Medusa, originally a beautiful young woman whose crowning glory was her magnificent long hair, was desired and courted by many suitors. Yet before she could be betrothed to a husband, Poseidon (Neptune)  found her worshipping in the temple of Athena (Minerva) and ravished her. Athena was outraged at her sacred temple being violated, and punished Medusa by turning her beautiful tresses into snakes and giving her the destructive power to turn anyone who looked directly at her into stone.

In both Greek and Roman mythology, Perseus, attempting to rescue his mother Danae from the coercive King Polydectes, needed to embark on the dangerous venture of retrieving Medusa’s head. With the help of Athena and Hermes – magic winged sandals, a cap, a pouch and a mirror-like shield, he fought her and beheaded her by viewing her image in the mirror of his shield rather than looking at her directly. From her decapitated head sprang the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor, who became king of Iberia. Medusa’s sisters, the Gorgons, chased after him, but were unable to catch him because his magic cap made him invisible.

Perseus was then able to use Medusa’s head as a weapon during other battles (which included rescuing Andromeda), but he eventually returned it to Athena, who then placed it at the center of her Aegis as a symbol of her power, and her own capacity to turn her enemies into stone.

Historically, before ancient Greece, Medusa was worshipped by the Libyan Amazons as a Serpent -Goddess, and associated with the destroyer aspect Anath (also known as Athene) of the Triple Goddess in North Africa and Crete. The name Medusa (Medha in Sanscrit, Metis in Greek and Maat in Egyptian) means “sovereign female wisdom.”  This online Medusa paper discusses the Libyan and Near Eastern conceptions of Medusa.

Some scholars believe that the Greek and Roman Medusa myth, as told by Ovid, expresses the vanquishing of the great goddess religions as the male gods Zeus/Jupiter and Poseidon/Neptune gained power. Others view it as expressive of the subjugation of women’s bodies and enslavement of their spirit by a violent and oppressive male-oriented culture, which viewed Medusa’s life-giving, creative, primal energy as threatening.

Psychoanalytic interpretations of the Medusa myth focus upon Medusa’s snake-like hair representing bleeding female genitals, and the frightening power of the wounded (perhaps “castrated”), devouring  mother over the fragile male psyche. Seeking his own manhood, the son must conquer his early identification with his mother and his regressive tendency to submit to maternal power and be swallowed up again by the womb. In order to avoid being symbolically castrated himself, and to be capable of mature sexual relations with a woman, he must first “behead” the mother archetype. Only then is he free to express his own power as a man, to form an equal partnership with a woman, and to eventually be helper to his own mother.

In “For the Love Of Medusa” (Psychoanalytic Review, vol.62, no.1, 1975) Richard Geha wrote: “The murder of Medusa expresses the son’s re-enactment of the crimes of the primal scene by chopping off the head representing the genitals of the once phallic mother. He exhibits the frightening power taken from a dead and castrated mother and redeems the endangered mother …. Perseus went to a lot of trouble to kill a woman and rob her of her terror. But was all necessary before he could look upon the nude and bejeweled body of a woman and carry off his own mother….Now she and her son can travel together where they will.”

Apart from the Medusa story focused Poseidon’s rape, other versions of Medusa legends exist. Consider this brief statement byApollonius: [1:161] “But it is alleged by some that Medusa was beheaded for Athena’s sake; and they say that the Gorgon was fain to match herself with the goddess even in beauty.” This same version is echoed by Bullfinch: “She was once a beautiful maiden whose hair was her chief glory but as she dared to vie in beauty with Minerva (Athena), the goddess deprived her of her charms and changed her beautiful ringlets into hissing serpents.” 

Finally, two very different pictures of Medusa and her fate were portrayed by Pausanian in his Description of Greece:

[2.21.5] “In the market-place of Argos is a mound of earth, in which they say lies the head of the Gorgon Medusa…. After the death of her father, Phorcus, she reigned over those living around Lake Tritonis, going out hunting and leading the Libyans to battle. On one such occasion, when she was encamped with an army over against the forces of Perseus, who was followed by picked troops from the Peloponnesus, she was assassinated by night. Perseus, admiring her beauty even in death, cut off her head and carried it to show the Greeks. 

[2.21.6] But Procles, the son of Eucrates, a Carthaginian, thought a different account more plausible than the preceding. It is as follows. Among the incredible monsters to be found in the Libyan desert are wild men and wild women. Procles affirmed that he had seen a man from them who had been brought to Rome. So he guessed that a woman wandered from them, reached Lake Tritonis, and harried the neighbours until Perseus killed her; Athena was supposed to have helped him in this exploit, because the people who live around Lake Tritonis are sacred to her.”