The Myth of Medusa

At age 11 I first started reading the Percy Jackson series that became my first encounter with the extremely complicated world of Greek Mythology. I found out about the Olympians, nymphs, satyrs, cyclops, and a plethora of other creatures. Some I liked, some not so much. Among this myriad of characters was a Gorgon named Medusa.

When I first came across Medusa, she was a creature of evil. She lured innocent victims in her ‘garden’ and converted them into statues of stone. She was nothing more than an impediment in my vicarious adventures through the trio of Percy Jackson, Annabeth Chase, and Grover Underwood. But as most opinions you form at the age of eleven, this too changed.

As my interest in Greek Mythology grew, I started looking up myths myself. I soon realised that Percy’s encounter with Medusa mirrored that of Persues in the original myth (which is not surprising given that Percy’s mother Sally had named him after the Greek hero Persues in the novel). Medusa was still a monster, one who ‘defiled’ the temple of Athena and was punished for her crimes by being turned into a hideous creature. Her slaying at the hands of Perseus was an act of heroism, and the use of her remains as weapons (her head, hair, and some of her blood) and cure (the remaining part of her blood) was just a happy byproduct of the situation. And then, of course, I grew up and the feminist in me decided to revisit, reread, and revise the meanings of myths.

Upon becoming aware of the nature of myths as an expression of narratives, I concluded that I reacted to the myth in the way I did because that is how the dominant patriarchal tradition wanted me to perceive it. I decided to read in between the lines (a degree in literature and the discussions on Tumblr helped a lot) and ended up with multiple questions. Why is it that the myth only talks about Poseidon’s desire for Medusa and not the other way round? We know that Medusa was a devotee of Athena, why then would she choose to defile the temple of the deity she devoted herself to? Why is it that if Medusa had supposedly defiled the temple by engaging in the sexual act with Poseidon, only Medusa was punished? Why did Poseidon not have to even answer for his actions, let alone face consequences? Why did Athena, the Goddess of knowledge and battle strategies, choose that particular curse?

In finding the answer to these questions I realised that the myth and the narrative around it was shaped by Patriarchy, it’s ideological implications and misogynistic manipulations.

The first two questions make us aware of the possibility that Poseidon’s desire was not reciprocated and the sexual act that ‘defiled’ the temple of Athena was an act of rape. Unfortunately, it is not very surprising because while Zeus is the most well known of the Olympians when it comes to committing rapes, he is most certainly not the only one.

The next two questions make us venture into the world of power relations because just as the real world exists in hierarchies, so do myths. Both Poseidon and Athena belong to the Olympian Pantheon. However, Poseidon is one of the primary three Gods and the brother of Zeus and Hades, making him one of the most powerful gods in the pantheon that turned more patriarchal in the myths as time passed and the society became entrenched in patriarchy. This meant that he could do no wrong and it was obviously Medusa’s fault for being beautiful and becoming the object of his desire. And since it was so clearly Medusa’s fault, it only makes sense that she was the one punished, even if she did not desire Poseidon, had no agency in the matter, and was raped. But hey, those are just minor details so who cares?

Athena cared. It is true that this particular reading of the myth so far shows Medusa as a victim and Athena would seem yet another perpetrator of patriarchal principles. Which is where the final question comes in. Athena is the Goddess of knowledge and battle strategies. Everything she does has much more logic and forethought into it than what appears at face value (which is a welcome break from the impulsive and whimsical Olympians like Zeus). This means that she did not randomly choose the curse. The curse that she chose was one that protected Medusa, her beloved devotee, from the gaze of others and to prevent an incident like this from happening again. The fact that the etymological root of Medusa means ‘to guard’ is also significant. Thus, Athena’s actions were a way of protecting Medusa while also preserving her own legitimacy.

It is true that according to the myths after Medusa was killed, her body parts were used as weapons leading to not only her mutilation but also her objectification. At the same time, however, her blood was used by Asclepius to bring back the dead and Euripedes claimed that one of the drops of her blood could be used to cure anything. The fact that her blood had regenerative and healing powers undermines the representation of Medusa as a dangerous, destructive, and monstrous figure. This once again reinforces that Medusa is not really the force of evil that the patriarchal tradition would like us to believe.

The myth of Medusa is just one of the multiple myths manipulated by society to support its dominant narratives. This is why it is imperative for us to read between the lines and look for the invisibilised voices so that we can liberate them and question the true oppressors.

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