By Sanaa Shaikh
Greek mythology, replete with a plethora of stories, characters and values is widely known… Special thanks to Rick Riordan, of course. All of us, no matter the age, have read or heard stories of glorious goddesses and brave heroes from Greek mythology. It is every reader’s dream. In fact, calling it a ‘collection of stories’ would be an injustice. For a lot of us, Greek mythology was an obsession. It was a teacher of sorts. These tales shaped our entire childhood. They transported us to a whole new world full of humans, gods, heroes and mythical creatures that were too fascinating to be conjured by the human brain. Yes, we definitely cannot label them as mere stories.
Many of us aspired to be as brave as Hercules or as beautiful as Aphrodite. We sympathised with some characters, and some characters were so astonishingly evil they made us want to go millenia back in time and slaughter them all over again. Greek mythology saw the existence of morally upright heroes with a penchant for winning over evil. But what makes it even special, is the existence of unconventional characters. The flawed, misunderstood characters, wronged by fate, circumstances and people. This post is about one such character that personifies everything I just spoke about. A personal favourite, this one – Medusa.
The monster. The merciless killer who can turn a valorous man to stone by a simple glance of her eyes. The beast that gave birth to the phrase ‘if looks could kill’. The ultimate villain… Or is she? Let’s revisit the tale of Medusa, or rather the ‘tales’ of Medusa; for she is an enigma. Her entire existence is an unanswered question. It is an uncertainty and no one explanation works. The most popular version of the tale says that Medusa was a young, vivacious and devoted priestess to Athena, the godess of Wisdom. She was a virgin, as was the prerequisite to worshipping Athena. Oh, and she was gorgeous to look at, too. An ‘otherworldy’ beauty, they said. Beauty that had men falling at her feet left and right. The living image of chastity and beauty, Medusa was considered a worthy opponent to Athena herself. Her beauty had drawn a stream of unsolicited visitors, the great Lord of the Seas, Poseidon being one of them. Medusa’s persistent refusal meant nothing to him, and Poseidon raped her in the very temple she used to worship Athena. Angry at her priestess for defiling the sanctity of her temple, Athena punished her by taking away her beautiful tresses and replacing them with slithering, venomous snakes, and wrinkling her porcelain skin. She also cursed Medusa to a life of seclusion by forcing her to live in an uninhabited island. Medusa then becomes a ‘gorgon’, a monster with snakes for hair and eyes that could turn to stone anybody who dared to meet them.
Another version of the story goes pretty much the same, with one major exception. Poseidon is not a perpetrator in this one. Medusa’s heavenliness was dissented by the goddess of jealousy… Sorry, I mean goddess of wisdom, Athena and she cursed Medusa and her sisters to a life of misery and isolation by altering their faces and hair to look like something out of a horror book. Not very feminist of you, Athena, I must say. One version of this tragedy goes as far as to say that Medusa consented to having sex with Poseidon as she was his girlfriend. But this perhaps holds the least credibility as it is completely inconsistent with the fact that Medusa was a devoted worshipper of Athena and it is well-known that Athena’s devotees could not indulge in sexual activities. Other versions depict Medusa and her sisters, Stheno and Euryale as ruthless monsters with long beards and scaly skins, though these are only artworks on murals and crockery. The general consensus about Medusa’s story flits between the first two versions mentioned here. Though differences about the beginning of this gruesome tale are often discussed, the end is always same. Perseus, a half-blood hero and the son of Zeus, god of gods, was the slayer of this demonic being. Actually, calling Medusa anything along the lines of a demon would be a disgrace to the victim in her. To the fighter, the survivor that had no choice but to kill. To the young girl full of life and devotion, betrayed by a man and the very goddess she spent her life worshipping.
Medusa has always fascinated me. I never saw her as a deadly beast that all of mankind feared. A part of me found her powers ‘cool’... I mean, being able to turn somebody to stone just by a look? C-O-O-L. It took me a while before I truly understood the strings that these powers were attached to. Theyre not really powers, either. They’re a curse, one that sealed her fate away from any chance at having a human life. They’re what alienate her from rest of the world, ‘setting in stone’ that Medusa was an unrelenting, cold-hearted savage that could only kill and kill some more. Yes, pun-intended.
My point remains… Medusa was a victim. She was a sweet, pious girl whose beauty was her downfall. She was a rape survivor. She was betrayed by a member of her brethren, of her gender. She was punished for something she had no role to play in and no way to stop. In many ways, she exemplifies the plight of rape victims. Be it the 21st century or the beginning of time, rape victims are shunned by society, punished for something they wished never happened. They’re somehow seen as the culprits, and villainised when they try to defend themselves. More often than not, they are blamed and isolated by their own kind. What happened with Medusa was nothing less than a tragedy.
But the only way to honour the losses she bore and the injustice she suffered, is to rewrite the narrative. She was not a monster, a beast, or a killer. She was just a girl wronged by life. Her strength is commendable. And even if she did kill, she killed for survival, not fun. Athena, the ‘goddess’ of wisdom cursed her out of sheer jealousy and anger, and for Medusa to continue living, as strongly as she did, makes her more of a goddess than Athena, in my opinion. History must remember her as a warrior.
Because Medusa, your beauty never scared me.
By Sanaa Shaikh