Medusa is one of the most identifiable and iconic monsters of Greek mythology. While her face was pictured often in the Greek world, it was said to be so terrifying to behold that even a brief glimpse of it would turn a man to stone.
She was eventually beheaded by Perseus, with the aid of Athena and Hermes. Her head retained its powers and was used by both Perseus and Athena in later myths.
Greek legend said that she was the child of two primordial deities who created the monsters that haunted the ancient seas. Even in the ancient world, however, there was doubt as to whether Medusa really existed in the form she was described.
Later historians continued to follow the Roman train of thought to uncover the real story behind Medusa and the Gorgons. From natural hazards of the sea to an allegory about a forgotten religion, they have created many theories to explain the “real” Medusa.
Medusa was one of three Gorgons, monstrous sisters who shared a cave at one of the far edges of the world.
While some later traditions claimed that she had been born in the form of a beautiful woman, most myths painted Medusa simply as a monster. The Gorgons were all terrifying, but Medusa was so hideous and fearsome that a single glimpse of her face could turn a man to stone.
She had one weakness that was not shared by her sisters, however. While the other Gorgons were immortal, Medusa could be killed.
This was the task given to the hero Perseus. With the help of Hermes and Athena, who in the later versions of the story was responsible for Medusa’s transformation into a hideous monster, the young hero found the lair of the Gorgons, avoided Medusa’s petrifying gaze, and escaped safely after beheading her.
Medusa was one of the few monsters in Greek mythology for whom there was an almost total consensus regarding her parentage. Even in the later stories in which she was once beautiful, the identities of her parents remained the same.
Her father was Phorcys, a primordial god of the sea. Their mother was also his sister, the sea goddess Ceto. Little is written about the pair other than the fact that they were the parents of some of the most terrible monsters of Greek mythology.
Along with the Gorgons, Perseus also encountered the Graeae on his quest. This was another trio of sisters, gray-skinned and sharing a single eye and one tooth between them.
According to Homer, another of their daughters was a nymph named Thoosa. She was the mother, by Poseidon, of the cannibalistic cyclops of the Odyssey, Polyphemus.
Two other creatures encountered by Odysseus were sometimes said to be the offspring of Phorcys and Ceto, as well. Both Scylla and the Sirens were said by some writers to have been their daughters.
The Greeks, then, imagined Medusa as a creature with a defined family tree of monstrosities. While her lair was hidden at the edge of the world, she was still a real creature who could have, before her death, been responsible for taking the lives of countless unlucky men.
Obviously, the monsters of Greek mythology are no longer believed to be real. But is there, hidden in Medusa’s story, some evidence of a real-world parallel?
Even in the ancient world, there was some recognition that the monsters described in legend were not to be taken literally.
Some ancient writers, for example, believed that the Gorgons may have been inspired by an unknown species of long-haired animals. The predatory animals were so frightening that men froze in terror at the sight of them as if they had been turned to stone.
Others, such as Pliny, believed the Gorgons may have been an ancient race of women rather than a sisterhood of monsters.
The earlier writings of Hesiod, however, seem to link Medusa to the sea, both her in function and in her parentage. Hesiod’s monster seems to have been involved in the creation of reefs.
Such stony outcroppings were a true terror to ancient sailors. A ship could easily be stopped by an unexpected reef and sink to the sea floor like a rock.
This seems to be supported by another legend linked to the Gorgon. While Perseus stopped to rescue Andromeda, the power of Medusa’s severed head caused nearby seaweed to turn into stone-like coral.
Others have seen Medusa as a symbol for a sudden storm at sea. Like many monsters, she was the embodiment of a terrifying and little-understood natural phenomenon.
This would be in keeping with how many of her supposed siblings are interpreted by modern historians. Scylla is said to be representative of the rocky outcroppings in a narrow strait, while the Sirens were the risk of misjudging the distance to the shoreline or the locations of small islets.
Some historians, however, have formed a more literal interpretation of Medusa’s powers and beheading.
Several classical scholars have suggested that the story of Medusa, like that of the Minotaur, is an analogy for the defeat of pre-Greek cultures by the introduction of the Olympian gods.
Medusa’s body, they note, is of no importance in the earlier versions of the story. The emphasis is entirely on her head, which is terrifying and ringed with snakes.
Perseus is not sent simply to kill the Gorgon, but specifically to behead her. When he does so, her head retains is powers and he is able to use it for a time.
Eventually, however, Perseus gives the head to his benefactor, Athena, as a token of his appreciation. The severed head of the Gorgon is affixed to the shield she carries, which properly belongs to Zeus, in the style of a protective amulet.
These scholars believe that the head of Medusa was inspired by the ritual masks worn by priestesses of a pre-Greek religion. A similar explanation has been given for the appearance of the bull-headed Minotaur of Crete.
Taking away this mask, in the story, symbolizes the destruction of this unspecified ancient religion. The body, the identity of a specific priest or priestess, did not matter as much as the mask which symbolized their deity.
The inclusion of three Gorgons could indicate that the ancient religion defeated by the Greeks worshipped a tripartite goddess or a triumvirate of deities. The destruction of one, however, symbolically destroyed them all.
The fact that Perseus used the Gorgon’s power for a brief time could be a later addition to the story. If it was in the original, however, it could have symbolized a short amount of time that the non-Greek goddess was recognized before finally losing power.
When Athena takes Medusa’s head and makes it her own symbol, the story reaches the final act in the destruction of the other faith. The Gorgon herself is no more and her symbolism has been co-opted as an attribute of the Greek goddess.
This theory can be supported with the further story of Perseus. He was said to have founded Mycenae, the Greek city that eventually supplanted Knossos on Crete as the center of the dominant culture of the region.
The story of the real Medusa can, therefore, be seen as an allegorical retelling of the history of Bronze Age Greek religion. The Hellenic Greeks, embodied by Perseus, went to the shrines of a non-Greek goddess, the cave of Gorgons, and took the masks of the priestesses that symbolized the religion’s power as their own.
Greek legend claimed that Medusa was one of three Gorgons, monstrous sisters who shared a secluded cave in a far-off land. Her face was so horrifying that looking at it for even a moment could turn a man to stone.
The hero Perseus was given the task of beheading Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon. With the aid of Athena and Hermes he was able to accomplish this task.
Medusa was said to be one of the children of Phorcys and Ceto, two primordial sea deities. Even in the ancient world, however, educated men doubted this was a literal origin.
They claimed that the real Medusa was a species of long-haired animals, or even a tribe of hairy women, that were now extinct but had once inspired such fear that men froze at the sight of them.
Many modern historians, taking their cues from the stories of Medusa’s named kin in mythology, have looked for similarly naturalistic explanations for the story’s inspiration. They have postulated that the Gorgons represented rocky reefs that posed a danger to sailors.
Other classicists, however, have found a more historical basis for the story. They claim that the real Gorgons were priestesses of a pre-Greek religion.
This story of Medusa’s beheading, in this interpretation, is an allegory for the defeat of another culture by the early Greeks. The beheading of Medusa symbolizes the destruction of the ritual masks worn by this culture’s priesthood.
The story of Medusa concludes with Athena affixing the Gorgon’s powerful head to the shield she carries. The real Medusa, the faith of an ancient goddess, was completely overtaken by Athena and the other deities of Olympus.