Athena and Medusa
In most myths Athena comes across as a gentle Goddess whose punishments are rare and just. This is not the case with the tale of Medusa. On the surface Athena's relationship with Medusa seems cruel and self-serving, very different from her relationships with other figures of mythology, but further investigation proves there is more going on between the two figures than the myth readily admits.
Medusa's story is a sad one. She was a lovely girl, often compared favorably to the goddess Athena. Medusa's beauty drew the unfortunate and unwanted attention of Poseidon. Medusa fled to a temple of Athena seeking sanctuary from the sea god's advances through prayers to virginal Athena. Poseidon found Medusa in the temple and raped her. As punishment for this desecration of her temple Athena transformed Medusa into a gorgon, a hideous creature with snakes for hair whose gaze turned men to stone. Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus with the assistance of Athena. From her body sprung forth her sons by Poseidon, Pegasus the winged horse and Khrysaor. Athena then gathered blood from Medusa's corpse and placed the head of Medusa, the Gorgoneion, prominently upon her breastplate, the aegis.
Who was Medusa and why is her myth so entwined with that of Athena, who seems to only want to punsish her for a crime that she was not at fault for? Pausanias points out that Medusa was said to have been from Lake Tritonis in Libya, which was also sometimes cited as the birthplace of Athena under her epithet Athena Tritogeneia, or Triton-born. This same epithet, along with that of Athena Glaukopis, has been cited as evidence that Athena's father was in fact Poseidon, not Zeus. Pausanias states:
"When I saw that the statue of Athena had blue eyes I found out that the legend about them is Libyan. For the Libyans have a saying that the Goddess is the daughter of Poseidon and Lake Tritonis, and for this reason has blue eyes like Poseidon."So, we have links to two mythological figures of Libyan origin near Lake Tritonis with links to Poseidon. Athena and Poseidon have a famous rivalry concerning patronage of Athens, but Athena was never raped by Poseidon, was she?
Amazingly enough, there is a story of Athena being raped by her father. Although he is not named Poseidon, a story by Lycophron states that Athena was the daughter of the winged giant Pallas who attempted to rape his lovely offspring. Athena defended herself against his advances and slew him. She flayed the giant, taking his wings for her own use and his skin as her aegis. Here it is the fatherly male and not the transformed young woman whose visage becomes the basis for the aegis.
What of Pallas's wings? In early depictions of Athena she is shown winged, notably in Sparta. These wings would later be placed on the shoulders of Nike, goddess of victory, who accompanied Athena and was sometimes referred to as Athena. The Gorgons were also winged, shown with the same curling quadrupled wings as early black-figure-vase images of Athena. Medusa famously gave birth to the winged horse Pegasus, who myth states that Athena bridled and tamed. Suidas makes the connection between Athena, daughter of Poseidon and tamer of horses clear:
"Hippeia Athene (Athena-of-Horses) : They say she is a daughter of Poseidon and Polyphe, daughter of Okeanos; she was the first to use a chariot and was called 'of-Horses' because of this."Athena was raped by her father, who may have been Poseidon, just as Medusa was. These events took place on the shores of Lake Tritonis in Libya and lead to associations with wings and winged horses by both Medusa and Athena. Both transformed a mutilated piece of themselves or their attacker into the aegis. There are clear connections here between Medusa and Athena, but what about Medusa's most notable feature, that of her snaky hair? Does Athena have connections to snakes also, and if so, do they bear any echo of Medusa?
Athena's associations with snakes are second only to her legendary affinity for owls. She wears the snake-tasseled aegis, and was said to be the mother of Erikhthonios, who was either part or all snake. So damning was her association with the snake that she forbid anyone to look upon her serpentine son, lest they recognize that she was its mother. The Arrephoria ritual of Athens commemorates these events. Anciently the snake in Greece was seen as the protector of the home. It guarded the grain, much in the way a housecat would in later Europe. Several deities with home protection roles had serpent associations, such as Zeus Kestos. Athena was so associated with the protection of cities that she was viewed in abstract terms as a great serpent. Her aegis is covered in scales and ringed with snakes to reenforce this association.
Barbara Walker states in her Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets under the entry Gorgon that “Gorgo, Gorgon, or Gorgopis... was the title of Athene as a death goddess.” She links the name Medusa with that of Athena's mother Metis and states that she believes that Athena was worshiped as Medusa/Metis in Libya where she was the destroyer aspect of the Egyptian goddess Neith who was called Anath among the Phoenicians and Ath-enna in Libya and North Africa.
Jane Ellen Harrison argues that the Gorgoneion is nothing more than a ritual mask, perhaps worn by Libyan priestesses in rites related to wisdom and the moon. The Orphics refer to the moon as “The Gorgon's Head”. Amazingly, an ancient image of Athena shows her winged and holding a crescent moon.
The similarities between Athena and Medusa weave an obscured but revealing pattern. Athena could no more punish Medusa than she could punish herself. Medusa, it seems, is only another older face of the complex Goddess known to us under the names Anat, Neith, Metis, Medusa, and Athena.