By Glenn Hefley © 2011
It is difficult to transcribe, from across time, the myths of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, even more difficult to grasp the full meaning. All that we can do is attempt to understand the myths from what we know about the people, the culture and the values those people had at the time of the telling. We also have to keep in mind, especially with the Ancient myths, that these stories were as much art as they were religion, and like art, often sought to render meaning that the people did not possess at the time of the telling – to bring to the populous a new perspective – so, it is very likely that the full meaning of some of these myths, was not understood by the original audiences. All we have is perspectives. So this writing will not be a conclusive evaluation of Medusa’s story, only a perspective.
The story of Medusa, by the poet Ovid, is one that deserves a closer examination, much closer than is popularly rendered by our own storytellers. The origin story of Medusa is rarely told at all, we are only introduced to the monster, and the terrible weapon of her gaze; given to us as the monster in the story of Perseus. Perseus sets out on the task of acquiring Medusa’s head. When Perseus makes the boast that he will acquire this terrible weapon, it is the vainglory of youth, which pushes him to set this term for himself. Thousands of the best warriors in the world had already gone before him with the same claim, and never returned from the island where Medusa made her home. Perseus, another son of Zeus, is young, untried and overly protective of his mother. In other words, Perseus is a boy, not a man. He is innocent, not only of the true nature of the course he set himself on, but ignorant of the power he has set out to acquire.
But, enough about Perseus for now. He is important to us later, when looking at the story of Medusa, but we should learn more about Medusa herself.
Medusa, as a young girl, wanted only one thing from life, and that was to be the high priestess of Athena. This is a lofty goal for a youth as well, but unlike Perseus, Medusa does not set out to achieve this goal without the foreknowledge of what she is getting herself into. She has the mindset of a modern career woman. That she not only achieves this goal, and becomes the high priestess of Athena, in the city of Athens (the city of Athena), tells us a great deal about Medusa. First, we know because of this achievement, that Medusa is a great warrior, both with the bow and the spear. She is educated in all of the martial arts, as well as the law. She understands and helps to inspire the arts (though it does not follow that she would have to have been a great artist herself). In our times, Medusa would be the equivalent of a Supreme Court Justice, as well as an Army General. Further more, she achieved this status pitting herself against the best women the ancient world had to offer, including women from the cultures of Sparta and the Amazons.
Suffice it to say, Medusa is not a woman to take lightly in any circle. She did not achieve this status overnight, nor did her beauty or parents give her any advantage. Medusa is said to have been beautiful, but this is more of a contrast description to the monstrous form of the Gorgon she will become later in life. If Medusa was aware of the science, she would have thought of her beauty as only the mere chance of genetics. Beauty in her world was only an advantage for slaves. Birth was only an advantage for wives. Medusa was not interested in either profession. This is important later on, and we will return to this subject soon.
The High Priestess of a Goddess is someone who best describes the aspects of her goddess. She becomes her goddess in mortal form. Recall that the world of Medusa is a world in which the Gods and Goddesses are active participants in the lives of the people. So, there is no cheating on this one, the Goddess is checking up on her priestess.
Athena is a challenging Goddess to represent. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, warfare, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, justice, and skill. She is said to have been a match for either Apollo, or Ares. Athena was born from the brain of Zeus. This aspect of the goddess is important to us as well, for both of these Gods pursued Athena, and she had no desire for either of them. Unlike other goddesses, such as Persephone or Artemis, Athena was not a woman anyone could abduct or force into anything she didn’t wish to do. She certainly would not commit herself to a man she could best. If she was not the Goddess of logic, we might be tempted to believe this was vanity on her part, but it was not… she really was that good. This is the model and aspect that Medusa strove successfully to achieve as far as any mortal could -- again, not a woman to be taken lightly.
At the height of Medusa’s power, Poseidon rapes her. He does this to her inside the Temple of Athena, in Athens. His motives for doing this act are not explained. It can be assumed that his motives were plain, that he felt slighted by Athena’s rebukes and, being unwilling to attack the goddess directly, he choose to vent his frustration on the next best thing, her High Priestess. It is a petty and cowardly act. Poseidon, who was the protector of many Hellenic cities, although he lost the contest for Athens to Athena. In Greek literature, he represents the physical or violent aspect of war, he is the Earth Shaker, in contrast to the armored Athena, whose functions as a goddess of intelligence include military strategy and generalship. It should also be noted that it is forbidden for a god or goddess to attack another directly … and this is the driving force behind most of the plots and stories involving the gods of the Greeks and Romans.
Now comes the part that most storytellers skip right over or rush through. Medusa is no longer a virgin. That she could not possibly stop the god, or hope to match him physically is not an issue for the Goddess Athena. Medusa is not a virgin so she cannot be the High Priestess of Athena, or any level of priestess.
It is suggested, or rushed through, that Medusa’s transformation into the Gorgon at this point, by Athena, is some sort of punishment. I disagree. From what we have already learned about Medusa, her will and her aspects, I believe she requested this transformation. Perhaps not in this form, but something like “I want the power to hurt him!” Poseidon has taken from Medusa everything she worked her whole life for, and everything she felt was important. She is asking for the means to revenge, and she is asking this of the Goddess of Justice.
Poseidon has also taken from Athena, her High Priestess, a woman she felt close. A friend. She cannot attack Poseidon directly, as he did not attack her, but she can attack his favorites, as Poseidon attacked hers.
Athena does several things at this point. She changes Medusa into the Gorgon. There are other gorgons – they are immortal, and none of them turn you to stone if you look at them. They are monstrous beings, to be sure, but they are not anything like what Medusa becomes. So, turning Medusa into a Gorgon, has a separate purpose to the other aspects Athena renders on Medusa.
Athena does not give Medusa immortality. This is interesting as well. The gift of immortality is not given lightly. In fact, it is not given at all to mortals, only to Scions (those born of the union between god and mortal). Withholding this gift from Medusa would seem to be in-line with the normal case of events, except that she turns Medusa into a member of an immortal race. All of the gorgons are immortal. They are the children of Phorcys (a primordial sea god), and Ceto (a primordial sea goddess). Various stories give various populations to the number of the gorgons, from three to hundreds, but that has no bearing on our current topic. It is falsely assumed that she is turned into a Gorgon so that she has the ‘turn to stone’ power – except, again, none of the gorgons have that power.
This power is horrific and unique, in that Medusa’s gaze works against mortals and gods alike. According to Ovid, in northwest Africa, Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas, who stood holding the sky aloft, and transformed him into stone.
The name, Medusa, means guardian, or protectress. The book Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power by Mary Valentis and Anne Devane notes that "When we asked women what female rage looks like to them, it was always Medusa, the snaky-haired monster of myth, who came to mind ... In one interview after another we were told that Medusa is 'the most horrific woman in the world' ... [though] none of the women we interviewed could remember the details of the myth." One of the first publications to express this idea was a 1978 issue of Women: A Journal of Liberation. The cover featured the image of a Gorgon, which inside explained, "can be a map to guide us through our terrors, through the depths of our anger into the sources of our power as women." In a 1986 article for Women of Power magazine called "Ancient Gorgons: A Face for Contemporary Women's Rage," Emily Erwin Culpepper wrote that "The Amazon Gorgon face is female fury personified. The Gorgon/Medusa image has been rapidly adopted by large numbers of feminists who recognize her as one face of our own rage."
Once the power of her gaze is known, and it is learned that her gaze will work even after death, Medusa’s head becomes the ancient world’s equivalent of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. A spear with her head on it could transform armies into stone. There would be nothing anyone could do to stop the holder. The possession of her head, is the possession of the world’s nations – all you have to do, is defeat her.
The Gods keep their distance -- even immortals now have something to truly fear. Thousands of mortal men, warriors, come to her island home, looking for glory. Thousands of mortal men, warriors, are turned to stone. They come as armies, they come as single champions, they come as teams. None of them leave the island. She defeats them all. It is not just her gaze that is deadly to these men. Again, she is a worthy adversary against any warrior, just as her goddess would be a challenge against Apollo or Ares, or even Poseidon. Medusa has intelligence, cunning and bravery.
Note here, now, that Medusa, as a being, is not changed at all, because she never used her beauty as an asset. The poet Ovid described the gorgons as “Hated by men.” In Medusa’s case, we could say that, “She hates them back.” These men are not coming to her island to rid the world of a threat, or a monster, though they can conveniently use this excuse if they like. They are coming to her island seeking the means to cause greater fear, greater death, greater suffering than they already cause. They come so that they can conquer and rape and pillage even more than they already have. They are the greatest warriors of the cities – the greatest warriors of the cities where Poseidon is the patron – all of Poseidon’s greatest warriors.
Reading too much into the tale? Perhaps, but again, we are talking about Athena in this story, not Hera or Venus. Athena is cunning, far thinking, and ruthless. When the gods go to war it is Athena they look to for leadership. The alteration of Medusa, to reap a full generation of the greatest warriors of Poseidon, Mars, Apollo and others, not only befits her, but has tremendous value to her and Athens, her city.
In a way, Athena does immortalize Medusa. When Medusa is finally defeated by Perseus, so that he can save his mother, Perseus gives her head to Athena afterwards. Athena places Medusa’s visage on her shield. From that point forward, Medusa protects her Goddess forever. It should be noted at this point, that none of the gods ever slight Athena again, nor do they attack what she protects.