The Tragic Tale of Medusa: From Beautiful Priestess to Monsterous Gorgon

The story of Medusa is a tragic one, and her backstory isn’t one that myths often reveal. She was once a beautiful and powerful woman, but the Gods turned her into a monster despite her inability to control the events in her life. What exactly happened to cause her transformation? Let’s take a closer look at how Medusa became the monster we know today.

Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

Medusa’s Story Throughout History

Almost anyone you talk to will be able to tell you that Medusa was a monstrous creature with a head of writhing snakes instead of hair. What they might not know is why she looked that way.

Over the years and as cultures morphed and changed, so did the story of Medusa. Most of the time, these changes suited the societal needs of the time, but her story is one of the oldest myths in recorded Greek history.

The concept of Medusa has captured the interest of storytellers and historians for centuries because her story is one filled with betrayal, heartbreak, and tragedy.

It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of being too trusting and the power of anger and vengeance. It’s also a story that shows how circumstances can turn even the most beautiful among us into hideous creatures if we’re not careful.

There is some contention about how Medusa became a monster. When her origins are considered, it’s difficult for the many retellings to agree.

Medusa, by Caravaggio (1595)

The earliest stories depict her as a monster from birth. Later stories describe her as a beautiful maiden turned nightmare. Either way, it seems that Medusa was a victim of the horrible treatment of the gods. So let’s explore the most popular origins a bit deeper.

The Gorgon Sisters

One of the oldest versions of Medusa’s origins is written by the poet Hesiod (c. 700 BCE). In his work, Theogony, he describes the Gorgon sisters as monsters born from the blood that spurted out when the castrated Uranus was chopped up and tossed into the sea.

These three sisters, Euryale, Stheno, and Medusa, were so hideous that anyone who looked upon them would turn to stone.

Medusa was the only mortal one of the three sisters, while her sisters remained ageless and immortal. This was unfair, considering that Medusa was the only mortal among her siblings.  It was this great injustice that would eventually lead to her downfall.

Who Turned Medusa into a Monster?

You first need to know about Medusa because she was a priestess of Athena, the god of wisdom and battle. Servicing Athena requires young women to be virgins and give their lives to the goddess.

Many men vied for Medusa as her beauty was unique among mortals. Because of her position and her beauty, Poseidon, the god of the sea, took an interest in her.

In addition, Poseidon and Athena were rivals. Seeing Medusa, Poseidon hatched a plan to get back at Athena. Poseidon humiliated Athena by raping Medusa on the steps of her temple.

Perseus with the Head of MedusaBenvenuto Cellini (1554) – CC BY-SA 3.0

At this point, the Sea God left his victim on the temple’s steps, weak, vulnerable, and alone. Medusa, fearing the worst prayed for forgiveness from Athena. However, Athena was enraged and cursed Medusa for betraying her and her oath as a priestess.

If that wasn’t punishment enough, Athena also banished her from society to a faraway island where she would live her cursed days alone. Many considered Medusa a beautiful maiden. However, Athena ensured that no one would be able to look upon her again. Athena gave Medusa chicken legs, cracked skin, giant metal wings, a terrifying madness, and snake hair and stony eyes.

Anyone who looked upon Medusa would turn to stone from that point onward. Men came to her island only to chase her while trying to kill her.

Eventually, her fear of her powers turned to anger, and she cursed the gods for ruining her life. In turn, Medusa took her revenge on all of the men that came to kill her. The only way he could free them was if Perseus, the son of Zeus, beheaded her. Some say that she longed for this end. 

It would come years later as Perseus ventured to her island to save his mother. Armed with weapons and gifts from the gods. Using a mirrored shield from Athena, flying shoes from Hermes, and a sword and crown from Zeus, Perseus outsmarted Medusa and cut off her head.

When Perseus eventually killed Medusa, her blood gave birth to Pegasus’s winged horse and a golden warrior named Chrysaor. Athena used her head as a decoration on her shield, protecting against her enemies, while her body was laid to rest in the underworld.

How Medusa’s Injustice Relates To Modern Society

The story of Medusa has been retold countless times throughout history. It’s a story of tragedy, heartbreak, and ultimately revenge. Yet, the circumstances can relate her story to modern society in many ways. Like Medusa, women have been mistreated, abused, and belittled by men for centuries.

It wasn’t until recently that women began to fight back and demand their respect. Like Medusa, women have been made to feel like monsters through no fault of their own. Over time, Medusa became synonymous with ugliness, anger, and terror. Where possible, resistors demonize women by depicting them as Medusa.

However, her story is also of strength, courage, and resilience. Medusa persevered and fought back against her oppressors despite the many obstacles she faced. In many ways, she is an inspiration to women everywhere who have been made to feel like monsters. 

Just as Medusa avenged the men who wronged her, women now take a stand and fight back. It’s time for society to see them as beautiful and robust creatures without fearing or mistreating them.

The story of Medusa is a tragic one, but it’s also one of hope and strength. No matter how dark or complicated life may seem, there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

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