For this week’s Mythical Creature post, I wanted to revisit a character from Greek mythology who is, by far, one of the most well-known monsters that comes to my mind. I decided to dig a little deeper into her past, partially due to the fact that I’ve always been fascinated with her, and partially because I plan on featuring her in an upcoming novelette. I thought she would tie in perfectly with my new “Goddesses In Love” series.
As with most myths there is some confusion on the story origins. Specifically, how exactly do we go from a beautiful Maiden to Snake-haired-monster-who-turns-men-to-stone in Medusa’s case? I decided to dig a little deeper and see what I could come up with especially since, I’m anxious to put my twist on her story. As with a lot of the characters I’ve come across, I’m not entirely convinced she was given the justice she deserved. Let’s dive in!
Origins of Medusa
I would imagine if you don’t know much about Greek Mythology you have, at the very least, heard of the hideous snake-haired woman who could turn men to stone with a stare. Her image was hammered into the armor of men in battle, also known as a Gorgonian, has been immortalized in sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, and has even been used as the logo for Versace’s clothing and accessory line. But, not many realize Medusa (meaning guardian or protectress) was one of a trio of sisters, or that unlike her two immortal sisters Stheno and Euryale, she was born beautiful and mortal. In 490 BC, Pindar references her as “fair-cheeked Medusa” and in a late version of Medusa myth, the Roman poet Ovid explains her tragic punishment that transforms her from a beautiful maiden to a monster. But there are some conflicting stories that took Medusa from point A to point B so to speak, so as with all of these posts, we will unravel as we go.
By some accounts, the Gorgo are the daughters of Phorcys (ancient sea-god of treasures of the deep) and Ceto (goddess of dangers of the deep aka: sea monsters). With as many horrific monsters that they were parents to, it seems unlikely that they would be able to give birth to a mortal daughter whose beauty rivaled a goddess, but according to some of the later myths, that is precisely what happened. Based on the above parentage there are connections to other siblings such as the Graeae (three sisters that shared one tooth and one eye between them), Echidna (mother of Cerberus the three-headed dog), and Ladon (guardian of the golden apples, killed by Hercules.) There are authors who listed her parents as Gorgon (a monster of the underworld) and Ceto (who is also tied by some accounts to Scylla and the Hydra), but no matter where they came from, it is apparent that the three Gorgon sisters were born into a pretty monstrous family.
In Ovid’s work “Metamorphoses,” he describes Medusa as once being a beautiful maiden who captured the attention of Poseidon. Like in many of these tales, he tried to woo her, and when unable to do so he had his way with her anyway. If that wasn’t horrible enough, she was Athena’s high priestess, and the deed was done in the middle of the virgin goddess’ shrine. Athena was so enraged, she took it out on poor Medusa, who by all accounts was just minding her own business when Poseidon decided to force his attentions. She changed Medusa’s hair into snakes and caused her gaze to change living things to stone. There are those that said Athena was actually doing Medusa a favor by giving her a way to protect herself, which is the vein of thought I would like to go with my own story. I’d imagine Medusa embraced her fate as she didn’t have to worry about Poseidon bugging her anymore, but I would also imagine she couldn’t have liked being exiled to live out her life in a cave. That part of her tale is where Perseus comes in, more on that later.
What I found interesting, as fell down the rabbit hole of monsters, was that the Gorgons visual representation has changed over time, as has the description of Medusa. There is reference to the fact that the Gorgon was described as being a single being by Homer, and it was only later when Hesiod wove his tales that a trio of beings who shared the title.
Depictions change drastically through the centuries, but in an article I found by Madeline Glennon as posted on the Met Museum, she states that in all cases Medusa is recognizable by the fact that she faces out, confronting the viewer. I would presume this type of bold stance would strike fear into the hearts of those who behold her, something that was thought to aid those who carried the image on their shields. Known as a Gorgonian, if you had Medusa on your armor, it was thought she would protect you against enemies. In some cases the image was painted at the bottom of a cup to “surprise the drinker as he emptied his cup.” Not sure about you, but I would sure wonder what had been in my drink if she protected folks from their enemies.
Early on, Medusa is shown with a round face, fangs and gaping mouth. Strangely, she also has facial hair, almost as though she could be either male or female. It is possible that monsters were considered as both in some cases. The gorgons were also depicted with wings, similar to what you would see on a demon or harpie. Later on, Medusa lost her teeth and beard, but still kept the wild snake hair she was so well known for. Once she got to Hollywood, it seems she lost her wings as well as she has been shown with a snake body (1981 Clash of the Titans), as a beautiful woman with legs (2010 Percy Jackson & the Olympians), and even a giant tree looking creature with a single glowing eyeball (1963 Medusa Vs Son of Hercules). Nothing with wings that I can remember seeing, but let me know if you have seen something in the comments below!
Mythology of Medusa
Depending on which story you are reading, Medusa became a monster one of a couple of ways. The first, she was a beautiful maiden in service as a priestess to Athena until she fell in love with Poseidon and had relations with him on the floor of the temple. In this instance, Athena’s wrath is justified, as far as wraths go, in that Medusa defiled her sacred temple. However, I don’t like the fact that Poseidon has nothing done to him for his part to play (among other things). There is also the version where Poseidon tries to get Medusa’s attention, she tries to fend off his advances, and he has his way with her anyway. Either way, the result was the same, and Poseidon is just as bad as his brother Zeus. Anyway, Athena was angry and changed Medusa into the snake-haired woman we know today. She was shamed, and shunned by everyone, ending up in exile on an island named Scarpedon, near Cisthene.
In Greek myth, the Gorgon are sisters to the Graeae, who are three women who share one tooth and one eye among them, and are said to represent the sea foam as seen on the ocean waves. They feature in the story of Perseus, who holds their eye hostage and demands to know the location of Medusa. He was sent on a mission to bring back her head in order to save his mother and was given gifts by the Gods to aid in his quest. After realizing the only way they would get their eye back was to grant his request, they tell him how to find Medusa and he goes on his merry way. He finds the island, fights Medusa without looking at her by way of his gifts, and chops off her head. What is interesting though, is her death is not the end of her story.
After her head is removed, her two unborn children, Chrysaor and Pegasus sprang from her neck. While not much is known about the stout-hearted warrior, Chrysaor, there are stories about the magnificent winged horse Pegasus, which Bellerophon eventually tamed. It is said that when Perseus flew on the winged horse’s back over Libya, the drops of blood from Medusa’s head turned to deadly serpents. There are also stories of Medusa’s blood both curing or poisoning those who drink it, depending on which side of the head it dripped from. It was Athena who eventually became the benefactor of the head, which wasn’t surprising since she was the one who created Medusa’s final form in the first place and aided Perseus in his quest. But what I did find interesting was the mention that Medusa remained a priestess to Athena after her death, and was given her beautiful golden hair back as a reward. Seems to me there is way more to the story.
Other thoughts about Medusa
It is believed that Medusa’s image embodies feminine rage, and it is as such that the image has been embraced by feminists in written works and articles. She is seductive and dangerous, a threat to men since there is no record of her turning another female to stone. And in 2020, she was part of the #metoo movement in that she was depicted as the victor of a great battle, holding Perseus’ head in a similar way to Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of 1554. The article I found by Julia Jacobs is referenced below.
Whether you believe Medusa is a victim or protector, a monster or seductress, it is apparent to me that her story is far from over. Created from a Goddesses’ displeasure and just a beautiful woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, Medusa is one of the most well-known characters in Greek Mythology today. What I want to know is… what was the real story? Where were the sisters when this all went down, and what happened to Medusa’s second son? Most importantly, why didn’t Poseidon get the punishment he deserved for his horrible deeds? These are all questions I plan on touching on as I plot out her happily-ever-after. Because yes, I feel Medusa’s fate wasn’t deserved, and she especially deserves her happy ending. What do you think? Would love to see your theory in the comments! In the meantime, happy writing everyone! XO
Resources to check out: