In Greek mythology, there are female monsters abound. From Scylla and Charybdis in the Greek poem ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, to the “mother of monsters,” Echidna, to Lamia the Libyan queen, there is no lack of monstrous women who clash with Gods and heroes. Among them, Medusa was one of the most popular in artworks from the Archaic era onward. Easily recognizable in her Archaic form by her snaky hair, wide, curving mouth, and protruding fangs, her face appears in apotropaic images carved into everything from temples to private homes1. Full body images also appear, often depicting her being beheaded by Perseus. Both in these images and in later texts — specifically Publius Ovidius Naso — Medusa is positioned as a woman whose possession of power makes her a threat to be eliminated, channelling her power to a man — Perseus — who can use and control it.
In literary sources, the Gorgons — Medusa and her two equally snaky sisters — are first mentioned in Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ and later appear in Pindar and Aeschylus, among others. Publius Ovidius Naso’s first century CE text, ‘The Metamorphoses,’ provides a modified backstory for her monstrous appearance. In Publius Ovidius Naso’s text, Medusa interacts with three powerful beings. Her narrative traces encounter with Neptune, Minerva, and Perseus. In the Archaic sculptures from temples at Corfu and Selinas, the images are focused primarily on the moment of conflict between her and Perseus. This article examines the way power is accessed and portrayed within these two different approaches to her myth. While Medusa has great power at several points in the story, she is continually robbed of it, becoming nothing more than a conduit for that power.
The Gorgons appear early in both literary and artistic Greek tradition. They are first mentioned in Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ as the Gorgones, who, beyond the famous stream of Okeanos, live in the utmost place toward night, by the singing Hesperides: they are Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, whose fate is a sad one, for she was mortal, but the other two immortal and ageless both alike. Neptune, he of the dark hair, lay with one of these, in a soft meadow and among spring flowers. But when Perseus had cut off the head of Medusa there sprang from her blood great Khrysaor and the horse Pegasos2.
Early visual representations of the Gorgons depict them as distinctly monstrous and they appear on temples, homes, and workshops throughout the archaic period3. Often, Medusa is also accompanied by her children with Poseidon, Chrysaor and Pegasus, who sprang from her neck when Perseus beheaded her. These images function in a primarily apotropaic manner, protecting the temples and homes they appear on from evil or misfortune. In this way, the mortals who used her head for protection were mimicking the goddess Athena, who wore Medusa’s head on her shield or breastplate in battle.
In the fifth-century BCE, Aeschylus wrote about the Gorgons in ‘Prometheus Bound,’ describing them as “three winged sisters, the Gorgons with their snaky hair, hated by men, for no mortal can see them and not cease to breathe4.” This is one of the earliest explicit indications of the deadly nature of the Gorgons. Although it does not mention their eyes turning men to stone specifically, the power of the gaze is still very much emphasized. In the ‘Pythian Odes,’ written around the same time, Pindar writes of “Perseus, who slew the Gorgon, and brought her head wreathed with its serpent locks to strike stony death to the Islanders5.” While her face was used for protection throughout the fifth-century B.C.E., when both of these pieces were written, they clearly portray her as a monster. Her visage, therefore, becomes both protection and threat, a warning against feminized power while also becoming a way to use that power for personal safety. In the first-century AD, Publius Ovidius Naso’s inclusion of Medusa in his work creates a version of her that, while clearly referencing older mythology, also expands her story and provides his own clear series of events.
Publius Ovidius Naso’s extensive poetic work ‘The Metamorphoses,’ written in the first-century AD and made up of fifteen volumes of nearly two hundred and fifty stories, details the adventures and interactions of Gods and mortals. The central theme is that of metamorphosis, an experience many Gods undergo willingly (often to pursue and sleep with a mortal woman), while it is often forced unwillingly on those unfortunate mortals or nymphs who cross paths with Olympian gods and goddesses6.
Medusa’s power is framed as both evil and deadly in accounts of the Gorgons from sources like Pindar and Aeschylus. However, none of these accounts tell of her actually murdering anyone. Although Publius Ovidius Naso does mention the statues of men and animals around her cave that testify to the deadly power of her curse, he does not go into any further detail about the circumstances of these encounters7. The reader is meant to side with Perseus, but it is hard to attribute these deaths to malicious intent on Medusa’s part, especially when Perseus approaches her with the intention to kill on sight. If it is merely the threat of a woman with power that makes Medusa such a reviled figure within this mythology, it is worth wondering how previous encounters between her and others played out. Were these previous statues created through cold-blooded murder on her part? Were they instead the results of self-defence, or even horrible accidents? Has she considered a monster before she was cursed, or did the status come with the snakes and petrifying gaze? Perseus does not go into further detail when he recounts his story, as he kills the monster in her sleep and she therefore never actually acts or speaks in the poem. Medusa is relegated to the realm of a monster from the moment she is cursed by Minerva as punishment. In this case, the reality of her malice is irrelevant. Simply the threat of unfettered female power is enough to seal her fate as a monster to be feared, hated, and finally killed8.
Publius Ovidius Naso’s version of Medusa’s story is characterized by her betrayal and violation. She is violated three times: first by Neptune’s rape, next by Minerva’s curse, and finally by Perseus’ attack. Each time, the violent act is marked by both gain and loss. She is raped by Neptune, which leads to the conception of her divine children but the loss of her virginity — and, at least for modern readers, would be read as a deeply traumatizing act. Minerva gives her the deadly gaze that gives her an impressive level of power over enemies — so much so that the goddess herself later appropriates it — but cements her own status as a monster, not to mention the isolation and loneliness it would have caused. Finally, Perseus murders her — allowing her children into the world, but robbing Medusa of her very life in the process. Within her own narrative, Medusa functions as a source of power for gods and men around her, who gain access to that power with extreme violence and violation of her physical and emotional autonomy. Beginning with Neptune claiming sexual control and followed by Perseus’ deadly violence, Medusa’s body is subject to abuse and violation while her voice is silenced. She is isolated and reviled after being cursed, which is arguably the direct cause for her murder when Perseus is sent after her because she is so deadly. Ultimately, hers is a narrative that recounts a series of destructions by men intent on claiming what she can provide them and discard her afterwards.
Perseus, after murdering her, takes advantage of both the winged horse Pegasus, who is born from her severed neck, and of her decapitated head. By using these tools, he soon defeats a sea serpent, petrifies his foes in several tense encounters, and wins the hand of princess Andromeda. His narrative in Publius Ovidius Naso ends with him, triumphant and glorious, gaining his every desire with the appropriated and redirected power of a dead woman — power that was forced on her by another woman. Yet Perseus is seen as autonomous is his victories, all the credit directed to him. Meanwhile, Medusa’s entire arc is dictated by Neptune’s inciting action, and she is crushed under the weight of his violence towards her. Perseus gains recognition, fame, and true love by claiming a power that does not belong to him and using it for his own gain. Medusa is punished, isolated, and killed as a result of something she did not want and could not prevent.