Last spring, I had a minimalist portrait of Medusa tattooed on my forearm. It’s my favorite and most visible tattoo, a constant reminder to be unapologetic in casting a harsh gaze against the patriarchy. But the story of Medusa is often seen as a tragedy: she is known for being powerless against Athena and Poseidon, doomed to a lonely life as a monstrous Gorgon, which most renditions describe as punishment. Many believe her story to be one of revenge and torment, but in rereading the myth of Medusa and Athena, a new mythological world in which women are protective of each other in a patriarchal society and their relationships are meant to serve as a lesson for others reveals itself. Whether in competition for affection or authority, women in patriarchies are repeatedly pitted against each other, but a feminist analysis of the myth of Medusa reclaims her curse as a powerful protection against the male gaze.
Though there are different versions of the Medusa myth, Roman poet Ovid’s Medusa was a mortal woman who had sworn to a life of celibacy. She had long, golden locks of hair, and is described as being exceptionally beautiful. Poseidon, god of the sea, lusted after Medusa and raped her in Athena’s temple. After catching word of Poseidon’s attack on Medusa, a supposedly jealous Athena turned Medusa’s lovely hair into snakes and cursed her with the ability to turn men who looked at her into stone.
Medusa, along with her two immortal sisters, was one of three Gorgons, which comes from the Greek word gorgós, meaning “fierce, terrible, and grim.” All three sisters were seen as monstrous for having the power to kill men. Medusa, however, was the only mortal and the most attractive of the three. She was also the most powerful, killing more men than either of her sisters, which also made her the most threatening and the most feared. As the Medusa myth is retold in a patriarchal and male-dominated society, the fact that she was a victim of rape is overshadowed by her terrifying appearance and ability to turn men into stone. This retelling sweeps the original violence against Medusa under the rug to center the violence she commits against men.
Athena turning Medusa’s hair into snakes is almost always percieved as a punishment, and the theme of revenge is emphasized in different versions of the myth. But Medusa’s rape is glossed over, mentioned once at the beginning of the tale, if at all. The portrayal of Medusa as a monster becomes the central sexist device of the myth, used to scare women off from casting a harsh gaze on their oppressors for fear of seeming monstrous as well
In examining the myth of Athena and Medusa further, the story also seems to be a suggestive fable, slyly teaching women how to look out for and protect one another in a society dominated by men, where rape is a constant threat. Athena was aware of Poseidon’s hunger for Medusa and knew of Medusa’s vow of celibacy. What if Athena’s curse on Medusa wasn’t a punishment at all, but an act of kindness and protection?
Medusa’s name derives from an ancient Greek verb that means “to protect and guard,” which may be a nod to Athena’s attempt to guard and protect Medusa from further abuse at the hands of Poseidon and other men. Athena’s curse was not a punishment for Medusa, but a punishment for the gods and men who intended to harm her. After all, Athena gave Medusa the ultimate power against men: the power to both punish and avoid the male gaze regardless of the rank or status of the man daring to look at her.
If we focus on Medusa’s ugly, monstrous appearance, we miss an opportunity to examine the roles of men and rape culture in her story. It is important to remember the patriarchal context in which these myths are retold because a patriarchal society depends in part on women distrusting and competing with one another so as not to move up in the ranks toward that of the society’s male authorities. It is exhausting to constantly probe through these male-dominated ideas, but these myths are so much more entrancing when we can. There are other Greek myths in which women covertly help protect each other—and in almost all of them, it is after a woman has been raped.
There are other Greek myths in which women covertly help protect each other—and in almost all of them, it’s after a woman has been raped.
For instance, Philomela is known for being forced into a life of silence after defying King Tereus. In the story of Philomela and her sister Procne, Philomela was raped, threatened, and told to stay silent by Tereus, Procne’s husband. When she defied him, Tereus cut out her tongue to ensure she would obey his order. So Philomela wove a tapestry to tell her sister the story, and when Procne saw it, she also fell silent. Procne took revenge against Tereus by secretly feeding him the body of their son. Eventually the gods turned Procne and Philomela into a swallow and a nightingale, respectively, to help them escape Tereus, unsilencing them through song.
Like the other women in these myths, the Sirens have been demonized over time. The Sirens are often described as temptresses who used their song to lure sailors to their drowning deaths, but they were actually a group of girls who lost their companion, Persephone, after she was abducted and raped by Hades. In fact, the group was granted bird-like features to travel the world singing their grief-stricken song in search of her. Sailors found the Sirens’ song of lament seductive and warned their comrades, but the Sirens paid the sailors no mind. Many of the men died waiting for the strange women to break into song and notice them. Retold in patriarchy, the story of the Sirens changes to fit its values—instead of illustrating loss and grief in female friendships, the story becomes a cautionary tale of the dangerous, tempting trickery of female seduction.
After killing Medusa, Perseus gave Athena her head, which Athena then placed on her shield as protection for herself. The narrative of women competing with or being jealous of one another is so ingrained in our storytelling that it can be hard to look past it and see the potential camaraderie between women in mythology. But when we examine these stories and look at female relationships in relation to the male figures, we can start to deconstruct the patriarchal lens through which these stories are often viewed. We can gaze at the patriarchy so harshly that we turn it to stone.