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Growing up, I absolutely loved learning about Greek Mythology. I was always a bit of a nerd and, to me, mixing an ancient history lesson with an element of fantasy or mystique was GOLDEN. So when I stumbled upon the Ancient Greeks, it was a match made in Olympus. The myths and legends fascinated me! The Gods, demi-gods, quests…and let’s not forget the monsters. The Ancient Greeks have some of the most interesting monsters I have ever seen. Some you may know, like the Minotaur, Pegasus, and Cyclops. Others may be more obscure such as the Graeae, Empusa, or the Manticore. But the most popular monster, and the one most discussed, is Medusa the Gorgon. This snake-woman hybrid was said to have the ability to turn man to stone and could only be killed by cutting off her head.
Uhh... why are you writing about Medusa?
Medusa is an interesting character, to say the least. Many of you probably know her from the tale of Perseus. Perseus, our dashing hero, defeats Medusa by decapitating her. He then, ultimately, uses the Gorgon’s severed head as a gift for his mother’s soon-to-be husband. That’s the simple, abridged version. (Sorry, not sorry for the spoiler…this story is literally thousands of years old. Sheesh! Catch up on your media already…) But…what was Medusa before her head got cut off? Who was she? Was she born a monster or was she transformed? Much like many of the Greek myths and legends, there are several versions of this tale. And often times, the myths intertwine with battles the Gods were having. In order to shed some light on Medusa’s past, we need to dive a bit further back…
So... who are the Gods??
There are twelve main Greek Gods that resided on Olympus. Each God, or Goddess, ruled or had power over something. It could be an ideal, such as love or wisdom, or something tangible, like lightning or wine. Certain cities would be devoted to different Gods and erecting statues and paying homage in return for things like protection and a thriving livelihood. The two Gods that are key to this tale are Athena, the Goddess of War and Wisdom, and Poseidon, God of the Sea. Now, even though the Gods are all-powerful, they each have their limits… and their faults. For both Athena and Poseidon, the fact that they were both incredibly stubborn was a major factor in why they were rivals. One such instance, and the instance that will bring us to Medusa’s story, is their fight over the eventual capital of Greece, Athens.
The Tale of Medusa
Before Athens became a thriving capital, it was a beautiful expanse of land near the city of Cecropia. And because it was so beautiful, the Gods of Olympus wanted to claim it and become the patron of that land. The two most persistent Gods were Athena and Poseidon, both of whom had fiery tempers and strong-willed personas. Since they were both insistent on themselves becoming the patron for whom the land was named after, Zeus, the Ruler of Mt. Olympus, devised a plan. Each God would create a gift and present it to the King of Cecropia. Whichever gift the King and the citizens of Cecropia favored, would win, making that God patron of the desired land.
The day came for Athena and Poseidon to present their gifts and the King and his subjects gathered on a hillside to watch the Gods at work. Poseidon was the first to exhibit his power. He stepped forward and struck his trident upon the rocks, causing a spring of water to burst forth. Although the people of Cecropia were impressed by this display, they were disappointed by the spring. The water was as salty as the sea, making it impossible to drink. As Poseidon bubbled with frustration, Athena stepped forward. She presented a seed and planted it in the earth. Almost instantly, an olive tree sprouted and grew. The citizens were amazed at this gift because it provided them with oil, wood, food, and shade. Unanimously, the King and his citizens favored Athena’s gift over Poseidon’s, thus naming the land Athens, and building temples and statues in Athena’s honor.
Years later, once Athens had become established as a flourishing metropolis, Medusa and her three sisters were born. They all grew up to be beautiful maidens, but Medusa far surpassed her siblings. She had long flowy hair, fair skin, and dark enchanting eyes. Her loveliness caught the attention of men far and wide and they would flock to Athens to catch a glimpse of Medusa. Unfortunately for them, Medusa had become a priestess for the temple of Athena and had vowed to never love nor marry. All her suitors accepted their fate of never being with Medusa and were content with the mere sight of her. All suitors… except for Poseidon.
The God of the Sea spotted Medusa outside of Athena’s temple and vowed that he would have her. Whether it was out of spite for Athena or true attraction, we do not know. Poseidon tried again and again to win over Medusa, but the priestess repeatedly turned him away. She was determined to keep her vow to Athena and remain a virgin. Then, one day, Poseidon had had enough of her refusals. Still feeling the sting from the two Gods’ past rivalry, he became enraged at Medusa for choosing Athena over him and angrily pursued her throughout the city. Out of fear, Medusa ran to Athena’s temple and prayed to her beloved Goddess to protect her. But to no avail.
Poseidon crashed into the sacred temple and raped Medusa at the foot of Athena’s alter, then vanished back into the sea. When Athena heard about what Poseidon had done, she became infuriated. Unable to punish the God of the Sea, she turned to Medusa and transformed her into a horrid monster. Medusa’s hair turned to venomous snakes. Her skin became withered and scaly. And any man, or God, who dared look into Medusa’s once beautiful eyes would be turned to stone for all eternity.
What are your thoughts?
It is unclear whether or not Athena changed Medusa out of punishment for betraying her vows, or to protect Medusa from further abuse from men. I, personally, like to believe that Athena did it to safeguard her ex-priestess. And to further support this claim, after Medusa was killed, Athena is said to have Medusa's head placed on her shield. You can even see sculptures and paintings of Medusa around the city of Athens as symbols for protection. It is thought that her severed head wards off danger. Of course, that could be due to the fact that she has snakes for hair who in their right mind would want to fuck with THAT? But nonetheless, I like to give the Goddess of War and Wisdom the benefit of the doubt. What do you think about Medusa’s fate?