Oct 7, 2013

Medusa: Monster or Victim?

Head of Medusa. Marble, 1630.
Head of Medusa. Marble, 1630. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With writhing snakes for hair, few - if any - mythological characters are as readily identifiable as Medusa. Even outside the Western world, the image of Medusa is one of the most recognized symbols.  Ask who was the ugliest woman ever, and chances are, Medusa will rank among the answers.

However, did you also know that Medusa is, arguably, Classical literature's most tragic female, not to mention a rape victim?

Medusa the Martyr?

Medusa the Gorgon is most often described in stories and textbooks - nearly all of which are/were written by men - as a hideous monster, so hideous her appearance could turn a man to stone.  According to Hesiod, her image was not even to be described in polite company.  However, her appearance - along with banishment to the furthest reaches of the Earth - was actually a punishment by Athena, goddess of wisdom, following Medusa's rape by the sea god Poseidon in Athena's sacred temple.

At the time of this so-called "seduction," Medusa was a virgin, - a sort of handmaiden - to Athena.  In this station, she could not have sexual intercourse, regardless where it took place.  As the story goes, however, because the beautiful Medusa "gave into" Poseidon's advances in the temple, she ultimately incurred the particularly severe wrath of Athena.

Even if the Medusa myth is accepted at face value, however, the story was - and remains - a story about a beautiful young woman victimized by one of the most violent acts we humans acknowledge.  Admittedly, Greek society viewed rape and male sexual privilege differently than we do today.  Nonetheless, the fact remains that Medusa was not seduced; she was raped by a male in disguise who used the ultimate position of power - Poseidon was, after all, god of the sea.

Sadly, in a cruel twist of fate, it was Athena who victimized Medusa even more harshly.  Rather than calling upon her own immortality and institutionalized "power" to intercede and protect Medusa when Medusa asked the goddess for help, Athena blamed Medusa.  In the story, there is not even a hint of mercy or pity shown to Medusa. Instead, Athena demonized Medusa - quite literally - for all time.  This is, of course, a fate that has, sadly, burdened many female rape victims in modern times, particularly those that live in smaller communities or where identity or privacy are compromised.

Medusa's Gradual Transformation

Despite the well-established image of Medusa in the minds of countless people, some argue that her initial transformation was not into the hideous, serpent-haired crone we recognize.  Instead, Medusa's original transformation turned her into a fearsome winged creature, something akin to a horrifying version of Pegasus. Later, she was transformed into a woman with equine hindquarters and wings for hair.

For whatever reason, perhaps because the initial story did not convey a frightening enough image, Medusa's guise was further altered to include the serpentine form and snakes-for-hair we associate with her.  You can read more about Medusa's gradual, literary metamorphosis here.

Turning Men To Stone:  Power Or Burden?

Medusa's "ability" to turn men to stone with her gaze was also introduced, which is perhaps the second most well-remembered characteristic of Medusa after her serpentine hair.  Interestingly, this "ability" was more accurately a "burden."  Although she had been banished to the westernmost Gates of Hell, Medusa's burden ostracized her for life.  No man could ever look upon her again and live to tell about it.

Clash of the Titans, 2013
At the same time, to men hell-bent on harnessing the power of instant petrification, Medusa's burden made her worthy of hunting and killing.  Medusa's beheading is told to us in the myth of Perseus, and ultimately depicted in two movie versions of Clash of the Titans.

The Medusa Complex in Psychology

The Medusa myth has had a profound effect on the study of psychology.  Sigmund Freud wrote about the psychological significance of the Medusa image that we think of today:

“The terror of the Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something. The hair upon the Medusa's head is frequently represented in works of art in the form of snakes, and these once again are derived from the castration complex. It is a remarkable fact that however frightening they may be in themselves, they nevertheless serve as a mitigation of the horror, for they replace the penis, the absence of which is the cause of the horror. This is a confirmation of the technical rule according to which a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration.”

The Caduceus,
Hermes' magical staff
of intertwined serpents
The dilemma with Freud's decidedly male-centered description is the fact that the snake, as an archetypal symbol, did not have a particularly strong connection with castration, at least not consciously, in Greek society.

In fact, aside from being a symbol of fertility, the ancient Greeks generally associated the snake with wisdom as well as the duality of the world's good and evil forces, life and death.

Moreover, at least two other contemporary ancient cultures did not view the snake as a sexual archetype or even an evil symbol.  In Egypt, for example, the snake was viewed as a symbol of royality. Likewise, ancient Hindu snake symbols often represent, in part, birth and rebirth because the snake sheds its skin throughout its life.

Tut's royal burial mask
showing cobra (Photocredit:
In fact, the snake did not become something evil or wicked until it was singled out for opprobrium in the Judaeo-Christian Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis, where we are told the "serpent" beguiled Eve in the Garden of Eden.

That being said, the Medusa myth does represent a story designed by men to instruct women on what they might expect for bewitching men with beauty and engaging in illicit sexual activities.  Such men were, as many are even today, fearful of strong female power and sexuality. Significantly, Medusa is often depicted as just a head, with no sexual body or body parts at all.

This dis-embodied representation was, in fact, a typical one used on warriors' shields, again believing that the mere image of Medusa might enhance battle prowess.


No other creature from western mythology strikes fear in our psyche like Medusa.  At the same time, no other character is more deserving of a second look - a re-write - than Medusa.  Far from mere stories, such myths are often deeply embedded in our unconscious.  This, in turn, can manifest itself as conscious marginalizing and victimizing of women even today.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  We felt it was fitting for Myth Beliefs to mark this event by discussing mythology's most tragic female victim. As this article has attempted to describe, however, Medusa is a character deserving pity, not fear.

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