Told and retold: The Medusa myth and its many heads of interpretation
TW: This blogpost contains mention of violence, nudity, sexual assault, and r*pe
Classic myths have long been a source of fascination for storytellers through the ages. One of the most popular myths from ancient Greek mythology is that of Medusa, the fearsome snake-haired sister of Sthenno and Euryale, and her ability to turn any person to stone with a single glance.
The myth of Medusa most famously begins with Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which he depicts her as a maiden whose beauty attracts the wandering eyes of Poseidon, God of the Sea.
"Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne'er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav'd, and graceful shone."
- Ovid's Metamorphoses
Due to this, he stalks and eventually "ravages" her in Athena's temple, with Athena being his wife. Whether out of jealousy at Medusa's beauty or blind rage at this sacrilege being committed in her own temple - the versions vary - Athena transforms Medusa's hair into a head of snakes, instantly turning any person that looks at her into stone.
Despite being the victim, Medusa was blamed for being a temptress and punished accordingly; for followers of movements such as #MeToo or the rape trial citing lacy underwear as a form of consent, this notion shares a startling semblance.
Perseus's slaying of Medusa in her home in Sarpedon while she slept is often one synonymous with male bravado and victory. He takes off with Medusa's decapitated head in her bag, handing it as a prize to Athena - the very woman that cursed Medusa to begin with - while her two sisters are left behind to mourn the death of their sibling.
"...in the mirror of his polish'd shield
Reflected saw Medusa slumbers take,
And not one serpent by good chance awake.
Then backward an unerring blow he sped,
And from her body lop'd at once her head."
- Ovid's Metamorphoses
Many versions also depict Medusa as being pregnant at the time of her death, with her children Chrysaor and Pegasus erupting from her neck following her decapitation.
Throughout the centuries, Medusa has become a rich subject of symbolism, both pejorative and ameliorative. One universal interpretation of this mortal woman is her power; first initially borne from beauty enough to sway the gods, and secondly from her deadly looks.
Medusa is also often viewed as a fearful creature, a preying entity that embodies violence and deception. However, especially in contemporary times where feminism grows as an increasingly popular social movement, Medusa is seen as the epitome of feminine power, with her snakes' cycle of shedding their skin synonymous with menstruation or the cycle of the moon.
There have been many studies about what Medusa symbolises, especially surrounding the role of femininity in a patriarchal society, and the concept of "dangerous beauty".
The myth of Medusa has been interpreted vastly throughout art and literature. Below are just a few of the most famous examples of the depiction of Medusa, spanning her beauty, death, and prowess.
Medusa by Caravaggio (c.1600 – Uffizi Gallery), depicting the death of the Gorgon following her decapitation at the hands of Perseus.
The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault (c.1900 - The Louvre), who was inspired by the real-life French Royal Navy frigate set out to colonize Senegal.
Medusa With The Head of Perseus by Luciano Garbati is a piece of work that subverts the myth of Medusa. Despite being created in 2008, Medusa With The Head of Perseus is now synonymous with the #MeToo movement following the erection of a bronze version of the statue in Lower Manhattan, just across from a Centre Street courthouse.
Medusa retold by Sarah Wallis is a feminist retelling of the Medusa myth with a classic twist - it tells of poetic protagonist Nuala, her friendship and love with Athena, and tragic circumstances that leave readers entranced. For lovers of literature that engages with identity, gender, and the rage of the oppressed, this is a title not to be missed.