TW: mentions of rape/sexual assault
In Greek, the word ‘Medusa’ symbolizes guardian, or protectress. Athena herself wears the Gorgoneion, an amulet with a gorgon’s face, as a protective pendant. So why, when learning of all the stories about Medusa, is she seen as evil, or someone who needs her head chopped off? When Medusa’s name and self has the meaning of a guardian, why is she depicted as someone the world needs to be guarded from? That Medusa, the only mortal gorgon, is to be feared, and Perseus did right by decapitating her?
The most well known of Medusa’s stories is written by the Roman poet, Ovid. In his epic Metamorphoses, he writes about Medusa, a beautiful maiden turned gorgon, and Perseus, the son of Zeus who eventually kills her. Poseidon was seduced by Medusa and her beauty, so he raped her in Athena’s temple. Athena, angered by such desecrations at the steps of her temple, blames Medusa and turns her into a gorgon with serpents as hair. She can now turn people who look at her into stone. Later, Perseus cuts her head off with the help of the gods through their gifts to him. Athena is then given Medusa’s head, and she puts it onto her shield as a protective amulet.
In Ovid’s tale, he crafts a story where Medusa is the perpetrator, and Perseus is the protector of mankind when he kills her. But what if the story could be interpreted differently, with Medusa is as a victim, and Athena as her protector. A tale of seduction and anger, Ovid uses Medusa’s past as justification for her murder. He makes it easy to hate Medusa, easy to see past the flaws in his story. She’s turning people into stone–how dare Medusa kill people like that!–with no thought to the lives she’s ended. She was asking for it, when Posiedon raped her, and he did nothing wrong at all. Written with harmful thoughts and ideas against women like victim-blaming and rape culture, this story has many holes, so reading from a different perspective might change the blame and fill in the gaps. Why would Athena, the goddess of wisdom, blame the victim of a rape? Why did Athena choose a gorgon as punishment? Why exactly, was it important to kill Medusa? Ovid pits woman against woman, Athena vs. Medusa, as a way for men to hide the fact that Medusa is the victim throughout the entire story, her entire life. I invite you to change your perspective, and step into the shoes of Medusa. Look at this story through the eyes of a woman who just went through a terrible event, and now has a way to protect herself from others who could repeat it.
Hold onto this perspective, and let us travel to Athena’s temple. Medusa, a young and beautiful maiden, has pledged a vow of chastity. She is now one of Athena’s priestesses for her temple. Poseidon, a powerful and important god, has taken a liking to Medusa. He knows of Medusa’s vow of chastity, and doesn’t care. So, one day, he corners her at the steps of Athena’s temple where she was flagrantly raped. Let’s end the scene there for now, with Medusa, a mortal woman, and Poseidon, one of the most powerful gods in Greek mythology, and talk about it. If you think about the power imbalance between these two people, Medusa never had a chance to safely say no. Imagine what could have happened if she had resisted, he could have killed her, or done any manner of terrible things as an almighty god. She had also taken a vow of chastity, and an almighty god decided to ignore her wishes anyways. If someone takes a vow as important to them as their virginity, they wouldn’t act against it in such a blasé way consentingly. Medusa survived a traumatizing event, and in turn, she was blamed and ridiculed for it.
Continuing with the story, Athena finds Poseidon and Medusa at the steps of her temple. Realizing what’s going on, she’s justifiably angry about it. She knows, as she is only a goddess below Poseidon, that she can’t punish him for his disgusting acts. Athena also realizes that Poseidon will likely blame Medusa, and she will be forced to punish her in some way. As the goddess of wisdom, she recognises all of these things, and understands that she will have to be complicit in the victim-shaming of the greek gods. But, is there a way for her, or Medusa to come out on top? She decides to use the system set up against women and mortals and turn it against itself. By turning Medusa into a gorgon, something seen as a punishment but is actually a blessing in disguise, Athena and Medusa can turn against the patriarchy that is set against them. Medusa was cast away as evil, with snakes for hair, and finally, had a chance to say no.
When Athena turned Medusa into a gorgon, she was given enormous power: to transform people into stone and to freeze someone in time and stop their life. To kill someone with just a glance is frightening, and can be used to cause destruction. But she lived on an island, isolated from anyone except her sisters, or anyone who came to kill her. On Sarpedon, her home, she lived with the power to kill others, and yet wasn’t able to utilize it unless someone came for her. To turn people to stone as self-defence, now suddenly doesn’t seem so terrible. For it is not her fault that people decided to try their fate, and attempt to kill her. These attackers became just like Poseidon, set on destroying her. Are they not so similar? And maybe she should’ve become a protector of women, taken more to her name-sake. But I think protecting herself is just as important, as that is the first step towards helping others. But one day, her power turns against her, and one man comes to kill her.
Polydectes blames Medusa for all of the men she’s killed and asks Perseus to kill her. Of course, this is a foolish claim, as Medusa only killed the people who have tried to kill her. Polydectes either does not understand the concept of self-defence, or doesn’t care either way. Remember, she lived on an isolated island, with only her sisters for company. Either way, Perseus accepts Polydyctes’ query for murder. But he needs help, so he asks the gods for gifts, and along with other things, he obtains Athena’s shield. Now why, some may ask, would Athena give up a gift to help murder the women she protected? Maybe she thought that the shield would be useless, and needed to keep up the guise of being angry with Medusa. Maybe she was forced to, and had no power to say no to the other gods. We can never really know, but with her shield, Perseus chops off Medusa’s head and kills her. Forever the victim, Medusa is destroyed first by the god Poseiden, then by Perseus, a man who was charged to kill her by another man, Polydectes. But, this is not the end of her tale, because while dead, her power still persists.
Medusa is now used as a weapon against others, turning people to stone even after her death, with no control over who dies. She was used by Poseidon, then tossed away like vermin, then used again by the man who killed her. These men used Medusa, a powerful woman, only when it was useful for them. After Persues is done using Medusa’s head, he gives her to Athena. She adds Medusa to her shield, Aegis. Athena, seen as the protector of life, now utilizes Medusa’s to protect others. This can also be seen as giving some power back to Medusa. To be affixed to the object that killed her, gives Medusa back to herself in a way. Medusa, a protectress, alongside Athena, a protector. And this ends the tale of Medusa.
Medusa lost her sexual autonomy and was hunted by blood-thirsty men looking to destroy her, so some may see her as the original “angry woman.” With a male-focused hero story, she is seen as enraged and vindictive, killing men as a way to get back at Poseidon. Killing others is not okay, but the anger makes sense. Don’t women have a right to be angry at the people who rape them? Some people, like Hélène Cixous, French feminist writer, in her 1975 manifesto The Laugh of the Medusa, approach Medusa’s story as men fearing female desire. Another woman, Elizabeth Johnston, an english professor, writes in an essay about how Medusa seems to reappear when talking of certain women in today’s society. However people interpret her, Medusa’s legacy lives on as an important figure in Greek mythology.
This story is a prime example of rape culture. By blaming Medusa and then getting mad at her for being angry and defending herself, the story perpetuates the idea that it’s the woman’s fault. Especially in an era around the #MeToo movement, it’s important to address and denounce these ideas. The normalization of rape culutre and vtctim-blaming is not a new concept. As evidenced with this myth, blaming women for the terrible acts of men is a timeless tradition passed down throughout society. Through this interpretation of Medusa’s tale, we can educate and change the narrative to hopefully help people understand and support others like her.
There has been a lot of feminist revisionist mythology, because it is important to learn about the myths from different perspectives. Especially because children and teens read these stories, and are impacted by the views and opinions of the characters. Reading stories containing victim-blaming and rape, specifically by an all-powerful god, impacts how people see those things. So by reading these stories with a perspective that doesn’t blame the victim, and focusing on a woman protecting herself, we can impact how society sees these things. Changing narratives helps change society.
Sage is a 16 year old junior in Howard County, MD. She spends her time drawing, painting, and participating in her community through protests, and fighting what she believes is right. She’s very passionate about art, and believes that it can bring communities together, impact people into learning new things, and can change peoples opinions towards a better future.