Lessons from Medusa, Goddess of Ugliness


Lessons from Medusa, Goddess of Ugliness


Medusa may be remembered as a fearsome serpent creature, but upon deeper inspection, her story holds truth about ancient goddesses and the power they still have.

Medusa is an incredibly popular figure from ancient Greek mythology. She’s known as a snake-headed monster, so ugly she can turn you to stone with a single glance. But there’s more to Medusa than that. In fact, her myth may tell the story of what happened to an ancient goddess who was once the primary deity all over the world.

The Snake as a Symbol of Rebirth

There is plenty of archaeological evidence that shows that goddess worship was ubiquitous throughout the world before the rise of male gods. Several Greek goddesses, like Demeter and Hera, once reigned alone, without any husbands or male consorts to get in their way. In fact, there are images of the goddess Athena from this older time period where she is shown holding handfuls of serpents, with snakes wrapped around her head like hair.

In pre-patriarchal times, the serpent was almost always associated with goddesses. Isis, Inanna, Tiamat, and Athena were all understood to be serpent goddesses. The serpent, who could shed her skin (much like women shed their uterine lining once a month), was a symbol of death, rebirth, change, hope, and wisdom, all qualities associated with ancient goddesses like these. But in many parts of the world, invading people interrupted these goddess-worshiping cultures, shifting the way the symbols of the goddess were understood.

In Greece, Northern invaders appeared first around 2100 BCE and brought their warlike, thunderbolt-wielding god Zeus with them. Rather than destroy the goddess and her worshippers, however, the invaders likely forcibly integrated their gods through new synthesized myths. Thus, we find Hera now unhappily married to Zeus, Demeter powerlessly mourning her daughter Persephone, and Athena stripped of her serpents—mostly.

Ugliness as a Metaphor for Shame

Medusa’s backstory, as written down by Roman poet Ovid around the first century, tells that she was born beautiful, the only mortal of her many siblings born of the sea. She devoted herself to Athena and caught the eye of the god Poseidon. Poseidon either raped or seduced Medusa within Athena’s temple, which enraged Athena, a virgin goddess. Rather than punishing Poseidon for his crime, Athena cursed Medusa, making her ugly, terrifying to look upon, complete with a head of vipers rather than hair.

But what if this was not a curse, after all? Athena essentially makes Medusa into an ugly version of the goddess Athena once was, a serpent goddess aligned with the older feminine deities. This ugliness is so powerful it can turn anyone to stone—which is a powerful metaphor for shame.

Shame can be an experience of freezing—it can be so painful to feel shame that we can barely move, as if we’ve turned to stone. Medusa, perhaps like many of the goddess devotees at the time of the invasions, was violated by someone in the very temple of her beloved goddess. It was not Medusa’s fault, and yet she feels the shame of it, as so many of us do when we’ve been through trauma. But it’s not Medusa who freezes. It’s anyone who looks at her, who sees what’s been done to the once great goddess, now violated, subjugated, made into a monster.

Eventually, the hero Perseus arrives, aided by Athena and her mirror-like shield, and he kills the mortal Medusa. And yet Medusa’s image appears on Athena’s shield forever. In this way, Athena finds a way to reclaim her serpent symbol, though it is sublimated through Medusa’s story. Even to this day, Medusa’s story is immortal. We are still enraptured by her ugliness, by her terrible fate. Perhaps it’s because there’s something in that story that we all understand, at a very deep level. Perhaps it’s because there’s some historical truth in it that we can still see today when powerful people impose their beliefs on everyone else.

Survival Despite Oppression

When our power is taken away by oppressive systems, that power doesn’t disappear altogether. Like Medusa, it finds a way to survive, even by making itself ugly, so horrible to look upon that it finds new life as a weapon. Medusa’s story shows how the ancient goddesses were twisted and made ugly, but still lived on through mythology.

Medusa is not the only example of how goddesses have found a way to survive despite the impositions of history and culture from a patriarchal perspective. Their stories may have changed, but we remember these beautiful, powerful, sometimes sad archetypes of divine feminine power. Medusa—the serpent goddess of ugliness—is an example of that.

If you’d like to read more on the history of goddess worship, see The Myth of the Goddess by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, and Lost Goddesses of Early Greece by Charlene Spretnak.

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Lessons from Medusa Goddess of Ugliness

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