Written by Oscar Hawkley
[Trigger warning: violence, sexual violence, rape, mutilation]
Medusa is a mythical Gorgon, though uniquely for her kind was deemed beautiful. Both her beauty and Gorgonism could be deemed as a blessing or curse. Beauty is usually considered a positive trait, though in Medusa’s case, it was enough to lead to the unwarranted attentions of Poseidon. Her Gorgonism, while usually viewed as a condition of being a monster, also offered her great level of defence from attackers.
The myth of Medusa has changed many times, as myths often do, but has a few primary versions, which will be the one’s examined here. In the origin as a Greek myth, Medusa is yet another simple monster, and was not raped by Poseidon, but willingly had an affair, and her becoming a gorgon was punishment for choosing to do this, defiling the Athenian temple by having sex in a blessed place, and defying her chastity vows.
The next version is that she was gifted with Gorgonism by Athena, and chose isolation to be safe after being assaulted by Poseidon.
The last is the version that the Romans wrote of Medusa as a victim. According to the Roman poet Ovid’s version of the myth, Medusa, as a mortal had taken an oath of chastity, however Poseidon, lusting after her, forced himself upon her and raped her inside the temple of Athena. In a brutal and callous reaction, Athena blamed Medusa, and cursed her to life as a Gorgon, and it was because of being cursed, rather than born as a gorgon that she was the only gorgon able to die, and in some stories is killed in her sleep, when she is completely defenseless.
Medusa has become symbolic, reclaimed by feminists, a figure who was punished for sex, or raped, and blamed despite being the victim of a man’s aggression. Contemporaries also considered how to view Medusa.
However, the best known story of Medusa is simply that she is a Gorgon, and that she could turn her victims to stone by looking at them, after she was killed by being forced to see her own reflection, and then was beheaded by Perseus, who is viewed as a brave hero. If one assesses Medusa, however, she is not a conventional monster of Greek myth; she does not crush her victims with her giant size as the cyclops, or eat virgins doomed to a maze like the minotaur, Medusa uses a defence mechanism, not aggression. Once, she was a monster, then she was seeking revenge, and now she is seen as only seeking safety. This is why Medusa has been “reclaimed” as to many women she is relatable, especially when viewed through Ovid’s updated perspective.
Today, it is easy to see why a character blamed for being attacked would be sympathised with. Victims are often blamed, asked how they invited the attention of their attackers. The public view is also unsympathetic: “An exclusive survey conducted for The Independent found 55 per cent of men believed that “the more revealing the clothes a woman wears, the more likely it is that she will be harassed or assaulted” and that “41 per cent of female respondents [subscribe] to the view that revealing clothing invites unwanted sexual advances.” The view is that a woman seems to invite sexual advances, simply through her being. This is what happened to Medusa, her beauty “tempted” Poseidon. She was punished, yet he was not.
The Roman story dramatically changed the way the story was told; no longer is Medusa a terrifying Gorgon queen, instead, she is a woman, who was attacked in a violent and sexual manner, and was then the subject of victim blaming and persecution by what should have been a supporting and caring figure in the fellow woman Athena. With victims being blamed by those around them, and the institutions designed to help them seeming not to believe victims, many feel a parallel; the police should help modern victims, and we should support victims, and Athena, who should have protected her devotee, instead damned her, and forced her to exile.
Medusa has become an icon of what many victims wish they were, and as an inspiration to those who are fearful. Medusa had, after her “curse,” the power to stop any aggressor and had ultimate power over her interactions with others. One could not even look at a gorgon without being turned to stone. Being able to stop any potential attacker would bring a great sense of peace to one’s mind and an explanation for using Medusa as a figure of inspiration.
Gorgons were once symbolic especially to women as creatures that had the power to stop even a god from looking at them without their permission, however a focus on the male character Perseus instead of Medusa has become popular in almost all popular accounts. This refocussing shifts the attention from women, victimhood, and the safety of a victim, to the concept of men, power, and violent dominance. This is a common issue in education; history is taught with a focus on men at the expense of women’s history. It is only through the more modern interpretation refocussing on Medusa’s victimhood and the concept of victim blaming or being empowered by another woman (dependent on Athena’s perceived role) that this myth has been reclaimed by modern women.
Certainly, the original myth depicts Medusa as a monster, either through curse, or a gift to allow her revenge, however the rewriting by Ovid is so popular, that we must consider why we still uphold the Greek story only and ignore the idea of Medusa as a victim. Recent history has seen a great progress to avoid the blaming of women. Medusa’s story is often misunderstood, and misconstrued in modern times, with Medusa being simplified to a monster again instead of a victim. The story of a blamed victim rising from her rape to feel powerful and never again be the victim of male aggression is certainly something that could be a tool for progress, and to help women recover.
The Medusa myth had been a story of inspiration for women before where she had been granted power to protect herself. While the modern view focuses more on victim blaming than revenge, it is clear that throughout history this figure has been a symbol for women, and that this view should be taught, rather than seeing the myth as yet another story about male aggression as a solution, rather than seeing the cause of the problem in sexual violence and potential victim doubting and blaming.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image can be found here.