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 75 Comments

  1. I get that she was seen as bad and scary by many of the Greeks but to scare people after death seems pretty powerful and cool. Isn’t it strange how still today if a girl catches her significant other cheating she will more often than not get mad at the woman and not her partner like Athena did. It’s also funny how despite Athena’s attempt to ruin her that after death her character turned iconic.

  2. The power and status of the Greek mythical gods is unfair to everybody else because they are invincible. They face no consequences or judgment and only others suffer. Poseidon could have left Medusa alone and respected her celibacy but instead he pounced on her. He swooned her. But instead of him getting punished, Medusa did which was wrong in my eyes as I view her as a victim to the vices of Poseidon.

  3. I like that this article portrays Medusa to be a woman who was not always bad. When we think of Medusa, we automatically think of her as a monstrous woman who turned people to stone, but we never think of how she was before she was cursed. Her curse from Athena was extremely cruel for a broken promise. I think that all the people who wanted her dead are crazy for wanting that, because she was a regular person beforehand. Medusa just had unfortunate luck. I think her promise for celibacy and servitude was not ideal, and she shouldn’t have made it. However, she made it and the curse from Athena led to her unfortunate decapitation. She did become a symbol that scares away evil though, so that’s interesting.

  4. I (like many others) have always had a liking toward ancient mythological stories and I suspect that it all derives from the amazing feats of heroes and the otherworldly monsters. Medusa is always a classic monster that has seen many variations in movies and literature. Through all of the different variations I have seen I do not think I have ever known her backstory and just exactly how she became a monster. I have always kind of just assumed that she was originally made as a monster, it never really occurred to me that she might have been transformed into one. This article is a great short summary of the tragic story of the monster Medusa as well as the innocent origins of the maiden Medusa.

  5. Elisa Nieves

    Medusa has always been portrayed as hateful and otherwise evil. This article seems to give her more humanity, telling us about how kind and pious she was before being transformed by Athena. Personally though, I tend to believe the version where Athena, being smart and strategic, turned her hair into snakes on purpose to help protect her. It is said that Poseidon raped Medusa and that while everyone believed his version, the one where Medusa and him had an affair because she was beautiful to him, Athena believed Medusa when she told her she’d been raped. Still, she would be shunned for her “affair” and haunted. This is why Athena turned her beauty into an ugly weapon against her hunters, so those who believed Poseidon would see the punishment in being ugly and so that Medusa, a former priestess who had no training in combat, could protect herself when they came for her. This would be the real reason her head became the symbol to ward away evil, because quite literally, that’s what her head, more specifically, her hair did, warded away evil men who haunted her for her “affair” when really she was raped and wrongfully accused. To this day, women empowerment groups use her head as their symbol because they too can relate to her situation. It’s sad to me to see her portrayed as the villain who got what she deserved, because it’s more likely that Poseidon raped her. He raped many other women and had a reputation, like Zeus to rape and take women at his leisure. Stories like Medusa’s happen all the time, women are raped, taken advantage of then blamed and shunned, while the real villain is seen as a victim like Poseidon, or even a hero like Perseus.

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