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The Real Myth of Medusa

Ah, Medusa!  One of my favorite Greek Myths.  She is feared.  And she is misunderstood.  But very few people understand the truth behind the myth of Medusa.  The truth behind the myth of Medusa doesn’t start with Perseus.  It doesn’t even start with Medusa being cursed by Athena.  It begins before that – in a history that isn’t written down.

The myth of Medusa
“Medusa head sculpture in gray color” by OpenClipart Public Domain CC0 1.0

The Myth of Medusa

Medusa was a priestess to Athena. Athens is the goddess of war and wisdom.  She is also the only virgin goddess.  Part of the requirements of being a priestess to Athena would have included Medussa promising to remain chaste while in service.

Then imagine this – one day you are gathering water for service in the temple and here comes Poseidon and sees her.  Medusa was rumored to be incredibly beautiful.  So, as what happens in all the myths, Poseidon sees her, wants her, and takes her.  It is said that she ran to the Temple of Athena seeking protection.

Now, this makes sense.  Why?

  1. Who better to protect Medusa than Athena, her patron god.
  2. Who better to protect a woman’s virtue than Athena, one of three virgin goddesses.
  3. Who better to protect Medusa against Poseidon than Athena, an enemy to Poseidon.

But that isn’t what happens.  Poseidon rapes Medusa on the floor of the Temple of Athena.

Athena comes and sees that her temple has been defiled.  She doesn’t blame her fellow god; she blames the human – Medusa.  Medusa’s sisters come to her defense and thus suffer part of the punishment.  Athena curses Medusa with a head full of snakes, eternal life, and that any man who looks at her will be turned to stone.  This punishment turns Medusa into a monster that is isolated from the world of men – thus she can never be near another man again.

And then we come to the myth of Perseus, which we will save for another day.

The Moral of Medusa

It saddens me because she is always depicted in these horrific ways – a true monster, the Gorgon.  But the myth of Medusa ignores that none of this is her fault.  She does nothing wrong, and she is punished by the gods anyways.

This myth is actually a warning to mortals.  Don’t believe yourself to be equal to the gods.  Who was Medusa to reject the advances of Poseidon?  A mortal should never do this.

Roman Medusa Amulet
A Roman cameo of Medusa’s head from the 2nd or 3rd century. (Sailko/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

But what is interesting is that the gorgon shows up in other cultures.  People would carve her image over their doors to ward off evil and protect their homes. Medusa’s name in ancient Greek means “to guard and protect.”  They recently discovered an amulet with the head of Medusa on it carried by a Roman soldier to England.  Anthropologists believe that Roman soldiers would carry her image with them in their travels as protection.

If you want to learn more – check out the History Channel’s series The Clash of the Gods.  Want to show this in your class?  Here is a study guide I made for my students.

Myth of Medusa

Additional Facts

Wonder what happened to the head of Medusa?  Perseus gives the head to Athena, who in turn places it on her shield, protecting her as she goes into battle.

Oh and PS – because every time the gods have sex they have a child – the child of Medusa and Poseidon? Pegasus.  He emerges from her body when Perseus cuts her head off.  I don’t think Disney wanted to include that little tidbit in their movie Hercules.

 

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The Real Myth of Medusa

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Hi, I'm Lesli!

I help Secondary English Teachers with engaging curriculum so that they can go home at contract time.

I’ve worked in education for 15 years, taught everything from Basic English and Mythology to AP Lang.  You’ll find me with my puppy Athena on the weekend quilting.

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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