Medusa is one of the most well known and talked about beings from ancient Greek mythology that we have ever heard of. Hunted by many warriors that wished to claim the prize of her head, many tried, and many have failed. It was said that men who gazed upon her eyes would turn to stone instantly. Generally described as a winged human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair.
Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters, daughters of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto. Medusa – the only mortal among the Gorgon sisters – was also distinguished from them by the fact that she alone was born with a beautiful face. Ovid especially praises the glory of her hair, “most wonderful of all her charms.”
Medusa was not always considered a monster, in fact she was a mortal who was very well known for her stunning beauty until she felt the wrath of Athena, either due to her boastfulness of her beauty or because of an ill-fated love affair with Poseidon.
Her name meant “guardian” and “protectress” and Her story shows the potential cruelty that the Greek gods can have. Transformed into a vicious monster with snakes for hair, she was killed by Perseus, who used her still potent head as a weapon, before gifting it to Athena.
Medusa was a priestess to the goddess Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom and battle. One requirement to be a priestess for Athena is that the young woman must be a virgin and give her life to the goddess.
Medusa was stunningly beautiful with luscious hair and was often compared to Athena’s beauty. It wasn’t long before Athena’s jealousy of Medusa became obvious.
Poseidon (The god of the sea) lusted for Medusa and was infatuated by her beauty. Medusa rejected Poseidon, because if she wished to remain the priestess of Athena’s temple, she must remain a virgin.
Poseidon had a conflict with Athena and he saw Medusa as a possession that he could take from the goddess. Eventually Poseidon grew tired of being rejected by Medusa and decided that he would take her by force. Medusa feared for her life and ran into Athena’s temple hoping Athena would protect her. Athena ignored Medusa’s plea for help, and Poseidon had his way with Medusa, by raping and impregnating the priestess on the steps of Athena’s temple. Poseidon vanished after he was done and left Medusa vulnerable and weak.
Medusa prayed to Athena for guidance and forgiveness. After all, in those days, the gods claimed their mates as their partner forever, and Medusa was now Poseidon’s wife. Athena was in rage that Medusa had lost her virginity to Poseidon, and she decided that she would punish Medusa. Punishment against the gods such as Poseidon was considered unthinkable.
Athena cursed Medusa and the hair that she was once so envious of and turned her hair into a head of venomous snakes. Medusa was now a monster woman. Medusa was banished from civilization. Anyone who looked into her eyes would be petrified and turned to stone. She looked at them in fear and saw them turn to stone in front of her eyes. She was scared of her powers and angry at the gods for cursing her.
Word spread of the monster that Medusa had become, and she became the target of many warriors that literally wanted her head. All that tried shared the same fate and were turned to stone after looking into Medusa’s eyes. Until Perseus, son of Zeus was tasked with retrieving her head.
Perseus’s mother was being forced into marriage with Polydectes, the king of Seriphos. Trying to get rid of Perseus, Polydectes sent the great hero on a quest. “Fetch me the head of Medusa,” commanded Polydectes. In order to complete his task, Perseus required aid from the gods. He was given a helmet from Hades that made him invisible to Medusa. A pair of winged sandals from Hermes allowed him to reach Medusa. Athena gave him a bronze shield that was able to reflect the gaze of Medusa and lastly, he was given a sword from Zeus that was sharp enough to cut the head off Medusa.
Since Medusa was the only one of the three Gorgons who was mortal, Perseus was able to slay her while looking at the reflection from the mirrored shield he received from Athena.
Medusa was pregnant at the time of her death with the baby of Poseidon, and When Perseus severed her head, her two unborn children Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chrysaor, a giant wielding a golden sword, sprang from her body.
Perseus would use the head of Medusa which retained its ability to turn onlookers to stone, to aid him in several adventures and it played a crucial role when defeating the Titan Atlas.
Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas, who stood holding the sky aloft, and transformed him into stone when he tried to attack him. In a similar manner, the corals of the Red Sea were said to have been formed of Medusa’s blood spilled onto seaweed when Perseus laid down the petrifying head beside the shore during his short stay in Ethiopia where he saved and wed his future wife, the lovely princess Andromeda.
Perseus then flew to Seriphos, where his mother was being forced into marriage with the king, Polydectes, who was turned into stone by the head. Then Perseus gave the Gorgon’s head to the goddess Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.
In classical antiquity the image of the head of Medusa appeared in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion.
Medusa is one of the most misunderstood characters in Greek mythology, she’s often looked at as a cruel monster. She had only the best intentions and placed her trust in the goddess Athena, who ultimately failed her and punished her for her actions that were beyond her control.
Medusa was a loyal woman who spent her youth training to become a priestess to a goddess she worshiped and believed was the strongest of all the Olympians.
Even in death Medusa can be seen as a symbol of good, as her head is used as a protective amulet to keep evil away. However, she does spend all her life with Athena, as she protects her goddess against many foes. So, in a twisted series of events, Medusa fulfills her role of protecting Athena. However, it also led to snakes hating mankind for worshiping the Olympians. This is one story that shows the cruelty of the Greek Gods.
Her story shows us that even the gods are prone to the sins that they heavenly provide themselves above.
I cannot help remembering a remark of De Casseres. It was over the wine in Mouquin’s. Said he: “The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie.”
— Jack London, The Mutiny of the Elsinore