Medusa, the Villain?

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Classical Greek depiction of Medusa from the fourth century BC

Does Medusa, the Gorgon of Greek mythology, deserve the bad rap she has had to carry all this time? Or is she just a victim?

Today, the name Medusa conjures the famous image of the Greek demon lady with snakes for hair. The myth continues that simply chancing a glance at her turned men to stone. Her end fate was to be beheaded by Perseus in order to save his mother from an unwanted marriage. But like all good stories, Medusa’s origins are clouded by the end of the story and the main hero, Perseus. So just who was Medusa and how did she come to her power, and is she someone we should sympathize with or continue to fear?

Medusa: From mortal to cursed

There are many tales of how Medusa became the snake wielding Gorgon that we know and loath. What most of the myths agree on is that Medusa was a stunning beauty, with a head full of silky and gorgeous hair, lusted after by men all around. Some myths have her as a virginal priestess to Athena, the Goddess of War, in which case Medusa would have to remain a virgin all her life. Others simply had her as a stunning virgin beauty that was in the middle of searching for a suitor when fate decided to interfere. While praying in the Temple of Athena, one lustful individual tracked down the virginal Medusa and raped her. That individual’s name was Poseidon, God of the Seas. No longer a virgin, Medusa was forbidden to be a priestess nor eligible for marriage under Greek law (being raped, though wrong in Greek eyes, was an ill sign of sorts). Horrified, she ran from the scene to try and cleanse herself.

From her vantage point, the Goddess Athena was beside herself with anger. Not at Poseidon, who was a fellow god and friend, but at Medusa, who allowed herself to be taken as she was, and in her temple no less. As punishment, Medusa was to undergo a terrible transformation that would leave her unrecognizable, even to her own self. Her skin began to stretch, crack and bloat. Her eyes widened and almost popped from their sockets. And on her head, her beautiful and beloved hair fell out and was replaced by snakes. She was then sent to inhabit an island where darkness reigned and no man dwelled. She was further isolated from human contact by another curse; whenever a man took sight of her, even for the briefest of a second, he would be petrified to stone. For her crime of being raped against her will by a God, Medusa was condemned to a life of solitude and immortality.

Should we feel sorry for Medusa?

Whether she was a priestess for Athena or a regular girl on the cusp of womanhood, the rape threw a permanent monkey wrench in her life’s plan. Medusa was the victim of several wrongs. The transformation put upon her by Athena, the goddess she prayed too, must have really psychologically damaged her already frail and weakened mental state, especially while being cooped up on an island all by herself. Though it is unknown how long the Gorgon lived for, Medusa’s sentence must have been tripled by the simple fact she could no longer have any contact with the outside world, unless she was to kill them. Some accounts of the myth have dozens upon dozens of male statue’s permanently littering her domain, from the numerous warriors who sought to defeat her, the ultimate prize.

From a 21st century stand point, did Medusa really deserve her punishment? Or any punishment? In truth, no, she was clearly the victim of rape and by a god no less. But the Greek gods were known for being hot tempered and quick to judge, and Athena herself was doubly insulted by the rape of a fellow virgin and having said rape done in her ‘house’. Granted, her anger was misplaced, but the punishment bestowed upon Medusa was beyond harsh, only to be extended by the curse of immortality. Again, it is unknown how long Medusa spent alone, but one could surmise hundreds of years, if not longer. Had Perseus not defeated her, she may still ‘exist’ on her island, alone except for the growing bodies of statues to talk to.

In conclusion: the tragic heroine?

Her final humiliation was bestowed upon her after she had died. With his victory over Medusa, and his mother safe and the prophecy of his grandfather fulfilled, Perseus took the severed head of Medusa to the Temple of Athena, where the head would forever be a part of the Goddess of War’s armor, as a means to help defeat her enemies. From rape to death, Medusa was given a bad name and was thus punished for one person’s mistakes, and tortured by another’s dark judgment. Though a feared villain in Greek myth, Medusa, in reality, was a psychologically abused and tormented soul who was quickly judged and punished and will forever be arrested for another’s crime.