By: Alexis Plumaj
(IAH 221A Section 004)
This timeline seeks to understand the changes in interpretations of the ancient Greek mythological creature Medusa throughout time. I was inspired by an essay I read in which Medusa was repurposed as a feminist icon, and in this timeline I sought to investigate how Medusa, one of the most monstrous female figures in mythology, became a contemporary symbol of feminine power. This timeline looks at seven primary sources, each representing one iteration of the myth, and explains each interpretation both in relation to the others and within its own historical context. Sources appear in chronological order.
Unknown Etruscan artist. Terracotta antefix with the head of Medusa. 6th Century B.C.E.. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
This terracotta antefix (ornamental cover for the end of a roof tile) portrays the face of Medusa in a style that was common during the Archaic period of ancient Greek art — a hideous woman with a wide smile, wide eyes, and a wide nose. The terracotta would have been painted in threatening black, white, and red. While the art piece is Etruscan (Etruscans are an ancient people native to Italy) it is representative of the earliest Greek interpretations of Medusa’s form. In the earliest versions of the Medusa myth, Medusa is portrayed as a revolting gorgon woman who is the daughter of chthonic sea gods — much different than later ancient works where she is described with a fairer appearance and snakes for hair. This is most likely because later ancient interpretations of Medusa included a plotline in which Medusa is a beautiful maiden raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena and Athena, as a result, turns her hair to snakes. Because archaic forms of the myth like that written by Hesiod do not include this narrative and see Medusa born as a gorgon, there is no need to portray Medusa as beautiful to explain why Poseidon could not resist raping her or to contrast her appearance before and after Athena punished her.
During this time period, the image of the face of Medusa served a specific purpose which was to ward off evil/the negative. The artist created this terracotta piece as an antefix; it would have been fixed to a roof to cover the ends of roof tiles and thus would have served to protect the house or building from danger. During ancient times, images of Medusa and her gorgon sisters were often used for protection because they represented a threat fearsome enough to scare off other threats. This piece is representative of the earliest known interpretation of Medusa.
Unknown Greek artist. Terracotta relief roundel with the head of Medusa. 2nd Century B.C.E.. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
This terracotta roundel contains in its center a sculptural relief of the head of Medusa. In this piece of artwork from the Hellenistic period of Greek art, Medusa is portrayed as a beautiful woman with thick flowing hair, and traces of pink and blue paint remain detectable but not visible on the terracotta. This portrayal of Medusa differs greatly from earlier portrayals of the gorgon as a hideous creature — this Hellenistic interpretation sees Medusa as a beautiful woman (a gorgon woman, not human). During the time period, Medusa was a common motif on ornamental pieces. This roundel most probably served as a wall decoration.
The shift from Medusa being portrayed as hideous to more attractive may have come as a result of ancient Greek attitudes towards women and the purpose they served in myth and entertainment. In later ancient versions of the myth (like this one), Medusa is a beautiful maiden and is raped or seduced by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, resulting in Athena turning her hair to snakes and giving her the power of petrification as a punishment. While Medusa may have seemed more fearsome in archaic times because of her status as a chthonic creature, the ancient Greeks began to turn away from respect towards very ancient traditions and the chthonic gods/creatures in favor of newer ideas during Classical and Hellenistic times. This included the way that gender was seen. In Classical times, women actually may have had less rights than they did in archaic times. Thus, it may have served a better purpose to portray Medusa as being a beautiful woman raped or seduced by Poseidon in order to maintain/correspond with the Classical and Hellenistic views of women as inferior, other, incompatible with civilized society, and sexually impulsive or uncontrollable. The beautiful Medusa is representative of later ancient Greeks views and fears regarding women.
Ovid. The Story of Medusa’s Head. 1st Century B.C.E.. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Classics Archive.
This portrayal of Medusa comes in the form of a poem from the Roman poet Ovid’s (Publius Ovidius Naso) work Metamorphases. The photo above is an excerpt from the poem. In this version of the Medusa myth, which is commonly thought of as the original version because it is the first that is recorded in writing in whole, Medusa is portrayed originally as a beautiful virgin with many suitors and long, golden hair until Poseidon sleeps with her in the Temple of Athena. This being sacrilegious, Athena is angered and turns Medusa’s beautiful hair to snakes as punishment. Perseus then decapitates her while she sleeps with help/gifts from the gods, and Pegasus is born from her neck. This version of the myth is consistent with earlier accounts of Medusa being a beautiful maiden, seduced by Poseidon, Perseus killing her, etc. Ovid was telling a story that was consistent with what had been told about Medusa during the time period, and Medusa was probably portrayed as beautiful and seduced for the same reason that she was in the previous source. Ovid puts the entire Medusa and Perseus myth into writing. Again, Medusa is most likely seduced by Poseidon in this interpretation because women had been seen for the past few centuries as being uncontrollable sexually. Ovid was a Roman poet, but Hellenistic Greece was a popular influence on Roman society and Rome conquered Greece in the first century B.C.E..
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi. Medusa. 1598. Florence, Italy.
This portrayal of Medusa from the 16th century C.E. shows only the decapitated head of Medusa pouring blood with a look of terror and astonishment on her face. This portrayal of Medusa does not envision her as a hideous creature as she was portrayed in archaic times, but it also does not present her as a beautiful maiden as she was during classical times. This interpretation begins to capture her pain. She is not ugly, but she still has her hair of snakes, and the expression on her face is one of shock and fright. Unlike other more “modern” works that show Perseus heroically defeating Medusa, the artist here chooses to focus only on Medusa, and specifically on capturing her emotion at the moment before she dies, just as she realizes what is happening to her. Views towards Medusa during the 16th century were not sympathetic, and the Medusa portrayed here was still seen as a fearsome symbol, but the interpretation of her is moving towards one where her suffering is recognized and sympathy for her can begin to be felt. She was raped by Poseidon, had both her virginity and beauty stolen, and was bestowed with the power to petrify to stone anyone who looked at her. In this painting, her pain is recognized.
Canova, Antonio. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Marble. 1804-1806. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:
In this portrayal of the Medusa myth, Perseus holds the decapitated head of Medusa up triumphantly, basking in his victory against her. He grabs her head by a tangle of the snakes serving as her hair, and her face is frozen in an expression of agony — eyebrows lowered at the center with her mouth slightly agape, giving her an almost sad expression. One can truly see her pain. Compared to older portrayals of Medusa, this one does not look particularly monstrous. While the 1800’s were not necessarily a kind time period for women and the emphasis of the artwork is certainly on Perseus’ triumph, Medusa’s pain is recognized and portrayed very obviously by the artist. Perseus is the ideal male figure here, and Medusa is defeated, sad, docile. She was too powerful and Perseus, a symbol of manhood, put her back in her place. The sculpture as a whole might be representative of views of women in the 19th century; a powerful woman like Medusa would have needed to have been tamed by a man — to have her power taken away and to be put in her rightful place where she was quiet and inferior to man just like the decapitated Medusa.
“The Laugh of Medusa” by Helene Cixous, 1975:
In her most well-known essay, French feminist writer Helene Cixous reclaims Medusa and encourages women to take control of their own narratives and write. Pushing back against patriarchal representations of women in media and literature, Cixous reclaims Medusa — one of the most evil and appalling female figures in mythology. Cixous’ version of Medusa differs from the Medusa of traditional myth, in Cixous’ essay Medusa is “beautiful and she’s laughing” (Cixous, 885). Additionally, in her writing Cixous often uses the pronoun “us” when talking about Medusa, suggesting that Medusa is representative of all women in her mind.
In a broad sense, the point that Cixous is trying to make is that men have controlled women’s narratives for all of history, women have never been able to take control of their own stories and write about themselves from their own perspective. The reason that so many women in literature and myth are evil, associated with death, monstrous, etc. is because men do not understand women and they fear what they do not understand. Cixous urges women in her essay to write — to write about their bodies, their emotions, and their stories from their own point of view. In Cixous’ mind, this is a way for women to better understand and connect with themselves and, thus, a way for them to liberate themselves from the patriarchy that has controlled female narratives for so long. Here, Medusa is not a monster; she is a symbol of feminine power whom men are afraid of — something that Cixous believes all women are. As a feminist writing in 1975 during the height of the women’s movement, Cixous’ repurposing of a female mythical figure that has traditionally been thought of as abhorrent and evil into one that represents feminine power serves as a nice mirror to women who have been historically deemed inferior rising up to secure their rights and privileges in society.
Garabati, Luciano. Medusa with the Head of Perseus. Clay. 2008.
In this updated version of the classic sculptural format depicting Perseus showing off the decapitated head of a defeated Medusa, artist Luciano Garabati tells a different version of the Medusa myth. In his own words, he wanted to examine the question, “What would it look like, her victory, not his? How should that sculpture look?” (qz.com). In Garabati’s interpretation of the myth, he sympathizes with Medusa as a woman who was raped, cursed, and then beheaded. In this sculpture, Medusa does not look triumphant, she holds the head of Perseus low to the ground, her shoulders are back, still braced from committing an act of what Garabati was trying to portray as self-defense. This is not a proud moment for her, especially when contrasted with the earlier sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa which shows Perseus holding Medusa’s head high, basking in his victory. Again, in Garabati’s own words, “This difference between a masculine victory and a feminine one, that was central to my work. The representations of Perseus, he’s always showing the fact that he won, showing the head…if you look at my Medusas…she is determined, she had to do what she did because she was defending herself. It’s quite a tragic moment.” (qz.com).
In the contemporary era where women’s struggles are met with more sympathy and, as Helene Cixous hoped, women are finally starting to be allowed to take control of their narratives and tell stories from the female point of view, it comes as no surprise that a present-day take on the Medusa myth would see some kind of victory come from Medusa’s suffering. Across the internet, this sculpture has become a symbol of feminine rage for women fighting back against male oppression and, in a way, Medusa is the perfect face for the feminist movement: a woman who had her bodily autonomy taken from her, was cursed, forced to live a life she did not choose, but yet was still immensely powerful. This retelling of the myth with Medusa fighting back and winning the battle against Perseus, a symbol of masculine victory, is still tragic but also serves as a parallel for women’s initiation of the feminist movement and the battles it won that should not have had to be fought in the first place.
Canova, Antonio. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Marble. 1804-1806. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi. Medusa. Oil Painting. 1598. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/jan/25/art
Cixous, Helene. The Laugh of Medusa. Signs Vol. 1 No. 4. pp. 875-893. (Summer 1976). The University of Chicago Press. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.
Garabati, Luciano. Medusa with the Head of Perseus. 2008. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
Garabati, Luciano. Medusa with the Head of Perseus. 2008. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
Glennon, Madeleine. “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Musem of Art, Mar. 2017, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm.
Hastings, Christobel. “The Timeless Myth of Medusa, a Rape Victim Turned Into a Monster.” Broadly, VICE , 9 Apr. 2018, broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/qvxwax/medusa-greek-myth-rape-victim-turned-into-a-monster.
Ovid. The Story of Medusa’s Head. 1st Century B.C.E.. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Classics Archive. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018. http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.4.fourth.html
Unknown Etruscan artist. Terracotta antefix with the head of Medusa. 6th Century B.C.E.. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/27.122.14/
Unknown Greek artist. Terracotta relief roundel with the head of Medusa. 2nd Century B.C.E.. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/98.8.30/