Loretta Barnard

About Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

Medusa: The snake coiffed promiscuous hag who later lost her mind

It’s a familiar tale. Woman sleeps with a man, his wife finds out and turns her weave into a bed of asps. I’m thinking Medusa should sue Jerry Springer.

 

 

You’ve heard of Medusa, the girl with the crazy snake hair, right? But do you know the whole story?

Once there were three sisters called Sthenno, Euryale and Medusa, collectively known as the Gorgons. Medusa, a beautiful girl with long lustrous golden hair and bright blue eyes, was the only one of the three who was mortal. Yeah, we don’t get it either, two immortal sisters and one who will eventually die. Just go with it. Anyway, when she was old enough, Medusa became a priestess of Athena, a great honour but with one drawback – it meant a life of celibacy.

But you know, things happen. Medusa fell in love with the sea god Poseidon and they had a bit of a thing. Of course, Athena found out and was enraged. The gods of ancient Greece pretty much wrote the book on cruel and unusual punishments and Athena went a tad overboard in this particular instance.

She changed every one of Medusa’s glossy tresses into snakes. No amount of conditioning treatment gonna tame those wild locks! Her sparkling eyes were transformed into hideous darkened balls and her once creamy complexion and flawless skin became a revolting shade of greenish-brown. Medusa could certainly give Freddy Krueger a run for his money in the ugly department. She was a sight alright, so grotesque that anyone who gazed upon her face was instantly turned to stone. That’s one helluva punishment for a few moments of nooky.

So poor Medusa spent a lot of time wandering hither and yon, finally ending up at the end of the earth where she lived with her sisters in a cave, and spent her days terrifying passers-by. Actually, there weren’t too many passers-by because they were understandably not all that keen on being turned to stone, and it was the end of the earth after all.

 

So Perseus was set. He had his cap, his fancy flying sandals and a good sharp sickle, and Athena had equipped him with her own shield so that he could put it in front of his face to avoid that turning-into-stone scenario. Well really, the whole thing was a bit of a doddle after that.

 

Meanwhile, on the island of Seriphos in another part of ancient Greece, the hero Perseus was trying to save his mother Danae from having to marry a rather unpleasant fellow called Polydectes. Polydectes suggested that if Perseus could behead Medusa, then he’d leave Danae alone. He was rubbing his hands with glee really, because there was no way Perseus could possibly succeed and he’d be free to marry Danae. Not to mention the added benefit of having ridden himself of his annoying stepson. Ha! Little did Polydectes know that Perseus’s father was actually Zeus, kingpin of the gods. He’d visited Danae in a locked tower years before in the form of a shower of gold. Oh yes, I kid you not. An unusual seduction method to be sure, but the results speak for themselves – their child Perseus was born in due course.

So Zeus sent a couple of gods to help Perseus in this quest because he still had a soft spot for Danae and he wanted to do right by his son. One of the gods was Athena, she of the “mighty grudge”. She advised Perseus to seek out the sisters of the Gorgons, the Graiai, as they’d tell him how to get hold of a cap that would make him invisible. According to legend, the Graiai – there were three of them – had one eye between them and when Perseus showed up he nicked off with the eye, holding onto it until they gave him the information he needed to find the cap and – here’s a bonus – some winged sandals, courtesy of the god Hermes (back before he was a fashion designer).

So Perseus was set. He had his cap, his fancy flying sandals and a good sharp sickle, and Athena had equipped him with her own shield so that he could put it in front of his face to avoid that turning-into-stone scenario. Well really, the whole thing was a bit of a doddle after that.

Wearing his cap of invisibility and having flown in on his business-class winged sandals, Perseus arrived at the cave while the Gorgons were sleeping. He easily wielded the sickle, quickly beheaded Medusa and then, using Athena’s shield, managed to put the severed head into a special-purpose bag because those penetratingly evil eyes, even in death, retained their horrible power to render someone into a very lifelike statue. Sthenno and Euryale attempted to chase Perseus but he made a hasty exit thanks to his designer footwear.

 

Gotta be better than all that snake hair, a loathsome complexion, never being able to look someone in the eye without them becoming a monolith, and then having your head chopped off and carted ignominiously around as the equivalent of someone’s AK47.

 

Perseus carried Medusa’s grisly head around with him to pull out in case of emergencies, and it was certainly an effective weapon. When Perseus went back to Seriphos to see his mother, he discovered that Polydectes had had his wicked way with her, so he whipped out the head and turned that no-good lying ratbag into his own headstone.

Perseus went on to have many more adventures, but you’ll have to read about them for yourself. By the way, it’s said that the famous winged horse Pegasus was born from Medusa’s blood. And Medusa’s head was eventually put onto Athena’s shield.

The overriding message of this story is that if you’re a priestess of Athena, just do what you’re told. Gotta be better than all that snake hair, a loathsome complexion, never being able to look someone in the eye without them becoming a monolith, and then having your head chopped off and carted ignominiously around as the equivalent of someone’s AK47.

The one consolation is that she became – and remains – one of the most famous monsters of all time.

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