Hanging on the esteemed walls of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, there is a painting by Caravaggio depicting a feminine creature with slithering locks. Its subject is so majestic and terrifying that the 16th century poet Gaspare Murtola once wrote of it, "Flee, for if your eyes are petrified in amazement, she will turn you to stone.” With bared teeth, a mane of writhing serpents, and a severed head still pouring with blood, the creature is captured in the moment she realizes her disembodied condition. She is, of course, Medusa.
Since the days of early Western civilization, when myths were forged in fire and stone, society has been fascinated with the ancient Greek imagination. Tales of gods, Titans, and giants fill children’s fairy tales, while a variety of mythological monsters have captivated viewers on the big screen. No female character, however, is perhaps as popular as Medusa, the monster who could turn men to stone with a single glance.
From a tight-suited villain in The Powerpuff Girls to a scathing metaphor for UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in UB40’s hit song “Madam Medusa,” the myth of Medusa endures in contemporary pop culture. For the past two decades, the character has continually resurfaced in cinema mostly in an alluring form: Natalia Vodianova lent serious supermodel power to the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, while Uma Thurman cut a particularly seductive figure in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Even the House of Versace found inspiration in the Gorgon, placing the beautiful (pre-curse) version at the heart of its iconic logo. There she sits, long-locked, encircled by a ring of Greek keys.
Unlike other figures of Greek mythology, most of us know Medusa—even if we can’t recall the details of her myth. A quick character sketch might well include snakes, deadly eyes, and a taste for destruction. In her book Literature and Fascination, Sibylle Baumbach argues that the myth has endured thanks in part to our growing appetite for grand narratives of fascination, which often revolve around dangerous female seduction. Medusa is now a “multimodal image of intoxication, petrifaction, and luring attractiveness.” A quick Google search wouldn’t disagree, with most images ranging between a snaky-tressed femme fatale (see Rihanna’s GQ cover), and a hideous decapitated head, spewing blood and gore.
In the ancient world, Medusa was equally multidimensional. Early vases and carvings depict her as having been born a Gorgon, but that slowly changed. The first to properly explore her origin story in literature was the Roman poet Ovid, who detailed her transformation in the Metamorphoses circa 8 A.D. According to Ovid, Medusa was once a beautiful young maiden, the only mortal of three sisters known as the Gorgons. Her beauty caught the eye of the sea god Poseidon, who proceeded to rape her in the sacred temple of Athena. Furious at the desecration of her temple, Athena transformed Medusa into a monster with the deadly capacity to turn whoever looked upon her face to stone.
Popular retellings of the myth, however, focus on what happens next—and Perseus the starring role. The demigod is sent by Polydectes, the king of Seriphos, on a quest to bring back the head of Medusa. Using a reflective bronze shield to protect his eyes, Perseus decapitates Medusa, releasing a winged horse, Pegasus, from her severed neck. After using the petrifying gaze to defeat his enemies in battle, Perseus gives the Gorgon’s head to Athena, who displays it on the aegis of her shield. It’s through this male-centered hero narrative that Medusa became shorthand for monstrosity.
If we go back to Greek antiquity, Medusa was a mighty force endowed with the power to both kill and redeem. Sculptors and painters would use the Medusa head as an apotropaic symbol to ward off evil spirits. But her tragic beauty was even more inspiring. Take the Roman mosaic floor on display at the Getty, where Medusa’s wild, snaky locks are depicted as wind-blown curls, her petrifying gaze an elegantly turned head. Her head peers out from the center of the mosaic, a protective talisman offset by a shield of concentric circles. There are countless other examples , too, where she’s definitely more muse than monster.
By the Renaissance, that mystique gave way to fearsome difference. Cellini’s 1554 bronze statue depicts a triumphant Perseus standing on top of her body, her severed head held aloft. There were politics at play: Cellini had been asked to use the hero narrative of Perseus, the son of Zeus sent to slay Medusa, as a way of reflecting the power of the Medici family over the Florentine people. Other artists followed suit: in 1598, Caravaggio painted his nightmarish ceremonial shield. He, too, wanted a piece that would win the admiration of the Medicis; so he depicted Medusa in the moment she was conquered, transferring her mighty power away to the viewer.
Fast forward to the French Revolution, and for a while, Medusa became a force for change. Jacobin rebels displayed her as an emblem of “French Liberty,” subverting the demonic symbol into a means by which to undermine the establishment. Meanwhile, Romantics like Percy Bysshe Shelley moved far beyond other 19th century representations. The poet was so inspired by his visit to the Uffizi that he penned a tribute, undoing the patriarchal framing that had made Medusa a symbol of horror. Once rid of the fearful and vilifying male gaze, we can recover Medusa’s “grace” and “mailed radiance,” rendering her human once more.
Shelley wasn’t the only one who thought Medusa was misunderstood. In her 1975 manifesto The Laugh of the Medusa, the feminist theorist Hélène Cixous asserts that man created the monstrous legacy of Medusa through fear of female desire. If, she argued, they dared to “look at the Medusa straight on,” they would see that “she is not deadly, she’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” By documenting their experiences, Cixous wrote, women can deconstruct the sexist biases that portray the female body as a threat. After centuries of silence, conversations about rape culture began to restore Medusa’s voice.
It’s easy to see why Cixous’ manifesto resonated far and wide. The story of a powerful woman raped, demonized, then slain by a patriarchal society? It seems less of an ancient myth than a modern reality. As pointed out in scholar Elizabeth Johnston's November 2016 Atlantic essay, "The Original 'Nasty Woman'", the way Medusa has resurfaced in recent election cycles also points to the pervasiveness of misogyny: Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Hillary Clinton have all received the Medusa treatment lately, their features superimposed onto bloody, severed heads. One popular caricature even shows a Perseus-Trump, brandishing the head of his electoral adversary.
When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice. And throughout much of that time, Medusa has consistently been used to "demonize" female leaders, as Johnston writes, "materializing whenever male authority feels threatened by female agency."
What’s clear from the changing faces of Medusa is that there is no universal truth to her myth. Beautiful victim, monstrous villain, powerful deity—she’s all of those things, and more besides. Perhaps it’s that mercurial nature that makes her an endless source of fascination. She is, in a sense, a site for our collective projections of both fear and desire: simultaneously a symbol of women’s rage and a figure sexualized by the very patriarchal forces she is seeking vengeance against.
Correction: Research by Elizabeth Johnston was originally incorrectly attributed to Mary Beard in this piece. We have updated the story and regret the error.