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Who is Medusa in Greek Mythology?
In Greek mythology, MEDUSA was one of the three horrendous Gorgons, daughter of two primordial sea deities, Phorcys and Ceto. Medusa is usually depicted as a winged female creature with living venomous snakes on her hair. These snakes replaced her original hair after Athena cursed Medusa for almost taking away her glory. How?—Continue reading to find out.
The story of Medusa is such a famous Greek myth told in today’s world, both to kids and adults alike. According to various sources, Medusa was the only Gorgon who was mortal, so she was able to be beheaded by the Greek hero, Perseus. Early Greek and English authors also said that Athena was the help Perseus had to behead Medusa. But why?—Let us find out!
The Beginning of the Story of Medusa
Somewhere in Greece, a cursed creature remained hidden. Among all the monsters who inhabited the nightmares of the Hellenic, this was undoubtedly one of the most feared. Many brave heroes dared to hunt this creature, but none ever returned.
They said that this creature was so hideous that no one could face it—Her name was Medusa.
Medusa was not always like that. She once had been one of the most beautiful women ever to walk the earth. She was born of the union of two primordial sea deities, Phorcys and Ceto. But Medusa came into the world as an average child.
Medusa had two sisters, Stheno and Euryale. They were Gorgons — creatures that combined women and serpent traits. Since childhood, Medusa was devoted to the goddess Athena, and when playing with her sisters, she always pretended to be the goddess Athena, while her sisters love to be the villains.
Together with the girls, she also played with Iphicles, who is Medusa’s best friend. The two were inseparable. Medusa grew and became more beautiful every day.
Medusa’s charms made the young Iphicles an easy target for Eros, the god of love. In love, Iphicles declared his affection for Medusa. The young lady deeply loved the boy, but she dreamed of becoming a priestess of Athena and could not cave into the temptation of love.
Becoming Athena’s Priestess
When she reached the appropriate age, the young woman started her preparation to become an Athena priestess. The temple’s apprentices needed to have pristine conduct and discipline. All their acts could be reflected in the goddess’s reputation.
One of the crucial requirements for becoming a priestess of Athena was absolute purity. They were to mirror themselves in Athena; therefore, the young women should remain virgins just like their goddess who never surrendered to the influence of Eros (God of Love) and Aphrodite (Goddess of Love and Beauty).
Medusa became a perfect priestess; Maybe even too perfect. The rituals conducted by Medusa kept attracting more followers. Athena was delighted with how that beautiful young woman performed each of her activities.
Medusa had beautiful fluttering hair, with her movements mesmerizing those who stared at her. A gullible man dared to say that Medusa’s hair was more beautiful than Athena’s. The goddess, from the top of Mount Olympus, noticed a commotion in one of her temples. She realized that many were not there to worship her, but rather to see the charming priestess.
Athena resisted the temptation to do anything against those who shifted their focus from her to Medusa. The goddess knew that, although this was wrong, the young priestess was not to blame. After all, she was only doing her work in the best way she could.
Meanwhile, at Mount Olympus, Poseidon noticed the goddess’s restlessness. The sea god and Athena had a major rivalry. They disputed the right to be the city’s patron god, the Attica region’s capital. The goddess was the winner of this dispute, and in honour of her new protective goddess, the city changed its name to Athens.
Poseidon did not accept defeat well, so he was waiting for the right moment to take revenge on the goddess. Poseidon noticed that Athena was focused on her most beautiful and gracious priestess. He decided that this beautiful young woman could be an instrument of his revenge.
Poseidon plotted to tarnish Athena’s reputation by striking her most unblemished follower. In the meantime, Medusa kept carrying her everyday life, unaware that the Olympic gods were watching her.
Medusa and Poseidon
Medusa walked by the sea and lurking, concealed among the waves, the god of the Seas followed her. She heard someone say her name; the call came from the ocean. Poseidon emerged from the sea in all his paramount glory. The god used his charm to seduce Athena’s priestess but Medusa, although, stunned by all his splendor, did not forget her vows and rejected Poseidon’s advance.
He did not accept the rejection and grabbed Medusa’s arm. She reacted unexpectedly and violently hitting him in the face, managed to get rid of the god.
Medusa ran to Athena’s temple, the only place where she felt safe, but Poseidon consumed by lust went after the young woman. Poseidon was almost reaching her when the brave Iphicles stood between the god of sea and Medusa.
Despite his bravery, Iphicles represented no obstacle to the god who with one blow through the young man away. Medusa stepped inside the temple of her goddess and knelt before her statue. She asked for protection when she heard the god of the Seas heavy footsteps approaching.
The god approached the encircled young woman who cried out for help. Poseidon possessed her on the goddess altar by force — in order words, Poseidon assulted Medusa.
The god happily left the temple. His revenge had gone better than planned. Besides having corrupted Athena’s best priestess, he also degraded her beloved temple, which the goddess deeply treasured for its purity.
The Curse and Punishment of Medusa
Medusa felt ashamed and filthy when the goddess Athena took the form of her statue and furiously blamed the priestess. Athena said,
“if it had not been for her striking presence, which diverted men from the path of virtue and purity and for her vanity which made her irresistible, none of that would have happened. Her temple would have remained immaculate, and her honour as a goddess would not have been diminished.”
Athena decided to punish the priestess, who is now impure and guilty for the dishonoring of the temple she was to care for.
The night arrived, and Iphicles regained consciousness, after the decisive blow he suffered. He then began to search for Medusa. He heard her cry in the temple of Athena. Arriving there, he encountered Medusa sitting on the ground crying in pitch-black darkness. She asked him not to come near because she did not want to be seen like that.
Concerned, her friend nevertheless approached, offering words of comfort. But when he touched the young woman’s shoulder, a serpent bit his hand. Medusa frighteningly turned, and the two youngsters looked at each other.
The young Iphicles became a stone-made statue. In desolation, Medusa wept, embracing the statue of her best friend. Not to hurt anyone else, she ran away. But during her escape, she was cited by some residents of the city. Those who looked into her eyes became petrified.
People told each other about that horrible snake-haired creature.
The Hunt of Medusa — Still Loyal to Athena
A group was assembled to hunt the creature. These men were found two days later wholly petrified and with terrified semblances. Medusa had no intention of hurting anyone; she simply wanted to defend herself from unfair aggression.
She decided to hide in a region that its inhabitants had abandoned for centuries. There she found an ancient temple in ruins, which she turned into her hiding spots. Many warriors attempted to capture the Gorgon for glory, but none ever returned.
Isolated, Medusa kept losing her remaining humanity. Her reputation as a terrible monster became legendary. Medusa survived by hunting small animals and rodents. One of her prey led to an unexpected reunion. Medusa encountered an ancient bust, which represented the goddess Athena. She realized that those ruins had once been one of the first temples to give shelter to the goddess.
This discovery revived her ancient habits. Medusa started to care for the temple and to exalt the glory of the goddess — the dilettante daughter of Zeus, the supreme God of Olympus.
However, living a miserable existence, the young woman still showed her nobility. In her heavenly residence, the goddess did not fail to notice the Honourable acts of her former priestess. She realized that her actions could not be justified by vanity, since no one could witness those acts, and she felt sorry for having enforced such a cruel and irreversible punishment on the girl.
Who Killed Medusa?
While conducting one of her many rituals, Medusa heard the steps of another invader. Medusa’s animalistic re-emerged, and she prepared to face another opponent. The daring warrior walked cautiously in the creature’s abode.
While she prepared the ambush, sneaking close to the warrior, she was stunned when noticing that he was carrying Athena’s shield. The sacred aegis that at once belonged to Zeus.
Athena’s shield was so polished that it reflected like a mirror, and using the reflection, the warrior realized that the monster was behind him. With a sharp blow, the young warrior severed Medusa’s head from her body.
Medusa was dead, and her blood kept dripping to the ground. The warrior anonymous until that point would go down in history under the name of Perseus.
The Birth of Medusa’s Children, Chrysaor and Pegasus
After completing his labours, Perseus returned Athena her aegis and also gave her Medusa’s head. What few knew was that Medusa carried Poseidon’s divine seed and from her blood, Chrysaor was born — the warrior of the golden sword.
Not only that, another beautiful creature, a winged horse also emerged. The majestic Pegasus was the purest of all creatures, embodying all the original purity that had been stolen from his mother.
Many believed that the help Athena provided to Perseus when she handed him her precious shield, was another act of retaliation against Medusa. Actually, she only wished to free the young girl from that dreadful existence, which had been unjustly imposed upon her.
Athena glorified Medusa by adding the Gorgons head to her shield. The image of the loyal priestess was now internalized beside the goddess she loved so much.
Why Did Athena Helped Perseus Kill Medusa?
The story of Perseus and Medusa is perhaps one of the most well-known stories in the entirety of Greek mythology, and it’s definitely one that elicits a very strong emotional reaction.
Whenever I discuss either Medusa or Athena, I always see the exact same question with people, “why would Athena help Medusa, but then help Perseus kill her?”
This, of course, refers back to the role that Athena played in Medusa’s transformation. Specifically, the version where Athena turned Medusa into a Gorgon as a means of protection. Athena then helping Perseus kill Medusa doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to a lot of people.
“Why give someone the means to protect themselves, if you’re just going to kill them anyway?”
Now, my problem with this specific question is not the question itself. It’s that most people asking it don’t seem to want an answer. They don’t want to examine the story they want to take the stance that Medusa was treated unfairly and so everything that follows must be this great injustice.
“Perseus isn’t the hero of this story, he’s just the villain. Athena isn’t the goddess of wisdom, she’s just jealous and evil. I’m so upset that they killed my queen Medusa that I’m going to ignore all of the other characters and whatever motives they may have because Medusa is the only one that matters.”
Now, if you do approach a story from this bubble where Medusa is the only significant character that the entire story centers around, not only are you entirely wrong, but you’ll never understand the story nor any of its characters.
For the sake of context, Perseus just walks into Medusa’s lair and kills her without any reason. To summarize this story, Perseus was sent by King Polydectes to retrieve Medusa’s head as a gift, in the hopes that he would be slain in the process.
With Perseus out of the picture, there would be no one left to stop him from marrying his mother. Not trusting in the king and wanting to avoid this entire situation, Perseus accepted the request and vowed to bring back the gift he promised.
If we look at the oldest depictions, Medusa was born a Gorgon, so this entire transformation process never happened. Medusa and Athena don’t have a connection, and so there’s no real conflict of interest when it comes to Athena than helping Perseus.
The only version of the story where this question can even be applied to is where Athena transforms Medusa because she wanted to help her. Because here, you can make the argument that assists in Perseus effectively undoing everything that she had previously done.
Where this argument kind of falls flat on its face, is the fact of other characters in this story; and Medusa is certainly not the central figure—this is very much Perseus’s story.
Retrieving the head of Medusa is just one small part of his overall journey. Perseus needing help, then turn to Athena who along with the other gods gave him various trinkets and weapons to aid him on his quest. Many also believe that Athena guided his sword when he actually beheaded Medusa. So, why exactly did Athena help Perseus, after she had already helped Medusa?
First of all, Athena was a hero’s patron, and Perseus wasn’t just any hero, he was also her half-brother. So, when a hero who also happens to be your brother comes to you in need of assistance, a goddess as loyal as Athena would never turn away family and refused her duties because she had previously helped someone else.
The family comes first as a sentiment, and I’m sure many people agree with it; it’s very likely that Athena would always prioritize Perseus over Medusa—just because she helped Medusa once, doesn’t mean she owes her an eternity of protection.
It’s also entirely possible that Athena made a mistake. Medusa’s transformation may not have had a desired effect or outcome. It’s no secret that after a transformation, Medusa’s life would have changed, and most likely not for the best. She would have been driven into isolation and even hunted as a trophy—not a life that sounds particularly enjoyable.
What was meant as a way to give Medusa the power to protect herself ended up just completely isolating her from the world around her. Athena, perhaps, regretting her decision could have seen helping Perseus as a way of releasing Medusa from what she perceived to be a miserable existence—while still being able to help Perseus at the same time.
Or maybe Athena being as pragmatic as she was weighing each alternative and decided that Medusa’s head would do better than she would be capable of while alive, deciding that it would be for the greater good.
There are numerous reasons why Athena would help Perseus kill Medusa, but it mostly just depends on which interpretation of the story you choose to believe. Realistically, there’s no real way for us to know precisely why, and these are just some of my theories. So, feel free to agree or disagree; but if you do have your hypotheses, then please share them.
Art Credit: Ehren Bienert