Medusa – Serpent Goddess of female wisdom whose name means “I come from myself” may have a lot to teach us in reclaiming feminine wisdom and our connection to the divine but to access it we must first reach behind the mask. The masks we wear enabled us to survive in cultures of patriarchy where our essence and instincts are severed at the root.
We wore bright lipstick smiles and spoke politely while beneath the make-up our traumatised bodies seethed with hissing serpents waiting to be released and lead us back to the Earth, into the roots and the black fertile soil of renewal. We turned the poison inward, and sometimes we cast it at each other. We petrified the men who tried to get close to us as we flinched under their entitled touch and careless treatment.
In the beginning, the mask of Medusa was a protection to guard the feminine mysteries from those who had no ‘rite’ to know them, or who would misuse, damage, or destroy the sacred knowledge. As women became less sourced in their feminine power, the mask of stone that looked outward or inward replaced the true face of feminine power.
Medusa- serpent headed monster, once priestess, primordial sea nymph, stony-eyed death giver, cave dweller on the edge of the world.
What meaning does the myth of Medusa hold for modern women?
Like all myths the myth of Medusa is a moving living entity, shifting, morphing, and revealing layers in the unfolding and awakening of human consciousness.
The most commonly known version of the myth is that Medusa was a priestess in the temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom, before her cursed transformation. In this version of the myth we witness Medusa as victim similar to Persephone whose journey also portrays the feminine in a passive state. In both cases these myths can instead be read as journeys of initiation to claim or reclaim power by accepting and living our true essence.
Originally a sea nymph, her beauty was beyond compare and men travelled far and wide just to catch a glimpse of her however through her vows of chastity necessary in Athena’s temple Medusa would give herself to no man. The mighty sea god Poseidon however had other ideas… so enraptured was he by Medusa’s beauty that he vowed to have her by hook or by crook. Poseidon raped Medusa in the temple precincts thus enraging the chaste and virtuous Athena who, rather than avenge Poseidon, instead punishes Medusa by changing her beautiful tresses into hissing serpents and banishing her from the temple,
Medusa, dejected, takes up residence with her two gorgon sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, in a cave on the edge of the world, on the ocean’s edge near to the border of night and death. So horrifying was Medusa’s monstrous appearance that any mortal who dared to look upon her was immediately turned to stone. Stories spread far and wide about the lands and caverns in the area being strewn with the corpses of petrified men.
Of the three gorgon sisters Medusa was the only one who could die; Perseus the solar hero on a mission contrived by King Polydectes set out to slay the head of Medusa. The gods were on his side… donning a mirrored shield given by Athena, golden winged sandals from Hermes, a sword forges by Hephaestus, and a helmet of invisibility from Pluto, the young demi-god son of Zeus and the mortal Danaë was invincible.
Taking care not to look Medusa directly in the eye, Perseus instead captures her reflection in his mirror as he slowly steps backwards approaching her. With one fell swoop he cuts off her head. From her severed body springs the winged horse Pegasus and the golden sword wielding giant Chrysaor. The other two gorgon sisters arrive on the scene, but Perseus escapes their grasp wearing the helmet of invisibility and the winged sandals. Some say he flew away on the back of Pegasus holding in his hand the grotesque head of Medusa and that wherever the drops of blood fell to the earth, flowers, plants, and other verdant life sprung forth.
Forever after goddess of wisdom Athena wore a breast plate of Medusa’s head on her tunic as a symbol of protection. She gifted the blood of Medusa to the great healer Asclepius who separated it into two vials- the right vial it was said had great healing properties- even the power to bring back the dead- while the blood of the left vial was said to destroy and kill.
The myth of Medusa is immensely rich with its origins rooted in north Africa and the Egyptian goddess Neith, who was known as Anatha in Libya, and Athena in Greece. In her book, ‘Mysteries of the Dark Moon’, Demetra George tells us that Neith emerged from the primeval floodwaters, and her name means, “I have come from myself”. As part of a triple goddess figure with Neith/Anatha, and Metis, Medusa embodies the third dark aspect of the destroyer/crone and was revered as the Queen of the Libyan Amazons, the Serpent Goddess of female wisdom.
Feminist and Jungian scholars have made much of the layers of symbolism encoded within the story. Demetra George says,
“Medusa in her association with the serpent and the menstrual blood that could both heal and destroy, embodies the dark moon mysteries of the goddess. In her red-faced gorgon mask mounted by a crown of snakes, Medusa in women signifies a source of feminine wisdom that is connected to sexuality.”
Kundalini serpent power is the life-force, prana or chi that lays dormant at the base of the spine until such time that it is activated and begins its journey up the spine, passing through and activating the chakras before arriving at the crown chakra, awakening cosmic consciousness. This force can then be used for regenerative healing and renewal, open doors of creativity, oracular wisdom, and spiritual power.
I see the hissing crown of the Medusa as feminine serpent power that once activated moves one beyond the constrictions of duality and the separation between human and divine, into a cosmic consciousness. In other words the human body becomes the earthen vessel able to be penetrated by and hold divine energy.
This power has long been repressed by centuries of patriarchal culture that has feared it and demonised it. Women have been cut off from the root of their feminine grounding. The monstrous aspect of Medusa is the mask we wear to protect ourselves from the vulnerability that we feel in being split from our essential nature and power. We turn the mask outward to those we feel we must protect ourselves from. If we turn the mask inward on ourselves, we despise all that makes us powerful and feminine- our menstruation- shamanic birthing- sexuality- magic, and Dark Goddess wisdom. This power has been so feared and rejected in our culture that we have learned to reject it in ourselves and punish it in others.
Rather than see the myth of Medusa as another story of female disempowerment and victimisation, I see Medusa as a shamanic guide who can lead us to the places where we have repressed the Dark Goddess power in ourselves. One way to do this is acknowledge the masks we wear, and the situations in which we petrify ourselves and others in our stony rigidity.
The tale of Medusa tale comes with a huge caution however- these mysteries must be approached carefully, with great respect and at the right time. Like a kundalini awakening the serpent power must not be unleashed prematurely or in ways that are dangerous, for then it can harm ourselves and others.
The clue to approaching the feminine mysteries lies in Perseus’ backward reflective approach through the mirror; we cannot look directly at Medusa.
This tells us that the feminine mysteries cannot be approached in a rational way, and that we must seek the help of the gods to contact the divine. That is why we need ritual, ceremony, initiation, rites of passage and prayer, and return to bio-mystical processes.
It is said that at one time Athena and Medusa, along with the sea goddess Metis were all part of the triple goddess archetype- from Athena we receive wisdom, intellect, valour, and courage, from Metis intuition and creative expression, and from Medusa sexual power, magic, and psychic abilities. Before patriarchal consciousness separated these aspects of femininity, this trilogy of power and attributes was the bedrock of the feminine wisdom and essence.