Medusa: Villain or Victim?

*Trigger Warning* This post contains themes of sexual violence that may be sensitive to some. If this topic is in any way triggering for you, please click off and we will catch you next time.

The Arting the Ancients Team

Dear Readers,

Welcome to Phrike October! We are super excited to have you here. I really hope you enjoy our first official post!

Now grab yourself a cup of tea, get comfy and well, let’s get on with it!

Lana, Project Director and Lead Content Developer.

Myth

Medusa: Villian or Victim?

Main Characters

Medusa *obviously* – Incredible beauty turned snake haired ‘monster’. *I think she might be having a rough day.*

Athena – Olympian Goddess of wisdom and war. *Cough* clearly needs to work on her sense of justice *cough*.

Poseidon – Olympian God of the sea, brother to Zeus and Hades. *Not my favourite character in this story I must admit *eye roll*.

Perseus – Greek hero and son of Zeus. *I’m pretty sure he basically just got roped into this*

Preface

Medusa is arguably one of the most famous (or infamous) mythological beings in Ancient Greek story telling. Even today her character often plays the villain in several dimensions of modern pop culture, think Clash of the Titans or the Percy Jackson franchise. Such a curious notoriety leads me to one VERY serious question:

If you haven’t heard of her, where have you been?!

Greek mythology is *obviously* full of fantastical tales about beasts and monsters, yet we often focus on their demise.

I mean obviously the snakes make for a great Halloween costume. But what’s the real story behind Medusa’s slithering locks and stony gaze?

Today, I hope to take you back in time to the furthest land towards the night, near the Hesperides and beyond Oceanus where we can witness the origin story of Medusa.

Then I will ask you again, who was Medusa and did she really deserve to be remembered this way?

The Beginning

According to our good friend, the Greek poet Hesiod, Medusa was born as one of three sisters, or, more specifically Graiae, known today as Gorgons.

Gorgons are described by Annette Giesecke, in her beautifully illustrated book Greek Mythology A to Z, as a type of terrifying mythological creature with *and I quote* “large tusks like a boar’s, hands of bronze and golden wings”. Unfortunately for her though, unlike her sisters Stheno and Euryale, Medusa was the definition of beautiful, and she was a mortal.

In case you were wondering, there are two separate stories chronicling the parentage of Medusa and her Gorgon sisters. According to Hesiod, they were the daughters of the sea deity Phorcys and his sister Ceto *Game of Thrones style*. However, Giesecke recounts an alternate tale, owing the trios parentage to the Earth Goddess Gaia who apparently “produced them to be her allies in the battle between the gods and the Giants.” I already hear you asking – Why was it unfortunate that Medusa was beautiful? Well, you’ll find out in the next section!

Poseidon: What a D**k

Medusa’s beauty caught the eye of many a budding bachelor. It is not certain why she was transformed into a ‘monster’ however, according to the Roman poet Ovid in his epic ‘Metamorphoses’, Medusa was “ravished” by Poseidon in the temple of Athena.

Athena, who is famously known as the celibate goddess, was extremely offended by this act, and decided that someone needed to be punished. That someone, she determined, was to be Medusa. Athena is said to have “changed the Gorgon’s locks to ugly snakes” and here is where we are finally introduced to the Medusa we know today.

Now, the use of language here is troubling, Ovid says that Poseidon “ravished” Medusa, meaning that what happened to her was against her will. This is a common problem in Greek Mythology as you will see in future posts.

The women in these myths almost always take the blame, most issues are assumed to be their fault.

The characterisation of Athena is also problematic; it indicates a victim blaming culture in Ancient Greece, but it also suggests that women were thought to be irrational and jealous. Evidence for this lies in another version of the story told by Hesiod where Medusa in all her beauty, caught the eye of Poseidon who seduced her in a “soft meadow amid spring flowers”. In this version Athena was purely jealous of Medusa who subsequently suffered the same fate.

…and her day is about to get much worse.

Classic Hero’s: Perseus Gets Roped In

Medusa was *clearly* extremely upset about being turned into a ‘monster’ and so she ran away to live in a cave with her sisters. Here is where she would remain until good old Perseus (son of Zeus and Danae) showed up, ten points to anyone that can guess who helped him?

Answer in:

3

2

1

ATHENA!

It is said in Edith Hamilton’s engaging novel “Mythology Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” that Perseus, hoping to save his mother, was sent on a quest to kill Medusa.

I won’t dive into the story of Perseus today, but please let us know in the comments if you want to hear it!

Anyway, on his journey Perseus was met by Athena and her brother Hermes who gave him a sword and shield to aid him in his quest.

It was with that very sword and shield that Perseus chopped off Medusa’s head, and from her severed neck sprang Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus, her sons with Poseidon.

Medusa’s head was mounted in the centre of Athena’s shield the Aegis *man she really didn’t like her* where it would stay, at least throughout the Trojan war. Such is chronicled multiple times throughout Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey where Medusa is mentioned as the “horrible Gorgon’s head with fearsome eyes” and “the monsters head, the Gorgon, out of Hades.”

Thus, we approach the end of her tale…

Side Note – We all know what happened to Pegasus, but did you ever wonder what happened to Chrysaor? Well… Heracles cut his head off, but that’s a story for a different day.

So, What Does This Myth Mean?

All jokes aside, myths like the folktales of most cultures often have a meaning or moral. However, it is important to consider that the way we interpret ancient myth today is very different to how they may have been understood in the past, especially the ancient past!

In the case of Medusa, it is clear her story comments on the patriarchal society of ancient Greece. Why was she turned into a monster? Because she was beautiful, and she was powerful.

So, I will ask you again.

Who was Medusa and did she really deserve to be remembered this way?

Further Reading

If you want to read the ancient texts which mention Medusa, we have listed some links below! These are:

We also liked the discussion by Edith Hamilton in Mythology Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes and Annette Giesecke in Greek Mythology A to Z!  

Thanks for joining us and we hope to see you next time! Remember to follow our Instagram for bonus content and updates!

The Arting the Ancients Team

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