She was once the a beautiful virgin shadow maiden of Athean. After Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple, Athena punishes Medusa….making her the embodiement of death and damning her to a life of solitude.
What does this say about society then, and now?
Well, the myth that tells Medusa’s metamorphosis into a monster as a punishment by Athena is the patriarchal Roman version. The ancient Greek myth, which has closer ties to its progenitor, the Egyptian tale of Wadjet, tells us that Athena gifted Medusa with ugliness and the power to turn men to stone as a way of protecting her from further violations of her person. Even so, her ugliness was emphasized in the Roman retelling as a way to further demonize and disenfranchise Medusa (i.e. she only lashed out on men because she was too ugly to be loved by them, her ugliness forced her into seclusion from men, ugly women are bad, etc. ((I am ironically using abbreviations for Latin words here yes)).). As the original myth tells it, she lived in solitude because she did not wish to be around men after what Poseidon had done. And Athena gave her the power to never be at the mercy of a male again. So originally, Athena was pissed at Poseidon, not Medusa. And then, of course, the Romans took it one step further and had Perseus behead her (yay the vindictive old hag is dead) and give it to Athena for her shield.
But yeah, renderings of Medusa’s head appeared in the doorways of many women’s shelters in ancient Greece because she was a symbol of female empowerment, not a monster feared by men and women alike.
This brings me to my awkward segue into a cool essay on the subject: The Laugh of the Medusa by Helene Cixous actually touches on the system of misogynistic fear behind the Romanized version, but most importantly why women need to write their stories because this is the shit that happens when dudebros get ahold of them. It’s also an awesome overture to queer theories of writing. If you can read French, I highly suggest getting your hands on the essay as it was originally written, because Cixous’ voice is just incredibly inspiring when you read it as she intended it to be read. Also, the essay itself is worthy of criticism as it is not as intersectional as it absolutely needs to be. I feel I should add that before someone thinks I advocate the problematic things she says.
But now that I’ve totally digressed from my original point: It’s important that we’re always mindful to question the credibility of those telling us not only history, but also legend.
(I became absolutely exhausted halfway through this so forgive me if the connection I’m making between the original post and this essay is more arbitrary than I think it is at the moment)