You’ve likely heard of Medusa before: a female monster with a head of snakes whose gaze turns people to stone. This makes her a terrifying and powerful figure who has inspired many a gorgeous and harrowing tattoo. However, there is a lot more to Medusa than hissing hair and a stony gaze.
In order to understand the meanings attributed to tattoos of her likeness, we must first learn about who Medusa really was according to legends.
The Myths of Medusa
While Medusa is mentioned in a number of myths, we will be focusing largely on her depiction in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This is because some of the most prevalent meanings for Medusa tattoos hinge on this particular telling of her story.
Medusa was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto; she had two sisters by the names of Sthenno and Euryale. Unlike Medusa, her sisters were immortal, and, unlike Medusa, they were not known to be beautiful. The three sisters are known as the Gorgons in Greek mythology.
Medusa’s Devotion to Athena
Medusa was depicted by Ovid as a stunning maiden. In fact, she was said to be so breathtaking that there was no one more beautiful in all of Athens. Despite the number of potential suitors who yearned to have Medusa’s hand in marriage, she dedicated herself to the goddess Athena.
Medusa believed that Athena was the strongest of all the Olympian gods and goddesses, and she devoted herself to being a loyal follower instead of taking a husband. Athena, an often-jealous goddess, respected Medusa for choosing to worship her rather than getting married or worshipping a male god.
However, Medusa’s dedication was not enough to escape Athena’s wrath. The story takes a tragic (and triggering) turn when Medusa is victimized inside one of Athena’s temples.
Poseidon’s Assault and Athena’s Retribution
The god, Poseidon, coveted Medusa for her beauty. Not only that, Poseidon and Athena were often at odds, so he wanted to humiliate her. To satisfy his own urges and humiliate Athena, he sexually assaulted Medusa while she was in the temple.
Poseidon succeeded in both goals at Medusa’s expense. Athena was so enraged that she blamed Medusa for what happened and punished her with a curse. She turned Medusa from a beautiful maiden into a monster.
And thus Medusa became the snake-haired beast everyone thinks of when hearing her name. Once cursed, anyone who met her gaze turned to stone. Some myths claim that Medusa became completely hideous, whereas others say that Athena left Medusa’s beauty so that it would be difficult for people not to look at her.
In these versions, retaining her beauty is another punishment because Medusa is told that she will also turn to stone if she tries to admire herself in a mirror.
Medusa and Perseus
It’s also important to learn the mythology behind Medusa’s death, as this tale has also inspired Medusa tattoos. This is a rather famous tale that has had modern takes on it, such as in the famous book made movie, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.
While the previous story leaves us feeling sympathetic for Medusa, both archaic myths and modern retellings paint the story of Medusa’s death as a heroic act by Perseus.
Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae, daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. Prophecies foretold that Perseus would one day kill King Acrisius, so he locked Danae and baby Perseus in a wooden chest and threw them into the sea. They were rescued and brought to the island of Seriphus where Perseus grew up.
The king of this island, Polydectes, fell in love with Perseus’ mother, Danae, and wished to marry her. Perseus was not a fan of Polydectes and felt he was not an honorable man, so he disapproved of their relationship and Polydectes’ desire to wed.
Because of this, Polydectes wanted to get rid of Perseus. He found an opportunity to send Perseus on a seemingly impossible quest: killing Medusa and returning with her head. Polydectes believed that Perseus would be unsuccessful and likely be turned to stone in the process, leaving him free to marry Danae.
Being the son of Zeus, however, Perseus had help. He received a pair of winged sandals from Hermes, a helm that would turn him invisible from Hades, an unbreakable sword from Hephaestus, and a reflective shield from Athena.
The Death of Medusa
Perseus used his shield as a mirror so that he could see Medusa without looking directly at her and turning into stone. He snuck into her abode, invisible thanks to Hades’ helm, and cut off her head while she was asleep.
Perseus was lauded for succeeding in killing Medusa where all others had failed. His is a tale of courage and triumph, and his motives behind the murder were for the safety and wellbeing of his mother.
Medusa’s story is tragic from start to finish, and she didn’t deserve to be cursed or killed. However, when one considers Perseus’ motives, it’s understandable why some people get tattoos based on this myth.
Popular Medusa Tattoo Meanings
Now that we know the story behind this character, we can understand the meanings that are found in tattoos of her visage. Knowing these myths may also help you relate to Medusa in your own way and come up with a meaning that is unique to you.
There may be no better symbol than Medusa for the feminist movement. It has brought awareness to the unfortunate number of women who have been victimized by sexual assault, many of whom never get justice.
The Me Too Movement
Me Too has shined a light upon the backward but far too prevalent line of thinking known as victim-blaming. Victim-blaming happens when people attempt to defend the assaulter’s actions by claiming that the victim had done something, such as wearing revealing clothing, to entice the assaulter. In essence, the claim is that it was the victim’s fault for wearing certain clothing or acting in a certain manner.
Medusa’s story exemplifies all of the things that the Me Too movement is fighting against. She is sexually assaulted, blamed, punished, and later murdered. Her assaulter is not held accountable, and her punishment is unwarranted, undeserved, and unfair. Medusa does not get any justice.
Rage Against the Patriarchy
Medusa is also thought of as a symbol of feminine anger and rage. She is the personification of women’s rage at being objectified, exploited, and ignored.
Though feminists largely see Medusa as a relatable figure who symbolizes their struggles, traumas, and rage, there are some who attempt to turn Medusa against women. They use Medusa’s name as an insult, implying that someone like her is also a monster who needs to be put down by a man.
There have even been memes that take famous art pieces of Perseus holding Medusa’s severed head and replace them with a male politician holding the head of a female opponent (one example includes Donald Trump with the head of Hillary Clinton).
Feminists view these portrayals of Medusa as another attempt by the patriarchy to put down powerful women and continue the toxic idea that women are somehow lesser. Feminists see this as an act of fear by members of the patriarchy who don’t want those women in positions that would give them power, especially more power than men.
However, feminists do not let these distasteful uses of Medusa ruin everything else she stands for. If anything, patriarchal uses of Medusa only further cement feminists’ connection to Medusa as a female figure who is grossly mistreated.
Medusa is also seen as an incredibly powerful woman. Her beauty is so exquisite that even gods are entranced by her. She could have any man she wants, but instead, she chooses to devote herself to a powerful female figure, the goddess Athena.
After she becomes a monster, she can turn anyone to stone with nothing more than her gaze. In some depictions, the snakes on Medusa’s head are described as hissing, snapping, and venomous and are yet another weapon in her arsenal.
Even after Medusa is decapitated, her head retains its power to turn people into stone. It was eventually put into Athena’s Aegis, a protective cloak made of scales. This inspired a number of mosaics of Medusa’s head surrounded by patterns that create an optical illusion as if they’re always in motion.
These dizzying patterns are believed to represent both the scales of Athena’s Aegis and Medusa’s powerful gaze. Medusa’s stare and Athena’s shield together were thought to offer protection from unwanted visitors, especially of the supernatural kind.
Because the design is often found on floors of reception halls, it is likely that people believed placing them here would repel evil from entering the building. Medusa mosaics are commonly found on floors dating back to the Roman empire.
Aside from this, Medusa’s name is believed to be derived from the feminine present participle of the Greek word “medein.” The word means “protect, rule over” with Medusa meaning “guardian” or “protectress.”
Some will get tattoos of Medusa’s severed head, or Perseus holding it, as a representation of perseverance. Though there is much to say about the tragedy of Medusa’s story, she became a formidable foe.
As we explained, Perseus was tasked to decapitate Medusa by Polydectes. This was an attempt to get Perseus out of the picture so Polydectes could marry Perseus’s mother.
However, Perseus does not back down from the challenge and is able to defeat Medusa despite her incredible power to turn people to stone with her gaze. Perseus’s willingness to face a seemingly impossible task head-on has made him, and thus Medusa’s severed head, a symbol of courage and determination.
Less Popular Medusa Tattoo Meanings
There are some less popular meanings associated with Medusa tattoos. They’re worth mentioning as they show up commonly, though some of them don’t make a lot of sense to us.
In some depictions of Medusa, she has wings. Wings are very commonly a symbol of freedom. However, though Medusa may have had wings, she was banished to live on an island called Sarpedon which she never left. We wouldn’t exactly call this the epitome of freedom, but you’re welcome to interpret a Medusa tattoo however you see fit.
Transformation and metamorphosis are popular meanings when it comes to tattoos of all different kinds. Medusa certainly does undergo quite the transformation.
Arguably, she becomes stronger than she had been as a human woman. With her ability to turn people into stone, she’s able to protect herself from the many warriors tasked to kill her.
However, we often look at transformation as a type of renewal; we see it as a type of growth that we are proud of. Medusa’s transformation doesn’t exactly fit into this narrative. After all, she did not want it or choose it and it essentially changed her for the worse.
She became a monster with a target on her back and never received any sort of justice or closure. Instead, she may even be vengeful as she takes out the many men who are tasked with murdering her.
Medusa is often associated with magic as it was a goddess’s magical powers that turned her into a snake-headed creature. Similarly, her ability to turn people to stone when they meet her gaze could also be considered magical.
Athena has often been depicted as an incredibly jealous goddess. The only reason she had not initially been spiteful toward Medusa was because of Medusa’s loyalty and devotion to her over men and other gods.
However, Athena’s jealousy likely played a direct part in the curse she put upon Medusa. Depending on the myth, Medusa was either made ugly or her beauty could no longer be witnessed by others without them turning to stone.
If you often find yourself envious of others, perhaps a Medusa tattoo can be a reminder that you should not let your jealousy get the better of you. Medusa’s punishment was undeserved, and it is all too common for people to take their jealousy out on others who don’t deserve it.
Medusa is More Than a Monster
Though many people know exactly who Medusa is — a monster with snakes for hair whose gaze turns people to stone — not many know her whole story. Unfortunately, it is a tragic one of sexual assault and injustice. This is why Medusa is a symbol that has consistently been used by feminists for decades.
Though Medusa’s transformation was a punishment, it did give her an incredible power that made her a formidable foe. Even after her death, the power of her gaze remained potent. Thus, Medusa’s head has been used as a protective symbol often found in mosaics, especially in the Roman empire.
However you connect with Medusa, she is certainly a fascinating mythological character whose story deserves to be told through art, including tattoos.