Why is Medusa’s sad backstory so rarely told in Greek myth retellings?

One of my favorite stories from Greek mythology is the popular version of Perseus and Andromeda’s myth.

It’s one of the few I can recall in which the hero does NOT come to grief. Perseus does NOT enrage the gods via a fit of hubris. He does NOT suffer a tragic punishment. He fulfills his quest to chop off Medusa’s head, marries Andromeda, and they live happily ever after in the stars. Literally. The gods immortalize them as the constellations Perseus and Andromeda.

In Mythology, Edith Hamilton writes that the Perseus myth was popular in ancient times. It’s mentioned (Hamilton notes) in Simonides, Hesiod, Pindar, Apollodorus, and by the Roman writer Ovid. Not having Simonides on hand, I looked at versions in Hesiod, Pindar, Apollodorus, and Ovid. I also read contemporary retellings by Jenny March in The Penguin Book of Classical Myths, Robert Graves in Greek Mythology, Edith Hamilton in Mythology, and, for a pop culture spin, Rick Riordan in Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes and Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods.

Medusa’s severed head features prominently. Her backstory not so much.

Most of the contemporary retellings tell some version of this:

Perseus’ birth and quest

Perseus was the son of Zeus and the mortal Danae, daughter of King Akrisios of Argos.

Distressed by his lack of sons, Akrisios visits the oracle hoping for answers and is told his grandson will kill him. Wary of murdering Danae—since kin murder is a major taboo—Akrisios imprisons her in an underground bronze bunker. Her beauty attracts Zeus’ attention. Since she’s in a bunker, he visits her in the form of “a spontaneous shower of gold,” as Pindar puts it (in the translation I read).

 

…probably best not to think too much about how that would work…

via GIPHY

Dot-dot-dot, Perseus is born. Alarmed and furious, Akrisios puts Danae and her baby into a chest and casts them out to sea. The chest eventually washes up on an island where a kindly fisherman called Diktys finds and looks after Danae and Perseus. Diktys’ brother Polydektes, the island’s king, falls in love with Danae and seeks to rid himself of pesky Perseus.

Polydektes declares his intention to marry and invites guests, including Perseus, to celebrate. The guests bring gifts, but Perseus has nothing to offer. Mortified and rash, he vows to bring Polydektes the head of Medusa, one of the three deadly Gorgon sisters and the only mortal one. Not that she would be easy to kill: Anyone who looks directly at her turns to stone.

 

…two seconds after Perseus agrees to deliver the head of Medusa (pun intended)…

via GIPHY

Fortunately for Perseus, he has the support of Hermes and Athena. Hermes instructs Perseus to visit the Gray Women, three sisters who share one eye among them. At the moment one sister passes the eye to the other, Perseus grabs it. He refuses to return it until the sisters tell him how to find the nymphs who will tell him how to find Medusa. The nymphs gift Perseus winged sandals, a cap of invisibility, and (in some versions) a magic wallet that grows or shrinks according to the holder’s needs. Hermes presents Perseus with a special sword impervious to the Gorgons’ scales. Athena gives him a special bronze shield to act as a mirror: As long as Perseus looks at Medusa’s reflection, he will be safe from her power.

Perseus finds the Gorgons sleeping, slices off Medusa’s head, and places it in his magic wallet. Here’s where Medusa’s backstory comes in: From her severed neck spring the winged horse Pegasus (who later plays a co-starring role in Bellerophon’s myth) and Chrysaor (who eventually fathers Geryon, the triple-bodied monster Herakles slays during his 12 labors). They are the result of her union with Poseidon. Medusa’s two immortal sisters, Stheno and Euryale, chase Perseus, but his cap of invisibility enables his escape.

The questions unaddressed in most versions of the myth are, how did Poseidon and Medusa get together? How did she end up a hideous monster?

Perseus and Andromeda

On his way home, Perseus passes through Ethiopia, whose king and queen are Kepheus and Kassiepeia. Perseus falls in love with their daughter Andromeda at first sight. But there is a problem. Of course there is. Kassiepeia bragged that she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs, the Nereids.

 

…two seconds after uttering her boast…

via GIPHY

They tattled to Poseidon, and he sent a flood and a sea-monster to wreak havoc. An oracle prophesies that Andromeda must be sacrificed to appease the deities. Because what’s worse than being sacrificed yourself? Having your innocent daughter sacrificed, I’m guessing. Perseus arrives just as the monster is about to devour Andromeda. But apparently with time enough for haggling: Perseus offers to slay the monster in exchange for Andromeda’s hand in marriage. Kepheus agrees, and Perseus slays. There’s a spot of bother with another suitor, Phineus. But Perseus dispatches him by using Medusa’s head to turn him to stone.

MedusaPerseus and Andromeda marry and have a son called Perses. The happy couple sets out for Greece, leaving Perses behind, and he later founds Persia. Back home with Andromeda, Perseus discovers Polydektes has been abusing Danae and Diktys. Out comes Medusa’s head, turning Polydektes and his court to stone. Perseus installs Diktys as king. Like a properly pious hero, he returns to Hermes the sandals and cap and gifts Medusa’s head to Athena, who puts it in her breastplate.

Perseus returns to Argos, but Akrisios has already fled in fear of the prophecy. It’s eventually fulfilled, anyway, as prophecies inevitably are, though by accident: Perseus participates in some funeral games in Thessaly. During the discus throw, Perseus’ attempt strikes and kills Akrisios. Feeling bad about the unintended killing, Perseus exchanges the kingdom of Argos for another, eventually becoming the founder of Mycenae. He and Andromeda have a daughter and five sons, one of whom becomes the grandfather of Herakles. At the end of their lives, they are immortalized in the stars.

But what about Medusa?!

I can appreciate the popularity of Perseus and Andromeda’s myth. I love a hero who manages to stay humble.

 

…the eternal struggle, apparently…

via GIPHY

I also realize the myths often interconnect. It’s impossible to tell all the stories at the same time. Further, there are no “official” versions, no canon of Greek myths. The stories were retold over the course of centuries. We don’t even know if the versions that have survived are representative because it’s impossible to know what has been lost. Obviously, we can’t know what we don’t know.

Still, it’s interesting that while the retellings I read mention Poseidon and Medusa’s offspring, only Graves and Riordan that Medusa became a monster because she offended Athena.

In Riordan’s campy version, Poseidon fell in love with a Greek princess called Koroneis who tried to spurn his advances. Spotting a temple of Athena, she called out to the goddess for help. Athena turned her into a crow, and she flew away. Poseidon still held a grudge at Athena because she beat him for patronage of Athens. His revenge plot was to bring a willing Medusa to a temple of Athena for a romantic rendezvous. Athena is furious but cannot take her anger out on Poseidon. So she turns his beautiful love interest into a monster.

Generally, I love Athena as she is portrayed in Greek myths. But I can’t say this version does her any favors. Sure, Medusa should probably have thought twice about the location of her liaison with Poseidon. But turning her into a passively murderous monster seems harsh. Think about it: She can’t NOT be a murderer of humans (her power doesn’t affect gods).

 

via GIPHY

The more versions of Perseus and Andromeda’s story I read, the more glaring the absence of Medusa’s backstory seems. It makes me wonder how ancient sources we don’t have portrayed her. It inspires me to pay attention to how stories are told and whose stories are glossed over. I also find it interesting that, of all the retellings I’ve read, Riordan gives the most attention to Medusa. Why don’t others include at least a brief mention of how Medusa ended up a a monster?

4 Replies to “Why is Medusa’s sad backstory so rarely told in Greek myth retellings?”

  1. This is a really interesting question…and I was hoping to find more answers – so surprising! I feel like I read a version of Medusa’s story at some point but don’t think I’ve read Riordan. I remember that, as you felt when you read Riordan’s version, I felt like she was punished unjustly and sort of related to her, as I often do to misunderstood monsters in books (one of my Achilles’ heels – to stick with the mythology theme). I wish I could remember where I read it! This is going to haunt me all day…

    … as is that gif of the sticky gold glitter. I always thought the “shower of gold” was like pretty gold dust motes…but I think you pose a very good argument with that visual. Wow.

    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking and fascinating (and so well-researched/-read) post!

    1. Thank you, Alysa! Ovid’s version, in which Poseidon rapes Medusa, makes her transformation into a monster even more intensely unjust. That is considered a “late” version, but of course, that’s based only on what we know. So maybe the myth was told that way in ancient Greece as well. It makes my head spin sometimes, the many different ways the same stories are told. It’s like an elaborate game of telephone.

  2. This is really fascinating! When we learned about Greek mythology in school we watched a lot of Jim Henson’s episodes and I seem to remember some of her backstory of disrespecting the goddess being included in that.

    I’ve studied Greek mythology quite a bit in school but the part you bring up about there being no official versions of the stories is something that was never discussed. I didn’t really know about it until reading a book last year that compared the myths to fan fiction!

    I’m really interested by these collections of 3s as well – Medusa as one of 3 sisters and the 3 Gray Women – is this something that comes up a lot in Greek mythology?

    (Also I saw this post come up when you first posted but finally have the time to comment! It was sitting in my inbox, taunting me)

    1. Hi Sam! Oh, that’s an interesting question about 3s. I’m not sure if it comes up often in mythology, but now that you mention it, you have me thinking about the tragedies and how they were performed three at a time. I will have to research that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *