(intro music) - No man or monster has slithered their way into our hearts quite like the snake-haired seductress with the obsidian stare.
Today, we're talking about the OG, the original gorgon herself, Medusa.
With a gaze that could turn men to stone, she has been terrorizing and petrifying humanity for thousands of years.
I know what you're thinking.
"I know Medusa.
I've seen the movies."
But do you really?
Let's find out.
(upbeat music) I'm Doctor Emily Zarka and this is Monstrum.
Medusa's history dates back all the way to the 8th Century BC and the works of Homer.
Homer writes that the warrior goddess, Athena, arms herself with an aegis that bears a gorgon head.
What's an aegis?
A piece of clothing, but it's also a shield.
It's not entirely clear, but we do know The gorgon is a, quote, "fearful monster, fearful and terrible" according to Homer in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
What's a gorgon, you ask?
According to Greek mythology, the gorgons were the three daughters of the sea god, Phorcys and Ceto.
Greek poet, Hesiod, described Medusa and her sisters as women with snakes hanging from their belts.
Greek scholar, Apollodorus, described the gorgon sisters as having scaled heads, large tusks, and golden wings.
He also adds one other crucial detail.
Medusa loses her head at the hands of Perseus, the half-god offspring of one of Zeus' many... dalliances.
Armed with a sickle made of adamantine, and a helmet that turns him invisible, Perseus sneaks up on the sleeping gorgons, using his shield as a mirror to avoid looking Medusa in the eyes, before he chops her head off.
And here's another fun fact; according to legend, when Perseus gives Medusa the ol' Marie Antoinette, two children spring forth from her body, Chrysaor and Pegasus.
The winged horse on your Lisa Frank trapper keeper is the son of a snake-haired monster and the god of the sea.
So at this point, we know three things about Medusa; she's a she, she's not much to look at, and she keeps losing her head.
Fast forward to the First Century BC, and the Roman poet Ovid decided to reboot the Medusa franchise with his own origin story and things get a lot darker for Medusa.
In Metamorphoses, Medusa is beautiful with lovely, flowing, long hair.
One day, the god Neptune finds her in a temple dedicated to Minerva and rapes her.
Minerva punishes the outrage by transforming Medusa's hair into serpents, and with that the modern Medusa takes shape.
She's got snakes for hair and a real problem with eye contact.
There are a few theories on Medusa's origins and how her story has evolved.
One theory claims that the gorgon was really just a gold statue of Athena that Perseus steals from three sisters.
Another theory has Medusa as a Libyan queen defeated by the Greek Perseus who takes her head to show off how beautiful she was.
But why the strange power to turn men into stone with just a gaze?
In my mind, the most plausible explanation is that the mythological idea of being turned to stone originates from ancient Greeks trying to explain the existence of prehistoric fossils.
Bones that had literally turned to stone.
We know how fossils are formed now, but for the ancient Greeks, stories were a way to explain what they found.
And this brings us to the stony heart of the matter; why is Medusa female?
That is where things get much more complicated.
From the ancient Greeks to the middle ages, she was assigned a protection.
Shields and temple doors were adorned with images of Medusa, a face with a protruding tongue, wide eyes, and fangs.
She served as a warning.
It was during the middle ages and the Renaissance that Medusa moves from terrifying monster to predatory, seductive woman.
Through a Christian lens, Medusa was seen as vice incarnate as a symbol of a woman's power to lead men astray.
Perseus is reframed as a symbol of virtue, triumphing over Medusa.
So a victim of sexual assault becomes a predatory sexual being.
But it's in the 19th Century that Medusa, with a little help from poet Percy Shelley, sheds that skin and undergoes her most interesting transformation of all.
After seeing this 17th Century painting incorrectly attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, Shelley was inspired to write a poem about Medusa.
Shelley attributes her power to grace, not evil, writing, quote, "Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie loveliness like a shadow from which shrine, fiery and lurid, struggling underneath, the agonies of anguish and of death.
Yet it is less the horror than the grace which turns the gazer's spirit into stone."
With these words, Shelley finds something new in the story of Medusa; Not a stony stare, but a mesmerizing gaze.
Not a monster, but a terrifying beauty.
Not vice incarnate, but the feminine sublime.
More recently, some feminists adopted Medusa as a symbol of female resistance and revenge, a creature that literally turn the leering male gaze against itself, but not all interpretations have been so generous.
Leave it to Sigmund Freud who argued that the Medusa myth was a metaphor for a fear of castration.
In films like Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we see Medusa both as the powerful, dangerous, living woman and as a defeated, decapitated head.
Medusa's gender is her defining feature, just as much as that writhing head of snakes.
Remember, it is never just the eyes that are removed to take her power; the whole head is needed; The female face in its entirety.
Her defeat by decapitation demonstrates that we see femininity as a threat.
Victim or villain, beast or beauty, Medusa lingers in our collective imagination because she's a powerful symbol.
If you think women are scary, she's a scary woman, but if you look a little deeper, you'll find there's more than meets the eye.