The Most Famous Monster Figure in Greek Mythology
Greek Mythology is known for its many fearsome beasts such Mantikhoras and Cyclopes. One of the most popular monsters of Greek Mythology is Medusa. She was a beautiful maiden with golden hair. She vowed to be celibate her entire life as a priestess of Athena until she fell in love with Poseidon.
She went against her vow and married him.
For this Athena punished her hideously. She turned Medusa into an ugly creature by making her eyes bloodshot and raging and her face haglike. The once lovely hair was morphed into poisonous, dangerous snakes. Her pure white milky skin turned a scary green hue. From then on she roamed, shamed, shunned and loathed by everyone.
Thence, by Athena’s curse anyone she looked upon turned to stone.
Early Life of Medusa
Both Aeschylus and Hesiod mention Medusa in some of their early stories. They claim that she spent most of her life in Sarpedon, which was close to Cisthene with her Gorgon sisters and also died there. Hesiod used her in Theogony. Dionysios Skytobrachion wrote about her during the second century and claimed that she both lived and died in an area of Libya. Herodotus found some evidence that she appeared in Berber mythology where she was a major part of their religion.
Legend says that Medusa was one of three children born to Phorcys. Also known as Phorkys, he lay with his sister Ceto. The two had three daughters, including Euryale and Stheno. Though both were marine deities, their children were chthonic monsters. They also had another group of sisters called the Graeae who appeared in Prometheus Bound written by Aeschylus. He claimed that both groups of sisters were monsters.
Why was Medusa Cursed?
The stories about Medusa in Greece are unique because they changed quite a bit over the years. When Ovid wrote her story in Metamopheses, he claimed that she was born beautiful before becoming a snake-haired creature and retained her looks over the years. Poseidon tempted her into having sexual intercourse with him in a temple to Athena. When she found them together, Athena transformed her into a woman with serpents in her hair and a cold stare. The Roman version of her story is the same but changes the location to Minerva’s temple and her partner to Neptune. When Minerva caught them in the act, she changed Medusa into a terrifying Gorgon.
In one version of the Medusa story, she was a gorgeous young woman who agreed to become one of Athena’s priestesses. Priestesses took a vow of chastity and devoted their lives to her. Medusa followed the goddess for many years before she met and fell in love with Poseidon. The two decided to marry, which infuriated the goddess. Unlike other stories that claim she caught them in the throes of passion, this version says that she was upset that her priestess went against her rules.
This version claims that Athena became spiteful and used her powers to turn the woman into a monster that no man would ever want. While Medusa once had soft and supple white skin, it turned green. She lost all of her looks and found snakes growing in her hair. Athena took things a step further. Just in case any man took an interest in Medusa, Athena made it so that the man would turn to stone if he looked in her eyes. Medusa spent the rest of her days wandering the earth alone.
Separated from her sisters and unable to find love, Medusa wandered through the African desert. As she traveled, some of the serpents in her hair fell to the ground and slid away. Legend says this is why so many of the desert areas in that region have so many snakes today.
Who Killed Medusa?
Most legends claim that the hero Perseus killed her with help from Hermes and others. The Greek hero came to see her on the orders of King Polydectes who ruled over Seriphus. When the king turned to the Gods, they agreed to help as they worried about what the creature could do. Athena gave Perseus a shield with mirrors to deflect Medusa’s gaze, while Hades helped him remain invisible to her. Hephaestus also helped the young man with the gift of a sword.
Unlike other creatures who were mortal, Medusa was mortal and capable of death. When Perseus arrived, he forced her to look into the shield and see her reflection, which turned her to stone.
Perseus then decapitated her and took her head to use it as a weapon in battle. At the time of her death, no one knew that the creature was with child, one she hoped to raise with Poseidon. Pegasus, the famous horse with wings, arose from her dead body. Chrysaor also came from Medusa. Legend claims the was a giant who carried a golden sword.
According to author Jane Ellen Harrison, Medusa’s power came from her head and anyone who carried it gained that power. She further claimed that the woman’s head simply served as a mask for those who later wielded it. Some authors today believe that the legend showed the control that a man could have over a woman. Homer never named Medusa in the Odyssey but did talk about a monster’s head that Hades could send o Persephone. Harrison further backed up her claims with a translation that said the horror did not come from the woman but that the horror gave birth to the woman.
After her death, Perseus immediately left to fight Atlas. Though the Titan was a worthy opponent, Perseus stood in the middle of the sky and turned Medusa’s head towards him. Atlas attempted to fight but saw her head and turned to stone. Perseus then headed to Ethiopia to rest and set her head down on the ground. The blood from her head slowly found its way to the Red Sea where it formed the basis of the red coral seen there today. Her blood also led to the creation of the venomous vipers that roam the Sahara. The Amphisbaena came from her blood, too. This creature had a snake on the end of its tail and the body of a dragon.
After their wedding, he headed to Seriphos for his mother’s wedding. Knowing that Polydectes forced her into marriage, Perseus forced him to look at the head and turned him into stone to free his mother. Feeling as though his work was done, Perseus tracked down Athena and presented her with the head. Athena immediately added the head to her shield called Aegis.
Though Athena helped Perseus defect the woman, she knew the powers that her former head held. Athena removed a lock of the woman’s hair and gave it to Hercules. Hercules then went to Tegea and met with Sterope who was the daughter of Cepheus. Sterope used the hair to defend the city and keep it safe. Legend says that when invaders attacked the city, Sterope used the hair to bring forth a storm that sent them running away in fear.
There are many stories and interpretations of the Gorgon Medusa from Greek mythology and later years. Harrison believed that there was some evidence that Medusa was simply one woman and that the stories of her sisters came later. One of her works said that similar stories focused on sister trios and that authors likely added Medusa’s sisters. She claimed that Medusa was the only real Gorgon and that her sisters were mere additions to her story.
Some historians believe that the story of Medusa has some basis in fact. They believe that there were events the occurred and that the Greeks simply created a new version of the event. Others think that her story likely had roots in historical facts. Joseph Campbell was one historian who believed this theory. He pointed out that a simple translation shows that the woman wore a mask to scare intruders and those who thought to bring her harm. The man who stole her mask then used the story to frighten others.
Sigmund Freud and the Medusa Myth
Born centuries after the first appearance of Medusa, Freud later used her in his psychoanalysis. Medusa’s Head is a study released in 1940 after Freud’s death. He claimed that the story of her decapitation shared much in common with castration. In his eyes, Medusa was only scary because it linked castration to something that a man could see. He explained that when a man saw something frightening such as a naked woman, he associated it with his mother because it was his first experience with the female form. Freud simply stated that the myth is part of the Odepial Complex. The men who saw Medusa were so terrified of her beauty that it left them mute and unable to speak. Freud disregards any myths that claim she turned men to stone.
Beth Seeling took a different approach to the Greek legend. She believes that the story relates more to Athena than others do. Seeing claims that Athena saw Medusa in her temple and instead of catching her in the midst of consensual intercourse, she found Poseidon raping her. The goddess was so upset over what she saw and the issues she had with Zeus who was her father that she flew into a rage. All stories of Medusa sprang from this event.
Medusa and Feminism
During the 20th century, many looked at the tale of Medusa and how it relates to feminism. They point out that she was a beautiful woman who turned into a monster but that all anyone remembers is that she is a monster. Several authors working on a book interviewed hundreds of women to find out what they knew about the myth. They all claimed that Medusa was a horrific creature but could not recall when they first heard the legend. Many of the women only knew her as a monster and not what she looked like before.
In the modern world, feminists use Medusa as an icon that represents female anger and rage. This idea first appeared in a journal in 1978. It featured a drawing of Medusa on the cover and a story inside about how women can grow when they learn how to use and control their rage. A magazine from 1986 also used this idea and claimed that feminists could learn how to channel their rage through her story.
When Elana Dkyewomon released a series of poems and short stories written by and for lesbians, she chose the Gorgon for the cover. She claimed that Medusa was the ultimate guardian and protectress of women. Elizabeth Johnston released an essay in 2016 where she talked about how men used the legend as a way to disparage Hillary Clinton as she ran for President. Johnston claimed that it showed men were still frightened of powerful women.
Modern literary experts also point to the legend as one of the first times in history when men blamed a victim for her rape. Though some point to the version of the story where Athena came across Medusa in her temple, others claim that the legend never says whether she willingly agreed to intercourse with Poseidon. During the height of the #metoo movement, many women began using images of Medusa.
There was also a theory established by Helene Cixous in which she claims that the original story of Medusa was quite different. She believes that Medusa was originally a beautiful woman with power and that men adapted her story to turn her into a monster because they did not appreciate powerful women. Cixous urges women to use this story as a way to take back their own power and escape the control that men have over them.
Early artwork depicted both Medusa and her sisters as gruesome creatures capable of frightening any man. Medusa herself had a chilling face topped with serpents that sprang from her hair. In later artwork, she appears as a more beautiful woman. Pindar wrote in 490 BC that she had fair cheeks. Though many of these pieces made her more beautiful, they also showed that she was terrifying.
Medusa also appeared in multiple pieces of art from the Renaissance and later. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a terracotta jar created by Polygnotos that shows Perseus murdering her in her sleep. This piece dates back to around 450 BC. In House of the Faun from 200 BC, she appears on the plate worn by Alexander the Great.
Several regions also depict her on their flags and emblems. Sicily uses both Medusa and the trinacria on its flag. This shows that the island has protection from Athena. The goddess carried the woman’s head on her shield. Dohalice, which is a small village in the Czech Republic also uses her head in its coat of arms.
Modern Use of Medusa
Medusa appeared in dozens of television shows and movies over the years. Among her early depictions were those in horror films from the 1960s. The Gorgon came out in 1964 and was a Hammer film that told a modern version of her story. The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao came out the same year and told the traditional story of Medusa. In Clash of the Titans from 1981, she was a standard villain. When a studio remade the film in 2010, she played a major role. The director chose to show her as a human woman who only turned terrifying once men looked into her eyes.
Fans of Percy Jackson & the Olympians will find that she pops up in both the original book and the film based on the book. Uma Thurman took on the film role and was in a pivotal scene. When Percy travels to a garden to find the Pearl of Persephone with his friends, they stumble across statues and realize they were humans she turned into stone. They manage to escape when Percy beheads her.
Medusa also appears on television. In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a Gorgon travels to Sabrina’s town. Though she has a different name, she has the power to turn people to stone when they look into her eyes. Charmed also used Medusa as a character. One of the sisters on the show found a woman who summoned the creature to punish men. She claimed that they shamed her for sleeping with one of their members. The sisters convince her to change her mind before the Gorgon can slaughter the men.
Symbols of Medusa
Medusa, one of the most iconic figures from Greek mythology, is associated with several powerful symbols:
- The Gorgon’s Head: The most recognizable symbol associated with Medusa is her head, with snakes for hair. After being slain by Perseus, her head was used as a tool to turn enemies to stone, symbolizing both the power of fear and the concept of turning a curse into a strength.
- Snakes: In the myth, Medusa’s hair was transformed into snakes. Snakes are potent symbols themselves, often representing rebirth, transformation, and immortality, due to their skin shedding. In the context of Medusa, they also symbolize danger and protection.
- Eyes: Medusa’s gaze, which turned onlookers to stone, is symbolic. It represents the idea that seeing or knowing something can bring about irreversible change, and it can also be interpreted as a symbol of the power of women and the fear that this can invoke.
- Mirror and Reflection: The way Perseus defeats Medusa—by using a mirror to avoid her direct gaze—introduces symbols of reflection and knowledge. It suggests themes of understanding and confronting fears or dangerous truths indirectly.
- Winged Female Figure: Some depictions of Medusa give her wings. This could symbolize her freedom and escape from her past (before her curse), or it might represent the dichotomy between beauty and terror.
- Blood: After Perseus beheaded Medusa, two offspring, Pegasus (a winged horse) and Chrysaor (a giant or a winged boar), emerged from her neck. Her blood is thus a symbol of life and creation, springing forth from death.
- Female Rage and Empowerment: In modern interpretations, Medusa has become a symbol of female anger and empowerment. Her story, particularly her transformation into a monster as punishment by a more powerful male god (Poseidon and Athena’s involvement), resonates with contemporary themes of feminist reclaiming of narratives.
Interesting Facts About Medusa
- Born to the sea god Phorcys and Ceto (Phorcys’ wife and sister), Medusa (queen or ruler) was one of the three Gorgon sisters. The other two sisters were Stheno (strength) and Euryale (wide-leaping).
- Greek poet Hesiod wrote that Medusa lived close to the Hesperides in the Western Ocean near Sarpedon. Herodotus the historian said her home was Libya.
- Medusa’s sisters were immortal but she was mortal.
- Medusa wandered Africa for some time. Legend says while she was there baby snakes dropped from her head and this is why there are plenty of snakes in Africa.
- Many artists made Medusa into a work of art.
- Leonardo da Vinci did a painting of her using oil on canvas.
- She was made into marble and bronze sculptures.
- From c. 200 B.C.: In Pompeii’s House of the Faun, Medusa was on the breastplate of Alexander the Great in the Alexander Mosaic.
- The coat of arms of the Dohalice village from the Czech Republic depicts Medusa’s head.
- The flag and emblem of Sicily also features her head.
- Two species of snakes contain her name: the venomous pitviper Bothriopsis medusa and the nonvenomous snake called Atractus medusa.
- Medusa represents philosophy, beauty and art.
- The Medusa head is part of fashion designer Gianni Versace’s symbol.
- She has been featured in movies, books, cartoons and even video games.
- There are several versions of the Medusa myth.
- In almost every version of the Medusa myth, King Polydectes of Seriphus sent Perseus to return with her head so that Polydectes could marry his mother. The gods aided Perseus in his quest and he was sent golden winged sandals from Hermes, Hades’ helm of invisibility, a sword from Hephaestus and a mirrored shield from Athena.
- Perseus the hero slayed Medusa, the only mortal of the Gorgon sisters, by viewing her in the reflection of the mirrored shield of Athena. Perseus then beheaded her. At this moment Chrysaor, the giant with a golden sword, and the winged horse Pegasus sprang forth from her body. These are her two sons.
- In feminism Medusa is known as a symbol of rage even though she was originally exceedingly beautiful.
- A Roman cameo from the second or third century contains her head.
- A tepidarium from the Roman era has a mosaic floor with her head at the center.
- Her profile is engraved on coins of the reign of Seleceus I Nicator of Syria from 312-280 B.C.
- The Artemis temple in Corfu depicts Medusa in archaic form. She is a symbol of fertility dressed in a belt of intertwined snakes.
- A story says that Hercules acquired a lock of Medusa’s hair from Athena and gave it to the daughter of Cepheus, Sterope, to protect the town of Tegea from being attacked. Her hair held the same powers as her head so that when it was exposed it caused a storm which chased away the foes.
Medusa is one of the most famous characters of Greek mythology. This has been proven because she continues to be portrayed in pop culture. She is not only immortalized in stories but also in history. She is immediately recognizable, a classical figure and an exciting symbol of a monster.
Frequently Asked Questions About Medusa
What color was Medusa’s Hair?
Before Athena punished her and turned Medusa into an ugly creature with snakes coming out of her scalp, she was said to have been a beautiful maiden with golden hair.
Where did Medusa come from?
Medusa is a character from Greek mythology known for her snake-covered head. Originally, she’s said to be the daughter of two sea gods, Phorcys and Ceto, and one of three sisters, all of whom are Gorgons. In this early version, Medusa, like her sisters, has wings and snake hair from birth.
However, different Greek stories offer alternative origins. For instance, the writer Hyginus says Medusa is the daughter of Gorgon and Ceto. Over time, Medusa’s story changes significantly.
In a later and more famous version, Medusa wasn’t always a monster. She was a beautiful mortal woman. But after an encounter with Poseidon in Athena’s temple, Athena curses her. Medusa’s hair turns into snakes, and she gains the power to turn anyone who looks at her into stone.
1 – Giovanni Versace loved the Medusa legend so much that he chose her as the mascot of his clothing brand.
Versace still uses a log of a woman with terrifying features and serpents coming from her head as its brand logo.
2 – Though many know the story of Medusa and her powers, not as many know about her sisters. Euryale could leap with ease, while Stheno was stronger than her sisters.
3 – To make Athena look better, some stories claim that Perseus never gave her Medusa’s head. Though he used it to save his mother, Perseus then went to Argos and buried her head there.
4 – During the French Revolution, those who wanted to defeat the royals used the head of Medusa as a symbol of their freedom.
5 – Medusa is so popular that LEGO created a mini-figure of her. It came out in 2013 as part of a limited edition series.
6 – Michelangelo and Picasso are just two of the famous artists who created work based on her.
7 – The French military created a special belt during World War I that had her face on it.
8 – Rhianna chose to dress as the Greek mythological figure when she dressed like her on the cover of GQ in 2013. She wanted to show the Gorgon’s head in a different way.
9 – One version of his battle with Atlas claims that Perseus turned his opponent into a mountain. His entire body, including his head and hair, became part of a mountain range.
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