What if everything you know about the story of Medusa is wrong?
You know that she turns men to stone. You may know that Perseus the great hero killed her and used her head as a weapon to gain his glory. If you’re really up on the story, you might even know that Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, helped Perseus do the deed.
But do you know the rest?
Hear What You Want to Hear
The true story of Medusa reminds us that myths are mutable. They come from oral tradition, where the details depend on who is telling the story, when it’s being told, and to whom. As a result, we can choose the most meaningful telling based on what we want to say.
Which is why I lean toward a certain telling of Medusa’s story.
Medusa the Beautiful
Medusa was once a beautiful young girl. Her hair was her most enchanting feature – every man wanted to bury his face inside her curls.
But Medusa’s only love was the goddess Athena. Medusa dedicated her life to Her by serving in her temple. In return, Medusa received Athena’s protection.
But Medusa also caught another deity’s eye. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was known for his raging lust. He also had a bone to pick with Athena regarding the city that bears her name instead of his. One day when Medusa was in Athena’s temple, Poseidon found her alone and brutalized her.
Medusa the Hideous
The rest of the story is often lost in the words of men who have told it for ages. They say that Athena became angry, jealous, and vengeful. She was known for her vow of celibacy so this act, even without Medusa’s consent, was a violation of her temple. So the story we’ve been offered is that Athena cursed Medusa to become hideous and turn men to stone with just a glance.
But as the goddess of wisdom, wouldn’t Athena be a little more clear-headed in her approach? Isn’t she the one who led men to battle with an articulated strategy in place of blood-red rage?
Medusa the Protected
Anyone who knows Athena well knows that she served as a protector of women who had been raped. Women like Medusa who had been victimized were outcasts in ancient Greece and often turned to Athena as their protector. As Medusa was a devotee (and Poseidon a foe) of Athena, it makes no sense that the goddess would have blamed the victim.
What if Athena changed Medusa to be hideous as a form of protection? With her grotesque new form, Poseidon had no power, nor did anyone else who had the same violent desires. As the goddess of war – and wisdom – Athena knew she could not change the fact that violence exists, but she could redirect it.
Next time you watch Clash of the Titans, or clash with someone who has been brutalized, remember that ugliness is a form of protection when no other strategy works.
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