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Thinking About Medusa Again

It’s apparently very tempting to use the word “seduction” to describe Medusa’s relationship with Poseidon. To call it a relationship at all. To imply that it was an act of passion and to omit the implication that she was unwilling. To call it rape.  

Did Medusa flee Poseidon to Athena’s temple to beseech her for protection? Did Athena give her a weapon to use against men or punish her for Poseidon’s crime? Some authors go so far as to say that Medusa deliberately seduced Poseidon to insult Athena personally. At least that interpretation awards her some agency.  

Either way, Poseidon washes his hands of the whole incident and walks away. In most versions of the myth, he has little to do with the story once the instigating event has finished. Whatever the interpretation, he is an integral part to the catalyst of Medusa’s story, but he never seems to cross paths with her again and has little to nothing to do with her eventual death. Somehow, all that has nothing to do with him. 

The Hero’s Journey, described and named by Joseph Campbell in 1949, is considered one of the most popular narrative structures in recorded history. When people who study the art of storytelling discuss it, Perseus is often put forward as an archetypal hero. He is the hero that all other heroes and protagonists in culture are compared to. It is his journey that the audience follows, it is his character that develops and reaches a resolution in the story, and he is the one who connects all the other threads of the story.  

But as is often the case, it is the side characters that capture the audience’s attention and sympathy the most. Nearly 3000 years after the early Greek poets, Medusa is possibly the most compelling and interesting character described by Ovid and Hesiod. She is certainly the most iconic in terms of imagery. The snakes in her hair and the statues left behind by those that tried to face her are well known and instantly recognisable to anyone even slightly familiar with Western culture. It is very difficult, even when reading early texts, to view her unsympathetically. Perseus' attack is described so brutally, and his actions are so callous, that Medusa comes across more as the victim of a violent murder than a beast being slain by a hero. That Perseus takes her head as a trophy and weapon while her sisters grieve for her drives this home. Of course, in Ancient Greece, these actions would have come across and been evaluated differently. Violence was seen differently. But Medusa still comes across as a woman to be pitied if nothing else. Her punishment from Athena was harsh and unfair and her death was brutal. Through a modern viewpoint, Medusa seems more like a tragic heroine and Perseus and Athena are the villains using her to their own ends. 

It has been said that in recent decades, Medusa has been reclaimed. The archetypal victim blamed, the woman assaulted, the aspirational figure of power in some fantasies. But it isn’t quite right to say she has been reclaimed by women. She has always been one of us.

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