Did the Punishment Fit the Misdemeanour?

When I was in primary school we used to play a game called ‘Statues’, the object of the game was to outsmart the ‘curator’ and try to tag them without being seen. Whenever the curator turned everyone would freeze, you couldn’t move. The curator was free to move around at this point but when their back was turned, you start running again. If the curator catches you moving then you were out of the game. Then you start over. It was a lot of fun too.

Why am I telling you this? It came to mind when I was researching the myth of Medousa. Could it be possible this game was borne from a story about a monster that turned people into stone statues? An early children’s game? A bit like the innocuous rhyming game with a terrible tale ‘Ring a ring a rosie’ which came out of the Black Plague. It is very probable.

Medusa by Caravaggio 1595-1596
by Caravaggio

Medousa, like all Greek myths, has a number of different versions and over time evolved, after all that’s what storytellers do—adapt and change the story to suit the audience of the day. Early Greek poets such as Hesiod portrayed Medousa and her sisters, the Gorgones, as sea daemons. He was explaining the dangers of a mariner’s life when ships hit reefs.

More recognisable was Medousa famous motif on Athene’s shield, at once protector of the shield-bearer, another was more psychological when fighting. Coming face to face with the image of Medousa, it may have struck fear into your enemy. Her name means ‘guardian’ yet classical poets made her to be a monster, perhaps an early example of irony. This is the myth most of us are familiar with but how did she become this symbol of horror?

The myth goes back to when Athene and Poseidon competed against each other for dominance over Athens. The king Erechtheus chose Athene over Poseidon for her gift, the olive tree was a better choice than the briny spring or horse as some stories have it, that the Sea God offered. Poseidon, not quite the gentleman loser, must have brooded over this for ages before he took his revenge.

According to later myths, Medousa was a priestess of Athene’s who vowed a life of chastity for the duration of time she would serve. It was while she was in the temple when Poseidon arrived and raped her. Athene found out and turned Medousa into a Gorgone as punishment for desecrating her temple and then banished her. This was the basis for the short story I just finished.

I don’t know about you but I thought this was a harsh judgement by Athene who was supposed to be wise. Medousa was penalised yet Poseidon got away scot free. There is more to the myth of Medousa which includes Perseos, and revived recently with the movie starring Sam Worthington, who I am proud to say is a fellow West Australian.

I have to say I feel sorry for Medousa, wrongly accused and transformed to live out the rest of her days vilified, hunted and persecuted.

Perseus  by Benvenuto Cellini, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy
by Benvenuto Cellini, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy

You can read more in Medusa in Myth and Literary History

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  1. Mikels Skele

    Greeks and their gods were not nice, by a long shot; a sprawling dysfunctional family, spawned by incest and patricide. At least they weren’t sanctimonious.


  2. jmmcdowell

    That act of Athene’s always puzzled me. I could easily see the male gods blaming the woman, but Athene the Wise? I would have expected better from her.


    • cav12

      I know, it’s illogical her reaction but then I guess the stories were created by men. Though you’d think, wisdom would have prevailed!


  3. Lucy Black (@LeConnea)

    Poor Medusa. No wonder she was so full of rage at the world. Thanks for sharing the story. I’d never heard the version about the rape before.
    I grew up in the American south, where we have the same game except it is called “Red Light, Green Light.” It’s so cool to know children everywhere play the same games. 😉


    • cav12

      I find it amazing to learn how familiar the games are in different countries, it’s brilliant really.
      From the various sources I’ve read, there are many versions of the myths, which is great too, more fodder for me!
      I feel sorry for Medousa too. In fact, a great many women were treated with disdain.
      Thanks Lucy. 😀


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