If you didn’t know, I’m very interested in Greek mythology – so much that I wrote a thesis on feminist interpretations. One of the biggest figures in Greek mythology that isn’t a god or a hero is possibly Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon who can turn people to stone with a glance.
Medusa has become somewhat of a feminist icon, a symbol of female empowerment against an oppressive patriarchy. Medusa is an incredible mythical figure. And there’s plenty of feminism to be drawn from her story, but the one most people are citing is not the original.
Now, when it comes to mythology, “original” is a novel concept. Myths were spread by word of mouth for centuries before they were ever written down, so the same story has endless variations. So far be it from me to tell anyone that their interpretation is wrong, but the more blatantly feminist Medusa came long after Classical Greece.
The creator of this Medusa was a playwright named Ovid, who lived during the Augustine rule of Rome. He wrote a series of books called the Metamorphoses, which told many tales of mortals being transformed by the gods. These stories were all adaptations of already-existing myths, however, and his grudge against authority manifested in making mortals the hapless victims of petty and spiteful gods.
Ovid’s version of Medusa was originally a human woman, and a beautiful one at that. So beautiful that the sea god, Poseidon, chased her into the Temple of Athena and took advantage of her. Athena, as the goddess of chastity, was outraged at this sacrilegious display in her own temple. She punished Medusa by turning her hair to snakes and making her gaze turn men to stone.
Modern interpretations have written Athena’s punishment to be a blessing instead; Medusa’s new monstrous traits protected her from any man who wished to harm her. There is much debate about Athena’s intentions, but one interpretation is just as valid as the other. Ovid wrote it as an act of aggression on Athena’s part, but then, his was already an embellished version of a myth that existed long before he did. His tale of Medusa was not inspired by his views on feminism, but by his own disdain for authority which he equated with the Olympian gods.
Pre-Ovid, Medusa had no tragic backstory and was never human. She was born a horrific, snake-haired monster along with her two sisters, Euryale and Stheno. The gorgons were children of Phorcys and Ceto, primordial sea gods who represented the dangers lurking in the deep ocean. Earlier depictions of the gorgons have them with protruding tusks and large wings.
So, yes, the classical version of Medusa was just another monster for a hero to slay. But Medusa is different to the hydra, the cyclopes, the minotaur and even other female monsters like sirens and harpies. Medusa is a woman (a monstrous one), but pre-Ovid she’s not a seductress tempting men with her fatal gaze.
While Ovid’s story was more about class distinctions than gender, there are still feminist messages to be taken from his and older iterations of Medusa. She defies typical conventions of womanhood. Often it was not her eyes that turned men to stone, but the shock of her horrific visage. Motherhood was never a part of her life; her only children were spawned upon the moment of her death. She was not valued for her looks and so would never be a wife. Though she was a monster, there are no stories of the gorgons terrorising mortals. Medusa wanted nothing to do with men and did her best to keep them away, but because she wasn’t beautiful, a mother, or a potential bride, she had to die.
All this to say, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with preferring Ovid’s version. It humanises Medusa (in more ways than one) and is beautiful in its tragedy. My frustration with this version’s popularity is that a lot of people are claiming it’s the “original” version (the same happened with a version of Persephone who willingly went down to Hades). I understand the intent here; it’s important to realise that not everyone in a time period shared the same opinions. There were certainly those in Ancient Greece who thought of women more highly than their peers. History also shows ancient matriarchal civilisations that existed well before Greece as we know it.
The problem comes with rewriting history to fit an agenda. Just Ancient Greece wasn’t a haven for gay men just because homosexual relationships were common, Ancient Greek society was incredibly hostile to women despite a few powerful female characters in their mythology.
But that’s the beauty of mythology; it’s always changing and evolving with society. As our values change, so do our stories. We’ll see many more interactions of Medusa, and I personally can’t wait. But to go forward, you have to know where you’ve come from.
If you love mythology and folklore as much as I do, I recommend checking out Overly Sarcastic Productions on Youtube. Their Perseus video inspired this post!