The Myth of Medusa and Poseidon

Of all the characters in Greek mythology, Medusa is perhaps the one who had the worst kind of fate. The snake-haired gorgon Medusa was not always a hideous and terrifying creature; rather she was a beautiful woman, whose beauty and elegance was at some point compared to the goddess Athena. So how did Medusa get such an awful deal in Greek mythology?

We all know of how Medusa, the snaky-haired, terrifying monster whose glance could turn anyone to stone, got decapitated by the Greek hero Perseus. However, what often gets less attention is how Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, had a role in Medusa’s descent from a gorgeous woman to one of the most dreadful-faced monsters in Greek mythology.

In the article below WHE explores the myth surrounding Medusa and the Greek god of the Sea Poseidon.

Medusa and her family

According to Hesiod, Medusa’s parents – Phorcys and Ceto – are chthonic sea deities. Her parents were siblings and children of Gaia and Pontus. The only mortal child of her parents, Medusa had a number of siblings, including the Graiae – a trio of women who share one eye between them. She was known for her astonishing beauty and grace.

The question that then begs to be answered is: How did Medusa go from a beautiful woman with golden color hair to one of the most terrifying creatures in Greek mythology?

Medusa and Poseidon

As stated in the introduction, Medusa was born extremely beautiful. It was said that her beauty caused many men from far and wide to throng her residence to seek her hand in marriage. Some of those admirers also included Greek gods, particularly Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.

Often times, men would compare Medusa’s beauty to goddesses like Athena and Artemis. However, Medusa didn’t allow any of those complements get into her head. Instead she swore an oath before Athena to remain a maiden all her life. And so the beautiful Medusa was taken under the wings of Athena and became the priestess of the goddess’s temple. With every passing day, thousands of men would visit Athena’s temple to glance at Medusa’s beauty. Some even went as far as saying that the priestess’s hair rivaled Athena’s. Safe to say that those comments did not go down too well with Athena, who was by then overflowing with jealousy mixed with resent.

Poseidon – one of the 12 Olympian gods and the god of the sea, storms, oceans and horses

One day, Medusa was walking along the seaside when she caught the attention of the sea god Poseidon. Being a sworn devotee to the temple of Athena, Medusa on countless occasions rejected the advances of Poseidon. Medusa’s rejections only emboldened Poseidon, as the Greek god became infatuated by the maiden’s golden colored hair.

As it was typical of many Greek gods to exhibit very little to no self-control, Poseidon raped Medusa in the temple of Athena.  A petrified Medusa had hoped that by entering the Temple, Athena would have come to her rescue. Unfortunately the Greek goddess was nowhere to be found.

Athena’s curse

When news of this horrific incident reached Athena, the goddess flew into an uncontrollable rage. Poseidon being a fellow Olympian god, as well as Athena’s uncle, could not receive any form of punishment from Athena. Therefore what does Athena do? According to the myth, the Greek goddess takes out her anger and disgust on the victim, Medusa. Athena punishes Medusa by turning those beautiful golden locks of hair into venomous serpents, permanently turning the maiden into a creature befitting a horrible nightmare.

The hunt for Medusa – the Queen of the Gorgons

After the tragedy that befell Medusa, the snake-haired woman was hunted by many brave warriors that sought to claim her head as some kind of trophy. All those warriors were unsuccessful, as they were instantly turned into stone after gazing into Medusa’s eyes.

It would take the bravery and tenacity of Greek hero Perseus, i.e. the son of Zeus, to defeat the terrifying creature Medusa. Medusa being a mortal also helped matters. Perseus was sent by King Polydectes, the ruler of the island of Seriphos, to kill Medusa. You see, Polydectes was eager to get Perseus out of the picture so that he could forcefully marry Danae, Perseus’s mother.

Read More: Greatest Heroes in Greek Mythology

The death of Medusa

Being a demigod and a character beloved by the Olympian gods, Perseus did receive a bit of help and divine gifts before he embarked on his adventure to slay Medusa.

He received a pair of gold-winged sandals from Hermes, the Greek god messenger and protector of travelers. From the goddess Athena, Perseus received a magical shield (or mirror). From the Greek god of forge and fire, Hephaestus, Perseus received a powerful sword. Finally, from Hades, the lord of the Underworld, Perseus received the helmet of invisibility.

Armed with those items, as well as heavy doses of courage, Perseus entered the Medusa’s lair and cut off the Gorgon’s head with a very clean and unhesitant strike. He could safely look into the mirror to see Medusa’s reflection without turning to stone.

At the time of Medusa’s death, the petrifying Gorgon was pregnant with the offspring of Poseidon. Image: Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

The head of Medusa

After his adventure, The Greek hero presented the decapitated head of Medusa to the goddess Athena. The head is believed to have to still kept its ability to turn anyone that gazed into Medusa’s eyes into stone. Athena would go on to incorporate Medusa’s head into her famed battle shield, the Aegis before presenting it to her father Zeus.

However, in a different account, Perseus is believed to have buried the head of Medusa beneath the marketplace of Argos, a city in Argolis (present day southern Greece).

Medusa (1597) by Italian painter Caravaggio. The oil on canvas mounted on wood shows the exact moment where Medusa’s head was cut off by Greek hero Perseus. The painting is now located in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy.

There is also another account which states that Perseus and Athena used the head of Medusa to transform the powerful Greek Titan Atlas into stone. This myth was the ancient Greeks way of explaining the presence of the Atlas Mountains, the mountain range in the Maghreb (i.e. Northwest Africa).

In another myth, Perseus returned home and entered the court of King Polydectes, the man who had selfishly sent him on that perilous journey in the first place so that he could force Perseus’ mother into a marriage. Perseus then took out Medusa’s head and caused everyone in the court to turn to stone, including King Polydectes.

Medusa and her Gorgon sisters

In Greek mythology, Medusa is also considered one of the three gorgon sisters, dreadful creatures whose hair are made of poisonous snakes. Unlike her the other two Gorgons – Stheno and Euryale – Medusa was not immortal. Her two gorgon sisters Stheno and Euryale were known as “the mighty” and “the far-springer” respectively. The word “gorgon” comes from an ancient Greek word gorgós, which means “terrible” or “grim”.

Being a Gorgon, Medusa possessed a powerful gaze that could turn anyone to stone on the spot. The ancient Greek poet Homer describes Gorgons as sea demons, with Medusa being the queen of them.

According the ancient Roman poet Virgil (full name – Publius Vergilius Maro), Medusa and her Gorgon sisters lived near the entrance to the Underworld. Other authors have stated that the Gorgons inhabited the Gorgades, a group of islands in the Aethiopian Sea.

Medusa

Medusa and her two Gorgon sisters – Euryale and Stheno – are believed to have snakes for hair as well as having the power to turn anyone who gazed at them to stone.

Medusa and Poseidon’s offspring

Pegasus, the famed Greek mythical winged horse, is believed to have emerged from the blood that dripped from the neck of Medusa. The other being that sprouted out of Medusa’s body was Chrysaor, a giant who wielded a golden sword. In a different account, the blood that spurted from the decapitated Gorgon turned into snakes.

Pegasus and Chrysaor were the children that sprang from the blood that sprouted from Medusa neck after Perseus had chopped off the Gorgon’s head. What it means is that those two are the children of Poseidon and Medusa. Image; Bellerophon riding Pegasus and slaying the Chimera, central medallion of a Roman mosaic from Autun, Musée Rolin, 2nd to 3rd century AD

Medusa – one of the most misunderstood characters in Greek mythology

The Gorgon Medusa is one of the most misunderstood figures in Greek mythology. Having put her complete trust in Athena, Medusa found the goddess to be nowhere when the mighty Poseidon chased her into the temple of Athena. In the end, Athena let Medusa down by not coming to her aid. To add insult to injury, the goddess went ahead to punish Medusa for atrocities of Poseidon. In all those events, Medusa could be seen as one who truly had the best of intentions; however, the gods turned her into a cruel monster as punishment for actions far beyond her control.

The story of Medusa just goes to show that even the gods are prone to making mistakes. And as Arachne, the famous weaver of tapestry, once stated, the gods could be deceitful and biased.

Even in death, the head of Medusa was put to good use by Perseus and other Greek characters in the myth.

Other interesting facts

Medusa was absolutely lovely and beautiful. She was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women in Greek mythology, up there with the likes of Helen of Troy and maiden deities like Artemis and Athena. Medusa being punished for the atrocities of Poseidon is epitomizes what many people like to call rape-victim blaming. Image: Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

Much of what we know about Medusa comes from the Theogony, the famed 8th-century BC work by Greek poet Hesiod. Other sources also include Prometheus Bound by ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, and Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid.

Ovid states that Medusa was the only one among the three gorgons to have snakes for hair as she had been cursed by the goddess Athena (Roman Minerva) after the young maiden had been raped by Poseidon (Roman Neptune) in the temple of Athena.

There are some accounts that state that the dead could be brought back to life using the blood from the right side of a Gorgon like Medusa. However, the blood from the left side of the Gorgon is said to be extremely poisonous. It was perhaps the blood from the left side of a Gorgon that Athena gave to Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Perseus also used the head of Medusa to keep the lovely Andromeda, princess and daughter of Cepheus, king of Aethiopia. Perseus later married Andromeda, who was touted as the most beautiful woman in the world at the time.

Atlas Mountains

View of the Atlas mountains in Northwest Africa

The reason why the Greek hero Perseus was able to kill Medusa was because she was the only mortal of the three Gorgons. What’s even more horrific is that, at the time of her death, the Gorgon was pregnant with two children – Pegasus and Chrysaor – by Poseidon (Roman Neptune).

Medusa’s offspring, Chrysaor got married to Callirrhoe, daughter of glorious Titan Oceanus. Chrysaor fathered the triple-headed Geryon, the creature that Greek hero Heracles (Roman Hercules) killed at Erytheis.

Interpretation of Medusa’s myth

Medusa’s myth has often been interpreted by many scholars, activists and mythographers as a symbol of female power and female rage. Some scholars, especially feminist theorists, have also been quick to point out to how the image and story of Medusa is used to demonize powerful women in authority and position of power.

Additionally, many have been quick to point out the classic case of victim blaming so to speak considering the kind of horrific treatment the goddess Athena, Medusa’s patroness and guardian, dished out to Medusa following the rape by Poseidon.

Read More: 

Medusa’s Family Tree

Medusa and Poseidon

Medusa’s family tree

Once a beautiful maiden and priestess of Athena’s temple, Medusa incurred the unjust wrath of Athena after she was raped by Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, earthquakes and storms. Athena turned Medusa into a snaky-haired monster whom when gazed upon turned the person into stone. At the time of Medusa’s death, the petrifying Gorgon was pregnant with the offspring of Poseidon – Pegasus and Chrysaor.

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