Note: this essay discusses the story of Medusa, which includes mentions of rape. Reader discretion advised. Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen
You know the story of Medusa: Perseus beheaded her. Athena lent him her polished shield, which acted as mirror so he could look upon the reflection of the snake-haired Gorgon monster. Other men, looking directly at her, were turned to stone, and Pereus walked among that macabre statuary to find her. This is the story told most, the hero’s part in slaying the monster.
But did you know that Medusa was born human? She had two Gorgon sisters, who, depending on the telling, were born monsters or, like Medusa, born human. Medusa herself was said to be beautiful.
So spoke Perseus himself, in the fourth book of Ovid’s Metamorphases, here translated in the 18th century by Sir Samuel Garth:
Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne'er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav'd, and graceful shone.
She pledged herself to Athena, one of the virgin gods. So, young Medusa’s pledge meant that she, too, was to remain virgin in honor of her goddess. But as the above passage shows, Medusa was not left at peace by men: “a rival crowd of envious lovers strove.”
She turned them all away, the strivers. One she turned away was a god: Poseidon. The privilege of gods is to not listen to the consent of humans. He raped her. Because he despised Athena for denying him Medusa, he raped her in Athena’s temple. Athena was said to look away.
In a just story, Athena would have brought her wrath down on her fellow god. She would have come to Medusa and favored her, for Medusa did her best to remain faithful to Athena, and did not willingly break the pledge. Athena, in a just story, would have worked to heal Medusa from her trauma.
One telling has the young Medusa weeping at the temple and begging the forgiveness of the goddess she so admired. “Forgive me, Athena!” She said, the victim asking for forgiveness, as if it is her own fault.
But Athena was not merciful. She ignored the rapist Poseidon, and turned her wrath instead on Medusa. For her sin of being a victim, Athena turned her hideous. Her luscious hair was turned to snakes. Her gaze was made to turn men to stone. She was banished to a faraway island.
There she lived with her monstrous sisters. Men, as always, came to her, but now they came to kill, to gain a trophy and glory. All of them fell under her gaze, and were frozen in place, never to move again. Until, that is, Perseus arrived.
Remember, he arrived aided by the same goddess who banished Medusa to her lonely, sad, brutal existence. Athena lent him the shield that allowed him to approach Medusa without directly gazing upon her, and so he was spared the fate of those who came before.
And some time after he took her head away as trophy — her drops of blood casting snakes upon the land he flew over, wearing Hermes’ winged sandals — Athena gained possession of the decapitated head of her once acolyte.
The virgin goddess took the head of Medusa and attached it to the shield Perseus had used to outwit the power of Medusa’s sight. She mounted the head, and forever more when she would go into battle, the head would scream a terrible roar that turned the blood of Athena’s enemies ice-cold.
The name of this shield is the “Aegis”, a word that now means to be under the protection or support of a more powerful person or organization. I wonder what Medusa might think, were she real, of this cruelly ironic derivative of the original meaning.
I can’t stop thinking about Medusa today, she who was assaulted and humiliated, and then after was treated with cruelty, contempt, and vicious attack. She was turned monster not by action of her own, but by those who made her victim, cast her aside, and then, after doing so, made the sadistic choice to never let her have a moment of peace, and after, used her effigy to terrify their enemies. How they created the monster and used the monster, which had nothing to do with the actions of the woman they cursed.
Were she to stand, today, in front of the Supreme Court, she would recognize its facade. How it resembles Athena’s temple. She would recognize in the frieze Liberty, flanked by Order and Authority, and in statuary, Justice herself (presented as a model, a toy, held by a towering woman in flowing classical robes, reading a codex, paying Justice no heed), all of them cast in stone, as if gazed on by Medusa at the height of her haunting. Justice, Liberty, Order, Authority, symbolically congealed in marble by chisel, unable to act. She could tell, one assumes, how the men that made this building feign worship at ideals that are invoked in rhetoric, but are toothless and inanimate as Carrara rock when betrayed.
She would recognize the women standing around her, defeated. Looking up at this building in disbelief, looking at an aegis who protects those who assault the liberty of others. Those who ask for their elected representatives to be the aegis of the people, and who, again and again, are denied this right, and then cast as monster for even asking to be seen, heard, and believed.
How she would recognize, so rightly, their brutal rage, their righteous anger, their desire for a modicum of justice. How she would weep and wail with them, and perhaps tell her own story about Poseidon, sitting inside in freshly sewn robes.
Sitting inside drinking a beer, occasionally too many, but never to the point of blacking out. He doesn’t even remember being at the temple of Athena. Other gods can vouch for him. He is not accusing Medusa of lying. He’s just sure she’s confusing him with somebody else. He's so sorry for what's happened to her, but it had nothing to do with him.