Medusa – Uncovering the mask of power

The violence of this bronze sculpture shows this is not a pretty story – Benvenuto Cellini during 1545-1554.

The name Medusa is so well known one might think she originated in a Marvel comic book. Pop star Annie Lennox (of Eurythmics fame) called her second solo album Medusa, probably because Medusa has evolved into a symbol for women standing up to untold centuries of patriarchy.

In ancient Greek and Roman myth, Medusa is a mortal, snake-haired Gorgon who was beheaded by the hero Perseus under the direction of the goddess Athena. Perseus uses her severed head as a weapon because it has the uncanny ability to turn onlookers to stone.

Perseus then gave the horrific head to Athena, who mounted it on her shield. Medusa was also portrayed within a magical amulet called the gorgoneion which was worn by Athena and Zeus. Not unlike the Christian cross many centuries later, the gorgoneion had the power to repulse evil.

The Medusa story has plenty of versions. What I’ve written here is a distillation or ‘greatest hits’ of different threads presented by different classical authors.

One interesting variant comes from the Roman poet Ovid. In his Metamorphoses, a work about transformation, Ovid says Medusa was originally an incredibly beautiful and eligible maiden. Violently raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, Medusa bore the brunt of Athena’s rage who turns Medusa’s hair into a crown of hideous snakes.

Some see Athena’s weird rage as an expression of the convoluted strangeness of ancient Greek sexism. Athena (that is, the patriarchy behind the story) blames Medusa for not willingly participating in the abduction.

Essentially, Athena is saying to Medusa, “You asked for it by looking pretty, why didn’t you go along with it?” Sadly, some men and women still hold this brutish attitude toward female sexuality in the 21st century.¹

A Roman mosaic from Piraeus depicting Medusa, 2nd century AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Another interpretation of Athena’s anger comes from psychoanalysis. Contemporary analysts believe that Athena has an unresolved father complex, so transfers her unresolved rage onto Medusa when she has sex in Athena’s holy place.²

Myself, when I first saw the Cellini sculpture (top right image) it seemed a powerful statement about some kind of psychological or even metaphysical process. The severed head still has influence. Mythographer Jane Harrison notes that Medusa is all about the mask, removed from the body. And this could be meaningful to anyone who lives more in the head than in the body. It’s not death, per se, but an uneasy existence usually misunderstood by those enjoying a more conventional psychological profile.

Her potency only begins when her head is severed, and that potency resides in the head; she is in a word a mask with a body later appended… the basis of the Gorgoneion is a cultus object, a ritual mask misunderstood.³

Since 1993, Medusa has been used as a logo for Versace fashion products. This is not surprising as the fashion industry often thrives on conflict, promoting unhealthy, arrogant and elitist images as ‘chic.’ Whether or not this corporate/artistic venture is itself healthy, unhealthy or just superficially ironic has been debated by academics and journalists since the 1960s onward.4

Generally speaking, the name Medusa has come to mean “monster.” In the early myths, Medusa becomes one of the three frightful Gorgons, along with Stheno and Euryale. Like Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth, they are loosely regarded as sisters. Medusa is the only Gorgon who is not immortal. All three have snakes for hair and, as noted, can turn you to stone with a single look.

Gustav Klimt: The Hostile Powers, the Titan Typhoeus, the Three Gorgons

Medusa has been adapted to films like Clash of the Titans (1981; 2010), Marvel’s TV series Inhumans (2017), and she appears in the arts, books, comics, and video games.

¹ An early reversal of the patriarchal idea that women are only good for sex and motherhood is presented in Aristophanes’ popular comedy,  Lysistrata (411 BCE).



4 Here’s an interesting take: “The Versace Logo’s Perplexing Connotations”

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.