Monday, October 22, 2012

The legend(s) of Médousa

The legend of Médousa (Μέδουσα) is one of the hardest myths to deal with out of ancient Hellenic mythology. It tells the story of a beautiful woman, who got raped by Poseidon, and gets transformed into a hideous monster who can turn people to stone just by looking at them, by Athena, because of it. She spends the rest of her life trapped on an island, in isolation, while brave warriors try to kill her for her head, which will still turn people to stone once cut off. Perseus eventually does so and gives the head to Athena to place on her shield. The circle is complete and Médousa is dead, after a lifetime of horror which was not her fault to begin with.

It's one of the best known Hellenic myths, and the movies, series, books, comics and other mediums which feature it--or Médousa--are endless. Percy Jackson comes to mind, and Clash of the Titans, but there are many others. What's less well known is that this particular myth doesn't date back to ancient Hellas, but ancient Rome: it was written by the Roman poet Ovid, in 8 B.C., in his Metamorphosis

"...He [Perseus] told of his long journeys, of dangers that were not imaginary ones, what seas and lands he had seen below from his high flight, and what stars he had brushed against with beating wings. He still finished speaking before they wished. Next one of the many princes asked why Medusa, alone among her sisters, had snakes twining in her hair. The guest replied ‘Since what you ask is worth the telling, hear the answer to your question. She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair: I came across a man who recalled having seen her. They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.’"

Yet, Médousa was a well known figure in ancient Hellas, so well known that the images of her cut off head adorned everything from armors to stoves. Her name meant 'guardian', and her head frightened off enemies as well as little children who would otherwise have burned their hands. The blood from the veins on the left side of Médousa's head was allegedly capable of killing, but Asclepius, a great healer, used the blood from the veins on the right side of the head for saving lives.

In ancient Hellas, Médousa was one of three sisters, Khthonic daímōns called Gorgons. They were named Médousa, Stheno (Σθεννω), and Euryale (Ευρυαλη), and were born to the ancient marine deities Phorkys (Φόρκυς) and Keto (Κητώ), his sister. They were part of the Phorcides (Φόρκιδες), the offspring of Phorkys. Their sisters were Echidna (Ἔχιδνα, half woman, half snake), the Graiai (Γραῖαι, 'old women', sharing one tooth and one eye), and Ladon (Λάδων, the dragon serpent who guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides). This view comes from Hesiod:

"And to Phorkys, Keto bore the Graiai, with fair faces and gray from birth, and these the gods who are immortal and men who walk on the earth call Graiai, the gray sisters, Pemphredo robed in beauty and Enyo robed in saffron, and the Gorgones who, beyond the famous stream of Okeanos, live in the utmost place toward night, by the singing Hesperides: they are Sthenno, Euryale, and Medousa, whose fate is a sad one, for she was mortal, but the other two immortal and ageless both alike. Poseidon, he of the dark hair, lay with one of these, in a soft meadow and among spring flowers. But when Perseus had cut off the head of Medousa there sprang from her blood great Khrysaor and the horse Pegasos so named from the springs (pegai) of Okeanos, where she was born."

According to Apollodorus, Médousa and her sisters came into the world with snakes on their heads, instead of hair, with yellow wings and brazen hands. Their bodies were also covered with impenetrable scales, and their very looks had the power of killing or turning to stones. Médousa was the only mortal of the three, and in nearly all versions of the myth, has her head cut off by Perseus, who gifts it to Athena. The big difference? In the Hellenic version of the myth, Médousa was never a beautiful maiden who served as a priestess to Athena and was punished for being raped.

There is a third version of the myth, inspired, it seems, by Hesiod, in which Médousa was a very beautiful maiden who lived far to the north where the sun did not reach. She begged Athena to allow her to leave and see the sun, but Athena refused. Médousa got angry and shouted at Athena that she was only disallowing her request because she was jealous at her beauty. Athena, angered, turned her into the monster she is so famous as today. There is a variation of this myth where Médousa tells the sculpture of a statue of Athena that he would have done better making a sculpture of her, because she was far more beautiful. The result is the same; Athena takes her beauty and forces her into isolation as punishment for her hubris. Apollodorus, interestingly enough, also confirms this:

"It is affirmed by some that Medousa was beheaded because of Athene, for they say the Gorgon had been willing to be compared with Athene in beauty."

Archaeologists suspect that Athena, Médousa and Poseidon found their origins in Libya. They came to Hellas through Crete at the dawn of Hellas. In the beginning of Her rein, Athena may have been a snake and fertility Goddess--a trait she shared with her Libyan counterpart, who had Her own cult--and may have either had a priestess who fit the Médousa myth or--and this is more likely--Médousa had her own cult as a snake, fertility and (menstrual) blood Goddess. Especially the latter may be linked to the myths concerning Médousa's blood.

Athena's role as a snake and fertility Goddess is still visible in the myth about the child she had with Hēphaistos;  Erichthonios (Ἐριχθόνιος), who was half man, half snake. It's even posed that in the early days, Athena was married to Hēphaistos and had His child willingly. As Athena was stripped of Her roles as a fertility and snake Goddess, Médousa's myth came into being, where Athena distances Herself from sex and snakes, by punishing an epithet of herself (Athena Tritogeneia, perhaps: 'born of Trito', a lake which was supposedly located in Libya), or the Libyan snake Goddess Médousa, who may have still been attached to Her worship. By placing Médousa's head on Her breastplate or shield, Athena's mythology is continuously linked to Her Libyan heritage, but harmlessly so, to Her new image of a virginal warrior.

Few references remain to Médousa's Libyan cult. There's vague reference to Médousa being a patron of Libya as a whole, or that she was the Goddess most worshipped by the Amazons. She was linked to protection, snakes, menstrual blood, blood, fertility, and femininity in general. If this is true, it's understandable why her worship did not match the Hellenic religion: for one, she's most likely a very powerful female deity. This did not match the hierarchy of the ancient Hellens, and so, Médousa became a monster, and was dealt with accordingly. Blood was one of the fluids that caused serious miasma, and menstrual fluid wasn't even spoken of in ancient Hellas, let alone revered. Not a single Goddess would have it in their portfolio.

I don't like Ovid's version of the Médousa myth. In my view, it's an embellished version of the myth which overshoots its purpose. It also puts both Poseidon and Athena in a very bad light, and takes a lot away from Médousa. As an Hellenist, I am going to pull the Recon card and ignore the heck out of the Ovid myth. I hope that works for you as well. In all honesty, Athena can be a harsh Goddess, but most of her brutal mythology (like Arachne) applies to Minerva, Her Roman counterpart. I'm not saying these two are not linked, but I consider the Roman pantheon as a separate pantheon, with harsher deities. I'll get back to that in another post. For now, I hope this post redeems Médousa a bit, and puts her in a new light for you.


Hawthorne said...

I appreciate all of the research you did on Medusa to write this post. Most of the information I hadn't been aware of, especially that there was more than one version of the myth. I know there are usually several different interpretations to any one myth, but I had only encountered Ovid's account of Medusa. Like you, I don't like this myth, not only for the brutal treatment of Medusa, but also the damaging message it sends about Poseidon and Athena (though she gets no sympathy from me), although I don't think Athena presents well in any of the different versions of this myth. I think you're right about Minerva and Athena being separate deities, just as I don't believe that Zeus and Jupiter are one and the same. Your assessment that the Roman pantheon has harsher Gods is quite apt. The only Roman deity that I thought was even vaguely similar to his Greek counterpart is Mercury.
I would like to honor Medusa in my daily devotions, but how would I go about that? She's not a Goddess or Hero, so maybe it's not appropriate to honor her. I just know that I feel a strong connection to her and want to do something for her.

Elani Temperance said...

I think honoring Médousa is... challenging in a purely Hellenic faith. Mostly because of her status in ancient Hellas, but also because of her domains.
If you do choose to honor her, I would do so in relation to Poseidon--as in ancient Hellenic myth, she was more like his consort than his rape victim. Worshipping her together with Poseidon will also provide you some much needed protection from Athena's wrath.
A few things to worship her that I can come up with is to pour libations of dark red wine, as it may resemble blood, and to give incense offerings. Myrrh may be appropriate, as it is the incense historically used for Poseidon in the Orphic Tradition. You could also make a separate (!) shrine for her and Poseidon and decorate it with snake imagery. I hope that helps.

As for Athena's representation in this myth--even the Hellenic ones--there are those punished far more severely for their hubris, and not by Athena. Niobe comes to mind, who was punished severely by Leto through Apollo and Artemis by having fourteen or thirteen of her children shot and killed, and being turned to stone herself to weep for her children forever. Hubris is a terrible thing and a good hubris detector is a must in Hellenismos, I think ;)

I'm glad you found some new information in this post.

4ofwands said...

Since I didn't like any of the versions I've read of the Medusa tale(as there was also something about Medusa that held my sympathy...not to mention I actually LIKE snakes), I wrote my own that made the most sense to me and meshed with my understanding of Athene.

Elani Temperance said...

Thank you for sharing that! It's very good and I really like your interpretation. I wrote something like that in a reply to the comment which sparked this post, found here:

It reads:

"One can also argue that Athena transformed Medusa into what she is so she would never have to deal with the violation of her body again (i.e. giving her the power to take care of herself--something much more in line with Athena's persona), should the sex have been non-consensual. It has happened before, with Poseidon changing Kaineus' gender from female to male to make sure she was never raped again. That was Kaineus' idea, by the way."

I, honestly, prefer a story where Athena comes out looking compassionate to women, instead of siding with the men. Again, thank you for sharing.

Memory Walker said...

As soon as you mentioned a cult of powerful snake goddesses coming up from the south (Libya), I immediately thought of Crete and the Minoans and the 'snake goddess' figurine. Do you know of any connections there? It's such a shame that the Minoan civilization is still so mysterious.

Elani Temperance said...

Honestly, everything is possible. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an Athena/Médousa link there somewhere. Yet, like you said: Minoan civilization is pretty much a mystery.