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 66 Comments

  1. Medusa has always been a well known goddess in Greek Mythology. We all know her as the woman to be feared; with a head full of snakes and eyes than can change anyone into stone. Yet, this article shows another side of her that allows the reader to sympathize with her story. She wasn’t born as a ‘monster’ she was turned into one as punishment. It is a very sad story and even in death she was still feared but even so she became a huge symbol in Greek culture.

  2. Annissa Noblejas

    Greek gods and goddesses are known for their jealousy and tricks. It is not surprising that Athena would react to discovering Medusa’s love affair in this fashion. It is also historical fashion to only blame the woman when people are caught in affairs, so this myth also incubuses the social views of affairs in general. The woman is severely punished and the man fades from the story. Medusa is changed for life, when Poseidon is free to seduce another mortal, which he is known to do from numerous other Greek myths.

  3. This story has always amazed me because it has so many deeper meanings than just what dwell in the surface. For example the fact that Medusa was turned into this monster for having a love affair with someone who swept her off her feet is intriguing. Thus adding to that, that she was known as the most awful gorging and was actually asked to be murdered because of the fear she instilled in the city around her. Although it is a sad story it is chalked full of truths that otherwise might not be expressed in this society.

  4. I love the story of Medusa. I think she is such an interesting mythological character and the origins of how she came to be the woman who turns people to stone are interesting. I wonder why she was the only mortal out of her siblings being that both of her parents were gods. I also found it interesting how although Medusa was used at war on shields by the Greeks.

  5. I’ve always known Medusa to be the lady with the snakes in her hair, but this article humanizes her and brings her story to life. It was interesting to find out that she was born a mortal and she was seen as beautiful. I never knew that Athena was the one who put the curse on Medusa for her jealousy towards the affair between Medusa and Poseidon. Its crazy that even after her death she still seen as something to fear and dread.

  6. Reading Greek Mythology is always so interesting. I never knew why Medusa was turned into such a terrifying creature. I feel like Athena’s curse was maybe a little too harsh. I mean its not Medusa’s fault she fell for Poseidon. And besides he took a liking to her too. He should have been punished also. This article was great. It makes you think what would have been different if she didn’t get a curse casted on her.

  7. I have always liked Greek mythology so this was interesting to me. I would have to say my favorite part of this story is how medusa was beautiful before she got turned into something hideous. She got the attention of a God specifically Posiden which made Athena mad and Athena turned her hair into snakes which would if you stared at her turn you into stone. Athena did this to her out of jealousy and nothing more.

  8. Wow, this was a very informative and well-written article. As someone who has not looked into Greek mythology, the only other memory I have of Medusa is through Hollywood films which do not always provide a factual background. However, this article did, I found it interesting how Medusa was once so innocent and pure but turned evil after the curse Athena put on her. This was extremely sad to me. On the other hand, it is interesting to see how Medusa was used as a form of aid in battles and how references and symbols about her can still be seen today. Overall, great article!

  9. I was aware of medusa’s power to turn people into stones (especially guys) but I was not aware of the story behind the story. I enjoyed reading the article it was like as if I was part of a movie, I could see the transformation of Medusa! Also, I like how the writer gives an explanation at the beginning, starting from her death all the way to she got turned into the monster we all know. Good job!

  10. Alexander Manibusan

    I find it really sad that Medusa was turned into something that horrific. Although I believe she deserved punishment, I also believe that her punishment should not have been that severe and that Poseidon should be put to blame as well. I wonder if there are any myths in the world that are similar to the myth of Medusa. That would be interesting to know.

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