Medusa - Monster or Mother?
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.
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 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.
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:
- 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