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Medusa Tattoos: The Myth and Meanings Behind Them

Medusa is the protagonist of one of the most popular Greek myths, and unlike most of the characters from these stories, she's not a god nor a monster

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The infamous Medusa is the main character of one of the most popular stories in Greek and Roman mythologies. Parts of Medusa’s story date back to at least Homer’s Iliad, but it’s in a late version of the myth (Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses) that her story emerges most fully.

The myth

In contrary to most of the other characters from these stories, Medusa is not a Goddess nor a monster: she's actually human, a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman of Athens by far. There were many women in Athens of incredible beauty, but none of them could be compared to Medusa. She was desired and contended for, and envied by many. Her hair flowed wonderfully and shined gracefully. It was uncomfortable for other people to see how comfortable she was with her own beauty. However, her beauty was so incredible that it did not go unnoticed, not even by the Gods, and although she was aware of its power, she could not know what her future held.

Medusa was an extremely loyal woman who spent her youth dedicated not to a God but to Athena, a Goddess who she believed was the strongest of all the Olympians. In return, Athena respected Medusa as a beautiful woman who chose a female goddess, instead of any men. However, one of the greatest feuds of all of Olympus was about to be taken Medusa's story in a dramatically different direction. The rivalry between Athena, goddess of wisdom and war and Poseidon, god of the sea, ruined many lives. His cruel wrath crossed paths with Medusa when she travelled to the most beautiful temple in Athens. This incredible shrine was dedicated to Athena and all that she provided.

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As Medusa entered the parthenon, she was awed by the powerful beauty of such a monument. The temple, filled with great works of art was tribute to Goddess Athena, for inspiring and protecting the city. Yet it was there, while she was worshiping in the temple, that Poseidon forced himself on Medusa, wrongly claiming her as his partner forever. The goddess Athena, couldn't bear to watch. Poseidon's plan in fact was to humiliate Athena and he indeed succeeded to do so. Athena was notoriously competitive and hostile to other women who would challenge her undivided attention. She looked down in anger and envy, and she cursed Medusa for betraying her.

Taken by jealousy from Medusa having surrendered to Poseidon, her greatest rival, she punished her. Instead of supporting the victim of this horrible violence, she punished her. Using divine power, she sought revenge and changed Medusa's hair to horrid serpents, she cursed Medusa with the legs of a bird and giant metallic wings. And to make it even harder on Medusa, she made sure Medusa's incomparable beauty could still shine through her stunningly intense eyes, making it impossible for anyone not to look at her, even Medusa herself. “Even you Medusa should you seek your reflection, shall turn to rock the instance you see your face” Athena said.

Medusa was banished to an island on the Oceanus along with her two sisters, Sthenno and Euryale. In Greek mythology, they became known as the Gorgons, and while her other sisters were made inmortal, Medusa was left mortal, isolated by her penetrating gaze. Many years later, a demigod named Perseus, came to Medusa's remote island. He has been sent by the evil king Polydectes for an impossible mission: capture Medusa's head. The gods offered him Hermes' winged sandals, an unbreakable sword made by Hephaestus, and most importantly, Athenas reflective shield which would later become the Aegis, so he would not have to look straight into Medusa's eyes.

Perseus finally reached The Hesperides, who provided him with two more indispensable weapons gifted with divine powers. One was the cap of Hades which would make him invisible. The other was a magic pouch to safely contain Medusa's head. On his left arm he wore the shield that Athena gave him, a silver shield as shinny as a mirror, plain and simple, without any marking, to reflect anything in it. Now confident in his chances of finding Medusa, Perseus left The Hesperides' garden, to proceed west, near the setting sun, towards the Gorgon's cave. He jumped into the air and run, further than what the eye could see, crossing the golden dessert dunes over the wild sea, until he reached the shores of a distant ocean.

Perseus decapitated her, and from her neck sprang the winged horse, Pegasus. From every drop of blood that fell from her open wound, a venomous snake sprang into life. Perseus kept her severed head and used its petrifying gaze to his advantage in many later adventures.

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The interpretations

Medusa tattoos are sometimes used as a protective symbol. In both Greek and Roman empires, Medusa mosaics were popular as protective symbols. Lots of these mosaics include mesmerizing and even dizzying Op-Art patterns meant to recreate the disconcerting gaze of Medusa for staring guests.

Medusa mosaic. source

Medusa tattoos are also interpreted as a feminist symbol. Medusa's visage has been adopted by many women as a symbol of female rage, and used as a map to guide women through their terrors, through the depths of their anger into the sources of their power as women. The Medusa image has been rapidly adopted by large numbers of feminists who recognize her as one face of their own rage.

In numerous occasions, Medusa has also been interpreted by feminism as the representation of the feminine power and wisdom, and a symbol of feminine seduction, whose charm could not resist neither the same god Poseidon, added to the power of its glance to turn to the men in stone.

Although many people have tried to reclaim the myth of Medusa for women and feminism, it has largely not been effective. Despite her origins as a beauty, in common usage Medusa comes to mean monster. Often, powerful women are portrayed as Medusa as a way to demean them, whenever male authority feels threatened by them.

However, when Medusa pops up in the shape of a tattoo today, her deeper significance is largely ignored. Many see Medusa, the most horrific woman in the world, as how the female rage looks like, though very few people remember the details of the myth. Medusa’s history as a rape victim who is blamed for it and punished has been almost erased from the cultural consciousness. Medusa has simply become a woman with terrifying potential power to emasculate men.

The myth of Medusa tells us that the roots of misogyny and sexism can be traced back to antiquity. The stigmatization of female sexuality and the blaming of women for the consequences of male lust is still widespread in our society today. Therefore, Medusa remains the symbol of the quintessential nasty woman that must be vanquished by a man in order to restore the balance of power.

For more Medusa tattoo inspiration, check out our gallery.

Sources: 1 · 2 · 3 · 4

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