Whether you took classics classes in college or just read the Percy Jackson books, you’re familiar with Greek myths. They’re everywhere in western culture, from the symbol doctors use to the iconography that condom companies choose. But there’s one Greek myth that rises, shall we say, head and shoulders above the rest.
The story of Medusa shows up in every corner of our culture. But her story may be more complicated than you realize, and some more recent interpretations look at this tale in a new light. Read on to learn more about the myth behind the Medusa statue and what the name means for most people today.
The Story You’ve Probably Heard
Many of us have heard the story of Medusa before, and generally, it runs along some pretty standard lines.
She was a beautiful maiden once, one of three sisters living in ancient Greece. One day, while she was worshipping at the shrine of Athena, she caught the eye of Poseidon, the god of the sea. As any young woman in ancient Greece would tell you, grabbing a god’s attention is rarely a good thing, and it turned into a catastrophe for Medusa.
Poseidon caught and raped Medusa in the temple of Athena. This act of violence caught Athena’s attention, and she was outraged that her temple should be desecrated in such an obscene way. But rather than turning her fury towards the man who raped a young woman in her temple, Athena pulled the most notorious act of victim-blaming in mytho-history.
Athena cursed Medusa, turning her once-lustrous hair into a brood of snakes. She made Medusa’s face so hideous that one glance at it would turn a man to stone. And in case that wasn’t unfair enough, the goddess also transformed Medusa’s sisters into monsters like her, and so the three Gorgons were created.
The Original Story
But even though this version of the story is the most widely told today, it isn’t the original story. This version of the story didn’t show up until Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work that wasn’t published until 8 AD.
But Medusa first made an appearance in the story of Perseus in Hesiod’s Theogony, published 700 years before, so what gives?
When Ovid wrote Metamorphoses, he was protesting some new laws the emperor Augustus had put in place. The emperor had forbidden several sex acts, including fornication, and Ovid was not down with Augustus telling him how to get down.
Since Augustus was in the process of positioning himself as a god, many of the stories in Metamorphoses show the gods being horrible to ordinary people. Thus the story, the tragic victim, came to be.
In fact, in the original version of the myth, she was never a woman, and she was never cursed. Instead, the Gorgons were born monsters, although their parentage is never explained. In Hesiod’s version of events, Perseus is not killing a much-wronged woman, but a beast that was evil from the start.
How She Died
But regardless of which origin story you look at, the story of Medusa’s death is the same.
Perseus was sent on a quest to prove himself so that King Polydectes could marry Perseus’s mother without the boy’s interference. The king sent him on a hopeless quest – to kill the Gorgon Medusa, who would turn him to stone with one glance.
But the gods were on Perseus’s side and gave him some tools to help him along the way. Hermes gave the boy a pair of winged sandals that allowed him to fly, and Hephaestus forged him a sword.
Hades provided him with a helm that made Perseus invisible, and Athena herself gave our hero a reflective bronze shield that he could look in to avoid being petrified.
Perseus was perhaps the most pragmatic of the famous Greek heroes and didn’t bother to try facing Medusa head-on (pun intended). Instead, he snuck up on her while she slept. Using his shield to guide him and avoid looking her in the face, Perseus chopped off her head, ending her life and catapulting him to mythological fame.
Medusa never got to rest in peace after her slaying. Some myths say that from the stump of her neck sprang Pegasus, the winged horse who would later feature as a popular sidekick in a well-scored Disney movie. And many myths say that Perseus took her head and wielded it as a weapon against his enemies, finally turning King Polydectes to stone to stop his advances on Perseus’s mother.
Once Perseus’s adventures were over, he had gotten the girl, and his mother was safe; he had no more need of Medusa’s head. So he gave it to Athena, who wears it on her shield, Aegis, and petrifies any enemy who looks on her.
You may have noticed that depending on the origin story you choose to believe, the story has some problematic elements. For the crime of daring to be raped, this woman is cursed to a life of monstrous ugliness and banished. Then she’s murdered in her sleep, and her head gets dragged all over the Mediterranean and back before it finally gets mounted to the shield of the goddess who cursed her in the first place.
Modern feminists have taken some issue with casting Medusa as a monster in these stories. Instead, many modern interpretations view her as a tragic victim of the pettiness of the gods. She has become a representative of the silent persecution women bear every day, and the way a cruel patriarchal world makes them suffer for the crime of being born a woman.
Blessing or Curse?
One of the more interesting modern interpretations of the myth challenges the assumption that Athena’s transformation was a curse. Most of us would say that having your hair turned into snakes and being so ugly that no one can look at you and live is a curse. But what if we think of Athena’s actions as a gift, a weapon she gave Medusa?
She was raped, powerless to stop the god who took her as little more than an object of pleasure. So Athena gave her the gift of power, monstrous, deadly power. No man would ever touch her again, and any who looked at her would be petrified, turned to stone by fear.
It’s an unconventional reading of the story, but it certainly makes a more sympathetic character of Athena. And Medusa’s name seems to support this blessing interpretation somewhat. Her name comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “guardian” or “protector.”
Medusa in Art
One of the interesting things about the myth is how prevalent it has become in our culture. Medusa art is everywhere, from shields and breastplates from ancient Greece and Rome to the logo of the Italian fashion company Versace. Not long ago, a 2,000-years-old marble head of Medusa was uncovered at a former Roman city that lies in modern-day Turkey.
But there are a few pieces of Medusa art that rise head and snakes above the rest. Perhaps the most famous statue is Cellini’s “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” which resides in Florence. Caravaggio’s “Medusa,” painted in 1597, is nearly as famous and is also on display in Florence.
Recent Medusa Statues
But art, like mythology, never stops, and the new Medusa art reflects the changing interpretations of her story. One particularly famous piece emerged in 2008 in Buenos Aries. Luciano Garbati, an Argentinian-Italian artist, sculpted a Medusa statue that finally rights the wrongs done to her in mythology all those centuries ago.
Garbati’s statue shows a naked and grim Medusa standing very much alive. Her face is bleak and determined, and in her left hand, she grips a sword. In her right hand, she clutches the severed head of Perseus, a vindication and a victory of self-defense that has been centuries in the making.
What Medusa Means Today
Today, Medusa has more than one meaning for each different culture. For some, she is still a monster whose slaying started the career of one of pop culture’s favorite Greek heroes. But for many people, Medusa has become an icon of feminist rage and justice.
Regardless of which interpretation of the story you prefer, Medusa’s name and face have permeated nearly every part of our culture. She has a jellyfish named after her, as well as an asteroid and even a stellar nebula. She is on display in the current flag of Sicily, and when you travel in Europe, keep an eye out; you’ll spot her face nearly everywhere you go.
Discover the Story Behind the Medusa Statue
The story behind the statue is a fascinating one and is more complicated than most people realize. However you view her, there’s no denying that she is one of the most iconic Greek figures who has made her way into the modern-day.
If you’d like to find some likenesses of Medusa for yourself, check out the rest of our site at Made in Turkey Tours. We have destinations, tours, and cruises to help you experience Turkey and the rich culture of this ancient country. Contact us today to start planning your Turkish adventure and see the wonders of the ancient world brought to life.