If You Think Medusa Was Entirely Fiction, Surprise!
In 2019, scientists and archeologists found the cave of Medusa with fragments of a 2500 year old carving of her
“Flee, for if your eyes are petrified in amazement, she will turn you to stone.”
— Gaspare Murtola, 16th century poet
Here’s what you probably know about Medusa. She was a monster who had snakes for hair and turned men to stone by looking at them.
Except, that’s not the whole story.
Medusa was the story of a victim, not a villain.
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m writing about a myth?
I’m not, really. I’m writing about a story that’s as old as time and still pokes gnarly fingers into our lives today. Read along. You’ll see.
She was beautiful, once...
Medusa was the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters. Her sisters were hideous. Like Cinderella and her ugly step-sisters.
Maybe more like the Munster’s where the “ugly” cousin is beautiful. Gorgons were supposed to be hideous. Her sisters were, but Medusa wasn’t.
She was so pure and beautiful, the goddess Athena chose her to be a priestess in her temple. Young and innocent. Wide eyes and long dark hair flowing in curls and waves over her shoulders.
Athena was one of three celibate Greek goddesses. Honored to be chosen as priestess, Medusa knelt before Athena and took a vow of celibacy.
The problem was that Poseidon wanted her.
Not her, specifically. She was just spoils of war. There was a bitter sibling rivalry between Athena and Poseidon and he wanted to defile her new priestess and her temple. If he could do that, he would be the victor.
He tried seducing Medusa first but the more she refused, the more determined he became. So he did what the gods were known to do.
He raped Medusa. In Athena’s temple.
Athena was enraged by the desecration of her holy space. Not at her brother Poseidon, but at Medusa. How dare she taint the temple! Her fault. Her beauty must have driven him to it. Her fault. Can’t you hear shades of that, still?
Why were you there?
What were you wearing?
What did you expect?
It makes me sad. Myth be damned, it’s the story of a young girl being raped and the woman who had the power to comfort and defend her turned against her. Blamed her for being the victim of rape. That story is alive and well still today.
So Athena turned Medusa’s beautiful dark curly hair into curling, hissing snakes. Turned her body into a snake. Gave her yellow snake eyes. Made her face so hideous that no man would ever want to look at her again, lest he be turned to stone.
Medusa slithered away in grief and shame.
Back to the Gorgon’s cave she went, where she laid in misery as her belly grew bigger and bigger with Poseidon’s child.
The death of Medusa
It’s not like she was turning men to stone for the joy of it. She was hiding in her cave. But still, hundreds of warriors journeyed to the cave to try kill the beast. But alas, as soon as they looked at her, they turned to stone.
They blamed her for that, too. Good and promising young men lost their future because of her! And doesn’t that old refrain sound familiar?
So the Gods chose Perseus, a Greek hero, to end her life. They gave him 5 gifts. A helmet of invisibility, a magic sword to behead her with, a polished reflective shield so he didn’t have to look at her, a magic pouch to carry her head in, and winged sandals.
The shield that protected him was a gift from Athena herself.
When “brave” Perseus killed Medusa, Poseidon’s child flew from her dead body. Her usefulness as a woman complete, I guess.
When Medusa’s hideous sisters pursued him, he used the invisibility helmet and winged sandals to get away.
The men who wrote her story…
Once upon a time, there was a man named Hesiod. He lived at the same time as Homer, the Greek poet who influenced western culture through his writing. Hesiod was the first known writer to write the story of Medusa.
A few hundred years later, another writer named Ovid expanded on the story. Basically, he was an ancient version of The Brothers’ Grimm.
The brothers Grimm didn’t make up their stories. They wrote down common stories so they wouldn’t be forgotten. That’s what Ovid did, too. But much earlier.
Know what a common story was back in the time of Hesiod and Ovid?
The gods. And rape.
Rape has been a central theme in art history since ancient Greek times.
It was a sought after theme in storytelling and Ovid’s stories were filled with it. They had a phrase for it — heroic rape. Men conquer. Sometimes that includes raping the women of the enemy. Sometimes women just were the enemy.
Like Poseidon raping Medusa to desecrate the temple of his rival, even though it was his own sister. He had to conquer her to establish his dominance.
There are many stories of Greek gods raping both goddesses and mortal women. Persephone, goddess of spring and agriculture, was raped by both her uncle Hades and her father Zeus as they battled each other. Zeus raped at least 10 women.
Raping for power and conquest is a story that spans all time. It’s happening today. In Ukraine and other places where women are considered spoils of war.
If you think Medusa was entirely fiction, surprise!
In 2019, scientists discovered the cave of Medusa. Inside the cave were fragments of a ceramic carving of Medusa, estimated to be 2500 years old.
According to the Gibraltar Museum, the finding gives support to the myth.
“Very rarely, archaeology appears to lend credence to a myth. The discovery, in Gorhams Cave, Gibraltar, of fragments of a Gorgoneion, a ceramic representation of the Gorgon Medusa… is one example.” (source)
The cave was discovered at the extreme western end of the Mediterranean Sea, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. During Hesiod’s time, the location was known as the northern Pillar of Herakles, and it marked the end of the known world.
So you understand, finding the cave doesn’t prove Medusa was real.
It really only proves that 2500 years ago, humans went into that cave and mounted a ceramic (terra cotta) carving depicting Medusa in the very cave Hesiod and Ovid wrote about. The cave at the end of the known world.
What really happened in that cave, we don’t know. We may never know.
All we have to go on is a story.
Neil Gaiman once said fairy tales don’t exist to teach children about bogey.
Children are born knowing bogey. The purpose of fairy tales, he said, is to teach children that monsters can be vanquished.
And it’s true. Monsters can be vanquished.
But maybe sometimes, we’re a little fuzzy on who the monster is.
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
References and more reading
The Timeless Myth of Medusa, a Rape Victim Turned Into a Monster
This is super disturbing, but sadly, not very surprising. "Heroic rape" is possibly the worst phrase ever. Thanks for the enlightenment. I will never look at Medusa the same again.
One of your best!!!!! WOW. Of course I love myth and the truths deep within them. And as Linda Ann R says, great Marcus Aurelius quote. The cherry atop the luscious, luminous sundae.