A winged goddess, a head of snakes, and another story to tell.
By Megan Rees: Literature Columnist
It’s a story most are familiar with: the hideous, snake-haired Medusa, valiantly slayed by a heroic Perseus after outsmarting her with his mirrored shield.
I first encountered this myth in a year 8 English lesson in secondary school. I remember the polarisation clearly: Medusa the villain, Perseus the hero. We rooted for Perseus, cheered as he beheaded the beast, shared in his glory.
Inherently evil, she deserved her fate. But did she?
Best known as a classical Greek myth, her story is more relevant than we realise; it continues to ripple throughout our society today. From Versace’s gold and black logo, to the copy of Luciano Garbati’s statue ‘Medusa with the head of Perseus’ installed in 2020 directly across from the courthouse in New York where Harvey Weinstein was sentenced.
She’s a symbol of beauty and seduction, of victimisation, and of a terrifying, monstrous beauty.
But is the all-too-familiar tale of her defeat the full story? Is Medusa inherently an evil monster to be slayed, or misunderstood, blamed? Is she instead a rape victim, punished for her own assault, demonised and defamed by male-authored narratives throughout time?
It’s impossible to pinpoint one particular story as the ‘origin’ of the myth. Despite the fact she’s perhaps best-known as a Classical Greek figure, we find her earliest origins as serpent goddess of the Libyan Amazons, her snake-hair actually ‘strong mythological symbols associated with wisdom and power, healing, immortality and rebirth’, according to Susan R. Bowers.
Greek Poet Hesoid’s ‘Theogony’ (circa 700 BC) is the oldest surviving piece of Greek literature mentioning Medusa.
This is where Bowers notes the emergence of the ‘Olympian Medusa’, stripping her of her Goddess status and reducing her merely a monstrous ‘Gorgon’.
It wasn’t until Latin poet Ovid’s re-telling of the tale in his 8 AD narrative poem ‘Metamorphoses’ that a back story for Medusa’s ‘monstrosity’ arises. Ovid’s version being the most influential and well-known (down to the rise in Latin speakers and decline in Greek, according to Spencer Alexander McDaniel), this tale essentially became canonical, influencing later artwork and re-tellings of the myth.
According to Ovid, Medusa was not inherently monstrous, but beautiful, desired, with a ‘sweeter face’ and shining hair. She had ‘a rival crowd of envious lovers’ fighting for her love, ultimately catching the attention of Neptune (the Greek God, Poseidon’s, Roman counterpart), who raped her in the temple of Minerva (Athena, to the Greeks).
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According to Ovid, Medusa was not inherently monstrous, but beautiful, desired, with a ‘sweeter face’ and shining hair.
Furious by this, Minerva punishes Medusa, turning her beautiful hair to snakes and cursing her with the powers to turn those who look at her to stone: ‘on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes, / her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.’ It’s then also Minerva who later helps Perseus on his quest to kill Medusa, further punishing the ‘monster’ she created.
A cultural icon, Dr. Mike Greenberg tracks her depiction from throughout the Roman Empire, where the Ovidian Medusa’s beauty was represented in sculptures, paintings and various types of artwork, through to the Renaissance, where Greenberg notes that paintings of her death became ‘a vivid illustration of the triumph of human ingenuity and heroism’.
During the French Revolution, she became an emblem of liberty, eventually symbolising female rage during the second wave Feminist movement.
It is especially important to note here that judging Ovid’s essentially canonical version of this tale by the morals of today’s society is especially anachronistic. To the Greeks and Romans, Medusa’s punishment was completely justified, but in modern times, the myth has been widely interpreted as the first written account of victim blaming.
It’s no surprise that in their re-readings, second-wave Feminists began reading Medusa as a wronged victim as opposed to the inherently evil monster depicted in Classical Literature. She became a symbol of female discrimination and victimisation, her ability to turn men to stone symbolising a fiery and deeply embedded rage, Bowers noting ‘the same image that has been used to oppress women can also set women free.’
More recently, an article written by Elizabeth Johnston in 2016 during the Trump/Clinton election re-visits the Medusa myth, noting the comparison of powerful women with Medusa where male authority is threatened. She notes ‘every influential female figure has been photoshopped with snaky hair’.
From monster, to victim, to symbol of rage, to threat, does the change in the telling of the Medusa myth reflect how our morals as a society fluctuate and evolve through time? Is she inherently monstrous, or a projection of cultural practices and norms throughout history?
In the famous words of Hélène Cixous: ‘You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.’
Medusa was innocent.