She is a grandchild of Gaia whose primordial children were inherently unstable, violent, and not conducive to life as we humans understand. Their gradual defeat at the hands of the Olympians and of the Heroes of Mankind was necessary in order to shape the world into the pleasant blue globe that has allowed us to thrive. Her parents, Phorcys (the old spirit of the Sea) and her mother Ceto (roughly equivalent to a biblical Behemoth) represented the terror that the unknown world of the ocean struck in the hearts of the first mariners. Enormous, deep, mysterious, and terrible, often resulting in death and disappearance, it was a frightening kingdom of “monsters” who by their own Nature posed a challenge to us that had to be overcome. It was not destined to be a frictionless affair.
Medusa’s name derives from the verb “medô” which means “to rule”, “to dominate” or “protect” like a king who “protects” the vassals he lords over. She had two sisters: Sthenô from the word “sthenos” meaning “power”, “strength”, “stamina” and Eury(h)alê meaning “wide open sea”. From a superficial understanding of these elements, we can see clearly what Medusa was and what she represented. She was not the victimized female archetype that suffered at the hands of the patriarchy but a personified representation of the terrible aspect of the Sea. Now let’s begin to delve a little deeper into the myths attached to her and peel back a couple of more layers.
According to the Greek myth, she was not always a monster, in fact, she was once exceptionally beautiful. But unfortunately, her physical charms were not accompanied by a deeper gravitas and understanding of her own mortality. She boasted, as often mortals do that she was so beautiful that her good looks surpassed those of Goddess Athena herself. In doing so, she committed the gravest of all sins in the Hellenic mind: hubris! Hubris always comes before Fall. It is a gross misunderstanding of one’s place in the grand scheme and inevitable hierarchy of existence. The Gods and the divine realm generally by virtue of their own Nature will ALWAYS be higher than any mortal, transient being that is subject to decay and death.
Hubris stirs Nemesis, the Goddess of Retribution who above all else restores balance. The level of Hubris dictates the severity of punishment. Cause and effect. Action and Reaction. Simple, fundamental, universal laws. To compare oneself with a God, is a grave mistake. How you feel about it is as irrelevant as how you feel about hitting the ground after climbing onto anything that stands off the ground. The higher your perch, the more painful the fall. An overdramatized lesson in consequence? Perhaps, but that does not invalidate the importance of the teaching even if we completely disregard its religious context. Mortal beings live in a world of cause and effect. Recognize that your actions will always translate to consequences, so do not overstep your boundaries and navigate the world with prudence.
Ovid, a Roman poet, in his Metamorphoses narrates that Medusa was “violated” by Poseidon in Athena’s own shrine and as a consequence Athena “justly” turned her into a monster. This narrative does not reflect the Hellenic view and it may reflect the moral expectations of a Roman lady of his time who should have never allowed herself under any circumstances to lose “her honor”.
From a Hellenic point of view, Hesiod simply states that Poseidon “laid with Medusa in a soft meadow amongst spring flowers”. Her willful “defiling” of Athena’s sacred space, when she was supposed to remain chaste as a priestess of the Goddess — itself a grave violation of her vows — in combination with her hubristic comparison with the Goddess herself would have been enough to incur the “wrath” of the Goddess to the extent that the source of her pride (her looks) would have been taken away so that she may never dare to make such claims again, nor commit further sacrilege. From a Hellenic perspective it all ties in rather nicely with yet another deeper layer that is more esoteric still and aims to explain an even deeper process as it relates to our lived experience.
Athena and Medusa in this narrative, are the opposite poles expressing the same reality. Athena is Eternal, Medusa is mortal. Athena’s unsurpassed Beauty is Pure and stems from Wisdom. Medusa’s is the same as every other mortal. It is contingent upon youth, inheritance, and chance. It is transient and as such, hollow and devoid of substance. It is nothing to brag about or used with arrogance to seduce, ensnare and defile. It is not to become our focus, it is to take with gratitude as a good gift and then put aside while we delve deeper inside of us for the Eternal Spring of Youth and Beauty: Wisdom.
Medusa is a temptress who in turn gets tempted by Poseidon whilst playing the game of enchantment. The “hunter” becomes the “hunted”. She forsakes her chastity and turns herself into a plaything for a frivolous lover who has other plans in mind. Athena on the other hand is a decided Virgin. She understands the vanity of the Game and remains steadfast in other pursuits. She transcends the dictates of youth and as a goddess is not bound by the commands of mortal nature.
Athena, through the eventual death of Medusa, puts our graces and gifts into perspective. They are tools to help us cultivate ourselves and propel others forward with. As such, our focus must turn inwards, towards the beauty of the soul where Athena finds a worthy seat.
Athena (A+thanos) is Immortality, the true state of our soul. Medusa is the mortal expression of our soul who thinks that this mortal, beautiful husk is the epitome of perfection. In reality, it will be abused by circumstance and eventually time, until it is ugly, undesirable and it will be shed in the end.
Medusa’s head ends up becoming Athena’s apotropaic apparatus, a constant reminder of the ugliness of mortality, a small thing in comparison to the gigantic statue of the soul that bears it. When Perseus kills Medusa, he takes two vials of blood, one from her left arm, one from the right. One vial brings death, the other one brings life. Both streams of blood come out of the same body, the human mortal coil which contains both Death and Life, Decay, and Transcendence, an indication of our dynamic nature as bridges and conduits between the lower and higher planes of existence.
As it pertains to our mind, Medusa is the instinctive, unexamined part, terrifying and terrified in return, driven by the dictates of our Nature and our state of ignorance. Athena is the resident Wisdom, the realized Awareness.