Who Was The Real Medusa?
We all know the story of Perseus and Medusa, or at least the Greek version of the story. We have decried Athena’s punishment on her after Poseidon violated her and Athena’s further betrayal in aiding Perseus in her death. Literature and movies have told the myth over and over again, while essays have been written on the symbolism that lay behind the myth, the interplay of male/female power and how it was used as a morality tale against female power and rage. Even the description of Medusa from beautiful to monstrous (in the 7th to 5th centuries B.C.) to beautiful again in Greece itself highlights the changing views and perceptions of the society, as well as the desire to glory in a heinous act, while giving such relish a reasonable explanation. Many are still unsure as to whether she, as a monster, deserved death and she is often depicted in movies as indeed something to be feared, with Perseus as the glorious hero.
But what about the older legend, the one that the Greek myth was based on, the tale that allowed Athena to rise and become one of the Triumvirate with Apollo and Zeus? For it did not originate in Greece, it came there by way of Crete, which was in turn brought to the island by refugees from the kingdom of Labu (modern day Libya) in 4,000 B.C., and they had a different side to the story.
It has been posited by researchers and authors, that the story was based on a real female, a high priestess and warrior queen that bears a marked resemblance to other serpent goddesses such as Ninhursag in Sumer, Neith in Egypt and Astarte/Ishtar in Sidon, Tyre and Assyria. And just as in those lands there were a triumvirate of goddesses (Israel and Assyria: Astate/Atargatis/Ashwerah, Egypt: Neith/Hathor/Wadjet), so too, in Labu there were Medusa/Metis/Anatha (Athena). These three goddesses represented the triple aspects of the female cycle: maiden/mother/crone and there would have been a high priestess representing each aspect where a temple stood. In Libya Medusa would have been the wise crone, Metis the mother and Anatha the maiden. This is of importance to the Greek myth, less so to the Libyan one.
In my research for the Dragon Court books, which is a mythological fantasy based on the Serpent Cult, I have found anecdotal and historical evidence that lend credence to my theory that as the Sun Cult and Serpent Cult were found in many of the ancient cultures, with their battles for supremacy told and retold in each culture, that once, way back in history, many of the beings we know as Gods and Goddesses were once the High Priests and Priestesses of these cults. The reason they are found in lands as diverse as the Norway and Cambodia is because, as the cults grew in influence and power with the burgeoning civilizations, they would erect temples in the new lands, furthering their own interests.
In my article on Inanna: Whore of Babylon, I put forth the theory that she or one of her high priestesses acting in her name was the ‘Whore’ described in the Bible. Now I will attempt, using the same line of reasoning, to deconstruct the tale of Medusa and show who she might have really been, and what took place.
If we accept that Diodorus Siculus, Aeschylus and Pauasanius had a basis to their claims that the ancient Libyans were a matriarchal society known for their civilization and military prowess called the Amazons or Gorgons in 6,000 B.C. (or thereabouts), then we can begin to understand who Medusa, as high priestess, might have been. Indeed, Pausanius goes further and says that Medusa was their queen. The three goddess aspects or high priestesses would have ruled Libyan society and conducted many rituals in the temple, including the donning of gorgon masks which were frightening to look upon. These masks were painted scarlet to symbolise blood and may have been encircled by bronze or gold serpents:
Notice the frightful expression on the face, the tongue protruding (bearing a marked resemblance to Kali) and the serpents rising from it.
In their official capacity as rulers, judges and intercessors, they would have worn the masks at official events and in fertility rituals enacted publicly with the ‘King of the Sea’, or the ‘Fish Gods’ (the Fish Folk and Serpent Cult are, more than likely, a different term for the same people, with goddess such as Atargatis, Nya Lara Kidul and others both described as serpents and mermaids). The Priests would have symbolised water and the Priestesses earth, the commingling of which would fertilise the soil.
Now, nowhere does it suggest the priestesses wore live snakes around their heads, but if you look closely, you will see that she has her hair in braids or, as some claim, dreadlocks. It may very well be that the real Medusa would have worn snake skulls at the end of each braid or dreadlock, which would have accounted for the rattling noise she made as she moved.
All in all, she and her fellow priestesses would have made a striking image, one guaranteed to engender fear in those from other lands not initiated into the mysteries. But there are two other parts of the myth that must also be explored, if we are to come to an educated guess at the real story.
The first is the paralyses of the men who tried to attack her and the other is the connotation with jealousy and Anatha (Athena).
If we look at ancient religions, including the one based on Jehovah, we know that in the innermost part of the temple there is the ‘holy of hollies’, the part reserved for the high priest or priestess that is sacrosanct. No one was to be allowed in. And yet, what if the innermost chamber was intruded upon? What form of defense did the high priest or priestess have? In the Bible we read that intruders who tried to storm the chamber would fall down dead as evidence of Yahweh’s power. It may be that Medusa, as high priestess, had a similar defence.
The most likely explanation is a serpent whose venom paralyses, or turns its victim into stone. Considering her connection with Neith who was depicted as wearing an Egyptian Cobra on her crown and the other serpent goddesses, it stands to reason that a cult that venerated the serpent would have a keen understanding of the properties of the various venoms and how best to employ them. After all, the use of serpent venom to both heal and take life was studied and employed by the serpent cult. As a high priestess, she may have ingested ever increasing amounts since her youth; rendering her immune to its toxicity should her enemies attempt to assassinate her. The Greek myth does state that one drop of her blood from the left side of her head healed and one from the right killed, implying there was an added ingredient to her blood that none of us possess.
How would the venom have been applied? The answer may lie in the fact Perseus was told not to look into her eyes. The Libyan account of Medusa said that she wore two snakes around her waist. Could it be they were her guardians? If so, which genus of snake were they?
Though she was described as having vipers on her head, none of them have paralytic venom, so perhaps they were depicted on her mask. I believe the serpents used were the Egyptian Cobra (venerated in Egypt and the followers of Neith) and another, perhaps the Mozambican Cobra. Why two? Well, the Egyptian Cobra’s venom paralyses, but it does not spit and the Mozambican Cobra can spit up to 3 metres with pinpoint accuracy, blinding the eyes of the onlooker, but its venom does not paralyse. So perhaps the intruder, finding himself stunned by her masked visage, would be sedentary long enough that the Mozambican Cobra would spit in his eyes, rendering him blind. The Egyptian Cobra would then administer the fatal bite.
If there was no conceivable way Medusa and the other high priestesses could have trained the serpents to strike intruders only and not the priestesses themselves, then perhaps the snakes around her waist were the skins and she employed the use of a blow pipe to administer the venom in the eyes, before administering the paralysing toxin while the victim was in agony, unable to see her or react.
Either way, she was a formidable opponent for any armed male, hence the one who eventually defeated her having to sneak up on her and use a shield as a mirror, so that she or her snake could not spray his eyes.
Now to address the second part and that is Medusa and Anatha’s story tied up with jealousy. There have been many versions told, from Poseidon raping her in the temple and Athena punishing her, to Medusa bringing it on herself by bragging she was more beautiful than Athena (Ovid). But the earliest story said there was no rape and no bragging, but a fertility ritual that symbolised female empowerment and sexuality. So where did the jealousy come in?
If the ritual between the high priests of the fish and the high priestesses of the serpents was enacted as claimed, did perhaps Anatha, as the maiden, either have to abstain or was not given first choice of partner? Could she have found herself besotted with one of the priests, but had to allow Medusa, as the senior of the three, her way? Most times jealousy arises from sexual desire, and so it makes more sense for the younger woman to be jealous over a desired man than either a rape or a moment’s thoughtless remark on beauty.
Could that have been enough for the younger priestess to turn against the other two and join with the invading Hellenistic forces, giving one warrior the key to killing the high priestess? The other member of the Triumvirate, Metis (possibly her mother), was also slain and from that moment Anatha/Athena became known as the child of Zeus, emerging from his head, with no maternal line.
Sculpture by Laurent-Honoré Marqueste
It is said that Perseus, when he had rescued Andromeda and married her and prevented his own mother’s wedding, gave Medusa’s head to Athena. She promptly affixed it to her shield, symbolising her victory over her rival. What amount of hatred would it have taken to do something like that?
Once adopted into the Greek hierarchy and pantheon, Athena found herself both worshipped for her wisdom and her chastity. Indeed, she was forever bound to her chaste, virginal role, as suited a patriarchal society. Did Anatha find herself in that predicament? Did she live the rest of her days satisfied with the death of her rival or did she come to know regret for the betrayal of her faith, the destruction of her lands and her eternal imprisonment as the personification of virginal purity, unable to progress to mother and then crone?
While there are many who offer theories on the symbolism of the Medusa myth: the rivalry of Athena and the Gorgon; the triple aspect inherent in all of us and our inability to accept certain traits in us and, indeed, the passage of time; Medusa as a ‘pharmakos’, or scapegoat necessary to emphasise the dual nature of the sacred and the separation of god and monster etc., all are correct. Like all good legends, the story has certain aspects that appeal and repel all of us and we find traits in the characters in ourselves. But I have not chosen to examine that closely in this article, as there are many other references available. Instead I wanted to look more closely at who the real person, the originator of the tale might have been, and what really occurred.
Aeschylus’ Eumenides states that the Amazonians were empire builders, which Isocrates also acknowledged.
Herodotus Histories (Book (IV) acknowledged that the Athenians battled the Amazonians. Plutarch’s Life of Theseus gives an account of the Athenian siege of the Amazons.
Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece (New York, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2009) discusses Medusa as an historical figure and Amazonian Priestess.
When God was a Woman, (New York, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1976)
Mary Condran, The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland, (San Francisco,
Barbara S. Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999)
C.G.Jung, The Science of Mythology: Essays on the Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis (Routledge Classics)