Since the days of early Western civilization, when myths were forged in fire and stone, society has been fascinated with the ancient Greek imagination. Tales of gods, Titans, and giants fill children’s fairy tales, while a variety of mythological monsters have captivated viewers on the big screen. No female character, however, is perhaps as popular as Medusa, the monster who could turn men to stone with a single glance.
Some versions of the story claim that Medusa went from being a beautiful woman into the famous monster, whose eyes sparkled with light that, when you looked at them, they turned you into stone. It was all due to Athena’s anger; she was a warrior goddess with the gifts of strategy, wisdom, and ability.
Medusa’s beauty dazzled Poseidon, who then seduced her. But when he saw that his interest was not reciprocated, the god of the sea attacked her and raped her inside a temple devoted to Athena, which awakened her anger. After that offense, Athena punished Medusa and turned her into a heartless monster, with snakes instead of hair, and gave her the curse of turning into stone whoever looked at her.
Medusa was exiled and sent to live in the hyperborean lands, where she discovered that she was pregnant after Poseidon’s attack. This situation fueled Athena’s anger, who immediately asked for Medusa to be killed.
Perseus, son of Zeus and the mortal Danae, was in charge of making Athena’s order come true. Wearing a pair of winged sandals given to him by Hermes and a bright shield, he waited for Medusa to fall asleep. With the help of his winged sandals, he hovered over Medusa and cut off her head. When Medusa was decapitated, the giant Crisaor and the winged horse Pegasus came out of her neck; they were the offspring that resulted from Poseidon’s rape.
Unlike other figures of Greek mythology, most of us know Medusa—even if we can’t recall the details of her myth. A quick character sketch might well include snakes, deadly eyes, and a taste for destruction.
The patriarchal tendency to punish the victim of rape rather than the perpetrator has, as we can see in the myth of Medusa, ancient origins.
One of the messages in the myth, the real story of Medusa, is her powerlessness as a woman. In neither her rape or its consequences does she have any agency. She has no choice but to submit to the hand of fate.
Medusa is silent in the myth.
She’s blamed for the sexual violence dispensed to her. There is no mention of her suffering, no discourse on her trauma. This reflects the true experience of many women forced to submit to sexual violence. Many women report feelings of self-hatred and self-blame after the experience of rape, and that they cannot, dare not, speak out against their aggressors.
What’s clear from the changing faces of Medusa is that there is no universal truth to her myth. Beautiful victim, monstrous villain, powerful deity—she’s all of those things, and more besides. Perhaps it’s that mercurial nature that makes her an endless source of fascination. She is, in a sense, a site for our collective projections of both fear and desire: simultaneously a symbol of women’s rage and a figure sexualized by the very patriarchal forces she is seeking vengeance against.