Myths and Monsters: Medusa

This one is cross-posted from No Pithy Phrase.

I’ve been drawn to mythology since I was little: all the best fireside stories are myths and fairy tales. When I was young it was the tragedy, the romance, the magic of it all that captured my heart. Now that I’m older, it’s not only those (because myth is compelling BECAUSE of the romance, magic, horror, and tragedy) but also the reflection of humanity at its widest extremes.

Mythological and fairy tale figures are misty with layers of story changes over hundreds or thousands of years, so they’re infuriatingly mysterious and wonderfully intriguing. Therefore, much of my writing involves mythological themes and creatures.

If there was a degree in mythology and folklore that wasn’t specific to a single society, I’d absolutely go after it. Unfortunately my local universities don’t offer such a thing: mythology is treated as a subset of history in the local U systems, and they require narrowing the focus to a single group, ie Greeks or Norse or Egyptians, instead of looking cross-culturally. So instead, I make do with a giant library of my own (I’m currently in the middle of a house move…my book collection is obnoxious), internet libraries (thank all the deities out there for university libraries online!), and of course the public and scholastic libraries local to me.

I’m beginning these shenanigans with one of my all time favorite “Monsters” in Greek and Roman myth: Medusa. This may be due to the similarities my hair occasionally has with hers (ie, it randomly attempts to kill me). Or it could be due to the sympathy I’ve always felt for her.

It’s worth noting that from here on down there’s some unpleasantness: Medusa’s story isn’t a happy one, and many myths involve some sort of assault on women. If sexual assault and violence triggers you, stop here.

Medusa has one of the most distinct lines of pre/post mythological change of any ancient character. Seriously, this woman was quite intentionally changed from demi-goddess to rape victim. The result? A mishmash of both stories that gave us the terrifying creature Perseus had to behead for the good of all (and to steal her powers for his own purposes).

In ancient Greek stories (I’m going off the Hesiod myths in Theogony, circa 8th century CE) Medusa was the one of three demi-god sisters, the Gorgons. Daughter of two sea deities, Medusa was the only mortal sibling, which is interesting because her mortality is sort of dropped into the story as though it should mean something, but it isn’t mentioned again. Originally, she always had the power to turn people to stone with a look, and she was both beautiful and horrifically terrible, depending on the age of the myth. It appears originally she was born monstrous, hideously ugly and terrifying. She became beautiful in later Greek depictions as evidenced by the changes in the stories as the centuries passed, and the changes in Greek pottery paintings which portrayed her as a beautiful woman. 

Here’s the thing about Medusa: her name in ancient Greek means “Guardian” or “Protectress.” Her name, her deadly gaze, her immortal family: all the ancient version’s details point to Medusa being some sort of powerful protector of something. Boy, doesn’t that make you wonder what she was guarding?

Even in the ancient version of the myth, Medusa has two children with the Sea God Poseidon, but there’s every indication that the sex was mutual. Also, some serious magic HAS to be involved in birthing a Pegasus. Medusa was killed by Perseus, a demi-god who was helped by Athena to kill Medusa and win Pegasus’s help so he could kill the Kraken. Ultimately Perseus beheads Medusa and carries her writhing-snake-statue-creating head in a sack to use against his enemies. Apparently, it didn’t occur to anyone to just ask her, and thus the mortal Gorgon passes into Greek myth.

What about the snakes-for-hair thing? Isn’t that sort of, well, overkill for a creature who can literally turn you to stone before you get anywhere near her hair? I think this has something to do with even older myths than Greek gods. There are theories about pre-Grecian cults which revered snakes for their apparent immortality. Snakes are mentioned even in some of the older myths about Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. The oldest versions, where Medusa was always a hideous monster, she and her sisters are “girded with snakes.” Every version of the myth credits the venomous snakes in Libya as Medusa’s legacy. All renditions agree that when Perseus carried Medusa’s head around, her blood dripped on the sands in Libya (her traditional home). Her blood transformed into the vipers and other venomous snakes that live in the desert there. 

Around the 1st century CE, Ovid wrote down the Medusa myth again in his Metamorphasis (that’d be right around the turn of the millennium, if you’re counting). Rome had assimilated Greek myth into their pantheon for hundreds of years. I find the story Ovid recorded significantly more disturbing, and I’d like to find out when, exactly, Medusa changed so drastically from a power in her own right to what she became in Roman myth. 

Ovid’s Medusa is a gorgeous mortal girl (girl as in young: teenager with no power whatsoever) acting as an acolyte in Athena’s temple by the sea. Medusa’s change from the original Gorgon into a helpless young beauty is a direct reflection of Ovid’s attitudes about femininity. I can’t say “women” because she wasn’t yet a woman: in his tale, she’s the epitome of Roman value in femaleness: young, naive, and pretty. Therefore, she’s rapeable, because why would a god want to rape a Gorgon?

In doing her normal duties, she catches the attention of Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the sea. Medusa is raped by Poseidon IN ATHENA’S GODDAMNED TEMPLE. Athena is so offended she punishes Medusa by making her hideous: her long beautiful (tempting) hair is transformed into venomous snakes. Her pretty face ruined and disfigured. Her gaze becomes deadly: to look upon her will turn anyone and anything to stone.

That’s right: Ovid thinks Athena is so pissed at a rape victim that she not only punishes the girl for the crime of being attacked, she punishes the girl in such a way that she can NEVER have any contact with any living being. Ever. Again. No really, think about that for just a second. Medusa’s punishment is so severe she can’t even look upon her own children without turning them to stone: she’s utterly cut off from all contact with anyone. Boy, at that point I’d think Perseus coming to take her head would be a welcome relief from an eternity of loneliness and despair. 

Unfortunately, it’s this version of the myth that’s lasted through time: look up Medusa on Wikipedia or any book of myths (that isn’t written for children) and you’ll usually get the Ovid version. But looking back at the earlier Greek versions, I can’t help but wonder about the missing pieces. 

My imagination is flooded right now with multiple alternating stories of Medusa and her rather tragic plight. I’ve already outlined two utterly opposite short stories about her…I adore the mystery and power that surrounds her person in the pantheon of Greek deities. 

What was Medusa created to protect? Was Perseus REALLY after her power to kill, was he after killing a monster, or was he after whatever it was she guarded?

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