The Myth of Medusa: Monster From Birth?

Medusa's severed head after her death. | Courtesy of Ancient Origins

On an eerie night, all the way in the ancient world of Greece, an impossible task was asked of Perseus, the son of Zeus. Perseus was asked to behead the dreadful monster of Medusa. He was asked to do this impossible task because everyone knew how dangerous and terrifying Medusa was. Therefore, Polydectes asked Perseus to carry out this mission because he wanted Perseus gone.1

There was no doubt about how dangerous the gorgon Medusa was, and all of Greece believed that whoever got close to her would turn to stone. Perseus’ mission was expected to be a failure due to these dangerous conditions. Medusa had a deadly power of turning those who looked into her eyes to stone. When Perseus was asked to behead her, Polydectes and the other gods didn’t believe Perseus could make it out with Medusa’s head and not be turned to stone. However, Perseus succeeded in his mission and beheaded the dreadful gorgon Medusa. The Greeks were ecstatic that this nightmare of a woman was dead and that the wonderful demi-god Perseus had Medusa’s fatal power in his hands. After this, Perseus used Medusa’s head to turn many into stone and it kept the people of Greece in fear of Medusa even after she was dead.2 However, Medusa was not always the feared monster that everyone knew her to be.

Statue of Medusa | Courtesy of Ancient Creations

Before Medusa was known as a terrifying monster, she was a beautiful maiden who was very kind and pious. Medusa was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. Phorcys was a sea god and Ceto was the goddess of sea monsters. Ceto gave birth to all three of the gorgons; Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa. Medusa was the only one of the gorgons who was mortal, while the other two were immortal. Medusa was a beautiful young woman who was a priestess for the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena. Medusa was a very good priestess, as she made a vow to the goddess that she would swear her life to celibacy and servitude. However, while Medusa was praising and serving Athena, she caught eye of the god Poseidon. What caught his attention most were the gorgeous, golden locks of hair Medusa had. Because Poseidon took such a liking to Medusa, he charmed her and swayed her off her feet. The two were caught having a love affair in Athena’s temple. Once Athena found out about this affair, her jealousy raged and she became furious! She then decided to put a nasty curse on Medusa for breaking her promise of celibacy. This curse turned Medusa’s beautiful locks into venomous snakes and made it so that whenever someone looked at Medusa, they would turn to stone.3

Medusa’s face on ancient coins from Greece | Courtesy of Ancient Artifacts

This curse completely turned Medusa’s life around. Once given this curse, Medusa fled her home, never to return. On her journeys, she was shunned, feared, and loathed by all she encountered. These awful experiences turned Medusa’s kind, pious personality into one that matched her new appearance. It’s a shame the goddess Athena had the power to turn Medusa’s entire life around; however, Medusa was not just a feared monster to the ancient Greeks. Medusa’s severed head eventually became a symbol that scared away evil. Many warriors used the symbol of Medusa’s head on shields and breastplates during battle to aid them in winning. Other than aiding in battle, the symbol of Medusa is also seen on ancient coins from Greece that are now ancient artifacts.4 Although Medusa came to be hated by all, she was still an important part of the culture and became a key symbol in ancient Greece.

  1. Stephen R. Wilk, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 20.
  2. Carolyn Springer, “Medusa The Reader,” Women’s Art Journal 28, no. 1 (2007): 63-64.
  3. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender, 2007, s.v. “Medusa,” by Paolo Fasoli.
  4. G. K. Jenkins, “Some ancient coins of Libya,” Libyan Studies 5, no. 1 (March 2015): 29-35.

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101 Responses

  1. This article was really interesting. I had never heard this version before. I had always read that Poseidon had taken advantage of Medusa and that Athena gave her the ability to turn people to stone to prevent her from being hurt again. I enjoyed reading this version though. It really goes to show that whether its Ancient Greece or modern times that there’s no wrath like a woman scorned.

  2. Why did Athena get mad? Posiden wasn’t even her husband.
    Poor Medusa. She was lonely, left in the dust.

  3. Medusa has always been one of my favorite myths, but I had never heard her backstory. I believe she loved Poseiden very much, but he clearly did not have the same feelings towards her if he did not try to find a cure for her. It was very interesting to find out that Medusa was used as a symbol to scare away evil. This article was very interesting. Great job!

  4. The Greek legends always seemed to make Medusa an evil person. I believe Perseus was Poseidon’s son because of the Lightning Thief novel but the article clears up that, Perseus is the son of Zeus. Poseidon raped Medusa but everyone believed his version where Medusa and he had an affair because she was beautiful to him, while Athena believed Medusa when she told her she’d been raped. This was a great article and I learned more than I knew. Great Job.

    1. Um….Medusa was never raped by poseidon.
      That version your referring to was the version,written by Ovid.
      Ovid was a Roman poet,who had a huge dislike towards the Greek figures,especially
      Ovid was also born centuries after stories about medusa were already being told.
      So this version your referring to,never even happend.It was really fan fiction that Ovid wrote.
      Medusa and Athena never really had any interference with each other,besides when Athena sent perseus to kill medusa and bring back her head for Athena to put on her shield,for protection.
      Medusa was always a very terrible creature,but she also in a way stands as protector of women.
      Her head was used to protect Athena against threats and countless other women as well.

  5. Such an interesting and informative article! Very captivating. I have obviously heard of Medusa prior however did not know this aspect of the story. This article really highlights the theme “evil is not born yet created.” It gives me sympathy towards her regarding the myth. It was not entirely her fault for who she turned out to be. Great job, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. 

  6. The origin story of Medusa is often overlooked in favor of the tale of her death at the hands of Perseus. As an avid reader of Greek mythology, I pity Medusa and her curse because some stories depict her fall from celibacy as Poseidon tricking Medusa while others say it was love. Regardless, I pitied her because Athena only punished Medusa for act and Poseidon escaped punishment free. This story reminded me of The Scarlet Letter because Hester and Medusa were both punished for crimes that are caused by two people.

  7. I love reading Greek Mythology and I love to hear the stories and myths, especially when it comes to any God’s Judgment towards mortals. I have heard of Medusa before and the many ways that the story is told, but what I learned from this article was the way they used her for in battle. I had no idea she was used as a symbol that scared away evil and from them to use it on shields and breastplates was really fascinating to learn about.

  8. I absolutely love Greek mythology! Great topic to choose. Medusa is always an interesting one. What really gets me, which I’m glad you put in there, is she was hated by a lot of people. People really feared her, definitely a reminder that Athena is capable of a lot. Yet they used her in every aspect, Like you stated. “warriors used them to let there enemies know, used to keep evil away, even on coins.” Why would someone who was sincerely feared be one of the biggest tales in mythology. She was a priestess of Athena, which means she was high ranking and virtues in the eyes of who worshipped Athena. The Gods are known for their infidelities’ and their love to intervene in human lives. I wonder is it was turned around. What if Poseidon came on to her, to get Athena jealous on purpose. What if it was rape. This women clearly was significant to be continued on into their mythology history. Stories always come from tales.

  9. Although Medusa is a famous myth, I had never heard of the backstory of how she became the monster that we all know. It was interesting to learn that she was not born as a monster, but as a mortal girl and eventually having an affair with Poseidon. I guess Poseidon didn’t care enough about medusa to find a cure for the curse that he was partially the cause for.

  10. Greek mythology is always such a fascinating topic, especially since each story has a moral. When people hear the name, Medusa, people tend to think negatively of her since according to myth, she did a whole lot of evil things. It is especially interesting to hear her backstory since she was never an evil person, but a genuine person. This goes to show how circumstances and the way people treat you can turn you into what they say of one.

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