The snake-haired image of Medusa was ubiquitous in ancient Greece. Her grotesque visage — wide eyes, gnashing tongue, sharp teeth and, most famously, hissing snakes for hair — adorned temple roofs, military shields and even the bottom of drinking vessels to deliver a jolt of surprise with the last gulp of wine.
But if you read the Medusa myths closely, they reveal a complex portrait of a "monster" who is as much a victim as a victimizer, explains Spyros Syropoulos, a professor of ancient Greek literature in the Department of Mediterranean Studies at the University of the Aegean in Greece. Medusa was once a beautiful young woman, but she was raped by Poseidon and punished by Athena to become a monstrous Gorgon whose very gaze turned men to stone.
As the ultimate cruelty, Medusa's severed head was brandished by her tormentor Athena as a weapon and object of fear. The ancient Greeks themselves used the terrifying image of Medusa's head, called a gorgoneion, as a protective charm.
"When we think of Medusa, we think of the head only," says Syropoulos, author of "A Bestiary of Monsters in Greek Mythology." "The severed head becomes much more important than the blameless girl, Medusa."
Multiple Versions of the Medusa Myth
As with much of Greek mythology, there are several versions of Medusa's origin story. The oldest myths cast her as a monster from birth, while the later stories describe an innocent young maiden punished for the sins of the gods.
According to the Greek poet Hesiod, writing in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., Medusa was one of three sisters known as the Gorgons born to the primeval gods Ceto and Phorcys, who were mother and son. Medusa's fate was "a sad one," wrote Hesiod, because she was mortal while her sisters Sthenno and Euryale were ageless and lived forever.
"There's something monstrous and unfair in that Medusa's the only mortal," says Syropoulos. "Not to mention that she was born from a 'monstrous' relationship."
Writing a century after Hesiod, Greek poet Stasinus of Cyprus described Medusa and her Gorgon sisters as "fearful monsters who lived in Sarpedon, a rocky island in deep-eddying Oceanus." The word Gorgon comes from the Greek gorgos meaning "terrible." Greek playwright Aeschylus, writing in the fifth century B.C.E., filled in the details of the Gorgons' horrific appearance: "three winged sisters, the snake-haired Gorgons, loathed of mankind, whom no one of mortal kind shall look upon and still draw breath."
Later stories doubled down on the unfairness of Medusa's fate. The Roman poet Ovid, writing around the time of Christ (first century C.E.), said that Medusa wasn't a monster at first, but a maiden with "lovely hair" who caught the eye of lustful Poseidon, god of the sea. Poseidon raped Medusa in the Temple of Athena, and the goddess of wisdom and war was so angry that she transformed Medusa's flowing hair into "loathsome snakes."
"Instead of punishing the god, Athena punished the mortal, which was unfair," says Syropoulos. "But that's how the gods behaved in Greek mythology — petty, vindictive and cruel."
Perseus and Medusa
Medusa's most famous appearance in Greek mythology is as the feared monster in the heroic story of Perseus. In order to free his mother, Perseus was sent to kill Medusa, the winged Gorgon who could petrify mortals (literally turn them to stone) with a single look. Armed with gifts from the gods, including a mirror-like shield that allowed him to gaze upon Medusa unharmed, Perseus chopped off Medusa's head.
Even after she was dead, Medusa's head was used as a weapon. Perseus unveiled it to petrify his mother's captor and then delivered Medusa's head to Athena, who attached the gorgoneion to her shield to terrify her enemies.
"Medusa was returned to the goddess who had made her into a monster, and then became an unwilling victimizer herself," says Syropoulos. "There's never-ending violence in this story, a perpetuation of evil and wickedness. But there's much more wickedness in the goddess Athena than in the blameless girl, Medusa."
In Greek art, Athena and other gods often carry shields adorned with the protective image of Medusa. The colossal statue known as Athena Parthenos, once the centerpiece of the Parthenon, depicted Athena with two gorgoneia, one on her shield and another on her breastplate. That type of protective talisman is called "apotropaic," which explains why Medusa's image is found on everything from ancient funeral jars to the roof tiles of temples, where she scared off evil spirits (similar to gargoyles on medieval cathedrals).
Myth and Monstrosity in Ancient Greece
Today, we view Greek mythology as entertaining stories of fictional gods, goddesses, heroes and monsters, but the ancient Greeks saw myth as true stories from a distant past.
"They couldn't put a date on it, but the ancient Greeks didn't doubt that something real had taken place 'once upon a time,'" says Syropoulos. "Nobody doubted that Hercules went to the underworld and brought back the three-headed dog, Cerberus, or that Jason went to the other side and retrieved the Golden Fleece."
To the Greeks, monsters weren't seen as inherently evil or ugly. A monster was any creature that transgressed human perception, including the beautiful, winged horse Pegasus (born from Medusa's blood after her beheading by Perseus). In Greek culture, the world was composed of complementary dualities — day and night, Mount Olympus and Hades — and both good and evil could exist at the same time, even within the gods.
Perhaps no character from Greek myth personified that dual nature better than the "monster" Medusa.
"She's beautiful and grotesque," says Syropoulos. "We feel repulsion, but also compassion. She's a victim and a victimizer. She's mortal, but her image lives on forever. This is what made it impossible for centuries of artists and poets to ignore her."