Tattoo Symbology: The Myth of Medusa

It’s difficult to trace a common path to the origins of the Medusa. The legends have succeeded each other creating confusion and ambiguity indeed…

Medusa was one of the three Gorgons together with her sisters Steno and Eurialo. The first two were endowed with the gift of immortality, while Medusa was destined to perish at the hands of a hero called Perseus. They lived in the height of the night and at the end of the world where the garden of Hesperides grew. And whoever looked them in their face, even for an instant, remained petrified for eternity.

Medusa tattoo by Arlo DiCristina, Elysium Studios, Grand Junction, USA
Medusa tattoo by Arlo DiCristina, Elysium Studios, Grand Junction, USA

The Athena’s revenge

Medusa was formerly a beautiful woman with shiny and flowing hair. Kidnapped by Poseidon who was enchanted by her, she was possessed by the god of the sea in the temple of Athena unleashing the tremendous jealousy of the goddess. When Athena realized that Medusa was lying in that sacred place, the Gorgon buried her face in shame and was transformed into a hideous creature with fiery eyes, a lolling tongue, bestial fangs, hair infested by reptiles, and cursed to petrify any man or woman that looked her in the face. Medusa could never love anyone again.

Killed by Hermes’ sword

Perseus, the son of Zeus and Danae, received the order by King Polydectes to kill the Medusa. He came to the garden of Hesperides where he could find the three Terrible Sisters. The Greek hero arrived by night finding them asleep, and to avoid petrification, confronted them with his head turned away protecting himself with the shield of Athena so polished he used it as a mirror to guide himself. Finding Medusa, Perseus didn’t think twice, and with one strike of the sword of Hermes cut off her head. The flowing blood gave birth to Pegasus, the mythical winged horse. Even though the head of the Medusa never lost its power to petrify, not even in death…

Origins of the Myth

For many scholars the Medusa myth is a metaphor for the terrifying nature that lives within us since birth that we are held to tame in time with the strength of our mind and conscience. For others, the myth has merely geographical and anthropomorphic meaning; to them Medusa gradually came to metaphorically represent the unforeseen forces of nature and was just an exotic queen or an Amazonian conquered by Perseus.

Not only Tattoo Art

Artistic tributes in her honor are widespread throughout the course of centuries from the famous relief in the pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu to the celebrated ‘Medusa’ by Rondanini currently preserved at the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, Germany. In addition is statue of Canova, the bronze Perseus by Cellini who proudly displays the severed head of Medusa; in painting there is ‘La Medusa’ by Pieter Paul Rubens (1618), the ‘Medusa’ by Caravaggio (1590) displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the ‘Medusa’ by Arnold Böcklin (1878), and the ‘Pegasus’ ingeniously interpreted by Pablo Picasso.

The feminist factor

The terror inspiring face of Medusa has symbolized the feminist movement for over thirty years. In the 1978 edition of ‘Women: A Journal of Liberation’, the cover depicts the image of the famous Gorgon described in the editorial as «a map to guide us through our deepest fears and the depths of our anger. Medusa will lead us towards the source of our power as living beings first and foremost as women». One of the most obstinate advocates of the feminist movement, Emily Erwin Culpepper, wrote in 1986 that «The Amazonian Gorgon is the personified fury of the woman. So much so that the image of Medusa/Gorgon was quickly adopted by a large number of feminists who recognize in that face one and one thing only: the representation of our blind rage as exploited individuals of the female sex».

Medusa tattoo by Pablo Aponte, Lowrider Tattoo Studio, Fountain Valley, USA
Medusa tattoo by Pablo Aponte, Lowrider Tattoo Studio, Fountain Valley, USA