#45 – “Petrified”

Petrified. A maiden, raped in the Temple of Athena by the God Poseidon. Cursed by the Goddess as if the crime were hers. You cannot look her in the eye. Medusa. Serpent-haired terror. Even after death, to look upon that face was enough to turn any into stone.


Great Perseus then: With me you shall prevail, 

Worth the relation, to relate a tale. 

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. 

Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d, 

Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d. 

In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d, 

And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid. 

The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away, 

Nor durst such bold impurity survey; 

But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes, 

Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes. 

These in her Aegis Pallas joys to bear, 

The hissing snakes her foes more sure ensnare, 

Than they did lovers once, when shining hair. 

The above is Ovid’s account of how Medusa came to be transformed into a serpent-haired creature we all know today, taken from his Metamorphoses, Book the Fourth. In Ovid’s version (first published in 8 CE), it is the new, Roman God Neptune who attacks the young maiden, rather than his older Greek equivalent Posideon, and the Goddess Minerva rather than Athena who takes it upon herself to curse the victim, rather than the perpetrator. 

Medusa (meaning “guardian” or “protectress“) was one of three siblings; the Gorgons, whose name translates as “grim” or “dreadful“. Daughters of the primordial sea God and Goddess, Phorcys and Ceto, the sisters were born in the caverns beneath Mount Olympus. In the oldest legends the Gorgons were monstrous from birth — chimeric creatures with wings, boars tusks, bronze clawed hands, and yes, snakes for hair — but, as the myth evolved, so did the relationship between the sisters.  

Medusa was the youngest of the three, Euryale (whose name meant “far-roaming“) was the middle sister, and Stheno (whose name meant “forceful“) the eldest. Not only was Medusa the last to be born, but she was also born mortal, which only made her sisters all the more protective of her. Medusa having been raped by the Sea God, and then cursed by the Goddess of Wisdom and Weaving, her sisters naturally stood up for her, and so they too were cursed and transformed. Snakes for hair, and eyes which would turn any who looked into them to stone. 

Perseus, son of Zeus, was tricked into promising to bring back the head of Medusa as a gift for King Polydectes, ruler of the island of Seriphos, who wished to wed his mother. Aided by the Goddess Athena (evidently still not yet satisfied with the level of suffering she had caused Medusa and her sisters), and his father,  Perseus set out on an epic quest to behead the youngest Gorgon. Using a highly polished shield as a mirror, Perseus was able to look up Medusa without turning to stone. Like a coward, he struck while she slept. From the body of the Gorgon sprang forth Pegasus (“he who sprang“) and Chrysaor (“sword of gold“) – chimeric children, and proof of Posiedon’s rape of Medusa. 

Hearing of their sister’s murder, Euryale and Stheno pursued her killer, but Perseus escaped their wrath using a magical helmet of invisibility. Medusa’s eyes retained their petrifying power even after death, and Perseus wielded her severed head as a weapon, turning all manner of beings to stone. Not least King Polydectes, who in Perseus’ absence had raped his mother.