Unpacking the Myth of Medusa

The name Medusa is synonymous with monster. It often comes with images of an old, ugly hag so repulsive it could turn you to stone. However, in the original Greek myth, Medusa is a beautiful young girl. She has a tryst with the god Poseidon in the Temple of Athena. Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, is enraged at the desecration of her temple and curses Medusa. She is doomed to live as a hideous creature with a head full of snakes.

Author Jessie Burton unpacks the myth of Medusa from the perspective of the cursed girl. In her version, Medusa spurns Poseidon’s advances but he is relentless. In her desperation, she prays to Athena for help. She tells the goddess she’d do anything to make Poseidon stop his pursuit. Cruelly, Athena answers her prayers by turning her beautiful hair into a cluster of snakes – “Woe betide any man who looks upon you now.”

The story begins with Medusa on a desert island, having fled from mortal eyes. She spends her days in solitude, with only her sisters joining her in the evening. One day, a young man comes to shore. Ashamed of her appearance she hides her face from him. Over the days, they build a fondness for each other. Medusa dares to wonder if love could ever blossom between them.

There are many lessons woven into the storyline that are relevant to today’s climate. The role of beauty and how we treat others based on their appearance. Poseidon certainly believed that Medusa owed him something because she was beautiful. The others in Medusa’s village blamed her for his actions. They felt she must have done something to encourage him. In fact, no one in the story ever held Poseidon accountable for his behaviour. Self-acceptance is another theme throughout the book. At first, Medusa is full of self-blame and worthlessness. As the story progresses, she makes peace with herself. It is encouraging to watch her character’s journey, growing from victim to victor.

Medusa is a well-written tale with a good look at feminist issues that are still present in modern society. The book contains gorgeous full-colour, double paged illustrations the themes and symbolism of the story. The illustrator, Olivia Lomenech Gill also did the art for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Even if myths don’t interest you, I highly recommend checking out Medusa just based on the artwork.