Ovid and Medusa’s Backstory

Ovid was a Greek poet writing in around 4AD and the fact that he’s still being read suggests he was quite good. I don’t think he took it terribly seriously until he got exiled (for a poem and a mistake, he claimed), coming out with work like Medicamina Faciei Femineae (which translates to something like Women’s Facial Cosmetics), which provides five recipes for facial treatments and is presumed to be parody of ‘serious’ didactic poetry. But it was a long time ago so who knows, maybe he just liked putting barley and honey on his face and wanted everyone to know about it.

His most famous work is The Metamophosis but don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about the whole thing right now – it’s 15 books and nearly 12,000 lines! Scholar’s can’t even seem to agree if it’s an epic, a mock-epic, or an anti-epic so I’ll just describe it as epicish. It certainly covers a lot of ground, from the creation of the world to the death of Julius Caesar, and it is very loosely held together with the theme of transformations, of things changing into other things. It’s pretty tenuous though; it could’ve been called Things That Mostly Happen Outside and that would be just as convincing.

But let’s just discuss the bit about Medusa is the fourth book. You’ve heard of Medusa, right? Snakes for hair, so ugly she could turn you to stone, general baddie, right? Well, I think Ovid gives her a back story.

Please let me know if I’ve missed something but I can’t find mention of this in any earlier descriptions of the myth. There seems to be some agreement that her parents were sea deities, probably Phorcys and Ceto (ancient Cthuluesque monsters, they will haunt your nightmares) but Ovid tells the story a little differently. Medusa is not a hideous creature to begin with but a beautiful woman:

Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.

So what happened? What changed her appearance so dramatically? You can probably guess if you’ve ever read any Greek/Roman mythology: the Gods did it.

Minerva is one of those goddesses that is in charge of so many different things, it was probably at least three little goddesses sitting on each other’s shoulders under a big coat. She was in charge of wisdom and war (two ideas that I don’t think really sit together) and she’s also the goddess of the overlap between them, so things like strategic thinking and tactics. And the arts and handicrafts (what?). Does anyone else think she’d be the goddess of Warhammer and other tabletop battle games if she was still around?

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking she’s nice or in any way reasonable. Medusa is raped by Neptune in Minerva’s temple, Neptune being another god of the sea and Minerva – as well as all the things listed above – is one of the virgin goddesses. Minerva is very angry but doesn’t punish Neptune – to the best of my knowledge nothing bad ever happens to him because of it – but takes out her rage on Medusa:

The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away,
Nor durst such bold impurity survey;
But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes,
Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.

After reading Ovid, I can’t blame Medusa for being angry.

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15 thoughts on “Ovid and Medusa’s Backstory

  1. Some of her earliest representations, Medusa being one of the Gorgons — though who said that first I don’t know — are called gorgoneion (gorgoneia in the plural) and show her with massive fangs, staring eyes, a lion-like mane and a moustache and beard, plus with a body like a modern wrestler. To me she seems to be the archetypal night demon or monster, the stuff of nightmares, and maybe her reputation for petrifying people came from shocking them with her terrifying appearance.

    One of the most interesting of her depictions is from the temple of Sul Minerva in Bath, showing a head bearded and maned with intertwining serpents, plus a third eye in the forehead, all on a round shield such as would be carried by Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athene. Too many fans of Celtic myth think this is a male god, perhaps Bran, ignoring all the obvious classical antecedents.

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  2. Thank god I found a comments page. You my friend wrote a very interesting piece on Medusa, not only was it insightful, I found it was written with a brilliant touch of humor. Do you live in Vermont josbees? I am originally from New Hampshire but spent the better part of 30 or more years in the Green Mountain State. I went to Johnson State College(Northern Vermont University now.) and worked in radio and marketing in St. Albans and the Burlington area. Keep up the great blog. I will come in again and read more for sure. Now you have me intrigued.

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    1. Oh let me ad. I lived in England for five years of my childhood, I went to an English primary school. I had a teacher who was mad about Greek and Roman mythology. A lot of that stuff is taught in college. I had a handle on a lot of that stuff before I hit college. Your piece struck a chord with me for that reason too. Keep writing πŸ™‚

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      1. I live in England, although I don’t remember doing much mythology at primary school. Which part of the country were you? I grew up in Staffordshire which is quite far from the sea (if you’re English πŸ™‚ ) so maybe they weren’t so interested in tales of Ocean Gods.

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  3. I am not an expert but I believe Ovid’s rendering of Medusa’s story is a late entry in the mentions of Medusa, but I think you might be right in that Ovid is the first to give a more fleshed-out backstory. I believe earlier mentions of Medusa in Hesiod and Apollodorus only say that she “lay with” and/or had children by Poseidon.

    Btw, if you haven’t come across it already, might like Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar. In it she explores the origins (as far as we can make out from surviving texts) of 10 female characters of the Greek myths. Medusa is one of them.

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