Sympathy for a monster
I remember reading the story of Medusa when I was a child. It was a child-friendly, uncomplicated, good vs evil story.
Medusa was a petrifying monster, with a mass of venomous snakes for hair, and the unlucky fool she hadn't killed would be turned into stone if he looked at her. The hero, Perseus, was given the task of bringing back the head of Medusa. Being a hero comes with perks, in Perseus' case it was help from the gods in the form of enchanted gifts—winged sandals from Hermes, the helmet of darkness from Hades, and a reflective bronze shield from Athena. Perseus found Medusa sleeping in her lair. Holding the shield before him, he carefully approached her—not looking directly at her but only upon her reflection in the shield. He got close enough to slay her, put the severed head in a bag, and later on used this trophy as a potent weapon [the head's magical power to turn men into stone remained undiminished]. Evil was defeated. Good prevailed. My young mind was at peace with the impression that everyone lived happily ever after or until another crisis emerged.
It is this account of the Medusa myth that we see in popular culture.
It wasn't until later, much later, during my World Literature course in college that I'd come across several versions of the story—some elaborately narrating Medusa's back story.
She didn't start out as the petrifying, arguably the most infamous, monster in ancient Greece. She was once the most beautiful girl in Athens, and a priestess [the highest honour a woman could have at the time] at the temple of patron goddess Athena.
Among many who lusted after Medusa was the sea god Poseidon, and one day he raped her inside the temple of Athena.
Athena, the virgin goddess, was incredibly enraged by this “defilement” of her temple and chose to punish Medusa [not Poseidon; Olympians had to stick together, after all]. She cursed Medusa's beauty. Medusa's cascading hair became a tangled mass of poisonous snakes, and her skin turned green and scaly.
She was doomed to a life of solitude, a life in which she will never have the comfort of looking at another human face without turning it into stone.
Evidently, victim shaming and blaming go back all the way to the age of heroes, and not much has changed in this regard. Progress is a myth.
Karim Waheed is Editor of Shoutand can be reached at [email protected]