The world knows Medusa as the merciless, terrifying monsteress who turned anyone who dared to look at her into stone. Regarded as avaricious, she could reduce brave men to dust and has created a permanent lasting-impression in the minds of the young: ask any child and they would say that Medusa is the lady with snakes for hair. A mind-blowing personality that describes our understanding of power, Medusa too, as with all great power on this planet, has been greatly misrepresented.
I felt a deep need to talk about Medusa today, as recently, I was told by a few people that they saw me in their dreams and in their meditation as Medusa – a power I have infinite admiration for. Although one of them profusely asked me for forgiveness for seeing me in her form, I thought that it was uncanny for three people to see me in that way in three different occasions of their lives, whilst having nothing to do with each other. Of course, to me, having any association to Medusa is a huge compliment, as she is to me, Shakti personified. Thus, I spent a few days in my mandhir (temple), discovering the message of Medusa…
Uncle Ben couldn’t be more right when he told Peter Parker (Spider Man), “With great power comes great responsibility,’ as this was the exact responsibility condemned upon Medusa, even without a fair trial – Medusa was forbidden from interacting with mortals and was banished into temple ruins where she found her inflicted solace.
Considered to be the most beautiful maiden of her time, she was the trophy of every man or God who desired her which led to Poseidon raping her in Goddess Athena’s altar – this enraged Athena who cursed Medusa to becoming the wretched monsteress of Gorgon. The merciless wrath of the Goddess perpetrated the victim of power, taking away not only Medusa’s right of retribution, but also, her free will to live as a maiden, she once was.
Yet, underneath all that rage, she was the most beautiful personification of the feminine power, tenacious even after death – as her head of serpents could be used to break unstoppable powers of any era or any size. Although Medusa is commonly regarded as a monsteress, her head is often seen as a protective amulet that would keep evil away. Thus, it is believed that maybe, Athena’s curse was not necessarily a desecration per se, but a boon to protect Medusa from further violation.
Medusa’s beauty and in particular, her femininity remains as dangerous as her original monstrosity. The majority of hybrids (half-human, half-animal monsters like sirens or Gorgons), in ancient Greece were female. In a male-dominated society, the feminization of monsters posed to demonize women and Medusa was always the most popular hybrid and remains the most identifiable even today.
Her authority as a symbol of treacherous sexuality hasn’t faded, either. Yet the fears embodied by Medusa are two-pronged: (1) The sexually independent woman is dangerous, but so, too, is the (2) politically independent one. For centuries, women in power (or fighting for power), have been equated to Medusa, from Marie Antoinette to the suffragettes. Google any famous woman’s name, from Angela Merkel to Nancy Pelosi, along with the word “Medusa.” All of them have been photoshopped onto famous renditions of the Gorgon, from Caravaggio’s round, shield-like painting to Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Perseus flaunting Medusa’s head.
From a tight-suited villain in The Powerpuff Girls to a contemptuous allegory for UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in UB40’s hit song “Madam Medusa,” the myth of Medusa endures in contemporary pop culture. The character has frequently resurfaced in cinema mostly in an alluring form: Natalia Vodianova lent serious supermodel power to the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, while Uma Thurman cut a particularly seductive figure in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
If we go back to Greek antiquity, Medusa was an enormous force endowed with the power to both kill and redeem. Sculptors and painters would use the Medusa’s head as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Take the Roman mosaic floor on display at the Getty, where Medusa’s wild, snaky locks are depicted as wind-blown curls, her terrifying gaze a sophisticatedly turned head. Her head peers out from the center of the mosaic, a protective amulet offset by a shield of concentric circles. There are countless other examples too, where she’s definitely more muse than monsteress.
What’s clear from the changing faces of Medusa is that there is no universal truth to her myth. Beautiful victim, monstrous villain, powerful deity—she’s all of those things, and more besides. Perhaps it’s that volatile nature that makes her an infinite source of fascination. She is, in a sense, a site for our collective reckoning of both fear and desire: simultaneously a symbol of women’s rage and a figure sexualized by the very patriarchal forces she is seeking vengeance against.
Today, the most well-known image of Medusa’s head belongs perhaps to the logo of the Italian fashion company, Versace. And let’s not forget that Medusa also made headline gaming news in the not so distant past as a tough boss battle for players in the newest game of the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Therefore, the next time you dream of Medusa or see her in your meditation (as me), ask yourself if you are truly claiming your own power or are you trying to seek validation of who you need to be? Wouldn’t I want to hear all about it!!!!!!
SUJATA NANDY WORLD GURUKUL