conversion phenomena. The pain and the symptoms are real and in no way I am suggesting that the diagnosed women create them. I am talking about the consequences of the activation of an instinct whose primary goal is keeping life no matter what. The action of the Self is told in the myth of Medusa and suffered by women since thousands of years ago.

Exploring the myth, I found that there are many images of Athena and Medusa which give us a message about the lack of expression of their inner world. On the one hand, it seams to me that was not allowed for Athena to speak about her pain and she only shows it symbolically by wearing a medallion engraved with the face of Medusa to protect her heart. Athena had to be what the patriarchal energies forced her to be. So are women with Fibromyalgia. On the other hand, Medusa shows the tongue out of her mouth. What does it mean? Is she as tired as women with Fibromyalgia? Is it something else?

I invite you to explore the symbol and to do so I will ask you to take the tongue largely out of your mouth and try to say whatever you want...
As for sure you experienced, you could not speak not even a single understandable word.
Now, take again the tongue out of your mouth and try to scream...
That you could do, could you not?

Here you have a living image of the world as experienced by the diagnosed women. In first place, nobody understands what they try to say. Next comes the brutal expression of rage. The thunder that comes out of their mouths frightens and prevents anyone from coming closer, touch the wound and make conscious the pain. The guard of the prison is at work. The Bewitchery of Medusa.

When it all began? Well, about thirty thousand years ago the human beings recognized the existence of an image within their psyche, an image whose characteristics belong to an all-powerful woman. It is without discussion that the first deity that governed the destiny of humanity was a feminine figure linked in a direct and close way to the basic facts and elements which make possible and support life. After twenty seven thousand years, began the arousal of patriarchal culture. For three thousand years, the feminine was devaluated and repressed. The wound took place, the damage was done and is present today as Fibromyalgia.

Now, in order to observe the role of the psychological determinants within the development of some of the physical symptoms, following I present a short list of the most usual symptoms found among patients suffering from Fibromyalgia.

Headaches: People generally feel pain when being immerse within too many stressing situations, first perceived as headaches but gradually extending to the neck muscles and up to the shoulders. It is a proven fact that people diagnosed with this illness have been for many years under high pressure, due to the reception, coming from the unconscious, of an impulse that obliges them to constantly pursue perfectionism; this fact, along with an extremely responsible attitude, exerts a lot of tension on their personalities.

People suffering from Fibromyalgia have many times forced their needs and desires to wait until the necessities and desires of other people, regarded as important, are taken care of. In order to do so, they had to lose contact with their own feelings, and with their physical and psychological temples, their own bodies. A headache is the price to pay for an excessive rationality.

Inflammation:  It is the corporal evidence of the internal battle when an hostile substance has been detected by the defensive system of the body and, psychologically, when an unconscious content of psyche is trying to reach consciousness. As a general rule, people with Fybromialgia avoid conflicts and if there is no choice they solve them as quickly as they can ¡to get out of there! Inflammation is the metaphorical expression of what happen when a feeling is coming and people does not know what it is or what to do with it so anxiety shows up. Then repression takes place and remains in charge until the anxiety slows down. Inflammation speaks through the body what can not be expressed by words.

Stomach disorders: At the corporal level the stomach’s mission is to digest food coming from outside and transform it to be assimilated by the body. Symbolically the stomach is the container through which emotions are processed and transformed in feelings. What happen when the emotions can not go enough high to reach the mind and become feelings? The stomach works day and night restless until after a long time its enormous capacity diminish and digestive disorders, common among people with Fibromyalgia, appear. People with Fibromyalgia have problems to express their feelings and sometimes they do not even know what they are feeling, just like Athena and Medusa.

Rheumatoid conditions: When people with Fibromyalgia can not move or they move with pain, it seems that their bodies are trying to make them conscious about the fact that there is not possibility to keep moving anymore. Most of people with Fibromyalgia have been working very hard for many years. Of course, painful and difficult movement is terribly unpleasant and frustrating for these people, along with the fact of not being able to carry out all of the usual activities. Rheumatoid conditions are the equalyzers. When people with Fibromyalgia have to face the fact that they can not do what they used to they become frustrated, just like Medusa can be. Anger begins to emerge and then repression appears, which demands a great deal of energy and impedes anger to arise. This is one of the roots of tiredness and fatigue.

Vertebral discs problems: The cervical discs are located at the cranial base and the first one, located at the skull’s basis is named Atlas, a well know titan’s name linked with carrying the world upon his shoulders. Curiously, people with Fibromyalgia do the same because they take great amounts of responsibilities, their own and others. Many times they are in charge for their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, employers, friends, etc. Medusa, symbolically, is carrying upon her neck and shoulders the weight of the wounded and repressed feminine and the devaluating masculine energies, just like people with Fibromyalgia.

Colds: To breath is difficult, the nose is blocked, the throat is irritated, the voice does not come out easily and sneezing is like a warning for the people to stay away from us, to swallow is very hard too, by so the communication is nearly impossible. Athena does not permit a man to come close to her, she is a virgin goddess. Medusa wants a man to come close to her, but if he dares she turns him into stone.

Depression: It means to push down. So we must ask what is a depressive person trying to hide? Usually people with Fibromyalgia carry a lot of anger and guilt. Besides, they live worried because they think that they have to pay for their real or unreal sins. Their superego is huge and powerful and they try to compensate by caring for others and reaching perfection. In most families of people with Fibromyalgia expression of anger was avoided and what should be an environment of confidence and knowledge to face life is a prison instead. Both, Athena and Medusa live at their own prison. The former at her head the later at her body.

Hair Lost: Hair is historically related to health, freedom and power. Let us retake the myth and recall that Athena erased hair, also linked to sensuality and femininity, from Medusa.

Metals within the blood: Blood is the red river of life. Women diagnosed with Fibromyalgia usually have high levels of metals within the blood, including mercury among them. Paradoxically, the only naturally liquid metal, the mythic communicator, the gods’ messenger, is trapped within the body, causing difficult and painful movement due to its weight.

A questionnaire was designed to confirm the presence of the described psychological traits among women diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Is almost possible to listen the voices of Athena and Medusa in these answers:

I am responsible to the extreme. Athena

I am a perfectionist to the extreme. Athena

I feel superior to other women. Athena

I use to devaluate others. Athena

I am a feminist. Athena

Despite my appearance, I have a great heart. Athena.

I have a good relationship with authority...on the surface. Athena

I could not be a child. Athena

I tried hard to be the ideal daughter. Athena

I sacrificed myself for the family. Athena

I criticize myself hardly. Athena

I have poor communication with myself about my needs. Athena

Nothing I do is enough. Athena.

I reject some aspects of myself such as weakness and fragility. Athena

If someone or something makes me angry, I explode or I stand still. Athena and Medusa.

It is common for me to cry from impotence. Medusa

Many times I am confused because I do not know what is going on inside me. I do not know if I am feeling angry, sad, lonely, anguished, etc., by so most of the time my reactions are different to standard. Medusa.

I keep inside many things that I would like to say. I am afraid of the consequences. Medusa

I feel guilty very easily. Medusa

I avoid conflicts as much as I can. When I can not avoid it I try to solve it quickly and get away. Medusa

I am very impulsive. Rarely listen to my inner voice. Medusa

I do not like people thinking I am strong. Medusa

I do not like responsibilities, they leave no time for me to live my life. I experience them as an imposition. Medusa

My conclusion is that whenever a human being has to unwillingly abandon an aspect of the feminine nature within, is about to suffer: The Bewitchery of Medusa. You can argue that this is the experience of many women and not all of them develop Fibromyalgia, and you are right. The difference is that, as you know now, it is necessary a second betrayal from the relationship between the feminine and the masculine, like that of the Andromeda’s father told in the myth of Perseus.

The liberation will come when the positive masculine energies that for a long time remained undeveloped within the woman's psyche grow enough to stop flying, descend to Earth and be able to recognize and to honour what has been disregarded for years. This symbolically means: Leave the head and come down to the body.

On time, the woman will be conscious about the inner strength she has developed to be her own positive mother and father. She will experience herself as a more complete and mature woman and will realize the chance she has to remain deep related with her own Perseus.

I will finish my presentation saying that for Athena, for Medusa, and for the millions of women who suffer from Fibromyalgia around the world, to be what they wanted to be was not at their hands. Hopefuly they accept some help to recover that right.

I presented this paper at the First International Academic Conference sponsored by IAAP and the Department of Psychoanalytic Studies of the University of Essex in Colchester, England in July of 2002.