The term is a translation of a Sanskrit name, Kirttimukha, which is given to a particular Janus-faced statue of the elephant god Ganesa found in Java. The front face of this statue shows the kindly side of the pot-bellied, large-trunked god. But the back face has bulbous eyes, savage canines like those in Balinese Masks, a gaping hole where a lower jaw should be, and overall a sense of lion-like ferocity – like the Greek Gorgoneion, "the fearful face".
The backward-grimacing face of Ganesa is an aspect of the god Siva, a kind of Demon generated by Siva in order to attack an insolent invader, who immediately surrenders when threatened. Thwarted of its feast, the demon asks Siva for something to eat, and is instructed to devour its own body, which it does, until only the head – the FOG – remains. As a reward, Siva gives the head a name, Kirttimukha; and a role, that of "door-keeper", or the Guardian of the Threshold (> Liminal Being), a threshold visage which (or who) warns pilgrims, Heroes and others engaged upon life-transforming Quests of the risks of passage into regions where they may recognize the nature of their search, the point of the Story they have been living, and which/who wards off Evil. The Janus-faced Ganesa embodies that role, a role which, in mutated form, underlies Tanith Lee's rendering of the two-faced god Chuz in her Tales from the Flat Earth sequence (1978-1987). But it is in the face of the Greek Gorgon – specifically in the mortal gorgon Medusa – that the iconographic density of the FOG is most evident, and most retentive.
The Gorgon herself seems to be traceable back to various Eastern images of the Goddess (prior to her transformation into the victim of Perseus), the Goddess figure frequently portrayed, in her incarnation as Cybele, in the potnia theron or Mistress of the Beasts pose, with lions in attendance. The Gorgon whom Perseus beheads, turning her into a FOG whose apotropaic functions Athena gladly utilizes, is in this light an inverted Cybele, the Goddess as Kirttimukha, whose bulging eyes, protruding tongue, foliated skin (> Foliate Head), tusks and beard all proclaim her Bondage.
At the same time, the central image of Medusa has never entirely lost an ambivalent allure, and in 20th-century literature she has clearly come to represent a great deal more than Horror, petrification, justified bondage and guard-dog servitude at the gates through which the hero passes. Russell Hoban's The Medusa Frequency (1987) frequently conflates imagery of Medusa with associated imagery of Orpheus after his head is severed; but as often it transforms the image into a genuine FOG. "The Gorgon's head, the face of Medusa, shimmered luminous in a silence that crackled with its brilliance. Her mouth was moving." Or as Hans Bemmann puts it in The Broken Goddess (1990): "I realized how much a stranger you still are to me, even more of a stranger than the lioness on the steppes beneath the tower. Your face was a wild, trackless forest in which I would probably get lost, but that wasn't going to stop me. It seemed that only now was I really beginning my quest ..." Or, according to A S Byatt in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (coll 1994): "She was the earth and the lions."
More complex (as far as fantasy is concerned) is the use to which Elizabeth Hand puts the imagery in Waking the Moon (1994 UK), at the point at which the Goddess is (perhaps) about to be reawakened. The protagonists are in a tower, in which an Orrery is spinning, more and more rapidly, until it becomes a bodiless Mask of the Moon (where the Goddess sleeps, or which is in fact the Goddess in a state of bondage). More and more rapidly it whirls, until it seems capable of turning the world into a new dispensation. The orrery pulses "like a swimming medusa" with "a flaming eye; like a demonic moon". It is here that one thing becomes two, that an Instauration Fantasy begins, though later the novel decoys instauration into Supernatural Fiction. In passages of this sort, the FOG takes on a complex polyvalency (a confluence of Map and territory which authors may themselves not entirely control), for it is at one and the same time a Guardian, a Mirror, a Labyrinth, a mandala, a warning and a pointer inwards, a rictus of bondage and the loosening smile of Sex. It is a face we may wear in Dreams. It is a face we will encounter there, if we wish to earn passage. [JC]