When Athena looks in the mirror, does she see Medusa? When Perseus cuts off the head of the Gorgon Medusa, he does so with the aid of a mirror shield given to him by Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. Later, he gives her head to Athena, who wears it on her aegis, a shield or protective covering.
The funny thing is that Medusa, now being worn as a weapon, is herself said to be a Goddess of Wisdom. This suggests they might be two faces of the same deity — one light, the bright eyed Athena, favorite daughter of the king of heaven (Zeus), and one dark, the serpent-headed demon Medusa whose very look brings death. Her story intersects with Athena’s at every turn. Her beautiful coils of golden hair are turned into serpents by Athena after, in one version, she is raped in her temple or, in another, she boasts her beauty is greater than Athena’s. There is one telling difference between these two mortal enemies, however. Whereas Athena is a great friend to men, aiding heroes like Odysseus, Hercules, and Perseus in their quests, Medusa’s gaze turns them to stone. One doesn’t have to be Freud to suspect repression might be at work here. Athena separates herself from her dark, serpentine side, which she then appropriates in order to kill but does not acknowledge as part of herself. It has been suggested that Medusa represents suppressed female rage at the abuses of patriarchy, or, on the other hand, that she is a projected image of male fear of female power.
Whatever the intent, it seems clear that Medusa represents a revision of an earlier, more powerful goddess, and her story may even be an allegory of her overthrow by the sky gods of Olympus. This line of thinking is given strength by the fact that Medusa means guardian, or to protect, or rule over. Serpents are associated with the great goddesses throughout the early civilizations of humankind — from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Crete. In earlier stories, the serpent is associated with wisdom and fertility; only in later stories does this creature receive a more negative interpretation.
Medusa is of the family of the Titan Ocean, as is Athena’s mother Metis, whose name means wisdom and who was said to possess all the wisdom of gods and men. Notice the similarity in name, Metis-Medusa. Could these originally have been the same Goddess? Who is really being slain here? Was she the serpentine Goddess of Wisdom who once ruled over, or guarded the ancients? Has Athena murdered her own mother, the original Goddess of Wisdom, when the authors tell us she guides Perseus’ sword hand to cut off Medusa’s head? If so, she is only copying her father, who swallowed Metis before she was born and gave birth to Athena himself out of his head. In this way, old powers are appropriated for the gods of Olympus. Intentionally or not I think the authors of these myths have embedded a subversive message: the gods claim to have wisdom, but they show us that they have only stolen it. Wisdom was here already and it belonged to woman. In fact it still does. How remarkable that in the brutally patriarchal world of Greece wisdom is still assigned to a Goddess.
As both a water and a serpent divinity, Medusa’s attributes parallel those of Babylonian Tiamat, who was once the Primordial Sea Goddess who created all things, but was overthrown by the Sky God Marduk. She, too, became demonic and serpentine and battled her conqueror. And she, too, was murdered and her carcass appropriated by the victor.
It is the conqueror who writes history (and mythology), so what we know of Medusa is what the victors in Greek history have told us. Who knows what roots Medusa may have had ancient days? In O Mother Sun, Patricia Monaghan, presents the unconventional theory that the seemingly dark and serpentine Medusa is really the brightest thing in the sky.
Were Medusa’s Serpentine Curls once the rays of the sun? Before they were turned to serpents, those golden coils would have given the head of Medusa a distinctly solar appearance. Right next door to Medusa’s stated homeland of Libya, in the land of Egypt, the sun goddess Sekhmet was depicted with the head of a lion, crowned by the disc of the sun, wrapped in a cobra. Other goddesses including Bast and Wadjet were also similarly depicted. This constellation of images — sun, lion, serpent — is associated with two other interesting correlations. First, Sekhmet is said to be the eye of Ra, a sun god, and the sun is said to be a cat’s eye. Eyes figure strongly in the narrative of Medusa, whose look can kill. Second, the mirror was necessary in conquering Medusa and mirrors are associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor, whose name means house of Hor, another sun god, and who also wears the solar disk. Symbols with reflective surfaces like mirrors and wells are associated with sun goddesses throughout the ancient world, from Japan, to Siberia, to Ireland.
Goddesses were depicted with lions in many places,too, from Anatolia, where agriculture was invented, to Mesopotamia, to ancient Palestine, Crete, and Egypt. The oldest of these depictions has been found in archaeological remains of one of the earliest villages humans ever built, in Anatolia (Turkey). The Goddess Cybele was still being depicted with lions in an almost identical pose right through to the time of Greece and Rome. That’s more than 6,ooo years as mistress of the king of beasts.
Perhaps its golden mane, or its power and strength are the reason, but to be or subdue a lion is mythologically to rule the sun. If Medusa is linked to these ancient archetypes of feminine divinity, then it’s possible that long ago Medusa was a bringer of both wisdom and light.
It is only men who fear to gaze upon the face of Medusa. We women might want to take a good long look at what they are afraid to see. For Monaghan believes when we reflect upon the image of Medusa, we are staring the truth in the face: “Few simply look at Medusa and ask, what does she look like? Let us consider this simple answer: She looks like the sun.”