Whilst most people in the world have heard of Medusa, and the legend of the look that turns men to stone, I’m less sure how many people know the full story. The most common interpretation of Medusa suggests that she is an apotropaic symbol, who is used to protect from and ward off the negative. Medusa’s name in Greek roughly translates to ‘guard or protect’. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, she was one of the three Gorgon sisters born to Ceto (Keto) and Phorcy’s (Phorky’s) who were primordial sea gods. Primordial basically means ‘existing at or from the beginning of time’. They had three children; Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa. The other two sisters were immortal, whilst Medusa was a mortal.
Medusa was an attractive girl, distinguishable from her sisters as she had been born with a beautiful face and enviable hair. Ovid (a major Roman poet during the years of Emperor Augustus) describes her in the excerpt below:
‘Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.’
Now, the next part of the story has different versions. Some stories claim that Medusa vowed to be a priestess of Athena, therefore promising to live as a celibate. She then met Poseidon, whom she fell in love with and broke her vow of celibacy by marrying him. In other versions of the story Poseidon takes a liking to Medusa, and then proceeds to impregnate her by raping her in the temple of Athena. Athena, the virgin goddess, became so enraged with this news that she transformed Medusa into a monster. She gave her bloodshot eyes, and turned her beautiful hair into poisonous snakes. Her face became so hideous that the mere sight of her could turn a man to stone.
The myth of Medusa continues with her fateful encounter with the Greek ‘hero’ Perseus. The dishonourable king Polydectes sent Perseus on a mission to come back with the head of Medusa, because Perseus had offered the king any gift he could name for failing to turn up at a banquet without a gift. Perseus had been provided with divine tools from the gods, and using Athena’s shield to view the reflection of Medusa’s awful face, he beheaded her with a harpe. As Medusa was pregnant at the time this caused the birth of her two children, the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. Pegasus is probably the most recognised creature from Greek mythology. After decapitating Medusa, Perseus (with Medusa’s head safely bagged) embarked on his journey home. Along the way he used Medusa’s head as a weapon in many different situations. For example, he met the titan Atlas, who he turned to stone after an argument, which thus created the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Once Perseus had finished with the head, he gifted it to Athena, who adorned her shield and breastplate with it.
But now comes the question why is the story of Medusa so popular? In the context of feminism the image of Medusa has come to be a symbol of female rage. The feminist magazine Women: A Journal of Liberation, in their 1978 issue, used the image of Medusa on the cover and explained that she ‘can be a map to guide us through our terrors, through the depths of our anger into the sources of power as women’.
Medusa’s image is used to symbolise the female rage at the patriarchal society of Western culture, she was a victim in the story because of the actions of both a man and a woman. Though it was Poseidon that raped her, it was Athena who punished her for it. Athena turning her into the monster that she’s known for is what then encouraged Polydectes to challenge Perseus to bring back her head. There is an argument that portraying her as a monster is the exact problem. Medusa was raped, cursed and then killed, and yet she is demonised for something she can’t control. It can be argued that it is wrong for the hero of the story to be Perseus, because killing an innocent victim does not make you heroic. Rather than being a story of heroism, this one is a story of tragedy.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts or comments please let me know!
Until next time,
Feminist Magazine Quote: Wilk, Stephen (2000). Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 217-218