Medusa: The Story

May 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm Leave a comment

Time to begin a new theme, this time about the goddess herself, that is, one of the images that the ancient Greek women made of her. No, not an image, an icon through which they dimly perceived Her. An image that in the patriarchal West has become the synonym of horror, the image of the murderous woman: Medusa. Not only is her hair made of hissing vipers, but she kills by the look of her eyes. Fortunately Perseus beheaded her.

How can anybody doubt that this head, the Gorgoneion, is not Medusa’s head. However, we should note that with very few exceptions it is portrayed with a big mustache and often with a beard as well. According to Sir John Beazley, this is because “the beard makes the female face more horrid” (The Development of Attic Black-Figure, 1986, p. 13).

Most scholars accept it as a mask, but in his book Medusa, 2000, p. 186-191, Stephen R. Wilks proposes that it represents the swollen features of a drowned person, whose body was lost at sea and the head stranded on the beach.

This may not be exactly what the ancient Greeks believed, but how do we evade being caught in the net of our own projections and emotions?

Thirty years ago I discovered how exhilarating it is to work with symbols, but also how difficult it is. According to C.G. Jung, the symbols are not signs or allegories, but the best possible explanations of facts that are so vast and so deeply felt that they can only be described through analogies with our physical world.

Words like life and death, humanity and divinity, good and evil, masculinity and femininity, cannot be explained in a straightforward way. It is frustrating to work with symbols. You must look at objects and actions from their hidden side; you must walk round them and try to get a glimpse of their backside. Then perhaps, they’ll open up and allow something to emerge; something very different from what we first saw.

This is certainly the case of Medusa.

The Story as we know it from the written accounts:

Perseus is the grandson of Acrisius, king of Argos, an important Mycenaean city.  Acrisius had been told by an oracle that he will not father any sons and that his grandson will kill him. He therefore locks his daughter in a tower and sets ferocious watchdogs to guard it, but he cannot prevent Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon, to penetrate the tower as a rain of gold and thus fecundate Danae. Discovering that his daughter has given birth to a boy, Acrisius shuts Danae and her son, Perseus, into a wooden chest that is thrown into the Mediterranean Sea. On the island of Serifos, a fisherman salvages the chest and finding the mother and baby still alive brings them to Polydeuktes, his brother, who is king of the island. Polydeuktes  takes them in and Perseus grows up at his court.

When as a teenager – not yet having grown a beard – Perseus discovers that Polydeuktes wants to marry his mother, he opposes it so violently that Polydeuktes backs down, but provokes Perseus into boasting that he will bring Medusa’s head as a proper marriage gift for any bride but his mother. Without hesitation Polydeuktes accepts the boast and Perseus must leave for the kill.

Of course, he would never have succeeded without divine intervention, but the goddess Athena because of her hostility to Medusa comes to his help. She makes Hades, god of the underworld, lend him the invisibility hat and Hermes his winged shoes so that Perseus can fly like the invisible wind. She even lends him her own shield that is polished like a mirror, so that he is able to behead the sleeping Medusa without being seen.

Invisible and flying on the wings of his shoes, Perseus saves himself from Medusa’s two sisters and after many adventures, during which he petrifies his enemies by showing them Medusa’s head, he arrives in Ethiopia. Here he finds the beautiful maiden, Andromeda, chained to a cliff waiting for a horrible monster to come from the sea and eat her. With Medusa’s head, Perseus kills the monster, saves Andromeda and returns with her as his wife to Seryfos where he promptly gives Medusa’s head to Polydeuktes, who immediately dies. After this deed he returns the shoes to Hermes and gives Athena the head to fasten on her breast. In the end the oracle also is fullfilled when Perseus ignoring that Acrisius is his grandfather kills him with a discus at the sport games in Tiryns.

This is the story. However it was not told in this way in the beginning, but was developed over many hundred years. In the next installment I’ll discuss it.

There is also the problem that the earliest image of Perseus killing Medusa does not adhere to the written story and that is not the only problem we need to look at. It is my hope that in the end we may begin to understand the image,  nay the icon, in a different light.



Medusa by Caravaggio in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Gorgoneion (Medusa’s head). Detail from a cup in Melbourne University. After P. Connor,” Spotted Snakes with double tongue”, Arch.Anz. 1983, fig.3. Drawing by K.B.


Gorgoneion. Detail from an Etruscan amphora from Vulci, Italy, after 550BC.The British Museum. Photo Jastrow.


Medusa by Rubens. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.


Entry filed under: Myth, Perseus.

The Dark Side of Transformation Medusa: Homer and Hesiod

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