Greek mythology has been a fascination of mine every since I was a kid. In fact my very first book regarding any mythology was about the Greek Pantheon. One figure that always stood out for me was the story of the most famous of Gorgons which is Medusa. The tale of Medusa that most know of is nothing less than tragic and a cruel display of the power of the Greek gods and goddesses that we can see in other stories. But perhaps there is another way of see what happened to Medusa as something perhaps more benevolent. Is it possible that Medusa was not cursed but turned into a Gorgon for a form of protection and vengeance? I will explore this idea later on in this post. For now let us explore the origins, life and what is known of Medusa.
The Untold Story of Medusa by Leah M Mariani
While we all know of Medusa with her crown of snakes, less is known of how Medusa became Medusa. There are two origin stories from Greek Mythology, both leading to her well-known grisly end.
The first origin story sees Medusa originally as a stunning young woman, with beautiful ringlets of hair. So alluring is her beauty, that she has many suitors. While praying at the temple of Athena, she catches the eye of the sea god Poseidon, who rapes her (or seduces her, depending on who is telling the story) in the temple. Athena, who is so enraged at her temple being defiled, takes out her revenge on poor Medusa. It has been noted that Athena, who is the goodness of war, rarely supports women. Perhaps she is the precursor to the jealous older woman so often portrayed in the European fairy tales that were to follow. To exact her revenge, Athena takes away Medusa’s most prized feature: her beautiful hair. Again, this is reminiscent of later fairy tales, specifically Rapunzel who is punished for sleeping with a prince by having her hair removed.
Athena makes Medusa unappealing to men by turning her hair into writhing snakes. It’s a classic case of victim blaming. If that isn’t enough, Athena ensures Medusa will forever remain alone by gifting her with a gaze that turns others to stone in an instant. Here we witness the creation of the original ‘death stare’, a weapon that has since been passed onto generations of women. And while over time, the death stare as become less potent and less deadly, it is by no means less scary. I know because my mother possesses such a stare that not only stops you in your tracks but also takes your breath away.
Medusa, however, did not wish to use her powers on mortals and instead retreated to a dark cave. She could not look upon a friend, or even an animal, without killing them, and so she lived a life of solitude. However, this was not to last. Even though Medusa never wanted to harm anyone, the knowledge that she had the power to do so, meant that she could never live a quiet life. Soon enough, men came in search of her and eventually, Perseus, the son of Zeus, finds her and cuts off her head while she sleeps.
The alternate origin story sees Medusa begin life as a Gorgon monster, borne of two sea monsters, and one of three daughters. As a Gorgon monster, Medusa is terrible and fierce and is much less sympathetic than her alter-ego, once-human-form. But what this version lacks in beauty, she makes up for in companionship, because in this version Medusa lives with her two sisters. These Gorgons are described as having snakes on their heads, wings on their back and large mouths with lolling tongues. Whether the sisters were immune to Medusa death stare, (perhaps possessing the same powers themselves) or they were protected by the darkness of the cave, we do not know. We do know her sisters, Stehnno and Euryale, mourned her death. They gave chase to Perseus after he murdered Medusa, and he escaped their clutches thanks only to Athena’s help (she definitely had a thing against Medusa). Upon Perseus’ escape, the sisters release a loud, mournful howl, which is chilling to the bone. Continue reading HERE.
By Louise Bogan
I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved,—a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.
When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.
This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.
The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.
And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.
Early Life of Medusa
Both Aeschylus and Hesiod mention Medusa in some of their early stories. They claim that she spent most of her life in Sarpedon, which was close to Cisthene with her Gorgon sisters and also died there. Hesiod used her in Theogony. Dionysios Skytobrachion wrote about her during the second century and claimed that she both lived and died in an area of Libya. Herodotus found some evidence that she appeared in Berber mythology where she was a major part of their religion.
Legend says that Medusa was one of three children born to Phorcys. Also known as Phorkys, he lay with his sister Ceto. The two had three daughters, including Euryale and Stheno. Though both were marine deities, their children were chthonic monsters. They also had another group of sisters called the Graeae who appeared in Prometheus Bound written by Aeschylus. He claimed that both groups of sisters were monsters. SOURCE
Medusa’s Sisters and Birth
Medusa – whose name probably comes from the Ancient Greek word for “guardian” – was one of the three Gorgons, daughters of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto, and sisters of the Graeae, Echidna, and Ladon. All of Medusa’s siblings were monsters by birth and, even though she was not, she had the misfortune of being turned into the most hideous of them all.
From then on, similarly to Euryale and Stheno, her older Gorgon sisters, Medusa was depicted with bronze hands and wings of gold. Poets claimed that she had a great boar-like tusk and tongue lolling between her fanged teeth. Writhing snakes were entwining her head in place of hair. Her face was so hideous and her gaze so piercing that the mere sight of her was sufficient to turn a man to stone. SOURCE
Descriptions of Medusa
The traditional description of Medusa and her sisters were of winged women, with large heads; large head that held large staring eyes, and the tusks of swine. Additionally, the Gorgons were also said to have had hands made of brass.
The most striking feature of Medusa and her sisters would be the hair upon their heads, for each lock was made up of a hissing snake.
Medusa was not considered the most deadly of the three Gorgons though, for this accolade was given to Sthenno, who it was said had killed more people than Medusa and Euryale combined.
The home of Medusa and her sisters was a closely guarded secret, a secret kept by the Graeae, but Hesiod suggested that the Gorgons lived upon an island close to the Island of the Hesperides at the western extremes of the known world, although later writers also claimed Medusa and hers sisters were to be found in Libya. SOURCE
A Theory Of Her Benevolence and Different Opinion
I have discussed this theory regarding Medusa and what she symbolizes with friends and there are others out in the world who agree with this idea so allow me to explain. We all know the description of Medusa being this horrific looking scaly-skinned Gorgon with snakes for hair who turns anyone who gazes upon her into stone and that this was done by Athena for “desecrating” her temple due to her being raped by Poseidon. Athena was seen as being a very jealous and vengeful goddess when it came to human women having sexual relationships with her fellow Olympians. So as a punishment, Athena turns her into this hideous Gorgon to live out eternity both in isolation and sorrow.
But what if there is a different way to look at this? Here me out because this one may seem off to some readers. What if Athena had Medusa become a Gorgon but not as what has been interpreted through the centuries. We can see throughout history her appearances in ancient Greece and during the early part of the Roman Empire changed. So is it fair to theorize that perhaps there was actually a benevolent version for Medusa?
Medusa, said to possibly be a Priestess of the Temple of Athena, was indeed raped by Poseidon which is known. But instead of Athena pouring her vengeful rage upon this poor woman, perhaps she had a different intention. Think about the fact that Medusa later in ancient Greece and Rome we find her face on pottery, floor mosaics and other art as a symbol protection, to ward of malevolence and even a symbol of Femininity. Maybe, just maybe Athena gave Medusa this power of wielding her eyes as this vengeful weapon upon those who gazed at her with malevolent sexual desires. A message to others who may look upon women as merely an object for their deviant intentions. Perhaps Medusa kept her goddess-like beauty and the serpents upon her head are just a symbol of something greater. I personally look at Medusa as a champion for women who have suffered sexual abuse and rape. I see Medusa as this powerful goddess-like figure who is a symbol of empowerment, feminine strength and a powerful statement to any man who wishes to do that sort of harm must pay the most extreme of consequences.
Sure we can read the tales and easily look upon Medusa as this hideous, malevolent, cavern-dwelling Gorgon who only wishes to collect stone bodies in her lair of rot and rage. But I prefer seeing the benevolent version of Medusa and use her tale as a powerful one to perhaps aid in giving any woman who needs it the boost of positivity out from something so horrific.