Mythology Mondays: Medusa

Welcome to Mythology Mondays, where I highlight a different Greek myth or an aspect of mythology that has influenced the Turning Creek series. The first two books, Lightning in the Dark and Storm in the Mountains are out now.

Like the Sphinx from last week, most people have heard of Medusa even if they do not know her full story. Her snake hair and creepiness have woven their way into our cultural memory. The beautiful woman with serpents for hair that can turn a man to stone is the popular version of this myth. There are even books and cartoons for kids with Medusa as a character who is not at all scary.

There is a whole goddess series of books for girls and Medusa is featured in one.
There is a whole goddess series of books for girls and Medusa is featured in one.

In some of the first Medusa myths, Medusa was part of a triad of female monsters called the Gorgons. The Gorgons were sisters with scales for skin, hair for snakes, and small wings sprouting from their temples. The three sisters, Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale, lived near the ocean in some stories and in others they guarded the door to the Underworld. Medusa was the only one of the three that was mortal.

In the most popular stories, Medusa was once a beautiful human woman who made the unfortunate decision to submit to Poseidon in a temple of Athena. This is always a Bad Life Choice as Athena was famously jealous of anyone getting horizontal in her temple without her express permission. To punish Medusa, Athena turned her into a hideous Gorgon. From this union with Poseidon, came Pegasus, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, a giant or a winged boar or a giant winged boar.

In an effort to free his mother, Perseus goes on a quest in which he kills a bunch of things with the help of the gods. One of the monsters he kills is Medusa. With a reflective shield from Athena, a bag of holding* from Hesperides, winged shoes from Hermes, an adamantine sword from Zeus, and a helm of darkness from Hades, Perseus sets off. He sneaks up on the sleeping Medusa and lops off her head. He stuffs it in the bag of holding and, using the helm of darkness, runs like the wind, with the winged shoes, and escapes the other two Gorgon who are infuriated over the death of their sister.

By Ad Meskens; sculpture Antonio Canova (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Perseus holding the head of Medusa.Photo by Ad Meskens; sculpture Antonio Canova
In some versions, Pegasus and Chrysaor spring from Medusa’s severed neck because the Greek’s loved stories of children springing from random body parts. Athena ended up with the severed head (I bet that looked awesome on the mantel) and she once gave a lock of the serpent hair to Hercules. The hair, even though the bearer was dead, retained the ability to turn men to stone. For some time, Athena affixed the head to her shield whenever she went into battle. Legend has it that the head was buried under a mound in Agora.

*Technically, it was a special monster head holding bag.

In Turning Creek, Lily Hughes, the wife of the tailor, is the Remnant of Medusa. She has the ability to mesmerize people, not turn them to stone, and her hair is a perfectly normal shade of brown. She is a very proper lady, unlike our harpies, and almost never uses her ability.

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