Hall: Medusa’s story isn’t so different than today’s rape victims’

Medusa is often pictured as a monster in art, such as in this piece by Caravaggio. However, this is misrepresentation, as she was a victim and not the monster of her story. - Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I was younger, I found myself enchanted with myths. I loved the stories of gods who acted more like humans and how people in the past learned how to make sense of the world.

One of my least favorite stories was Medusa because it was a little too black and white for me. She was the crazy snake lady who turned people into stone until she was stopped by Perseus. Then she was the crazy snake lady who turned people into stone because Perseus told her to.

Sorry Medusa, but that story is boring. In a world where people can turn to trees and goddesses are birthed from heads, this was low on the excitement scale. No pun intended. 

It wasn’t until I heard a group of friends analyze Medusa did I realized how wrong I was. In the version of the myth I’m familiar with, Medusa was born a gorgon and hated life until she had stopped living. Relatable, right?

But in Ovid’s version (a famed poet who wrote myths), Medusa was born a woman. In fact, she was gorgeous and attracted the attention of the sea god Poseidon. There was a problem though; Medusa had taken an oath of chastity in order to serve the virgin goddess Athena in her temple.

Instead of taking no for an answer, Poseidon brutally attacked and raped Medusa inside of Athena’s temple. Athena heard about this and was upset about the situation. However, instead of being upset with Poseidon, she blamed the victim, a choice that is soberingly relevant to today’s society. 

As punishment, Athena cursed Medusa to have an appearance so ugly it would cause people to turn to stone if they looked at her. It’d be a tragedy to not mention that Ovid writes that this was a punishment well-earned by Medusa. Because if a woman is raped, the first question is, “What was she doing to put herself in danger?” I could almost see Athena’s thought process: “What is Medusa wearing? What does Medusa look like? Why was she alone in that temple? Of course, she deserves to be punished.”

This is where almost all stories of Medusa merge together. After many years, the Greek hero Perseus is sent to look for Medusa and kill her. Perseus cloaks himself in an invisibility cap and slays her without warning or a fair fight. But taking Medusa’s life isn’t enough for Perseus. Instead, he takes Medusa’s head and uses her as a weapon to turn others to stone.

Throughout many myths, Medusa is used as a weapon by other male heroes. There’s no other conclusion to Medusa’s story. The reader can deduce that she’s still with some hero waiting to be used as a weapon again. 

The scary part of the myth of Medusa is that she’s a rape victim with no support system. It’s a story so powerful and relevant to today’s society, that I couldn’t help but cry for Medusa. First, she was sexually abused and punished for it by a woman who had the power to help her. Then she is turned into a monster and essentially stripped of her identity.

It’s hard to feel comfortable, much less beautiful, in a rape victim’s body. But to be turned into a literal monster by the woman who you worshipped after you were raped? It’s a fate worse than death. 

Then Perseus violently murders her. As mentioned earlier, he does this completely invisibly, without warning or a hint of fairness. Then he decides that killing Medusa isn’t enough, but he has to keep her body as some sort of trophy. Medusa, in life, lived the same way that she had in death. She had no agency over her body and lived in a continuous cycle of abuse through being passed on from man to man. 

It’s a tragic story. It’s even more tragic that history remembers Medusa as a monster and not the victim that she was. Maybe this is fitting though. We don’t listen to victims now, much less hundreds of years ago. Instead, people turn them into something or someone they’re not.

How many times have you heard the news call a victim an instigator? We turn the people who need our help the most into monsters. But in reality, the real monsters are rapists like Poseidon, abusers like Perseus, and victim-blamers like Athena and Ovid. But most of all, it’s the people who actively choose to not look further into a victim’s story.

In a way, as I finished the myth, I realized that I’m monstrous for not listening to Medusa’s story all these years. Medusa, if you are sitting in a cave somewhere reading this, I want to say I’m sorry. And I believe you. 

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  1. Thanks! I have always been intrigued by Medusa. I remember first seeing her in the movie Clash of the Titans. I enjoyed her strength and power to turn people to stone- probably because I was bullied for so long – there’s a few people I know that deserve that fate and worse! I’ve also always loved dressing up for Halloween. One year I worked for ages on a Medusa costume, sewing loads of felt snakes with red tongues and wire inside to make them wriggle and bounce as I walked. Still one of my all time fav costumes- and even little kids have recognized me dressed as Medusa on Halloween night! So she’s pretty well known. As for Poseidon raping her and Athena punishing her that’s pretty heavy. I now have a whole other level of appreciation for Medusa. I just wished she could have turned both those assholes into stone before the rape!