Medusa is one of the most well-known figures in Greek mythology, often depicted as a terrifying creature with venomous snakes for hair and a gaze that turned those who looked upon her to stone. As one of the three Gorgon sisters, Medusa's story has fascinated and horrified people for centuries. However, beyond her fearsome appearance and reputation, Medusa's story is one of tragedy and betrayal, making her a complex and intriguing character in Greek mythology. In this essay, we will delve into the origins, myths, and interpretations of Medusa, shedding light on this enigmatic figure and her enduring impact on popular culture.
Gorgons Gone Wild!
As per Greek myth, Gorgons are a group of three female monsters. Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale were sisters who possessed the ability to turn anyone who looked at them to stone. The sisters were the children of the sea-god Phorcys and the sea monster Ceto. The pair had other daughters called the Graeae. They were also a trio of siblings, yet they had grey hair and shared one eye and one tooth amongst them.
The name Gorgon is derived from ancient Greek gorgos, meaning grim or dreadful. They are one of the earliest myths of Greek legend, appearing as far back as 1194 BCE. Their image was often placed upon buildings as a form of protection, as their gaze could turn humans to stone. For example, A gorgon has been placed upon the pediment of the temple at Corfu. This is the oldest pediment in Greece, dating to 600 BCE.
According to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the eyes of the Gorgon are symbols of Divine eyes, just like Athena’s flashing eyes. Some artistic representations reflect the modern concept of serpents with snakes entwined in the hair of the Gorgon, such as the relief at the temple of Artemis in Corfu. Such imagery reflects protective elements against all harm to important holy places.
The Medusa Myth
While Euryale and Stheno were immortal, Medusa was not. According to myth, Medusa was a beautiful woman who suffered greatly at the hands of unscrupulous men. She was raped, killed, and beheaded. Upon the removal of her head, a Pegasus flew from her body as if being born. Over the centuries, the myth has transformed.
Today, Medusa is a monster with a head full of snakes instead of hair. She is cursed, and whatever she gazes upon is instantly turned to stone. According to French writer Helene Cixous, this version of Medusa is a result of male interpretation and retelling. She argues that the metamorphosis of Medusa mirrors the changes of women in society.
For example, viewing the backstory of Medusa as a beautiful woman whom men repressed until she was murdered, it is reasonable to draw parallels with the limits placed upon women in earlier decades. Such limitations naturally lead to rebellion. This rebellion upset the status quo, and women were viewed, oftentimes, as monsters looking to destroy men. Naturally, this view was only held by men of weak character.
New Century, New Me!
At one point, Gorgons were depicted as having wings, brazen claws, the tusks of boars, and scaly skin like a dragon. As such, ancient oracles were said to be protected by serpents leading to Gorgon images associated with those temples.
Furthermore, the image of a lioness and sphinx is also associated with the Gorgon. It wasn’t until around 700 BCE that Hesiod imagined the Gorgons as sea daemons (spirits) and increased their number to three, with Medusa being the Queen. Additionally, he attributed their parentage to Keto and Phorcys.
It wasn’t until much later that the Gorgon sisters had snakes for hair. In the 8th century AD, the Roman poet Ovid claimed that only Medusa had snakes for hair due to being cursed by the goddess Athena. Medusa had golden hair, which tempted Poseidon. They became romantically entangled in the temple of Athena, making the goddess angry. In revenge, she transformed Medusa’s golden hair into snakes.
Symbol of Protection
Late myths claim that King Polydectes sent Perseus to slay Medusa so he could pursue Perseus’s mother. Here, the myth takes many different forms. Each drop of blood became a snake; the head was given to Athena, or it was buried. Like most myths and legends, the narrative changes with the culture.
Despite the later myths of monsters, the Gorgon, and therefore Medusa, were originally powerful symbols of protection. Such images were placed anywhere one could imagine as a means to ward off evil. Such images are not confined to Greece. The image of a deity with snakes for hair and their tongue protruding from a grimacing face can be found in ancient China and India. The goddess Kali greatly resembles the Greek Gorgon.
Such imagery is a symbol of protection. Medusa is not a monster. Medusa is a protector. She guards against evil. The mention of Medusa often elicits fear and horror, with the powerful image of her snake-covered head and petrifying gaze. However, this perception fails to capture the true essence of this mythological figure. In fact, Medusa's frightening appearance is intertwined with her role as a protector and a guardian against evil forces.