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Medusa in Greek Mythology

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."  This online 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 Ovid, Metamorphoses

book 4:1181-95

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 page  *
Bullfinch Perseus

Perseus and Medusa Images 

Ovid Metamorphosis Links     Ovid Translations
Phaethon  and Phaethon translations
Themis (Deucalion and Pyrrha)
Ovid Chat Transcripts 

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This page is copyright 1999, 2006 by Tracy Marks