Most of you will be familiar with the legend of Medusa and her snakeyfied locks with a look that could turn men to stone. But are you aware of how she came by her serpenty hairdo? Well, wonder no more.
With the exception of the poet, Sappho, most ancient Greek scribes were men. And, as is typical of most men, women don’t fair too well in their myths and fables. This is my attempt to redress the balance a little bit.
The Alternative (and true) Legend of Medusa and Perseus.
By David Milligan-Croft.
Perseus crept stealthily through the tunnels of Medusa’s grim cave, sword extended before him, eyes peeled wide over the rim of his shield trying to absorb as much light as possible. He clung to the mirrored shield Athena had given him to protect against the serpent-headed monster. Perseus brushed against something solid. It felt like a statue. But on closer inspection it was the petrified figure of another warrior seeking fame and glory.
Perseus had been sent on his quest by King Polydectes of Seriphos in order that he might fail and leave his mother free to marry the king. However, King Polydectes had not counted on divine intervention from the goddess Athena. “Do not look directly into Medusa’s eyes,” she had warned him. “Otherwise, you will be turned to stone just like the countless others who have tried before you. Use the mirror to see where she is, then cut off her head. But, be careful, Perseus, she is wily and cunning and will use all her powers to trick you.”
The orange glow of a torch began to illuminate the far end of the tunnel. Cautiously, Perseus edged towards the light. The closer he got, he began to hear the sound of sniffling. Closer still, he detected the sound of a woman crying. He could see that the tunnel opened into a cavernous space. Perseus turned around and held the mirrored shield before him so that he might see behind him into the cavern. He angled the mirror and saw a woman seated at a dressing table with her head in her hands, weeping.
“Have you come to kill me?” came a muffled voice.
As he adjusted his grip on the mirror, Perseus saw the serpents slowly uncoiling. “I am Perseus, of Mycenae. I mean you no harm, good lady. I am a weary traveller and merely seeking shelter until the storm passes.”
The hunched woman chuckled. “‘You mean me no harm, is that so?” she said. “Then why do you approach with your sword drawn?”
“It pays to be cautious when entering an unknown labyrinth such as this, my lady.”
“Well, as you can see, I am quite alone. You may sheath your weapon now.”
Perseus scanned the cave for Medusa’s two monstrous sisters, Stheno and Euryale, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Medusa straightened herself up and looked in the burnished mirror of her dresser at Perseus, who flinched, stealing himself against attack. “You need not worry, brave Perseus,” she mocked. “My reflection cannot harm you. Only if I stare directly into your eyes will you become petrified. But then, you know that already. Otherwise, you would not be approaching so covertly with your own mirror.”
“It is Athena’s mirror,” he said, proudly. “The goddess is my protectress.”
“Ah, the goddess Athena,” Medusa said wistfully. “It was she who cursed me to be like this.”
“You defiled her temple by fornicating with the god Poseidon!” Perseus exclaimed.
“Is that what she told you?” Medusa let a wry smile cross her lips. “Poseidon raped me in Athena’s temple whilst I was making an offering to her.
“When he took my virginity, he took my ability to serve as her priestess, so she cast me out!
“And yet, she took no action against her uncle. Nor sought reparation from her father, Zeus. Instead, she chose to punish me with these accursed snakes!”
“I … did not know that,” Perseus said. “I’m sure the great, benevolent goddess had her reasons,” he said, composing himself.
“Yes, jealousy being one of them.”
“Why would a goddess be jealous of a lowly mortal such as you?”
“When I begged Poseidon to intercede on my behalf, he said it was because of my beauty. She wanted to make it so that no man could ever look upon me with desire again without facing instant death.”
Perseus studied her face in the reflection of his shield and tried to visualise her without the hideous snakes for locks. Instead, he imagined long golden curls cascading about her shoulders, framing her oval face. She was more than a match for any divinity. It was not difficult to see why the gods would be envious of her.
“But you could help me, Perseus,” she pleaded.
“Help you how?” he inquired.
“Take me to Lesbos! It’s an island populated only by women. My curse does not work on women – it only petrifies men.”
“Why only men?”
“Because women don’t try to rape me or cut off my head!”
Perseus shifted uneasily. “What would be in it for me?”
“Hundreds of warriors have come here to claim my head as a prize and all have failed. The treasure from their abandoned ships would be yours.” Medusa said.
Perseus contemplated the vast wealth within his grasp.
“Plus, everyone knows you defeated the Minotaur of Crete, you are already a legend. Perhaps you will also be famous for your compassion as well as bravery.”
“But it was Athena who gave me this mirrored shield. She said you would try to trick me!”
“Trick you how? It was she who turned me into this monster in a fit of rage, when it was I who was wronged!” Medusa sobbed. “I do not wish to live if this is how I am to be. Skulking in dank caves for eternity, fending off assassins like you trying to claim my head as a prize. You may as well take it now!”
Perseus saw his chance and raised his sword. Medusa instinctively spun around and, before Perseus could swing his blade, she was upon him, her snakes coiled around his throat. Medusa stood behind the great Perseus as he gasped for air. He looked at her reflection through his bulging eyes and saw torment and despair in her face. A snake slid down his sword arm and wrapped itself around his wrist, squeezing until he was forced to release his grip and it hit the rock floor with a clang.
“You know,” she whispered in his ear. “I could force you to look into my eyes.” A snake began twisting Perseus’ neck around toward her. He squeezed his eyes tightly. “Perhaps the gods don’t want me revealing the truth about what they’ve done to me?”
“I’ll take you!” Perseus yielded.
Medusa sensed deception.
“I give you my word,” Perseus gasped. “I shall surrender my weapons to you for the duration of the voyage if you give me your word you will not petrify my crew and I.”
“And what of Polydectes? He will need a head.”
“We could trick him.”
“You mean, murder an innocent maiden?”
“No, no! One recently deceased. We could thread snakes through her skull.”
“The skull would contain no power, unlike mine.”
“I could say it was a myth. Once you had been decapitated all your powers died with you.”
Medusa walked slowly back to her dresser, her head bowed in contemplation. Perseus glanced at his sword lying on the ground, but dismissed the treacherous thought. “You could live out the rest of your days in the light. Without the need to hide in the shadows, nor fear trophy-hunting men.”
“Like you?” she smiled.
“Like me,” Perseus bowed his head slightly.
“There is something you should know before we set sail on the high seas.”
“What is it?”
“I am pregnant with Poseidon’s child,” Medusa said. “If he finds out while we are at sea, he may not take kindly to you and your crew aiding me.”
Perseus picked up his sword. Medusa flinched as he walked toward her. But Perseus got down on one knee and offered up his sword in his palms. “Then we shall have to be cautious and travel in disguise. Wear a hooded cloak and veil. Your sisters can act as your attendants.”
It’s unknown whether Perseus delivered Medusa to the Isle of Lesbos. Legend would have us believe that Perseus sailed to Seriphos with what he claimed was Medusa’s head and presented it to King Polydectes shortly before chopping off his head. In the ensuing commotion the head was conveniently lost, or so it seems.
Sailors who unloaded their cargo at Lesbos heard tales that Medusa was befriended by the great poet Sappho and gave birth to Poseidon’s children – Pegasus, the winged horse who was seen flying above the island’s mountains before departing for Mount Olympus to be by Zeus’ side. And his twin brother, Chrysaor whom Medusa and Sappho raised as their own child until he was old enough to be called a ‘man’ and had to leave the island for his own safety. Whereupon, he was known as Golden Sword and travelled to far off lands in search of his own fame and glory.
At first, Medusa wore a headscarf and veil when she ventured out on the streets of Lesbos. But Sappho, and the other women, begged that she take them off and let the world see her for who she really was: Medusa – the woman, whose beauty, even the gods were afraid.