Medusa’s name derives from the Ancient Greek Μέδουσα, which means “guardian” or “protector,” and yet, in a stroke of tragic irony, Medusa was unable to shield herself from harm. She ended up first as a literal shield for Perseus, who used her decapitated head to petrify adversaries, then on the shield of Athena, the goddess who had betrayed her. Ovid tells us in the Metamorphoses that Medusa was once a beautiful young woman with stunning tresses. She had the misfortune of catching the eye of Poseidon, who raped her in sacred precincts, desecrating a temple built to honor Athena. The enraged goddess took out her anger, not on Poseidon but on the victim, turning Medusa into a monster with the power to petrify anyone who beholds her face and venomous locks.
It is worth going back to Ovid as a stark reminder of just how blind we have been to the facts of Medusa’s origin story (or at least in the canonical version told by the Roman poet):
She was very lovely once, the hope of many
An envious suitor, and of all her beauties
Her hair most beautiful – at least I heard so
From one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune
Found her and raped her, in Minervaʼs temple,
And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes
Behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage
As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,
And even now, to frighten evil doers,
She carries on her breastplate metal vipers
To serve as awful warning of her vengeance. (IV, lines 774-803)
The backstory of a woman who is raped and demonized resonates powerfully with what we see in the headlines today. As Christobel Hastings writes in Vice, Ovid’s account reads less like an “ancient myth” than a “modern reality.”
How has Medusa resurfaced today? Not so much as a shining example of victim-blaming and punishment (no one bothers with her backstory, in part because they are so rivetted by her face), but as a monster who threatens to undermine the political and social order. Hillary Clinton, whose severed head was brandished as a trophy by a triumphant Trump in several campaign memes, was just one of many women politicians to get the Medusa treatment. Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Margaret Thatcher (“We’ve got to shoot her down,” the British pop band UB40 sang in “Madam Medusa”): their features have all been superimposed on Caravaggio’s snake-headed Medusa.
Why are we still talking about Medusa? Classics professors remind us that the most enduring legacy of Ancient Greece does not take the form of their democracy but of their belief system or mythology, which often guides our thinking in ways more powerful than biblical wisdom. Many children today grow up with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and graduate to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in high school. Like the familiar fairy tales from times past, Greek myths have migrated into the literary culture of childhood. Yet they also haunt the adult cultural imagination, and, as Mary Beard tells us: “More often than we may realize, and in sometimes shocking ways, we are still using Greek idioms to represent the idea of women.”
How do we account for the staying power of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, and all the other fantastic creatures of Ancient Greece? Athena, Zeus, Odysseus, Achilles, Circe, Arachne, and Medusa are as familiar to many of us as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Part of the answer turns on how Greek myths take up what the French anthropologist Claude-Lévi Strauss referred to as cultural contradictions—conflicting binary terms such as life/death, compassion/hostility, nature/civilization. Myth processes these contradictions in symbolic form, through metaphorical substitutions and forms of mediation that “resolve” the conflict, at least provisionally. Cooks, for example, operate as mediators between the “raw” (shorthand for nature) and the “cooked” (products of culture), transforming what is found in its natural state into something consumed by humans
Medusa, like many of her mythical cousins from the Minotaur to Medea, is an embodied paradox, with the name already controverting her fate. In this instance, nomen is not omen, but rather a retraction or negation of what has been enunciated in it. Medusa cannot protect herself and is instead weaponized by Perseus, who then passes on her gory head to serve as an emblem on Athena’s shield. It was Athena who transformed Medusa from a beauty into a monster, once again underlining that mortal woman’s status as a living paradox. In addition, Medusa herself is a grotesque hybrid of human/animal, tressed to kill, as it were.
Beyond the paradoxes of Medusa’s name and embodiment are the contradictory ways of reading her story. A victim of Poseidon’s assault, she becomes the target of a goddess’s wrath, while the sea-god remains free to engage in one dalliance after another. Is it perverse to think of her snaky appearance as a way of punishing the gaze of male predators, disabling them with her own deadly gaze? But then again, it is Perseus the man who immobilizes his enemies with the severed head of Medusa. This is a story that challenges us to enter a dizzying funhouse that is also a hall of mirrors, one that exaggerates and distorts and gives us endlessly new perspectives on a seemingly simple story that is in fact the expression of complex thought.
Is it any wonder that Einstein told us to read fairy tales to children—that is, if we wanted to raise them to become intelligent. Like fairy tales, myths draw us into a universe that challenges us to make sense of what is nonsense and make-believe, yet always also deeply fundamental and foundational in the making of beliefs.