To meet Medusa is to meet a symbol of that which dies, so that from death may come life, and thus a symbol of fear. For to look directly at Medusa is to look at your own mortality. Or so it is said. But many things have been said about Medusa, and most of them are simply not true.
We read in Bullfinch that Medusa was a horrifying Gorgon, a frightening gargoyle of an ugly old woman with vicious snakes for hair. So revolting and horrible was the sight of her, that just one look turned you to stone!
In this tale, Medusa was once a beautiful girl, with sea-green eyes and a rich mane of russet curls but, alas, she dared to compare herself to Athena. For her presumption she was transformed into a cruel monster of frightening aspect.
Another story says that Poisedon (in the form of a horse) raped her in the temple of Athene. If this is the true version, it would not be the first, or the last time, that a woman was punished for being abused. Medusa, portrayed as the guilty party in the rape, went off to hide her shame and humiliation in a deep cave.
In any case, as a monster, her gaze could turn men into stone which was perhaps not a bad idea and must have afforded the poor girl some consolation. All around the cavern where she dwelt might be seen the stony figures of men, the ossified remains of ancient stalkers and Peeping Toms who had so rudely tried to violate her privacy.
Perseus is the hero in this story. It is he who was sent on the quest to slay the Gorgon, a deed which required the maximum of heroic-male courage. A favourite of Athena, he was given a loan of her aegis, her bright shield which was burnished to great glossiness and, from Hermes, the fabled winged sandals.
He silently crept up on Medusa as she slept, hovering in the air above her and, guided by the image reflected in the shield, cut off her head.
From the drops of her blood sprang the giant warrior Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus, (lending weight to the story of her rape by Poseidon who was in the guise of a horse at the time.)
Perseus gave the head of Medusa as a gruesome trophy to Athena where it was fixed in the middle of her aegis. She wielded it with chilling effect during the Trojan war and you may see it there to this day.
But Medusa is older than this. Firstly, there’s the matter of her name – it doesn’t mean anything like monster at all, but ‘female wisdom’. In Sanskrit it’s Medha, in Greek Metis, and in Egyptian she is Ma’at herself.
Medusa came to Greece from Libya as the Serpent Goddess, and the destroyer aspect of the Great Triple Goddess. You find her in the labyrinthine places of Minoan Crete. She travelled a long way, and a long time, from further south in Africa.
Much is made of blood in the story of Medusa. When Perseus was returning with the severed head across the desert of Libya, drops of blood fell on the sand and were transformed into venomous snakes. The serpent is a symbol of the cycles of life, death and rebirth and of the seasons. It is the connection to the fertile earth and to the underworld, symbolising immortality as it sheds its skin.
The blood of Medusa held other qualities. That which flowed on her right side had the power to bring the dead back to life, while blood that flowed on the left side was a lethal poison. So Medusa is, then, both that which destroys and that which is created. She is both Life, and Death.
The Greek story can demonstrate the overthrow of the great goddess religions as the male gods like Zeus and Poseidon took power. It’s viewed by many, as expressive of the subjugation of women by a violent and oppressive male-oriented culture, a culture which viewed the life-giving, creative energy of Medusa as threatening.
And she is decapitated, she is silenced. In this way the female wisdom of Medusa, along with the wisdom of all women in general, is silenced, and the forces of nature are conquered in an ultimate act of domination.