For the past several months, when I would meditate or go about my daily practice, I would occasionally hear what sounded like a hissing noise, as if snakes were whispering in my ear.
The sounds would become louder and then…stop. One particular day, the silence was only a brief reprieve before I heard a woman’s voice saying, “Sister, daughter, AWAKEN.”
I attempted to discover who or what this disembodied voice might belong to. Looking back, I think at some level I probably knew all along who was speaking to me but fear prevented me from acknowledging Her. After all, she is not presented in the best or most attractive light. But there she was, insistent that I listen to what she had to say.
Medusa was demanding that I heed her call.
I hadn’t previously thought much about Medusa. I was familiar with her characterization as a terrifying Gorgon, with snakes for hair and eyes that would turn those that looked upon her to stone. This image is what most people are familiar with, but fewer seem to be aware of Medusa’s back story. Once I explored her myth in more depth, I suddenly understood why Medusa was calling to me and why now.
The past few weeks alone, we have been barraged by articles about U.S. states attempting (and unfortunately sometimes succeeding) in taking away a woman’s right to choose or even making it punishable by law for a woman to have a miscarriage. Recently, the media has reported that our current administration in the U.S. is proposing laws that would allow for discrimination of transgender individuals in settings such as health care and homeless shelters.
I could go on and on with examples of threats to the rights and well-being of a variety of populations who do not experience the same level of privilege as those that our society perceives as the majority. If you find yourself feeling alternatively enraged, confused, and in despair, you are not alone. In a time when women in our society are increasingly under threat of having choice and sovereignty taken away from them, Medusa is a staunch advocate and, in her way, a powerful warrior who has much to teach us about how to fight these battles.
Most of the early myths featuring Medusa focus on her as a monster, responsible for turning seemingly innocent men to stone. These myths culminate in the telling of Perseus’ victorious slaying of Medusa upon King Polydectes’ orders. In later years, the Roman poet Ovid tells of Medusa’s beginnings in his poem entitled “Metamorpheses”. Ovid claims that Medusa was a beautiful maiden who was a priestess in the temple of the goddess Athena. Poseidon raped Medusa, and rather than blame or punish Poseidon, Athena chose to punish the victim. Sadly, the tendency to blame the victim rather than the perpetrator is still far too prevalent in our modern society.
Athena feels her temple has been defiled and that she has been dishonored. Furthermore, Medusa violated her oath of priestesshood by sharing her body with another – regardless of the fact that she had no choice in the matter. Athena therefore transforms Medusa so that she has snakes for hair and is so terrifying to behold that those who looked upon her would immediately turn to stone. Many of the ancient Greek myths that we are familiar with were written at a time when matriarchies were losing power in society and patriarchy was becoming more prominent. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that Ovid indicates that he feels this punishment is just and deserved.
Not only does Athena punish her priestess, various Greek gods aid Perseus in his efforts to kill Medusa. It is the polished shield that he is given by Athena that allows him to defeat the Gorgon, as he is able to look at her reflection in the shield rather than looking her directly in the eye. He is therefore able to hold true to his vision of her as a monster rather than be forced (symbolically) to see any of his own “ugliness” that may be reflected back to him.
Perhaps unbeknownst to Perseus, Medusa was pregnant. When he killed her, the winged horse Pegasus and a giant with a golden sword known as Chrysaor arose from her body. As a winged horse, Pegasus experiences freedom and sovereignty. While we don’t know much about Chrysaor, the image of a giant holding a golden sword evokes images of a strong warrior with the capability and perhaps even the inclination to avenge his mother’s death and fight for those who may be unable to fight for themselves. Even in Medusa’s death, there is a transformation leading to freedom and power.
Interestingly, I cannot find any versions of the myth which state that any of Medusa’s victims were women. Yet, it is not only men which have wronged Medusa; rather, it is a female goddess who not only punishes Medusa for “allowing” herself to be raped in the temple but who also aids and abets the male hero in robbing Medusa of her life and thus her power. In any case, while many male gods assist Perseus by giving him items to help him, no female goddesses advocate on Medusa’s behalf or even protest her unfair treatment. Conversely, unlike in Medusa’s myth, there are many men in our society who act as strong allies for women.
There have been many interpretations of Medusa’s myth over the years. These interpretations seem to exist on a wide spectrum and include but are not limited to:
- The myth as a metaphor for the ancient Greeks “overrunning the goddesses’ chief shrines” – Mythologist Joseph Campbell
- Freud’s belief that Medusa represents castration (as opposed to female power)
- Medusa as a symbol of female empowerment and transformation, as portrayed by authors such as Jane Cahill and Emily Erwin Culpepper
Regardless of how Medusa has been viewed in the past, we have the ability to reclaim the symbolism of Medusa in a way that is both informed by various telling of the myths as well as in alignment with the challenges women are currently facing.
Most of the warrior goddesses I have encountered – such as the Morrigan and Sekhmet – implement their warfare in an active manner, such as by inciting others to battle and committing acts of violence with weapons and/or extraordinary strength. I find Medusa to be just as powerful, but her weapon is of a very different kind. She acts as a mirror, reflecting with a blatant honesty what is rather than upholding the illusions that her victims live by.
Snakes are symbolic of wisdom and transformation, and thus Medusa shows her victims their shadows, the “ugliness” of their thoughts and deeds (whether conscious or not) and the implications of actions that come from a place of malice or fear. This is done in an effort to facilitate transformation and growth in all those who Medusa encounters. Medusa calls her victims out, making them fully aware of the truths that they would prefer to bypass in their quest to assert their power, impose their desires and beliefs upon others, and/or subvert the sovereignty of others.
In reality, when faced with our demons and shadows, we have a choice. We can courageously choose to look into the mirror – as painful as this might be at times – and proactively work towards healing. At the very least, we can make choices that are conscious and informed. Alternatively, we can choose to hold tight to our illusions and refuse to acknowledge the reflection of our “inner Gorgon”. Doing so inhibits our personal growth and undermines our sovereignty, thus turning us into stone metaphorically.While Medusa’s myth teaches us this lesson on an individual level, this myth also acts on a societal level. When the freedoms and rights of any group are threatened, we have a responsibility to act as a mirror and call out what is occurring rather than retreating in silence, as silence only empowers those making these threats.
Medusa does not allow us to turn a blind eye and bury our heads in the sand, for she knows that choosing to pretend that all is as it should be and/or believing that these issues don’t concern us are dangerous illusions. Particularly as it relates to issues of women’s choice, equity and autonomy, there is no better time to heed Medusa’s call and awaken her power than now.
By swallowing my fear and seeking to get to know Medusa beyond the confines of her myth, I have come to know her better. She does not suffer fools, and she demands honesty and courage. At the same time, she is fiercely protective and will fight endlessly for those who heed her call and are willing to be vulnerable in the name of truth and sovereignty. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that her name means “guardian” and is said to come from the Greek verb “medein” which means “to protect”.
Working with Medusa can be intimidating, but it can also be transformative and healing. Her unwavering ability to reflect our deepest truths back to us can help us to identify areas in our lives where silence does not serve us and where we need to be more outspoken and honest.
As a reformed people pleaser, this can sometimes be a challenge for me. It can be tempting to hide in the corner, allowing our demons to convince us that we shouldn’t rock the boat or that we have nothing of importance to say. When a powerful entity like Medusa insists that you speak out and makes it clear that not doing so is a direct offense to her, our demons and fears become less influential.
On a practical level, mirror spells are a great way to work with Medusa. Whether you wish to reflect something back to someone else or you want to gain more clarity about yourself, Medusa is the perfect mentor to help you learn how to use a mirror for these purposes. One of the most compelling gifts Medusa has to offer us lies in learning how to turn anger into powerful action and pain into wisdom and strength. Below is a guided meditation to help you connect with Medusa in order to experience this type of emotional alchemy.
Begin by taking deep breaths-in and out. Imagine a doorway in front of you. This could be a marble archway, a wooden door, or a portal. When you are ready, step through the door.
You find yourself in a lush garden, surrounded by trees in full bloom. The garden is abundant with fruit and colorful flowers and you can hear the sound of running water nearby. You walk through the garden path, which winds and leads to a forest.
Stepping off the garden path and into the forest, you can just barely make out a track, though it does not appear to have been tread much. You follow the track and as you move ever deeper into the forest, the sky starts to darken as twilight approaches. Finally, you come to the edge of the forest and in the distance you see another garden, though whereas the other garden was in full blossom, this garden is darker and more barren, as if it had been touched by winter.
You step into this dark garden, and the forest that you came through seems to slip away from you, disappearing. You hear a woman’s voice calling to you, but you cannot see where the woman is. You finally see her shadow, projected on a wall. Looking at her silhouette, it appears that her hair is made up of multiple creatures, swaying and writing. She asks why you have come and you answer her.
She asks if you are prepared to see her face to face; if you are courageous enough to face your reflection with absolute honesty. Taking a deep breath, you answer that you are prepared to face her.
She steps out from behind the wall. Her presence may terrify you, but your gaze does not waver. Medusa’s eyes become a mirror, and the image in the mirror is hazy and keeps moving. Medusa asks you where your passion lies, and in what areas of your life you best serve yourself. You see the answers reflected back at you.
Medusa then asks you to look at the areas in your life where you give away the most power as well as areas where your silence does not serve you. You take a moment to absorb and process these images. Finally, Medusa reflects back to you an image of yourself as a powerful ally, advocate, and warrior and shows you a way that you can use your unique talents and strengths in service to yourself and others in these roles.
After a few minutes, the images become dim and fade away. Your vision returns to normal and you are surprised to see that Medusa has transformed into a creature of otherworldly beautiful. The shock and awe must be reflected in your eyes, because she smiles knowingly and begins to speak.
“Those who would make me out to be a monster do so because they don’t want to face the truth. They are not ready to be accountable and to accept the responsibility that comes with power. To them I am a monster for destroying their illusions. To them, I am the cause of their pain, their sorrow, their destructive behavior. They feel I am to blame. They don’t want to see or feel those that they have hurt as well as those yet to be hurt by their actions. Some have difficulty accepting that I am a real person, not the characterization that they have relied on to avoid having to feel. They struggle to accept that I have just as much value, worth and right as they do.
Those who see beauty are strong enough to see through the illusions they have created.”
Medusa continues. “I offer you these gifts–to turn anger into action and power, to turn pain into wisdom. To receive these gifts you must offer a sacrifice in the form of your willingness to transform the anger and pain for greater service to yourself and others. This is often more challenging than it sounds. Are you willing to make this sacrifice?”
You think about this, considering any resistance you might have in releasing your anger and pain so that it can be transmuted into power rather than acting as a potential obstacle or burden. If you choose to move forward with this sacrifice, you indicate to Medusa that you are willing.
Medusa asks you to pull up all of your anger and to imagine it manifesting as a fiery ball of energy in your hands. You hold your hands palm up and as you concentrate on pouring all of your rage into this ball, you watch it grow. When it seems as this transference of emotion into energy is complete, Medusa comes towards you. She gathers up the ball of energy into her hands and you watch as it suddenly changes form into a long, golden, flaming sword. This is your gift, your tool for enacting your inner warrior
Medusa hands you the sword, and it feels awkward and heavy in your hands. You feel as though you are not sure how to align with the sword or to use it with any level of skill.
Medusa then instructs you to call up all of your pain and imagine manifesting as a cool, blue ball of energy in your hands. Just as before, you watch the ball of energy grow until finally Medusa gathers up this energy into her hands. She closes her eyes and concentrates on the energy in her hands. The energy begins to ascend from her palms and hover over your head. The energy slowly pours into your crown chakra and it feels like a download of information. As the energy continues to stream into you, your pain becomes wisdom and you are filled with knowledge of how best to use the sword, when to use it, and why.
The barren garden, which was once dark, is now illuminated by a bright golden light.
You thank Medusa, and give her an offering. In return, she provides you with a symbol to access this place should you desire to meet with her again. You turn and walk back through the entrance to the garden, following the path until you arrive at the door you initially used to enter this world. When you are ready, you cross through the door and back into your current time and place.