compiled by Tracy Marks
Medusa, originally a beautiful young woman whose crowning glory was
her magnificent long hair, was desired and courted by many suitors. Yet
before she could be betrothed to a husband, Poseidon (Neptune) found
her worshipping in the temple of Athena (Minerva) and ravished her. Athena
was outraged at her sacred temple being violated, and punished Medusa by
turning her beautiful tresses into snakes and giving her the destructive
power to turn anyone who looked directly at her into stone.
In both Greek and Roman mythology, Perseus, attempting to rescue his mother
Danae from the coercive King Polydectes, needed to embark on the dangerous
venture of retrieving Medusa’s head. With the help of Athena and Hermes
– magic winged sandals, a cap, a pouch and a mirror-like shield, he fought
her and beheaded her by viewing her image in the mirror of his shield rather
than looking at her directly. From her decapitated head sprang the winged
horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor, who became king of Iberia. Medusa’s
sisters, the Gorgons, chased after him, but were unable to catch him because
his magic cap made him invisible.
Perseus was then able to use Medusa’s head as a weapon during other
battles (which included rescuing Andromeda), but he eventually returned
it to Athena, who then placed it at the center of her Aegis as a symbol
of her power, and her own capacity to turn her enemies into stone.
Historically, before ancient Greece, Medusa was worshipped by the Libyan
Amazons as a Serpent -Goddess, and associated with the destroyer aspect
Anath (also known as Athene) of the Triple Goddess in North
Africa and Crete. The name Medusa (Medha in Sanscrit, Metis
in Greek and Maat in Egyptian) means “sovereign female wisdom.”
Medusa paper discusses the Libyan and Near Eastern conceptions of Medusa.
Some scholars believe that the Greek and Roman Medusa myth, as told
by Ovid, expresses the vanquishing of the great goddess religions as the
male gods Zeus/Jupiter and Poseidon/Neptune gained power. Others view it
as expressive of the subjugation of women’s bodies and enslavement of their
spirit by a violent and oppressive male-oriented culture, which viewed
Medusa’s life-giving, creative, primal energy as threatening.
Psychoanalytic interpretations of the Medusa myth focus upon Medusa’s
snake-like hair representing bleeding female genitals, and the frightening
power of the wounded (perhaps “castrated”), devouring mother over
the fragile male psyche. Seeking his own manhood, the son must conquer
his early identification with his mother and his regressive tendency to
submit to maternal power and be swallowed up again by the womb. In order
to avoid being symbolically castrated himself, and to be capable of mature
sexual relations with a woman, he must first “behead” the mother archetype.
Only then is he free to express his own power as a man, to form an equal
partnership with a woman, and to eventually be helper to his own mother.
In “For the Love Of Medusa” (Psychoanalytic Review, vol.62, no.1, 1975)
Richard Geha wrote: “The murder of Medusa expresses the son’s re-enactment
of the crimes of the primal scene by chopping off the head representing
the genitals of the once phallic mother. He exhibits the frightening power
taken from a dead and castrated mother and redeems the endangered mother
…. Perseus went to a lot of trouble to kill a woman and rob her of her
terror. But was all necessary before he could look upon the nude and bejeweled
body of a woman and carry off his own mother….Now she and her son can
travel together where they will.”
Apart from the Medusa story focused Poseidon’s rape, other versions
of Medusa legends exist. Consider this brief statement byApollonius: [1:161]
“But it is alleged by some that Medusa was beheaded for Athena’s sake;
and they say that the Gorgon was fain to match herself with the goddess
even in beauty.” This same version is echoed by Bullfinch: “She
was once a beautiful maiden whose hair was her chief glory but as she dared
to vie in beauty with Minerva (Athena), the goddess deprived her of her
charms and changed her beautiful ringlets into hissing serpents.”
Finally, two very different pictures of Medusa and her fate were portrayed
by Pausanian in his Description of Greece:
[2.21.5] “In the market-place of Argos is a mound of earth, in which
they say lies the head of the Gorgon Medusa…. After the death of her
father, Phorcus, she reigned over those living around Lake Tritonis, going
out hunting and leading the Libyans to battle. On one such occasion, when
she was encamped with an army over against the forces of Perseus, who was
followed by picked troops from the Peloponnesus, she was assassinated by
night. Perseus, admiring her beauty even in death, cut off her head and
carried it to show the Greeks.
[2.21.6] But Procles, the son of Eucrates, a Carthaginian, thought
a different account more plausible than the preceding. It is as follows.
Among the incredible monsters to be found in the Libyan desert are wild
men and wild women. Procles affirmed that he had seen a man from them who
had been brought to Rome. So he guessed that a woman wandered from them,
reached Lake Tritonis, and harried the neighbours until Perseus killed
her; Athena was supposed to have helped him in this exploit, because the
people who live around Lake Tritonis are sacred to her.”
from Thomas More translation
Beyond all others she
was famed for beauty, and the envious hope
of many suitors. Words would fail to tell
the glory of her hair, most wonderful
of all her charms–A friend declared to me
he saw its lovely splendour. Fame declares
the Sovereign of the Sea attained her love
in chaste Minerva’s temple. While enraged
she turned her head away and held her shield
before her eyes. To punish that great crime
Minerva changed the Gorgon’s splendid hair
to serpents horrible. And now to strike
her foes with fear, she wears upon her breast
those awful vipers–creatures of her rage.
from Dryden translation
Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.
Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d,
Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d.
In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d,
And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid.
The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away,
Nor durst such bold impurity survey;
But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes,
Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.
These in her Aegis Pallas joys to bear,
The hissing snakes her foes more sure ensnare,
Than they did lovers once, when shining hair.
from Mandelbaum translation
Medusa was astonishingly fair;
she was desired and contended for –
so many jealous suitors hoped to win her.
Her form was graced by many splendors, yet
there was no other beauty she possessed
that cold surpass the splendor of her hair –
and this I learned from one who said he’d seen her.
Her beauty led the Ruler of the Sea
To rape her in Minerva’s sanctuary
(so goes the tale). Jove’s daughter turned aside
chaste eyes: the goddess hid her face behind
her aegis – but she made Medusa pay:
she changed that Gorgon’s hair to horrid snakes.
And to this day, Minerva, to dismay
and terrify her foes, wears on her breast
the very snakes that she herself had set –
as punishment – upon Medusa’s head.
from Humphries translation
She was a very lovely one, the hope of many
An envious suitor, and of all her beauties
Her hair most beautiful – at least I heard so
From one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune
Found her and raped her, in Minerva’s temple,
And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes
Behind her shield, and punishing the outrage
As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,
And even now, to frighten evil doers,
She carries on her breastplate metal vipers
To serve as awful warning of her vengeance.
from The Muse as Medusa
by May Sarton
I saw you once, Medusa; we were alone.
I looked you straight in the cold eye, cold.
I was not punished, was not turned to stone –
How to believe the legends I am told?…
I turn your face around! It is my face.
That frozen rage is what I must explore –
Oh secret, self-enclosed, and ravaged place!
This is the gift I thank Medusa for.
copyright 1978 from Invocations and Mythologies
in Collected Poems of May Sarton
Medusa and Perseus Links
Greek Myth Link Medusa
*Paper on Medusa
The Gorgon Medusa
Apollodorus: Perseus and Medusa
Perseus and Medusa Images
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