medusa: victim turned villain

I am a sucker for Greek mythology. Every aspect of it is intriguing to me (except the incest part). And while the whole wide world and their grandmothers are obsessed about the twelve Olympians who reign over Mount Olympus, I’m more interested in discussing Medusa.

Everyone is apt to classify Medusa as the archetypal scornful creature whose gaze can petrify any mortal into stone. Naturally, people assume that Medusa has done something unforgivable to be cursed as such. She desecrated the temple of Athena, of course she should be punished, right? Wrong.

The Tale of Medusa (As Told Without Favoring Athena or Poseidon)

Medusa was born daughter to Phorcys and Ceto, along with her two sisters, on the island of Sarpedon. What a beauty she turned out to be! Despite the lust of her suitors, Medusa grew to be a priestess who took the oath of chastity and wholeheartedly devoted herself to Athena, the Goddess of Warfare and Wisdom.

For a little context before the trouble ensues: Poseidon and Athena both vied to rule over a land that would later become the city of Athens, which is clearly named after Athena who emerged triumphant by bestowing an olive tree to the people.

Poseidon—the large and almighty sea God, Earth-shaker, and Lord of Horses—lose to his Goddess niece? Well, that would dent his reputation in the eyes of the Olympians, wouldn’t it? Pissed at Athena for her victory, Poseidon wasted no time to exact revenge, and this is where Medusa comes into the picture.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the story, so here it is, raw on a platter: Poseidon raped Medusa. In Athena’s temple, no less! Poseidon’s little scheme worked; his desecration of her temple enraged Athena. When the Goddess of Warfare and Wisdom caught wind of it, she decided to inflict eternal pain onto Medusa by turning her into a Gorgon. Athena stripped Medusa of her beauty, replacing her hair with hissing serpents, turning her eyes completely black, rotting her teeth, and deteriorating her skin. The Goddess then decreed that any mortal who snatches a glance at Medusa will be irreversibly petrified in stone. Medusa had become a Gorgo; she was reduced from a woman to nothing in the blink of an eye.

The story of Medusa ends with the poor woman stranded in public, being attacked by the creatures from her head. Her cries for help were underlined with pleads of innocence, yet nobody believed or tried to help her.

Drawing Parallels

I suppose you know where I’m going with this; Medusa’s story is not one of myth or Greek fable, it is the story of many rape victims out there, minus the God and serpent part.

I want to draw parallels between Medusa’s story and so many silenced and misjudged rape victims. These women have their stories narrated in an incomplete manner, one that chooses to leave out their pain and agonies and instead defend the perpetrator.

Medusa’s life was thwarted onto a different trajectory and she never had a say in it—much like the stories of many rape victims. They have to live with the memory of what had once happened to them. Some, like Medusa, have to bear permanent scars etched onto their very being, punished to remember something that they never asked for.

Medusa was unfairly chastised when she was the victim. She was a beautiful mortal who held on to her sanctity, never done anyone harm, or offended the Gods, but just because the God who invented horses couldn’t keep it in his pants, Medusa ended up paying the price.

While there are many accounts of Medusa’s story, most of them paint her as a promiscuous woman who seduced Poseidon. In Ovid’s telling of Medusa’s tale, Perseus boasts that Medusa had what was coming to her, that her punishment was justified. See, this is where I think Ovid had it all wrong; to think of Medusa as a criminal worthy of retribution is feeding into the “she asked for it” myth. This brings up another imperative feature of rape cases.

As a woman, trust me when I say no woman will ever ask you for rape. It doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing or what she said, where she was or what she was doing. A victim is a victim. A rapist is a rapist. And rape is the sole responsibility, misjudgment, and amorality of the perpetrator.

While we’re here, let me shed light on another issue: Sure, you could argue that the older Greeks viewed virginity to be something highly sacred, but how is it fair to punish the woman when she never meant for it to happen? Medusa loses her virginity—unwillingly, might I add—and she is shamed for eternity while Poseidon gets away scot-free.

A woman is worth so much more than her ‘first time’, and defining us by just that undermines all our other qualities that could potentially rival a man’s.

Why Did Athena Unleash Wrath On Medusa?

Being a student of politics means I’m obligated to pursue reason. Instead of just being enraged by Athena’s lack of mercy for the victim, I have to ask myself why she chose to punish Medusa. So far, I’ve managed to formulate two theories:

One: Poseidon was one of the three brothers who ruled the world after Zeus defeated Kronos. He was a male God who ruled the oceans; during that time, Poseidon outranked Athena in terms of power and territory. In fact, when Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades split the world, they cast aside their fellow Goddesses because they saw the women unfit to rule.

In brawl, Athena was almost guaranteed to lose to Poseidon. Even if she won, there’s always the possibility of her being shunned by the other Olympians under the order of Poseidon, and Athena was far too smart to risk that. So, Athena needed an outlet to displace her anger—I mean, of course she was going to activate rage mode when her horny God-uncle decides to get it on in a temple dedicated to her—and because unleashing wrath on Poseidon wasn’t a viable option, she thought Medusa would suffice.

Two: In Medusa’s time, rape victims were actually shamed and shunned—it was a normalized practice. Virginity held a lot more meaning and value in earlier days compared to our contemporary society; it was something sacred. Those who were raped then were viewed as ‘unholy’ and to have ‘lost their value’. When we factor this into account, it’s easy to understand why Athena acted the way she did. Part of her was afraid of the sea God and the other part was programmed by societal constructs to automatically hate on the victim.

It just goes to show how deadly societal constructs like these are when even Gods are not immune to them.

But That’s Not Where The Story Ends… Enter The Patriarchy!

I know it seems like I have made my case and should rest it. But how could I when Medusa’s story hasn’t come to resolution?

Years later, after having to live with her hideous looks and the inability to ever form a true connection with anyone except for her Gorgon sisters, Medusa was annihilated by Perseus, who was allegedly sent by Athena (to end her suffering or to simply end her life, we will never know).

Equipped with magical weapons, Perseus defeated Medusa without breaking a sweat. In fact, Perseus did more than just slay her; he cut her head off and took it with him to shield himself from monsters (apparently, Medusa’s gaze still works).

In other words, Medusa was weaponized after her death. Even if Perseus one day decides he no longer needed Medusa’s head, I wouldn’t be too far off to assume some other man picked her up and kept her as a trophy.

This brings me to another issue: Men treating women as conquests rather than equal beings. Christobel Hastings put it best: “The story of a powerful woman raped, demonized, then slain by a patriarchal society? It seems less of an ancient myth than a modern reality.”

The easiest example to derive evidence from is how men get to brag about how many women they have slept with as if the higher the number, the higher their ranking in their friend groups. Women are not toys to be objectified, nor are we conquests to be won over. It comes as no surprise that in a time when men were worshiped and praised as Gods, Medusa fell prey to the patriarchy.

In other versions of the myth, it is said that Athena took Medusa’s head from Perseus and embellished her aegis with it. In my opinion, this is far worse; imagine having to be a display for the person who doomed you in the first place!

From the moment she was raped in that temple, Medusa had lost control of her identity and body. If that wasn’t enough, she ended up losing her head, too—literally and figuratively.

So, there it is. I have retold Medusa’s story in a way that honors her and those who have had to endure the same as her (save for being turned into a monster with snakes for hair); now, it is your responsibility to pass it on.