Medusa: Cruel Monster or Misunderstood Victim?

The Tragic Story of One of the most Notorious Rapes in Greek Mythology

The Medusa, painting by Arnold Böcklin. The above painting was inspired by the newer adaptations of Medusa’s myth, on which she acquired both a monstrous and a human side. Her face is the perfect representation of the duality of nature. Monster and woman, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, victim and villain, Medusa’s head gathers all the above contradicting aspects into a single creature. It is quite interesting to notice that for the ancient Greek male-leading societies, female beauty was often associated with great danger, and therefore it was seen as necessary to be isolated or exterminated from the world (image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medusa.jpg).

MMedusa’s story is not a new one to tell. Her appearance is recognizable by anyone, having live snakes on her head instead of hair, the upper body of a woman, the lower body of a serpent, and eyes that could turn any man into stone just by one look. Many heroes tried to gain her head as a trophy, but failed and ended up as statues in the abandoned island of Sarpedon, which the monster called “home”. She was the main antagonist of Perseus, who eventually managed to kill her by brutally severing her head from its body. And that is the short story of Medusa.

That is all we were ever taught as kids in school about the famous monster. However, this is not the tale you probably have heard of. Where is Medusa — the former chief priestess of Athena — who was brutally raped by Poseidon and was then cursed to transform into a hideous monster, who petrified its victims with one gaze of her eyes?

Medusa’s story is a very interesting mythological topic because it possesses several remarkable traits, that are not found in any other myth. To start with, it is one of the few ancient myths that remains relevant today and keeps evolving as time passes! Even today, thousands of years later, the tragic fate of Medusa is retold by modern storytellers. It adapts to the needs of our society, with its main characters being interpreted differently, having different roles with each adaptation, and possessing new traits! It features some old favorite, classic concepts such as the duality of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, justice and punishment, which are all must-have elements of any great story. And these are only some of the tropes, which are explored from many different points of view.

The last and most important element in the tale, and simultaneously one of the most heinous events in Greek mythology, is no other than the rape of Medusa by Poseidon, something which I will discuss later in further detail.

But, before we continue, please allow me to make an important statement:

By the time I am writing this article, things are not going well for women in Greece. Since the pandemic, domestic violence, sexual assaults, rapes, and murders of women have been increased at an alarming rate and are becoming a daily event in many parts of the country… Each day new victims are added to a long and shameful black list of crimes against the female gender. So, I would like to dedicate this article to all the Greek women (and all the women in general), who have fallen victims to these hideous crimes. In particular, I dedicate this article to Caroline Crouch (murdered on 11/05/2021 by her abusing husband), Ioanna Paliospyrou (sprayed with vitriol on 20/05/2020 by a woman), and Garyfallia Psarakou (murdered on July 2021 by her boyfriend, whose first statement regarding his crime, was that her murder was an “unfortunate moment”). I truly hope that this article will raise awareness about the terrible sexual crimes that women face today and give courage to the ones that have fallen victims to this abominable act…

Medusa “the Guardian”

A painted representation of a “Gorgoneion”. This is how the ancient Greeks originally imagined Medusa, in their attempts to dehumanize women and connect the female gender with monstrous elements (image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gorgoneion.JPG).

Medusa is a really old being of Greek mythology, whose origins are unknown. It is first mentioned in Homer’s epic poems, which were written down around the 8th century BCE, but she is much older than that, probably dating to the time of the Myceneans, the civilization that inhabited Greece during the Bronze Age (around 3.300–1200 BCE). The first information that we extract from our historical sources is that by the time of early Archaic Greece (800–600 BCE) Medusa was already a very popular figure. She is mentioned in the works of Hesiod and poet Pindar, while her head is depicted in countless forms of art, ranging from pottery, sculptures, mosaics, amulets, and jewelry (Glennon, 2017)! The other interesting information we extract from the artifacts of this era is that the head of Medusa always seems to be presented as a means of protection of sacred places and people. It is most often seen in temples and oracles or carved on protective amulets to drive evil away.

Another interesting find is that her head was also commonly painted on the shields of Greek hoplites to strike fear on the enemy and protect its bearer (Garcia, 2013). The Spartans in particular loved using this symbol, which often decorated the shields of their kings and generals.

The last fascinating feature of this creature is its name. In ancient Greek texts, Medusa’s head is named as “Gorgoneion” (“Γοργόνειον” in ancient Greek). The name derives from the ancient epithet “Gorgos”, which means “dreadful” or “fearful” (Garcia, 2013). So, the basic characteristic of this head was that its appearance stroke fear into the hearts of any men who dared to harm whatever or whoever it protected.

At this point, you will probably wonder why I refer to Medusa and her head with these strange names and not simply by her real one, that we all know. This has to do with the fact that originally Medusa was not a single creature but one of three monstrous entities known as the “Gorgons”, or “the Ones who Strike Fear”. These Gorgons were the three female demon kids of the primordial sea deities Phorcys and Ceto (Glennon, 2017). The oldest sister was named Stheno, the middle child was Euryale, and finally, the younger sister was the famous Medusa whose name comes from the verb “μεδώ” and meant “to rule” or “to govern”. This means that Medusa was originally seen as Queen of the Gorgons.

I mentioned the word “demon” when describing the Gorgons’ nature. In ancient Greece, demons (or “δαίμονες”) were not the evil spirits that we know today, but divine guardians of holy places (most commonly temples and oracles), who were usually depicted as really ugly or monstrous in appearance. In fact, so hideous their look was, it scared any potential invader away, driving his mind mad by fear. So, originally, Medusa and her sisters were guardian spirits, who protected both people and sacred places, by striking great fear to the heart of anyone with foul intentions.

There is one other clue, besides their name and the word “demon”, that further prooves the benevolent role of Medusa and her sisters as guardian demons. This is their famous “snake hair”. The Gorgons were depicted by the ancient Greeks as having red eyes, hands made from bronze, large wings, boar tusks, and living snakes as hair (Garcia, 2013). While all the other features gradually faded as the centuries passed, the snake hair not only kept appearing, but it became the defining feature of both the Gorgons and Medusa. In ancient Greece, the snake was a symbol of the earth and therefore was seen as guardian of the ancestral lands and a symbol of chthonic deities. In mythology giant serpents were often found protecting divine artifacts or places, with famous examples being the snake who guarded the Hesperides Garden, the Dragon who protected Delphi, and the serpent that Jason killed to gain the Golden Fleece.

Because of their association with snakes, Gorgons were seen not as simple guardians, but as the old, chthonic protectors of the land and its people. They were the ancient spirits that would rise from the earth whenever called to drive any potential invader away

Medusa the “Fallen Goddess”

Minoan figurine of the “Snake Goddess” or “Snake Priestess” found in Crete. Notice the woman’s dramatic pose, holding aloft two snakes. Historians believe this pose to be a sign of protection, or invocation to the Goddess. It is quite interesting the fact that when depicted with their whole bodies, the Gorgons are found to make a somewhat similar pose, standing with their feet wide open, their right hand raised in a similar way and their left lowered following the same movement. In many cases, both of the Gorgon’s hands are holding snakes, just like these figurines (source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snake_Goddess_-_Heraklion_Achaeological_Museum_retouched.jpg).

There is an interesting theory regarding the origins of Medusa and her sisters, which states that if we combine their female gender, their role as guardians and protectors, and their association with snakes we are led to the conclusion that the Gorgons were a demonized form of a pre-hellenic or Minoan goddess, probably associated with the snakes as a goddess of fertility and protection.

The theory of Medusa being a fallen goddess is supported by the following points: First, snakes (the common element between Medusa and the Snake Goddess of the Minoans in terms of appearance) formed an important part of pre-hellenic and Minoan religions. The Pelasgians (this is the name the ancient Greeks used to describe the pre-hellenic tribes that inhabited mainland Greece before the arrival of the Myceneans) associated them with the earth and were seen as the spirits of their dead ancestors. For the Minoans, they were guardians of sacred places, protectors of homes, and an incarnation of the cycle of life, because of the removal of their skin, which they believed was a procedure of rebirth, much like the mythical Phoenix. They were also seen as symbols of cure by both cultures, because of the healing powers their poison possessed. This dual nature of snake’s poison passed down to the blood of the Medusa, which, if taken by her left veins could destroy every mortal being, but if taken by her right veins was said to heal every disease and even bring the dead back to life.

Because of their roles as guardians of the home, healers, and their association with earth and the concept of the renewal of life, snakes were most of the time linked with the female gender. This is how the “Snake Goddess” was born, who served the role of a guardian, fertility, and possibly agricultural deity.

From what evidence we have, the Minoans were a society with strong matriarchal elements. They seem to have worshipped a mother goddess as their supreme deity, and the female priestesses possessed great amounts of power. This created an intense clash with the Mycenean civilization, which conquered and succeeded the Minoans. The Myceneans were a warlike, patriarchal society, where men were seen as superior to women. During the cultural exchange that happened between the two, the Myceneans strongly degraded the roles of the Minoan deities.

In the case of the female deities, we witness an intentional demonization of women, in order to fit in the Mycenean society. The Harpies turned from wind spirits into monsters, Ariadne — originally a Minoan goddess associated with the Labyrinth — was lowered to a sidekick of Theseus, and finally, the attributes of the Snake Goddess might have passed to Medusa and the Gorgons, which were lesser guardian demons. Both the degradation and the demonization of older deities by new religions are a common theme in history. It is interesting to see how the gender roles are collided and reshaped when one civilization succeeds another, and this clash is evident in their myths and legends. But, in Medusa’s case, this degradation happened twice, as we will see in the above chapter.

Medusa “the Monster”

“Perseo con la testa di Medusa” sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini. Like the rest characters of the myth, Perseus’ role also changed over time. From being the heroic slayer of Medusa in the original Greek myth, modern adaptations depict him as another brute, who hunted down the poor transformed girl, because he wanted to give her head as a marriage gift to the king of Serifos. He was successful not thanks to his intelligence or bravery, but because Athena guided him, wishing to see Medusa dead out of personal spite (image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Perseus_by_Cellini_Loggia_dei_Lanzi_n06.jpg).

From the Classical Ages toward the main story of Medusa took its form. She was, as described in the article’s introduction, a hideous monster with snake hair, that turned men into stone until she was slain by Perseus. You will be surprised to know that originally Perseus and Medusa had nothing to do with each other. Although Perseus is the mythological founder of Mycenae, and therefore a central figure on the Mycenean heroic pantheon, he is never found to actually kill Medusa. There is also one crucial element of the myth that is absent: goddess Athena!

In the main myth, Athena acts as the mentor of Perseus by advising him and handing him a polished shield to mirror the monster’s death stare. When Medusa is slain, Athena takes her head and places it in the middle of her shield both as a trophy and a weapon to scare her enemies (Glennon, 2017). It is this myth, that gave rise to Medusa’s portayal in the ancient Greek shields. Athena is a relatively young goddess that is completely absent from the Mycenean pantheon. On the other side, she is a prominent figure in both Homer’s epic poems. This lead historians to believe that her worship began probably after the Bronze Age collapse and the beginning of the Dark Ages, around 1200 BCE. When a new god emerges, he replaces another either by completely vanishing him or by degrading him to a lower level. This is what happened with Athena and Medusa.

In the early versions of the myth, Athena is presented as simply guiding Perseus. But in the later versions (from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE), she is seen as having a personal feud with Medusa. It is at this time that we get an origin story for the monster. She was once a beautiful woman with many lovers, who bragged that her hair was more beautiful than Athena’s or according to other accounts slept with Poseidon inside the goddess’s sacred temple. To punish her arrogance, Athena cursed Medusa by transforming her hair into living snakes and making her petrify any man to whom she laid eyes on. After Medusa’s death, Athena not only takes her head as a trophy but also her identity. She is seen as the guardian of the people and protector of domestic life. When in battle, she is ferocious, striking uncontrollable fear to her enemies by displaying the Gorgoneion on her shield. She guards her temples and is associated with snakes, with the most famous example being her sacred snake that resided in Parthenon.

This change in the image of Athena seems to reinforce the idea that she took over the positive characteristics of Medusa, replacing her as a guardian spirit and protector, and leaving her with only the monstrous characteristics. This is why one of the epithets of Athena in ancient Greece was “Medusios”, to emphasize this transition between the two. The only proof of Medusa’s once positive attributes was the Gorgoneion, which managed to survive because of its association with Athena. From a historical point of view, this information is both incredible and extremely rare! By using historical facts we can trace not only the origins of a mythological being back to almost 3.000 years ago, at the time of the Minoans, but we can also trace the moment when it was disgraded for the second time in a row and became the monster we know today!

Medusa “the Victim”

In the Archaic Age, the Greek poet Pindar was the first one who mentioned the beautiful face of Medusa. From that point onwards, many writers embraced this change and began depicting a more mild and benevolent side of Medusa, where she was the victim of the story, not the villain. This change was widely embraced during Roman times. There were many versions, but the most prominent one was described by Ovid in his “Metamorphoses” book. Here, for the first time, we get the story of Medusa’s infamous rape by Poseidon. In the words of Ovid himself:

She was very lovely once, the hope of many. An envious suitor, and of all her beauties her hair most beautiful-at least I heard so from one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune found her and raped her, in Minerva’s temple. And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage, as it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents. And even now, to frighten evil doers, she carries on her breastplate metal vipers to serve as awful warning of her vengeance.” — Ovid, Book IV (p. 106)
This is the myth that explains the origins of Medusa and how she was transformed into a monster after being blamed by Athena for getting raped by Poseidon. The reason that the mighty God of the Seas is said to have raped Medusa was because she was seen as the way to revenge Athena for stealing the patronship of Athens from him. He thus defiled her sacred temple by violating its supreme priestess.

Ovid’s adaptation of the myth was so successful that it completely altered the identity of Medusa, transforming her from a monster to a helpless victim. Thanks to the abstract nature of myths, as time passed this story gain so much popularity that it replaced the original myth of Medusa.

I shall focus on two key elements in the story. The first has to do with the phrase “punish the outrage as it deserves” which is found in the text. This phrase states that Athena believed Medusa deserved punishment for letting Poseidon rape her. This dark fact gets even worse when we learn that while Poseidon was raping her priestess, Athena covered her eyes, refusing to help her. When the terrible crime was over, instead of helping her, she chose to blame Medusa for being too pretty and thus driving Poseidon to lust. In some versions, Athena’s actions are the result of the goddess being jealous of Medusa for being adored by the people and thus refusing to aid her.

At this moment we are led to believe that the real monster in this trio is not only Poseidon but also the so-called “Goddess of Wisdom”. Moreover, you might also think that with the above statements, Ovid is adopting these beliefs as his own and promotes a typical, conservative view regarding the nature of women in ancient societies. For powerful gods like Poseidon, women are just an object to please their sexual desires. For women like Athena, rape victims are the only ones to blame.

But the above conclusion does not make sense. Besides being a Goddess of wisdom, Athena was also the creator of the first legal system of Athens, and also a rape victim herself, since god Hephaestus one time attempted to rape her, but she managed to fight back. She was a protector of women, not their destroyer.

Things get even weirder when we examine Athena’s reaction to another infamous rape in Greek mythology, the rape of Cassandra. Cassandra was the daughter of king Priam of Troy and, like Medusa, a chief priestess of Athena. When Troy fell to the Greeks, she ran to the temple being chased by the “hero” Ajax the Lesser. Ajax smashed the doors open and found her hugging the statue of Athena, pleading for help and protection. The myth gives us a brutally realistic description of what happened next…

The Rape of Cassandra by Ajax, the original Greek myth that inspired Ovid, turning Medusa into a “Roman Cassandra”(image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ajax_drags_Cassandra_from_Palladium.jpg)

Ajax grabbed Cassandra by the hair and started raping her, while the poor girl begged Athena for help, cried, and kept hugging the statue. So horrific was the rape, that the statue of the goddess was reported to tear up, and then closed its eyes, wishing not to see the terrible act. When Ajax finished his action, the statue was knocked off its vase and Cassandra was lying unconscious to the ground.

At this moment comes a big surprise in the story. The rest Greek heroes were furious with Ajax for his terrible act. For them defiling a temple, and a priestess by violating her, was the most abominable act, a violation to the heroic ethos of their times. Odysseus, Athena’s champion, insisted for Ajax to be stoned to death for his crime. Ajax managed to escape the punishment by (ironically) grabbing the statue of Athena and asking for asylum. So furious was Athena with the Greeks for letting Ajax unpunished, that she along with Poseidon sunken the majority of their fleet, and she in person made sure that Ajax suffered a horrible death (Britannica, 2019).

Cassandra’s myth was the inspiration of Ovid for writing the origins of Medusa. Different adaptations inform us that Medusa was not only a very beautiful woman but also a faithful priestess of Athena, who was her role model in life. Like the princess of Troy, Medusa was turned into a beautiful chief priestess of Athena and was raped in the exact same way. Ovid even included the scene where Athena’s statue covered her eyes, not to see the crime. The only thing that changed in his adaptation was Athena’s role from a defender of the victim to the accuser.

This change was done intentionally by Ovid and served real-life political reasons. By the time he wrote his book the Roman author was exiled by emperor Augustus and as such his work includes many political metaphors regarding the abuse of power by the ones who possess it, and the suffering of the weak, innocent people at the hands of the rich and powerful. With Athena’s refusal to help Medusa and her terrible and unfair transformation, Ovid successfully makes his point that when having to face a mighty criminal and a helpless victim, one would prefer to sift the blame to the victim rather than punish the criminal.

Epilogue: Medusa, a Modern Queen

Modern depiction of Medusa using the art of graffiti (image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medusa_(4419543263).jpg).

Medusa is without a doubt one of the most multi-layered being of Greek mythology. From being a literall Godess of fertility she turned into a guardian demon, then into a monster, and back into a beautiful woman/monster, which became the symbol of abused women worldwide. Even today she keeps being presented in lots of different art forms, adopting to the newer styles (with graffiti as the above being my favorite one) and new stories are created to praise her. She is the symbol of many femminist organizations, a constant reminder of oppresion, sexual assault, and unfair treatment. In modern retellings of the myth, Medusa is also a fighter, who Athena blesses by granting her the “stone gaze” in order to protect herself and not let another man to ever hurt her again. We finally see her taking action and actively fighting back the ones who try to hurt her. The former victim is trandformed not to a revenge-seeking monster, but to a survivor.

In our modern world, where sexual crimes against women are unfortunately still present, myths such as this, are crusial to be retold. Concepts like false victim blaiming, the punishment of rape no matter the identity of the criminal, and the act of self defence and personal recovery after such an incident, should be taught worldwide. Perhaps it is time to stop adoring Disney-style princesess and start paying more attention to these misunderstood monsters, whose stories have so much to teach us about the world.

Bibliography

Garcia, B., (2013), Medusa, available at https://www.worldhistory.org/Medusa/, (last access: 04/12/2021)

Glennon, M., (2017), Medusa in Ancient Greek Art, available at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm, (last access: 04/12/2021)

Saldarriaga, N., (2015), Medusa: Sympathy for a Monster, available at https://classicalwisdom.com/mythology/monsters/medusa-sympathy-monster/, (last access: 04/12/2021)

Ovid, Humphries, R., (1955), OVID Metamorphoses, Indiana University Press

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2019), Cassandra, available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cassandra-Greek-mythology, (last access: 04/12/2021)

German, S., Snake Goddess, available at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/aegean-art1/minoan/a/snake-goddess, (last access: 04/12/2021)

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Nick Iakovidis

Nick Iakovidis

Studying History and Philosophy of Science at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.