Medusa - Monster or Mother?

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Medusa and Greek mythology

Many of us are familiar with the image of Medusa from Greek Mythology - a grotesque monster with a head full of squirming snakes. She is also famous for being able to turn people into stone by the force of her malevolent stare .

However, is there more to this unfortunate lady? Is she really the monster we all assume? As we shall see, Medusa is much more complex - and far less malignant - than we have been lead to believe by, not just the movies, but by the Greek patriachs themselves.

Why should the true origins of Medusa have been buried under a veneer of ugliness and evil? We shall see that there is so much more to her than this hideous stereotype and perhaps the real ugliness lies within the minds and hearts of those who supressed her true origins.

The classic image we know so well - Perseus beheading Medusa.
The classic image we know so well - Perseus beheading Medusa. | Source
One of the many temples of Athena still standing. Tradition says that Medusa, then a young beautiful woman, was a priestess of the Goddess Athena.
One of the many temples of Athena still standing. Tradition says that Medusa, then a young beautiful woman, was a priestess of the Goddess Athena. | Source

According to Greek mythology, Medusa was one of three daughters born to the sea Titans, Ceto and Phorcys. She was regarded as the most beautiful of the three sisters.They were also reputed to have the attribute of great wisdom.

The most popular myth relating to Medusa begins when she is a beautiful young woman. She is a virgin priestess in the temple of Athena. Unfortunately for Medusa her stunning locks of hair and beautiful face caught the attention of the sea god Poseidon. She was raped within the temple and fled in despair at the sacrilege committed. But there was no escaping Athena's rage. The tragic priestess was transformed into a Gorgon.

The Gorgons are a form of beast that goes back thousands of years. The descriptions are also varied. Some have -scaly skin, boar's tusks, vampire-like fangs, lolling tongue, popping eyes. Others have the more well known appendage of a head of poisonous snakes.

After Medusa was turned into a Gorgon - as were both of her sisters - they were barred to a remote island to remain forever. Medusa however would not remain here forever. She was merely mortal but her two sisters were not. Medusa was beheaded by the Greek hero Perseus. Her magical head would then be returned to where her tragic story began in the temple of Athena. When Medusa was decapitated, the issue of her union with the god Poseidon were born from the bleeding wound .This was Pegasus the winged horse and his brother Chrysoar.

The hero Perseus later married the princess Andromeda - interestingly, they named their daughter Gorgonphone after the name Gorgon.

The birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor
The birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor | Source
Many later artists began to show Medusa in a more kindly light.
Many later artists began to show Medusa in a more kindly light. | Source

The Meaning Behind The Myth?

At first glance it would seem that the story of Medusa is straight forward. However when we look more closely we see that she is constantly viewed from an opposing angle. For example:

  • After her transition from human female to Gorgon she was frequently seen as a monster and repellent in art and myth. However, many artists also depicted her as beautiful and enticing.
  • She could be the aggressor but she was also a protector. Athena herself had the image of Medusa on her breastplate, symbolising protection in war. Many battle leaders, including Alexander the Great, had the head of Medusa either on their breastplate or shield as an amulet against enemy attack.
  • She could bring life and she also brought death. This is the classic role of any 'Mother Goddess'. Apart from giving birth to Pegasus and Chrysoar, her right vein also had the properties of healing and life. Blood from her left vein was toxic and killed.
  • In ancient times the head of a Gorgon was frequently used to protect the home against evil.

William Blake's depiction of the Triple Goddess with Hecate/Medusa at the front.
William Blake's depiction of the Triple Goddess with Hecate/Medusa at the front. | Source
An artistic representation of the Mother Goddess (Binah). Medusa was once venerated as a Mother Goddess.
An artistic representation of the Mother Goddess (Binah). Medusa was once venerated as a Mother Goddess. | Source
Symbol of the Triple Goddess. In some early cultures, Medusa was one of the aspects of the Triple Goddess
Symbol of the Triple Goddess. In some early cultures, Medusa was one of the aspects of the Triple Goddess | Source

Medusa the Mother Goddess?

Medusa is in fact not Greek at all. She was one aspect of the Libyan triple goddess who had many names:

  • Neith,
  • Anath,
  • Athene or Ath-enna.

Here we can clearly see that she is already associated with the name Athene - basically the same name as the Greek 'Athena'. This aspect of the Goddess was later 'adopted' into Greek culture.

Within the triple goddess aspect we find the maiden, the mother and the crone. Medusa was the crone or destructive aspect of the goddess. However, it should be remembered that this is only one aspect of Medusa. In addition 'destruction' does not mean evil or negative. We must have destruction in order not only for new life to be born, but for the continuation of all life. Indeed her aspect as 'the crone' meant that she was:

  • the 'Wise One'
  • sovereign female wisdom
  • the Keeper of the Dark Moon Mysteries,
  • the Goddess of Death and Rebirth.

Medusa also had regenerative powers symbolised by the birds that are shown in many images of her. Birds represent not only death but also a transition in to new life.

What about the snakes - the powerful emblem of Medusa?These reptiles represented to ancient peoples the cycles of birth-death-rebirth as symbolised by the shedding of their skin. The shedding of skin was viewed as a form of death/old skin; - and rebirth/new skin . The snake and Medusa were also seen as representing the seasons, the earth and the underworld.

One of the oldest of Greek gods is Artemis. She is a Goddess of animals. Like Medusa, her form of killing is a sacred one as this allows for rejuvenation and rebirth. Within one temple dedicated to Artemis are images of Medusa with snakes entwined around her waste - the symbolism for 'healing'. Artemis is often depicted wearing the 'mask' of Medusa. This was also referred to as the mask of the Gorgon or of Hecate. One of the early associations with Artemis is with the goddess Hecate.

There are also figures of the Mother Goddess Cybele that look similar to Medusa. Cybele was the goddess of wild animals and fertile nature. Here we see Medusa acquainted with the 'mother' aspect. And overall we can see how Medusa was part of the great Triple Goddess, the supreme mother of Earth and the heavens.

Sadly, the patriarchal Greeks took, what they viewed as, the positive aspects of the triple goddess - the maiden - and created Athena. Metis the mother aspect became actual 'mother' to Athena within the Greek myths. Medusa was segregated from both and into a monster/death aspect. In effect when Perseus 'executed' Medusa it was the symbolic killing of the great Mother goddess to be replaced by the supreme male deity Zeus. In addition, the autonomy and position of women within Greek society was also relegated. Medusa was then written into the Greek myths as the dangerous female ogre we are familiar with today.

Perhaps the next time we see an artistic impression, stone carving or a movie showing Medusa as the villain and monster - we will be sympathetic and remember she started life as a maiden, became a mother and only a monster because of a change from a matriarch to a patriarch society.

© 2011 Helen Murphy Howell

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Comments 12 comments

Dr. Amilia profile image

Dr. Amilia 5 years ago

How sad, I did not know.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello Dr. Amilia,

Nice of you to drop by - thank you. I find it sad as well and was really surprised that there was so much of a story to this myth.


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

She had a terrible time by the sounds of it. I'm sure the moral of the story is not to lie back and take it, but poor Medusa would have no doubt had a different outcome had she. Interesting stuff for someone who left school at fourteen. Thanks Seeker.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi attemptedhumour,

Great to have you stop by. Thanks for the very interesting comment, there is quite a bit of truth in what you say. Many thanks.


ImChemist profile image

ImChemist 5 years ago

Nice pictures thanks for sharing it.


arthurchappell profile image

arthurchappell 5 years ago from Manchester, England

fascinating Hub - I knew some of the story as I've used Medusa in some of my writings from pre-Hub days but lots of new info for me here too


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi arthurchappell,

I agree with you, I had no idea how much there was to her story - a sad one as well. I have always been fascinated with the symbolism of Medusa but the amount of information was amazing. I always like to look into myths that are always painted dark and all bad, and you usually find that they never started out that way, Medusa is a point in case. Many thanks for stopping by and for your comment - much appreciated.


arthurchappell profile image

arthurchappell 5 years ago from Manchester, England

You're welcome Seeker. Cheers


mpefley 3 years ago

Medusa didn't turn people to stone. She stopped them in their tracks with her stunning beauty and power. They were temporarily paralyzed. But she was also very fierce. She had to be as the protector and guardian. Unfortunately her power and beauty were so intimidating to men that they beheaded her out of fear. Of course, when they were carrying her head around for months - she looked grotesque. I Identify with her. we are still in a male dominated society. I am constantly attacked by men who fear me (and probably want to behead me). Medusa says she was too fierce - this is what destroyed her. She tells me to calm my fierce side - and she helps me. I'm getting a tattoo of Medusa - I feel her amazing presence. She was so sadly - betrayed.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi mpefley,

First of all apologies for taking so long to respond - it's been one of those weeks!

Secondly, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such an interesting comment. It's refreshing to read about Medusa being defended and upheld as she should be, rather than downgraded as she nearly always is.

I think from what you have written that you obviously have a strong bond with Medusa/Mother Goddess/Triple Goddess. I found it fascinating that you have the Medusa aspect as a guide and this is also of interest to me on a personal level - many years ago a psychic painting that was made for me depicted Medusa as my main spiritual guide. The face was stunningly beautiful but in a way also beyond mere beauty. The snakes around her head were full of energy, colour, beauty, knowledge and 'knowing' - this might sound a bit vague but it's the only way I can put into words what can't really be explained in language. And yes I agree, she has an 'amazing presence'. I have always had an interest in her and certainly felt that there was much more to her than the ogre that we've all been brainwashed into believing. I hope to that my article has gone at least some way to rectifying how she is viewed.

I hope you like your tatoo that you're getting and I'm sure this will only increase the bond you have with her. Many thanks again for stopping by and for your fascinating comment.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Wow a wonderful gripping lesson told and presented brilliantly. I vote up and share. Here's to so many more to come.

Eddy.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Eddy, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub!!

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