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The Curse of Medusa From Greek Mythology

Medusa’s serpentine hair sets her apart from other mythical characters.

By deTraci Regula

Updated 02/05/18

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turinboy/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Medusa is one of the more unusual divine figures of ancient Greece mythology. One of a trio of Gorgon sisters, Medusa was the only sister who was not immortal. She is famed for her snake-like hair and her gaze, which turns those who look at her to stone.

The Curse

Legend states that Medusa was once a beautiful, avowed priestess of Athena who was cursed for breaking her vow of celibacy. She is not considered a  goddess or Olympian , but some variations on her legend say she consorted with one.

When Medusa had an affair with the sea god Poseidon , Athena punished her. She turned Medusa into a hideous hag, making her hair into writhing snakes and her skin was turned a greenish hue. Anyone who locked gaze with Medusa was turned into stone.

The hero Perseus was sent on a quest to kill Medusa. He was able to defeat the Gorgon by lopping off her head, which he was able to do by fighting her reflection in his highly polished shield. He later used her head as a weapon to turn enemies to stone. An image of Medusa’s head was placed on Athena’s own armor or shown on her shield. 

Medusa’s Lineage

One of three Gorgon sisters, Medusa was the only one who was not immortal. The other two sisters were Stheno and Euryale. Gaia  is sometimes said to be the mother of Medusa; other sources cite the early sea deities Phorcys and Ceto as the parents of the trio of Gorgons. It is generally believed that she was born at sea.

The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that Medusa lived close to the Hesperides in the Western Ocean near Sarpedon. Herodotus the historian said her home was Libya.

She is generally considered unmarried, though she did lie with Poseidon. One account says she married Perseus. As a result of consorting with Poseidon, she is said to have birthed  Pegasus , the winged horse, and Chrysaor, the hero of the golden sword.

Some accounts said her two spawn had sprung from her severed head.

Medusa in Temple Lore

In ancient times, she did not have any known temples. It is said that the Artemis temple in Corfu depicts Medusa in an archaic form. She is shown as a symbol of fertility dressed in a belt of intertwined snakes.

In modern times, her carved image adorns a rock off the coast of the popular Red Beach outside of  Matala , Crete. Also, the flag and emblem of Sicily feature her head.

Medusa in Art and Written Works

Throughout ancient Greece, there are a number of references to the Medusa myth by ancient Greek writers Hyginus, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Dionysios Skytobrachion, Herodotus, and Roman authors Ovid and Pindar. When she is depicted in art, usually only her head is shown. She has a broad face, sometimes with tusks, and snakes for hair. In some imagery, she has fangs, a forked tongue, and bulging eyes.

While Medusa is usually considered to be ugly, one myth states that it was her great beauty, not her ugliness, that paralyzed all observers. Her “monstrous” form is believed by some scholars to represent a partially-decomposed human skull with teeth beginning to show through the decaying lips.

The image of Medusa was thought to be protective.

Ancient statuary, bronze shields, and vessels have depictions of Medusa. Famous artists that have been inspired by Medusa and the heroic Perseus story include Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Peter Paul Rubens, Gialorenzo Bernini, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, and Salvador Dali.

Medusa in Pop Culture

The snake-headed, petrifying image of Medusa is instantly recognizable in popular culture. The Medusa myth has enjoyed a renaissance since the story was featured in the “Clash of the Titans” movies in 1981 and 2010, and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” also in 2010, where Medusa is portrayed by actress Uma Thurman.

In addition to the silver screen, the mythical figure appears as a character in TV, books, cartoons, video games, role-playing games, usually as an antagonist. Also, the character has been memorialized in song by UB40, Annie Lennox, and the band Anthrax.

The symbol of designer and fashion icon Versace is a Medusa-head. According to the design house, it was chosen because she represents beauty, art, and philosophy. 

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