Medusa is one of the most notable figures in Greek mythology. While most people know Medusa as a terrifying monster, only a few know her thrilling, even tragic, backstory. Therefore, let us now delve deeper into the Medusa Greek myth to discover what eventuated and why she was cursed.
Medusa: the Mortal Gorgon
To get into the story of Medusa, we must begin with Gorgon’s myth. Greek mythology features a figure called a Gorgon, a monster-like character.
According to the Attic tradition, Gaea, the goddess-personification of the Earth in Greek mythology, created the Gorgon to help her sons fight the gods.
In Greek mythology, there were three monsters known as the Gorgons. They were the daughters of Typhon and Echidna, who were the father and mother of all monsters, respectively. The daughters were known as Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, who was the most well-known of them.
Stheno and Euryale were traditionally thought to be immortal. However, their sister Medusa was not; she was beheaded by the demigod Perseus. Strangely, Medusa was also thought to be the daughter of Phorcys, the sea god, and Ceto, his sister-wife, rather than Echidna and Typhon.
Although there are many different types of Gorgons, the term most frequently refers to those three sisters who are said to have hair composed of living, poisonous snakes and frightening faces. Anyone who looked into their eyes would instantaneously be turned to stone.
Unlike the other two Gorgons, Medusa was occasionally depicted as both beautiful and terrifying. She was typically portrayed as a winged female figure with a snake-covered head of hair.
From a Beautiful Lady to a Monster: Why Did Medusa Get Cursed?
A common telling of the Medusa myth begins with Medusa being originally a beautiful lady but cursed by the goddess Athena who turned her into a monster.
Athena was the goddess of war as well as wisdom. She was the progeny of the sky and weather god Zeus, who served as the chief deity of the pantheon. Being Zeus’ favourite child, Athena possessed enormous strength.
There had been a dispute between Poseidon and Athena about who should be the patron of the affluent Ancient Greek city of Athens. Poseidon was the mighty god of the sea (or water, in general), storms, and horses.
Poseidon was drawn to Medusa’s beauty and set about seducing her at Athena’s shrine. When Athena found out, she was enraged by what had occurred within her hallowed temple.
For some reason, Athena chose not to punish Poseidon for his deed. It might be because Poseidon was the potent god of the sea, meaning that Zeus was the only god with authority to punish him for his crime. It is also possible that Athena was jealous of Medusa’s beauty and men’s attraction to her. Regardless of the exact reason, Athena directed her rage at Medusa.
She transformed her into a hideous monster with snakes sprouting from her head and a deadly stare that would instantly turn anyone who gazes into her eyes into stone.
The Myth of Medusa and Perseus
King Polydectes, the ruler of the Greek island of Seriphos, fell in love with Danaë, an Argive princess. Perseus, born to Zeus and Danaë, is a legendary figure and a great hero in Greek mythology. He was highly protective of his mother and stopped Polydectes from coming close to her.
Polydectes consequently devised a scheme to get him out of his way. He gave the orders for all the men in Seriphos to give Hippodamia, the queen of Pisa, the appropriate gifts under the pretence that he was about to marry her. Most of Polydectes’ friends brought him horses, but Perseus could not get any due to his poverty.
Perseus was willing to complete a difficult challenge, such as obtaining a Gorgon’s head. Trying to get rid of Perseus, Polydectes declared that all he wanted was the head of the Gorgon Medusa. He ordered Perseus to get it and warned him that he couldn’t return without it. Relieved that his mother would be left alone, Perseus agreed.
Perseus gained assistance from the gods because they were aware of this. Athena gave him a mirrored shield, Hephaestus, the god of fire, gave him a sword, and Hades, the god of the dead, gave him his Helm of Darkness.
In addition, Hermes, a son of Zeus, warned him of Medusa. He urged him to polish his shield so he could see her without looking directly at her. He also gave him his gold-winged boots so that he could fly securely to Medusa’s cave.
Aided by Athena and Hermes, Perseus eventually made it to the famous kingdom of the Gorgons.
While she was asleep, Perseus cut off Medusa’s head with his sword. He managed to slay her by gazing at his reflection in the mirrored shield Athena gave him to avoid looking directly at Medusa and turning into stone.
Medusa was pregnant at the time by Poseidon. When Perseus beheaded her, Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chrysaor, a giant carrying a golden sword, sprang from her body.
Perseus and the Hideous Head
After killing her, Perseus made use of Medusa’s head as a weapon because it was still potent. He later gifted it to Athena, who deposited it in her shield.
In Perseus’s absence, Polydectes threatened and mistreated his mother, which forced her to escape and seek protection in a temple. When Perseus arrived back at Seriphos and found out, he was enraged. He then stormed into the throne room, where Polydectes and other nobles were meeting.
Polydectes couldn’t believe Perseus had completed the challenge and was shocked that he was still alive. Perseus claimed to have slain the Gorgon Medusa and displayed her severed head as proof. Once Polydectes and his nobles caught sight of the head, they were turned to stone.
According to the Latin author Hyginus, Polydectes plotted to murder Perseus because he feared his bravery, but Perseus arrived just in time to display Medusa’s head before him. After that, Perseus gave Dictys, Polydectes’s brother, the throne of Seriphos.
Perseus and Andromeda: The Gorgon’s Head Saves the Marriage
Andromeda was a beautiful princess, the daughter of Cepheus, the King of Ethiopia, and Cassiopeia, his wife. Cassiopeia offended the Nereids by boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than they were.
In retaliation, Poseidon sent a sea monster to destroy Cepheus’ kingdom. Because Andromeda’s sacrifice was the only thing that could appease the gods, she was tied to a rock and left for the monster to devour.
Perseus, riding the winged horse Pegasus, flew by and met Andromeda. He slayed the monster and rescued her from being sacrificed. He also fell in love with her, and they were to get married.
However, things were not as easy. Andromeda’s uncle Phineus, to whom she had already been promised, was enraged. He attempted to claim her at the marriage ceremony. Hence, Perseus revealed the head of the Gorgon Medusa to Phineus and killed him by turning him to stone.
Further Powers of Medusa’s Head
It is said that Athena gave Heracles, son of Zeus, a lock of Medusa’s hair, which had the same abilities as the head. In order to defend the town of Tegea from attack, he gave it to Sterope, the daughter of Cepheus. The lock of the hair was meant to trigger a storm when it was visible, which forced the enemy to flee.
Moreover, Athena always carried Medusa’s head on her aegis whenever she fought in battle.
Another story states that each drop of blood that dripped from Medusa’s head onto the Libyan plains instantly transformed into venomous snakes.
Furthermore, when Perseus met the Titan Atlas, he asked him for a place to rest, but the Titan refused. He knew that brute force alone couldn’t defeat the Titan. So, he took out the Gorgon’s head and displayed it before him, which caused the Titan to transform into a mountain.
Medusa Greek Myth: Forever Alive
Interestingly, Medusa’s myth does not conclude with her death. Due to its implications, it is utilised in various aspects of life. These are a few:
- Feminism reexamined Medusa’s depictions in literature and modern culture in the twentieth century, notably the fashion brand Versace’s usage of Medusa as its logo.
- Several works of art feature Medusa as the subject, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Medusa (oil on canvas).
- Some national symbols feature the head of Medusa, such as the flag and emblem of Sicily.
- Medusa is mentioned and honoured in some scientific names, including discomedusae, a subclass of jellyfish, and stauromedusae, the stalked jellyfish.