Who Is Medusa?
Medusa was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto (though some sources claim Gorgon is her father). She was born on an island named Sarpedon – which is thought to be somewhere in the general area of Cisthene – and was known to have been one of the Gorgon sisters. However, unlike her other sisters (Sthenno and Euryale), Medusa was a mortal and therefore vulnerable to the perils of the human world. The story of Medusa and her sister’s transformation into the dreaded Gorgons is both tragic and insightful.
However, her time as a beautiful maiden was not to last forever. Eventually, Medusa was known to have been transformed into a beast that would be feared by all because she was considered responsible for the desecration of Athena’s temple. Because she had allowed herself to be defiled in Athena’s temple, Athena transformed her into the most hideous of all the Gorgons and made her features so terrible to behold that she could instantly turn a man into stone if he were to gaze at her directly.
While Medusa is known to be one of the most famous monsters in Greek mythology, there is relatively little that is recorded of her existence before she was beheaded by Perseus. Most of what we know of Medusa comes from her short time serving in Athena’s temple and the way in which her head was used after she was beheaded by Perseus. Though her life itself may not have been given much consideration in ancient records, the many things that came from her death would go on to impact ancient mythology in countless ways.
How Was Medusa Transformed?
To understand Medusa’s transformation, it is important to first understand where she came from. Her history is very important in terms of context to what she became and how she impacted history.
Medusa’s family is known for their fierce features and impressive power. Her father, Phorcys, was known to be a primordial sea god who had a fish tail, crab-like forearms, and red, spiky skin. Her mother, Ceto, was also a primordial sea goddess. Together, they were known to have birthed some of the most fearsome creatures in Greek mythology.
Ceto and Phorcys’ offspring included Echidna (mother of all monsters), the Gorgons, the Graeae (‘the grey withes’ – three sisters best known for sharing one eye amongst themselves), and Ladon (a dragon that guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides).
Medusa was one of the Gorgon sisters, though unlike Euryale and Stheno she was a mortal. There are varying accounts of how Euryale and Stheno became the feared Gorgons we see in literature, though many sources claim that the two sisters were turned into monsters for the perceived ‘crime’ of standing with Medusa instead of being compliant with Athena’s decision to punish her for being ravished in her temple. It was after the Gorgon sisters were wrongfully punished by Athena that their horrific transformation really began. Their anger for being wrongfully punished made them turn against the mortals of the world in spite – they would all go on to kill many men, though Stheno would be the most vengeful of the three.
Medusa’s Time as a Priestess for Athena
Though Medusa was known to be a desirable young maiden, she decided to pledge herself to Athena – the goddess she considered to be the most powerful of all those who resided on Mount Olympus. Her fondness of Athena was reciprocated for a time. It was a great compliment for Medusa to pledge her loyalty to Athena because of her great beauty – especially since one of the requirements to be a temple priestess was to remain a virgin. However, Medusa would not serve as a priestess for long.
Soon after Medusa became a priestess for Athena, she caught the eye of Poseidon. This was partially because of her great beauty and partially because she was serving his rival – Athena. This presented Poseidon with a unique opportunity – he would be able to pursue Medusa as a love interest and assert his superiority as a more powerful deity.
There are several variations with what happened next. Some versions claim that Medusa was swayed by Poseidon’s advances and developed feelings for him as well. Others claim that she remained steadfast in her devotion to Athena. Regardless of which version is told, Medusa decides not to leave Athena’s temple because of her devotion. This is when Poseidon decides to ravage Medusa in Athena’s temple. Medusa becomes pregnant and is both angered and confused.
Medusa Appeals to Athena
After being violated by Poseidon, Medusa is devastated. She doesn’t know what to do – she had planned on devoting the rest of her life to Athena. She appeals to her goddess and asks for help in moving forward.
There are many things that have to be figured out in this situation. The first is that Medusa is no longer a virgin – though she was deflowered against her will. The second is that because she lost her virginity to Poseidon (and is now pregnant by him) she is technically his wife according to the laws of the day. She appeals to Athena and asks that the goddess give her wisdom and advice in how to move forward.
Athena Responds in Anger
Athena is enraged that her temple has been desecrated – especially because it had been defiled by her rival, Poseidon. She doesn’t have any sympathy towards Medusa. In fact, she puts all blame for the incident on Medusa and decides to punish her by transforming her into a monster that will be undesirable.
There are several variations of the order of the events that come next, but the conclusion is always the same. Medusa is transformed into a terrible beast that has bronze hands and wings. In some variations her face is disfigured with a beard and fangs (other versions do not tell of this disfigurement) and finally, her hair is transformed into venomous nest of snakes.
Her sisters (Stheno and Euryale) are also transformed. The reason for this varies. Many versions claim that the sisters were transformed because they defend Medusa and undermine the will of Athena. They are disfigured in a similar manner and they return to the island of Sarpedon. From this point on, the sisters are known to be vicious monsters that take their vengeance on any man that sets foot on their island.
Medusa as a Monster
The character of Medusa changes greatly after Athena punishes her unjustly. She has difficulty reconciling with her new identity, but eventually comes to embrace her role and begins to take her vengeance on men as this is one of the only ways that she can attempt to get even with Poseidon. However, she is also reclusive and does not leave her island often.
Now that she has been transformed, there are many men that come to the island – no longer as suitors, but as hunters looking to behead her. As years go by, she becomes more and more vicious and vengeful.
Perseus is Recruited to Hunt Medusa
There are many different men that try – and fail – to hunt Medusa, until Perseus is contracted to bring back her head to King Polydectes. The King wishes to marry Perseus’ mother, but Perseus won’t allow it. As a trick, Polydectes tells Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa (which is essentially a suicide mission). Perseus complies and goes to the gods to help him on his journey.
The gods give him gifts to help him on his journey. He uses these gifts to help him conqueror Medusa. From Athena he receives a mirrored shield. From Hermes he receives winged sandals. From Hephaestus (the god of blacksmiths and metal workers) he receives a sword. Lastly, from Hades he receives a helm of invisibility. Using these gifts he travels and gathers information that is vital to his quest. He then sneaks onto the island of Sapharose and beheads Medusa while she sleeps by using Athena’s mirrored shield to guide his movements so that he does not have to look at Medusa directly. He tries to sneak off the island, but Medusa’s body is discovered by her sisters before he can leave.
They scour the island for Medusa’s killer but they are unable to find Perseus because of the gifts that were offered to him by the gods. He is able to escape unseen thanks to his helm of invisibility. The sisters are enraged, but unable to do anything but mourn. Euryale’s cries echo through the island – an act for which she becomes most famous in mythology.
Medusa in Death
Although Medusa’s story has some relevance and symbolism before her tragic end, she arguably has the most influence in her death. Through her passing, she gives the world important contributions to mythology and medicine while also providing the public with a new form of protection.
Medusa’s Children Come Forth
As soon as Perseus cuts off Medusa’s head, her two children are born. They fly out of her neck, fully grown.
The first to emerge is Pegasus – one of the most famous creatures in all of mythology. Pegasus was a winged stallion that was pure white and powerful in nature. Upon his birth from the beheading of Medusa, he is said to have ascended to the heavens where he was greeted by Zeus. It was then that Pegasus was instructed to carry the lightning and thunderbolts on behalf of the Olympians. Another one of Pegasus’ powers is that he is known to have been able to make magical and inspiring fountains and springs come up from the Earth whenever he struck his hooves against the ground. This power is likely enabled by Pegasus’ lineage (as he is a son of Poseidon).
The second to come forth from Medusa’s neck is Chrysaor. He is said to have been born with a golden sword in his hand and is known to have gone on to marry Callirrhoe and father Geryon. He was also known to have ruled as king of Iberia.
Other Life Springs Forth
As Perseus traveled throughout the land significant changes began to happen as the drops of blood from Medusa’s head began to fall. As he flies over Libya, each drop of blood that falls to the ground transforms into a venomous viper. Because of this, Libya is still full of poisonous vipers to this day.
Medusa’s blood is also credited with creating the Amphisbaena – a fearsome creature that resembled a dragon and had a snake’s head on the end of its tail.
Lastly – but perhaps most interestingly – the blood of the famous Gorgon is thought to have been the reason that the corals of the Red Sea were formed. Many authors claim that the corals were created when drops of blood spilled onto seaweed in the waters below.
Medusa’s Head is Used to Defeat Atlas
According to legend, after Perseus beheaded Medusa, he was traveling back to save his mother when he happened upon Atlas – the giant Titan who held up the sky. Perseus asked the Titan to allow him to rest, but Atlas refused and tried to attack him. Perseus knew that he would be unable to fight of Atlas on his own, but with quick thinking realizes that he can use Medusa’s head to his advantage. He holds the head up to Atlas’ gaze – who is immediately transformed into a mountain. This is one of the first instances that Medusa’s powers have been used to show the protective nature of the Gorgons.
Medusa’s Head is Used to Defeat Cetus
While flying through Ethiopia, Perseus spies the young Princess Andromeda tied to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus. Andromeda is being sacrificed as a punishment to Cassiopeia (her mother), who was foolish enough to boast that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids. Perseus is able to overcome the monster with the powerful head of Medusa and is able to save Andromeda (who later becomes his wife).
Medusa’s Head is Used to Save Perseus’ Mother
When Perseus finally returns from his quest, King Polydectes is astonished to see the young hero alive. He plots to kill Perseus so that he may marry the young hero’s mother, but Perseus is able to stop the attack by using Medusa’s head to turn Polydectes and his accomplices to stone. Thus, his mother is saved by the protective powers of Medusa.
Perseus Gifts Medusa’s Head to Athena
After all the trouble that has been caused by Athena’s betrayal of Medusa, the two are finally symbolically reunited when Perseus gives Medusa’s head to Athena after he has completed his journey. Athena then puts the head on her shield – the Aegis.
Athena also makes use of the remaining blood that still comes forth from Medusa’s severed head. It is said that the blood that came from the left side of her head had the power to take life, while the blood from the right side of her head had the power to resurrect the dead. This power was given to Asclepius who used it accordingly.
It is also known that two drops of her blood were placed in a vial. Similarly to the above powers, one drop of blood had the cure to any disease or poison, while the other drop of blood was the most deadly power in the world.
Finally, a lock of her hair was cut off and put in a jar. While the lock of hair itself didn’t have the power to petrify a rival warrior, it would strike a terrible fear into the heart of anyone who had the misfortune of seeing it.
Medusa Becomes a Protector
While Medusa was wrongfully punished by Athena and forced to live the rest of her life as a terrible monster, she experiences some redemption in death. Because her head was placed on Athena’s shield (the Aegis) and her blood was revealed to hold the power of both life and death, Medusa’s head became a symbol of protection. In fact, her head went on to inspire one of the most powerful talisman of it’s time – the Gorgoneion.
The Gorgoneion was an amulet that bore the head of a Gorgon. This symbol was thought to keep evil away from those who invoked its protection by wearing it as a pendant. It was known to show great power and was even thought to imply divine lineage or protection. This is likely due in part to Zeus and Athena, who were both known to wear a Gorgoneion.
Interpretation of the Myth
Throughout time, the story of Medusa has gone on to inspire many great thinkers and artists. The maiden turned monster has inspired many great works of art and philosophy – and has experienced a reemergence in popularity in modern day.
Among the many historical figures to become fascinated with Medusa’s story was Sigmund Freud. He took great interest in the story of Medusa and what it may symbolize in terms of the psychology of young men.
Freud hypothesized that the myth could symbolize the reaction of a young boy who has, up until a certain point in time, refused to entertain the idea of castration as a real possibility. He believed that the viewing of a woman’s genitals (especially a mother’s genitals) in their adult state would have posed a real terror for young men and thought that the story of Medusa could have been created to symbolize this idea.
Freud compared Medusa as a fair maiden to the image of a mother in the eyes of the innocent before a young boy had seen adult female genitals. The classic version of Medusa, however, was something that Freud saw as an Oedipus-type syndrome and the decapitation of the monster was thought to represent castration and fear.
Modern day feminists have also taken a stance on the symbolism that surrounds Medusa. Many scholarly feminists tend to liken the image of Medusa to society’s attitude towards women of power. They argue that any woman who has recognizable power – especially power over men – is immediately criminalized and turned into a monster.
Feminists also like to point to the conditions of Medusa’s descent into the monster world as a criminalization of rape victims that is also typical of modern society.
Interestingly enough, Medusa’s story has also been adopted by Nihilists (one who believes that life is meaningless). They use the symbolism of being unable to look into Medusa’s eyes as a symbol of how many people navigate the modern world. It is their thought that people keep their eyes down to avoid facing reality (Medusa) so that they are not frozen by the realization that life means nothing.
A Reminder Of Hierarchy
Last, though certainly not least, many see the story of Medusa as a reminder of the many dynamics that come into play when the greater forces of the world (in this case, the gods of Mount Olympus) are at work. Although Medusa was a devout priestess to Athena, she was not protected from being violated by Poseidon and is unjustly punished for a situation she had no control over. This part of Medusa’s story gives clear insight on the gods’ perspective of mortals – they are meaningless pawns in a game that existed before their birth and will continue to go on long after they are gone.
Perhaps then, Medusa is a tale of the great injustice that suffered by those who have done no wrong, and the unimportance of these injustices to the greater powers of this world.