Ever since I read about the story of Medusa I have been both fascinated and sympathetic towards her.
While the origins of Medusa's tale are murky, the widely accepted story says Medusa was a vibrantly beautiful young woman, a priestess of Athena with many suitors, and one night while asleep in her temple she is raped. Because of this, Athena curses her so that any man who gazes upon her beauty, or meets her gaze, is turned to stone. Because Medusa cannot be looked upon by another man, she grows bitter and her bitterness turns her hair into snakes.
I think the original story is much older, but the tale of Medusa was co-opted by the Greeks, and as part of Greek mythology Medusa becomes one of three gorgon sisters. They are all terrible, wicked and hideous creatures, except for Medusa who is beautiful but cannot hide her hideous nature completely because of her hair of snakes. As part of her new role, she is a vain woman who is most proud of her beauty, and is cursed into a hideous creature by Minerva (the Greek name of Athena) for using her beauty to seduce a man in Minerva's temple. Perseus is later sent to decapitate her, a task it is presumed he will not return from. But even today, the Greek adaptation of Medusa as a vain and self-absorbed woman who is physically deformed for being proud of her natural beauty prevails.
To me, in either story, it always felt like Medusa got a raw deal.
Medusa almost seems like a prototype for a symbol of "the scorned woman." There is no clear indication as to why Athena curses Medusa, but the story taken as is shows that Medusa is a victim and she is punished for being a victim. She is beautiful, but she doesn't entice anybody, she isn't dressed provocatively, she's not a prostitute, she doesn't invite her rapist into the temple or even know who he is. In fact, the name of the rapist is never revealed in the original story.
So why does Athena curse her? Is it because she doesn't know who the rapist is, or she does know but doesn't accuse him? Is it simply because she was violated inside the temple, and somehow transgressed a sacred law simply by being assaulted?
There's a hint of sado-masochism in the tale, Medusa is exceptionally beautiful but if you look at her you will be turned to stone. While the tale is traditionally implying that Medusa is being punished, gazing upon her is actually a form of very mortal punishment.
The story of Medusa's curse is one of a rape victim blamed for her victimization.
When it comes to rape victims there is this horrible mindset in the majority of our culture, amongst both men and women, that the rape is somehow the victim's fault. Much of the blame on victims applies to things that an outside observer assumes is within the realm of control, "she drank too much and look what happened" or "she was wearing slutty clothes, what did she expect would happen?" In fact, many rapes are never reported exactly because women fear that they won't be believed or their attackers will be excused in some similar manner.
So Medusa is punished for her own rape, and by a woman deity no less! As for the rapist? He gets away. We never even learn his name.
It would seem to me that if you wanted to raise awareness about "victim blame," or you wanted to create a counterbalance to that mentality, it would be easy to turn the figure of Medusa into a symbol of retribution or redemption.
I'm disappointed that Medusa has turned into an evil figure, almost by default. After all, the curse bestowed upon Medusa is itself a powerful ability and if used wisely could be quite judicious. I think that's because Medusa is a woman and, as part of our culture's bias against strong matriarchal roles, you cannot have a woman running around who can turn men into stone because women just shouldn't be allowed to wield such power. Thus the power makes Medusa a villain who needs to be slain.
One could find more sexist overtones in this retelling, but some are obvious and simply not as interesting to me as the original story.
Since the early 80s film Clash of the Titans was released, Medusa has always been depicted as reptilian in nature. She has yellow eyes, which seems like it has always been a universal symbol of being evil. In modern artwork and in toys that have been made of her she is always depicted in venomous or wicked ways. She's almost always got scales from head to toe, fangs, hoofed feet. In my mind, Medusa is not any of those things. She is an incredibly beautiful woman, and she's a victim, not a villain.
I imagine the story itself was inspired by actual rapes that occurred in the ancient world. A man might rape a woman and get away with it, and thus the victim would become a bitter or scornful woman. So the tale could also be taken as a warning to men of what happens to beautiful women if you abuse them.
As a footnote, Piers Anthony wrote a series of books set in a world called Xanth.
The main "good guy" marries a Medusa-like character, and they avoid the problem of her petrifying gaze by having her wear a veil that she can see through but that nobody can see her eyes through. This same "good guy" is a wizard, so you would think he would come up with some way of curing her other than simply a veil. But Piers Anthony would never have personally written a solution that removes the obvious use of the veil. (Anyone familiar with Piers Anthony's writings knows that all of his stories are slathered in an underlying misogyny.)
Which also reminds me, the origin of the Islamic tradition of keeping women wrapped up in a burqa to hide their beauty could also be seen in this story. Something I had never really connected to it until a few years ago.