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Medusa herself, from the pediment of the Temple of Artemis on Corfu, about 600 BC

Medusa herself, from the pediment of the Temple of Artemis on Corfu, about 600 BC



Who was Medusa?

According to one version of the Greek story, Medusa was once a lovely young girl who had a boyfriend she loved very much. One afternoon she and her boyfriend were looking for a place where they could be alone, and they went into a temple of the goddess Athena. Seeing that nobody else was there, they sat down to talk, and soon they started to kiss.

Who was Athena? 
More about Greek temples
More Greek mythology
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Medusa's sisters, from an Athenian Proto-Geometric vase about 675-650 BC

Medusa’s sisters, from an Athenian Proto-Geometric vase about 675-650 BC

Athena gets angry

Athena, looking down from the sky, saw Medusa kissing her boyfriend, and Athena was very angry that they would use her temple this way. Athena made Medusa grow very ugly, and have snakes instead of hair.

Medusa’s boyfriend ran away, frightened.

When did snakes evolve?

Was this Medusa’s idea?

In ancient Greece, men didn’t really think women should get to choose who they kissed, so it’s possible the story really means Medusa was being assaulted or raped in the temple. It would be like the Greeks to blame Medusa for this even though it was not her fault. But it’s hard to say. Also, Greek temples weren’t like Christian churches or Islamic mosques – mostly people worshipped in front of them, not inside them. Only the priest was supposed to go inside. So that may be another reason why Athena was angry about it.

What happened to Medusa?

After that Medusa went away from other people and hid herself, and she lived with her sisters for many years. Her sisters were also ugly, maybe because there were different versions of this story. They were so ugly that if you looked at them you would turn into a stone statue!

More about Greek statues
Egyptian sculpture

Probably this story reflects that life-size stone statues were pretty new in Greece, and people were uncomfortable with the idea. Greek sculptors had learned how to carve these big statues from the Egyptians. So the statues seemed foreign and weird. People were nervous about whether they were alive or not. The story of Medusa is a way of thinking about this fear that statues might be live people enchanted into stone.

stone statue of a standing naked man

New York kouros – a larger-than-life-size statue of a young man from about 590-580 BC

Ugly and bad: the same thing in ancient stories

Greek storytellers think that if you’re ugly, it means you’re also bad, or the gods don’t like you. Find examples from modern television shows of the same (wrong) thinking.

More about Medusa (Perseus)

Bibliography and further reading about Medusa:

Snake Hair: The Story of Medusa (All Aboard Books Reading Level 2)
by Stephanie Spinner and Susan Swan. A beginning reader book, just a few sentences on each page, and big pictures done with paper collage. My daughter and I loved this one.

Say Cheese, Medusa! Myth-O-Mania, by Kate McMullan (2002). A “cool” retelling of the story, with a lot of puns.

D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire.

Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, by Stephen R. Wilk (1999). For adults. Traces the story of Medusa using the ancient sources (writing and art) and then through the centuries to modern times.

More about Medusa and Perseus
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