The Myth of Medusa: Monster From Birth?

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

  1. Avatar

    Actually the myths tend to vary, but most are in agreement that Medusa was Raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple as she was praising Athena. Athena became enraged by this since it “went against the vows of celibacy Medusa had sworn to her” and thus turned her into a snake-haired monster with red eyes whose gaze would turn those who fell upon it to stone. From what I’ve read of the Greek Pantheon and the Gods and Goddesses in it, this seems the likely scenario. Gods and Goddesses seemed to be particularly jealous, possessive, and aggressive while having little to no regard for the consequences of, and the collateral damage caused by those wants and actions. Take Zeus for example, the guy raped, abducted, and assisted others in the abduction of multiple goddesses, including some of his own children and family. Poseidon was just as bad about raping women as Zeus was, but he is less known for it presumably because, unlike Hera who was outspoken about her disapproval and jealousy, Poseidon’s wife was more of a pacifistic doormat. (They and many other Gods also favored incest as well). Honestly, I sympathize with Medusa. Whether she really was just screwing around with a God or was raped by one, she was punished in an extremely cruel way, while Poseidon got off with no punishment at all and was left to go about continuing his parade of rape and horse crap. Medusa’s change in demeanor after her transformation was an expected reaction to what happened to her, she simply adjusted to a role of monstrosity and exile forced on her by Athena. And to add insult to injury, Athena aided Perseus in the slaying of Medusa later on?? Deities are PETTY. Just researching the history and mythos of the Deities in the greek pantheon, and most pantheons honestly, is just a wild roller-coaster ride. Gods and Goddesses were freakin’ nuts.

  2. Avatar
    Sara Guerrero

    I always wondered who made these legendary greek stories and Medusa is definitely one of the most recognized. I never knew of her story and I found it more surprising that she had a love affair with Poseidon and Athena cursed her. Seeing the images of the coins and reading about armies using the image of Medusa to aid them in war shows the seriousness and the belief they had on these ancient mythical people and creatures.

  3. Avatar
    Meadow Arriaga

    Medusa has a backstory and a family that is forgotten about. Since she is such an intimidating character, it is hard to imagine her any other way. Medusa should have known the promises she was swearing her name to. Her actions had a very big consequence which costed her life. Maybe Athena was too harsh when it came to Medusa’s punishment.

  4. Avatar
    Michael Thompson

    Sad story, I guess. I mean, it is Medusa’s fault, and also not her fault, so I don’t know how to feel about her. She did break the promise of celibacy, but Poseidan would have the power to influence her and change her mind, almost making it against her will. So I do feel bad for her that she fell for a God’s charm. Probably a mistake doing it in Athena’s own temple, but still I feel bad. But at least she is still immortal, living on through coins, story, and other things. So not a bad ending for the troubled character.

  5. Avatar
    Nicholas Robitille

    This story details brilliantly how a nation’s culture can bring influence far past social interactions. In Ancient Greece, the story was entrenched enough in the culture for it to become a part of the currency. The story was interesting as well, even if the moral of the story is a little confusing.

  6. Avatar
    Azucena Cuevas

    Greek Mythology stories are always an interesting read because the stories underlie how sins are severely punished. I really enjoyed this story because it talks about how Medusa was before she was converted into a monster. A lot of times that gets lost because people focus on how evil and treacherous she was after Athena got upset and changed her into a monster.

  7. Avatar
    Edith Santos Sevilla

    Medusa is portrayed in different movies, but they only show her actions, but never explain her background information and the reasons that she had her powers. Greek mythology always surprises me, there is no pattern to the different evils or powers that anybody could have. While I was reading I found the story very interesting and different then any other place I had seen it. Overall the article is well written and easy to understand, I enjoyed reading it.

  8. Avatar
    Gabriella Urrutia

    I had heard of Medusa and that she could turn people into stone when she looked in their eyes, but I didn’t know the story behind it. I found this article very interesting and informative. It was nice to learn about how she used to be kind but the curse Athena placed on her because of the affair turned her into an evil person.

  9. Avatar
    Kelsey Sanchez

    This article was interesting to read due to how the story of Medusa is portrayed. I have always heard of the story behind Medusa. It was good to see how this article switches from detailing how kind she was and goes into how she became evil. It was unbelievable to see how she was turned into a monster and scared many due to her being under a curse Athena put her through.

  10. Avatar
    Patricia Arechiga

    I never really saw nor thought about the ‘background’ behind Medusa and her actions. I have always portrayed her as simply an evil woman, which too has been influenced by the way media and movies portray her. It is crazy how jealousy and fear of competition can lead to causing evil upon others, even if that means ruining someone else life for the rest of their lives. I found her story extremely interesting and makes me question other ‘evil’ monsters within Greek mythology.

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