(Content warning; this post contains discussion of sexual assault.)
So, Medusa. Most people know the basics of her story: lady with snakes for hair, turned men to stone with a glance. Which, you know, goals.
What’s interesting about Medusa is that her origin is different depending on which version you hear. In the original, Medusa and her sisters Stheno and Euryale were always monsters: specifically, gorgons.
The Roman poet Ovid, however, changed things up a little bit. So, because that version is more interesting to me (if also kinda infuriating), that’s the one I’m going to be talking about today.
In Ovid’s version of the tale, Medusa was originally a beautiful, normal-haired woman. That is, until Poseidon took it into his head to rape her in Athena’s temple.
Athena responds to this by getting pissed at Medusa for some reason, and cursing her with stone vision and the aforementioned venomous snakes for hair. Now, there is an interpretation of this story that Athena did this not as a punishment, but to give Medusa a means of defending herself so something like this never happens to her again. However, considering Athena once turned someone into a spider because she’s a sore loser, I kind of don’t really buy this interpretation.
The fact that Athena plays a pretty vital role in Medusa’s death, I think, backs up the “Athena is a petty asshole” interpretation. Because, let’s face it, most of the Greek gods were petty assholes.
So, there’s this guy named Perseus. Perseus is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Danae and Zeus. He is also the great-grandfather and half-brother of the more well-known Greek hero Heracles, but I’m not gonna dive down that rabbit hole here.
Anyway, the King of Seriphus, a guy named Polydectes, really, really wants to marry Perseus’s mom. Neither Perseus nor Danae particularly want this, so Polydectes sets Perseus a task: bring him Medusa’s head.
The purpose of this is clearly to get Perseus out of the way, due to the whole “stone vision” thing.
The gods, however, decide to help him out. Athena gives him a mirrored shield (to deflect Medusa’s gaze), Hades gives him a helmet that makes the wearer invisible, Hermes gives him winged sandals, and Hephaestus gives him a sword. Not, like, a magical sword, just a sword. Then again, since Hephaestus is the god of metalworking, it’s most likely an extremely well-made sword.
So Perseus goes over to the cave Medusa’s been living in, and manages to cut her head off. That’s not all, though: turns out Poseidon got Medusa pregnant, and the offspring turns out to be a pegasus and a sword-wielding giant.
Perseus then takes his prize and heads back just in time to stop the wedding. By using Medusa’s head to turn Polydectes into a lawn ornament. He then takes the head to Athena, who attaches it to his shield.
And that’s the story of how a rape victim was re-traumatized and then brutally murdered.
Incidentally, here’s a statue by artist Luciano Garbati I found, called Medusa With The Head Of Perseus: