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One of the most recognizable figures in Greek mythology, Medusa is also the most famous amongst the Gorgons, three hideous female monsters with snakes for hair, and the ability to turn someone to stone just by looking at them.
While many have heard of Medusa as a horrible monster, not many know of her interesting, even poignant, backstory. Medusa is more than just a monster – she’s a multi-faceted character, who was wronged. Here’s a closer look at the story of Medusa and what she symbolizes today.
History of Medusa
The name Gorgon comes from the word gorgos, which in Greek means horrible. Medusa was the only one amongst the Gorgon sisters who was mortal, although how she could be the only mortal daughter born to immortal beings isn’t clearly explained. Gaia is said to be the mother of all Gorgon sisters while Forcis is the father. However, other sources cite Ceto and Phorcys as the parents of the Gorgons. Beyond their birth, there is little mention of the Gorgons as a group and little is known about them.
Medusa’s beauty was so remarkable that even Poseidon himself found her irresistible and tried to seduce her. However, when she did not reciprocate his affections, he attacked her and raped her right inside a temple dedicated to the goddess of Athena. The goddess was awakened with anger by what had happened inside her hallowed halls.
For some unknown reason, Athena did not punish Poseidon for the rape he committed. It could be because Poseidon was her uncle and the powerful god of the sea, which meant that technically, only Zeus could punish Poseidon for his crime. It could also have been that Athena was envious of Medusa’s beauty and the attraction that men had towards her. Whatever the exact reason, Athena turned her wrath towards Medusa and punished her by turning her into a hideous monster, with snakes growing out of her head, and a deadly stare that would immediately turn anyone to stone if they looked into her eyes.
Some stories say that as a result of the rape, Medusa gave birth to Pegasus, the winged horse, as well as Chrysaor, the hero of the golden sword. However, other accounts say that her two children sprang from her head after she was slain by Perseus.
A demigod, the son of Zeus and Danae, Perseus is one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. He was sent on a quest to kill Medusa, and with help from the gods and his intelligence, courage, and strength, he successfully located and beheaded her by using his shield as a mirror and avoiding direct eye contact while battling her.
Even after her beheading, Medusa’s head was still powerful. Perseus used her severed head as a powerful weapon to slay the sea monster, Cetus. He was eventually able to save Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess who was supposed to be sacrificed to the sea monster. She would become his wife and bore him children.
Medusa Through the Ages
Medusa was originally depicted during the Archaic period almost comically. Painted on pottery and sometimes carved into funerary monuments, she was a terrible looking creature with bulging eyes, full beard, and a lolling tongue.
During the Classical period, the representations of Medusa began to change, and her features were increasingly feminized. She had smoother skin and her lips became shapelier. Classical artists gave her a makeover and a few centuries later, Roman and Hellenistic writers also interpreted her story differently in an attempt to explain her origins.
Artists took note of these changes and featured it in their works, making the images of Medusa more human. However, her fate is sealed and regardless of how many makeovers she has gone through, she still dies at the hand of Perseus.
Lessons from Medusa’s Story
- Silencing Powerful Women – The beheading of Medusa can be seen as symbolic of silencing powerful women who voice their sentiments. As this article from the Atlantic puts it: “In Western culture, strong women have historically been imagined as threats requiring male conquest and control. Medusa is the perfect symbol of this”.
- Rape Culture – Medusa has been stigmatized and has unjustifiably been blamed for the consequences of male lust. She was unfairly blamed for “provoking” a god with her beauty. Instead of punishing her abuser, Athena, supposedly the goddess of wisdom, punished her by turning her into a hideous monster. It can be said that Medusa is an ancient representation of sexual stigma that still happens today. It’s still a matter of contention that rape victims are often blamed for the rape and, in some cultures, are vilified, ostracized and labelled ‘damaged goods’ by society.
- Femme Fatale – Medusa is the archetypal femme fatale. Medusa symbolizes death, violence, and erotic desire. Once an enthralling beauty she was turned into a monstrosity after she was raped by a god. Such is her beauty that even powerful men couldn’t resist her charms. She can be equally enchanting and dangerous, and in some cases, she can be fatal. She remains one of the most identifiable femme fatales even today.
Medusa in Modern Times
Being one of the most recognizable faces of Greek mythology, Medusa has been extensively represented in modern and ancient art. Her face is also ubiquitous in the covers of mythology books, especially Bulfinch’s and Edith Hamilton’s. She and her sisters have also been mentioned in one of the most famous works of literature of our time, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Modern powerful women have proudly worn a head full of snakes to depict power, sexuality, and the acknowledgment of their emerging role in society and politics. Some of the most famous female names have been associated with the image of Medusa, including Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice.
Medusa is also portrayed on the famous Versace logo, surrounded by the meander pattern. Other instances where Medusa is featured include the Flag of Sicily and on the coat of arms of Dohalice, Czech Republic.
Medusa’s parents were Phorcys and Keto, but sometimes identified as Forcis and Gaia.
Stheno and Euryale (the other two Gorgon sisters)
Medusa had two children called Pegasus and Chrysaor
Poseidon, the god of the seas. She became pregnant when he raped her in Athena’s temple.
Perseus the eventual founder of Mycenae and the Perseid dynasty.
Medusa’s symbolism is open to interpretation. Some popular theories include Medusa as a symbol of the powerlessness of women, evil, strength and a fighting spirit. She is also seen as a protective symbol due to her ability to destroy those against her.
Medusa’s symbols are her head of snakes and her deathly stare.
Medusa represent power and the ability to destroy one’s enemies. She’s often viewed as a strong figure. Her head is viewed as a protective symbol and was even used by the French Revolution as a symbol of French liberation and freedom.
Some depictions show Medusa as having wings. Others show her as being very beautiful. There is no consistent depiction of Medusa, and her portrayal varies.
No, she was a Gorgon, one of three hideous sisters. However, she said to be the only mortal Gorgon, born to immortal beings.
Beautiful, dangerous, powerful and yet a tragic figure – these are just some of the words used to describe Medusa. Such is her appeal that she terrifies and awes at the same time. Yet while many see Medusa as a monster, her back story shows her as a victim of lust and injustice. Her undeniable appeal will live on as her story is told from one generation to another.