The Myth of Medusa: Monster From Birth?

Medusa's severed head after her death. | Courtesy of Ancient Origins

On an eerie night, all the way in the ancient world of Greece, an impossible task was asked of Perseus, the son of Zeus. Perseus was asked to behead the dreadful monster of Medusa. He was asked to do this impossible task because everyone knew how dangerous and terrifying Medusa was. Therefore, Polydectes asked Perseus to carry out this mission because he wanted Perseus gone.1

There was no doubt about how dangerous the gorgon Medusa was, and all of Greece believed that whoever got close to her would turn to stone. Perseus’ mission was expected to be a failure due to these dangerous conditions. Medusa had a deadly power of turning those who looked into her eyes to stone. When Perseus was asked to behead her, Polydectes and the other gods didn’t believe Perseus could make it out with Medusa’s head and not be turned to stone. However, Perseus succeeded in his mission and beheaded the dreadful gorgon Medusa. The Greeks were ecstatic that this nightmare of a woman was dead and that the wonderful demi-god Perseus had Medusa’s fatal power in his hands. After this, Perseus used Medusa’s head to turn many into stone and it kept the people of Greece in fear of Medusa even after she was dead.2 However, Medusa was not always the feared monster that everyone knew her to be.

Statue of Medusa | Courtesy of Ancient Creations

Before Medusa was known as a terrifying monster, she was a beautiful maiden who was very kind and pious. Medusa was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. Phorcys was a sea god and Ceto was the goddess of sea monsters. Ceto gave birth to all three of the gorgons; Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa. Medusa was the only one of the gorgons who was mortal, while the other two were immortal. Medusa was a beautiful young woman who was a priestess for the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena. Medusa was a very good priestess, as she made a vow to the goddess that she would swear her life to celibacy and servitude. However, while Medusa was praising and serving Athena, she caught eye of the god Poseidon. What caught his attention most were the gorgeous, golden locks of hair Medusa had. Because Poseidon took such a liking to Medusa, he charmed her and swayed her off her feet. The two were caught having a love affair in Athena’s temple. Once Athena found out about this affair, her jealousy raged and she became furious! She then decided to put a nasty curse on Medusa for breaking her promise of celibacy. This curse turned Medusa’s beautiful locks into venomous snakes and made it so that whenever someone looked at Medusa, they would turn to stone.3

Medusa’s face on ancient coins from Greece | Courtesy of Ancient Artifacts

This curse completely turned Medusa’s life around. Once given this curse, Medusa fled her home, never to return. On her journeys, she was shunned, feared, and loathed by all she encountered. These awful experiences turned Medusa’s kind, pious personality into one that matched her new appearance. It’s a shame the goddess Athena had the power to turn Medusa’s entire life around; however, Medusa was not just a feared monster to the ancient Greeks. Medusa’s severed head eventually became a symbol that scared away evil. Many warriors used the symbol of Medusa’s head on shields and breastplates during battle to aid them in winning. Other than aiding in battle, the symbol of Medusa is also seen on ancient coins from Greece that are now ancient artifacts.4 Although Medusa came to be hated by all, she was still an important part of the culture and became a key symbol in ancient Greece.

  1. Stephen R. Wilk, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 20.
  2. Carolyn Springer, “Medusa The Reader,” Women’s Art Journal 28, no. 1 (2007): 63-64.
  3. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender, 2007, s.v. “Medusa,” by Paolo Fasoli.
  4. G. K. Jenkins, “Some ancient coins of Libya,” Libyan Studies 5, no. 1 (March 2015): 29-35.

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This Post Has 70 Comments

  1. Quite interesting on medusas origin as she became to be a “monster” from jealousy of a god. Though she swore an oath, she was mortal and had yearnings for what all search for. Not only did medusa change from something beautiful into something that was feared but also changed into something whom she felt was what others deserved from her. What would others expect when all that is seen from you is fear, disgust, and hatred. warriors used her head as a symbol to help “aid” in battle but it was actually just using and promoting what everyone saw her as. A woman who’s image would be shown in hopes to scare the enemy.

  2. In my high school experience,I would read Greek mythology ,but never it would give factual information about Medusa and how she came to be. I found it interesting that Medusa was not born a monster,and the story how she had an affair, found guilty of it and resulting in became cursed.I believe that this was important to recognize that information because in these Greek legends, there is only a focus on the enemy and in the hero, the readers tend to only concentrate on the bigger picture and lose focus on information that matters as well.

  3. This article shows an interesting perspective on the Medusa story, explaining Medusa’s downfall in lust. I did not realize she was the only mortal Gorgon, although I did know she was quite beautiful before being tempted by Poseidon. The article also alludes to how Medusa once was a sweet woman, but due to the persecution she faced by her community, she changed. This shows how the pressures of society can cause people to change by the society’s attitude towards them. After being treated like a monster, on top of the curse, she changes from the outside in.

  4. I feel like a lot of Greek myths end up with at least one person suffering from either the gods or from a monster. You can’t help but feel sad for them, I mean she was taken by Poseidon but yet Medusa was the one who got punished. Sure she didn’t have to do it but he was a god so of course she’s going to be convinced by someone like him. I did find it cool that even after her death the thought of her stone powers really filled anyone with a shiver up their spine. This was a great read and those of you interesting in Greek mythology read the other myths there just as exciting as this one (if you liked this one that is).

  5. This was a very interesting read. Greek Mythology for me has always been something difficult to follow along. I always seem to remember the big names like Hades, Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo , Hercules . I have heard of Medus but never the story of Medusa. I never knew she had sisters. I did know she was cursed and with that curse she turned people into stone but I never knew why. Thank you for showing me that in this article. It was really interesting how it started with her death then lead to how she was turned into who she is known for today .

  6. Prior to reading this, I didn’t know much about Medusa’s life other than her infamous monstrous fate. It’s tragic how Medusa was the real victim of this story. She was just a virtuous, simple girl who wanted to live a life of celibacy and servitude before she was manipulated by Poseidon. Athena should have punished Poseidon instead of Medusa. After all, nobody in Greek mythology was known for their loyalty/fidelity.

  7. This is an interesting article. Greek mythology has always been very intriguing, especially the story about Medusa. Medusa really is a great symbol to use to war off warriors and wonder if Athena could have ever guessed the meaning Medusa would get from what she was turned to; instead to be hated by all she was also used for strength. I believe Athena had every right to feel jealous, but to turn her hair into snakes and make her eyes turn anyone to stone is purely poetic and in some way genius. Greek mythology never fails to surprise me!

  8. I didn’t know that Medusa had sisters, or that her head was still used to turn people into stone after she was beheaded. It is terrible how Athena punished Medusa in a way that would isolate and alienate her from everyone. The Greek’s portrayal of her as protecting from evil is interesting. I would have thought all Greeks would saw her as a monster.

  9. Christopher Hohman

    Nice article. It is sad that Medusa’s life was changed so radically by Athena’s curse. She was once one of the most pious and polite creatures that ever graced ancient Greece, but after the curse was cast she became and evil monster. Her power to turn people to stone made her into a monster and many people were just to afraid to approach her. It is funny that her face became a symbol that warded away evil considering that she was evil herself.

  10. This is wrong. Medusa was originally born as a monster. Either to overthrow the Greek gods or because her parents were monsters too. What you’re talking about are unfaithful retellings. And in the actuall myths, Perseus returned the Gorgon’s head either to Athena or to Hades. Medusa used to be a monster, under Hades’s rule.

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