The tale of Medusa is often remembered as one of the monstrous gorgon who was finally defeated by Perseus beheading her! However Medusa was not originally a monster at all, instead she was the most beautiful priestess of Athena. Her beauty was what would become her downfall. In my post on the priestesses of Aphrodite I briefly mentioned that priestesses of virgin goddesses were required to be virgins themselves.
Medusa caught the attention of Poseidon, who pursued her, and when she rejected his advances, raped her inside the Parthenon. Sex inside of a temple of a virgin goddess (even if non-consensual) would be seen as a huge affront to the goddess. This led to Medusa becoming a monster with snakes for hair and the ability to turn men to stone with her gaze. Medusa was the only of the three gorgon sisters who was mortal. She was a powerful priestess, but her downfall was having her beautiful visage capture the attention of a God who wanted to bed her!
The most commonly told part of this myth is that of her death at the hands of Perseus. He was a demi-god and son of Zeus who was conceived when Zeus entered his mothers bedchamber as a waterfall of golden dust. She had been locked away by her father who had heard a prophecy of her baring a son that would end his rule as king (much like the myth of Cronos swallowing children, and the myth of Zeus himself swallowing his first wife whole, both to prevent a son from overtaking him). In this case it was a grandson whose birth was feared. Given the father of that grandson was the ever randy King of the Gods, it is unsurprising that Perseus was conceived anyway!
When he grew into an adult he went on a quest to slay the infamous gorgon Medusa. He was sent on this quest by the King (whose brother had helped raise Perseus). This same King, Polydectes, wanted to marry Danae (Perseus’ mother). Perseus succeeded in slaying Medusa, where others had failed, with his wit. Perseus realized that Medusa’s stone turning gaze would not work in a mirror, so he used the mirrored shine of his shield to locate her. When he saw her approach behind him he whipped his arm around to behead her! He then took her head as a trophy.
Medusa’s blood would be taken by great healers to use to heal those that needed it. Her image would be emblazoned on armor to protect soldiers, who felt the gorgons image would scare opponents (and her power would protect them). She would cycle through being seen as a monster and as a goddess in her own right who should be honored for her powers! It has been suggested by scholars that she was originally an older goddess subsumed by Greek culture who made her a monster. The Greek culture was patriarchal, and Medusa originally would have been of a matriarchal culture. She is not the only goddess seen as having had an older origin than the Greeks (Aphrodite can be seen as a version of Ishtar and Asarte, for example)!
The story of Medusa is one that should be viewed as either a classic monster who was defeated by a great hero (a la Campbell’s Hero’s Journey), or as a woman who was betrayed by her culture and became a monster, due to circumstance! Her story is a powerful one no matter which way you choose to view it. I even have dressed as Medusa for Halloween, when I was in college (during my classes because it is my favorite Holiday and I love dressing up). She is a powerful and special figure that I loved to embody, and my husband certainly loved seeing me in the clinging green fabric! We were not yet even dating, but he has admitted he took notice of it.
I hope you have enjoyed my analysis of the story of Medusa. Let me know your thoughts on this important figure of mythology in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Medusa, with a quote I love. I found the image on gthic.com.
- Mythology by Edith Hamilton
- Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch